Remember Erma Bombeck? I do. The humorist wrote a popular newspaper column from the 1960s to the 1990s that captured American suburban life, as experienced by housewives and moms.
She wrote one time about spotting a son’s basketball in a bathroom and my mom, reading it, felt relieved at the basketball sitting in the corner of our powder room. She wasn’t a bad mom, after all. She was, like many young moms, overwhelmed.
“I think of Erma Bombeck as a seditious writer, camouflaged as a conventional, domestic columnist,” said Gina Barreca, herself a syndicated columnist (her writing has appeared in The Lima News) and the author of the new book, “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? Questions and Thoughts for Loud, Smart Women in Turbulent Times.”
Bombeck, Barreca said, was writing her column “while campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. She was a declared feminist. She wasn’t putting herself out there as a Donna Reed perfect mom. She wrote one time about her kid saying, ‘Mom, I think I swallowed a plastic dinosaur!’ and her response was, ‘What do you want me to do, call a vet?’ It wasn’t ‘Will the plastic destroy his healthy molecules?’”
Barreca, who teaches writing at the University of Connecticut, is in Dayton for the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop, held every two years by the University of Dayton and the Centerville Public Library where the Ohio native wrote many of the books and columns that made her famous. She said she’ll introduce herself there, as she does at all her speaking engagements, by announcing her age — 59 — and her weight — 156 pounds.
“That way, the women in the audience can just listen, as opposed to having to worry about everything else,” said Barraca. “Men only care if you’re over 18.”
Through her book and biting humor, Barreca said she hopes women will stop thinking of themselves as self-improvement projects and enjoy life, to stop taking themselves and one another less seriously.
“It’s about the idea that women’s lives are hilarious, and once we start telling the truth about them, we discover we have so much more in common than we ever imagined,” she said.
Like purses. “Not only do women hold up half the sky,” she writes, “we do it while carrying a 500-pound purse. Women carry with us, at all times, everything we might need to start life in a new state.”
Or how women get “noisier” after they hit an age where they cease being the ingénue. “I believe this happens once you start calling us ma’am and we stop crying about it,” she writes. “We start making trouble: talking back and speaking up without waiting for anybody else’s cue.”
I identify with this. I’m 52 (and, Gina, I’m 136 pounds, 135.5 if I take off my socks). But are young women today in need of humorous admonishments to talk back and speak up? Aren’t they doing enough of that on Instagram and Snapchat?
“I deal with a lot of women in their 20s, early 30s,” she said. “I’m amazed by the way they continue to torture themselves about their looks, their ambitions, their sense of whether they can have it all.”
Erma Bombeck wrote about this in the 1978 bestseller, “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?”
“I’ve always worried a lot and frankly, I’m very good at it,” she declared. “I worry about scientists discovering someday that lettuce has been fattening all along.”
Nearly 40 years later, we women are still in need of a good laugh. We still need reminders from people like Gina Barreca, ones like “all a bathing suit needs to do is keep the sand out while keeping seagulls and cops away.” Or “Stop chanting that blueberries are healthy and full of antioxidants.” Or “Tomorrow is promised to no one — not even those who subsist on a diet entirely of blueberries. Enjoy yourself right this minute. Start now.”