This month marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Elizabeth Janeway—American novelist, critic ,and advocate for the rights of women and writers. In the middle of her career as a well-respected novelist, Janeway was moved by the changing currents of the 1960s to explore the historical underpinnings of the notion that a woman’s place was in the home. The collection of non-fiction writings that followed advanced the feminist cause, and her personal activism on behalf of writers helped protect freedom of expression for generations to come.
Born October 7, 1913, in Brooklyn, Elizabeth Ames Hall was a lifelong writer described by a friend as “frighteningly smart.” When her family faced difficult financial straits during the Depression, she interrupted her studies at Swarthmore College to write advertising copy for a department store. After graduating from Barnard College in 1935, she embarked on a more literary path, taking the same creative writing class over and over to hone her craft.
While working on her first novel in 1938, she married Eliot Janeway, an economist and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of her husband, Janeway said in an interview, “I’ve been told and I’ve read that some women with careers have husbands who are made uneasy and jealous by a wife’s success. My husband would regard any failure to do my best at all times as unworthy.”
Janeway raised her fiction career alongside the couple’s two sons, finishing her first novel while caring for one child and pregnant with another, recalling, “The fact is, if the second baby hadn’t been several days late in arriving, I might not have finished the book in time. I signed the contract with the publishers on the way to the hospital.” During the next two-and-a-half decades, she published seven novels that focused on domestic situations and were praised for their psychological insight, even drawing favorable comparison to Jane Austen. Janeway supplemented her fiction writing with book reviews for The New York Times and, eventually, Ms. magazine, frequently championing controversial novels such as Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying—which she personally recommend to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, though, she warned him, “it might shake up [Justice] Potter Stewart a bit.”
Janeway’s writing path took a sharp turn in the mid-1960s after her first review of a feminist book inspired her to quit fiction and research a feminist work of her own. Although she had always thought of herself as a feminist, she found the shifting social landscape of the 1960s ”just too big for [her] to handle in a novel” and instead embarked on a “five-year exercise in raising [her] consciousness.” In her 1971 Man’s World, Woman’s Place, Janeway examined woman’s role in society and concluded that the idea of woman as home-keeper was relatively new and limited mostly to the middle class. Reviewing the book for The New York Times, Margaret Mead called it a “lucid and fascinating” exploration of “why we were continuing to live with the myth that woman’s place is in the home.”
Through a series of non-fiction works—and friendships with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Kate Millet—Janeway became more vocal in her support of feminism. She was highly critical of men in power, many of whom, like President Lyndon B. Johnson, she knew personally. She noted that power was really “the ability not to have to please,” and adding that it was “highly improbable that women are going to realize their human potential without alienating men—some men, anyway.”
Perhaps drawing on her experience as a labor organizer during a strike against General Motors soon after World War II, Janeway routinely advocated for the powerless against the powerful. She was president of the Authors Guild, where she lobbied for copyright protections for writers; director of the National Organization for Women’s Legal and Education Fund; and an executive with PEN, an international organization fighting censorship.
Despite Janeway’s work on behalf of women, workers and writers, some criticized her more moderate approach to activism. Through her husband’s work and their accompanying social status, she had access to some of the most powerful people of her time; she often told, for instance, the story of tripping over President Roosevelt’s leg braces when visiting him and his wife Eleanor at Hyde Park. And her family’s economic security—a staff of a dozen worked for them in their Manhattan townhouse—made some feminists see her as more a member of the establishment than a true radical. But in Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening, Janeway was unapologetic about her wealth, even as she acknowledged her good fortune: “My husband told me that if I wanted to write, and didn’t, he’d disown me, and from the minute we could afford household help, we’ve had it by our joint decision. Most women don’t have that luck, and I know that.”
While some critics saw her status as a boon to the movement—one reviewer noted, “Of all the writers on the subject of feminism,” she “has the most acceptability in the eyes of men. She has credentials, she is married to a successful man, has children”—others were more circumspect. Though calling Janeway, “kind and supportive” and “wonderfully responsive on the bricks-and-mortar level,” Vivian Gornick called her “a conservative woman of another age” and “not a radical feminist. She did not have it in her to think radically.” Perhaps to establish her progressive bona fides, Janeway joined a group of feminists in signing her name to a full-page newspaper ad listing women who acknowledged having abortions.
Elizabeth Janeway died in 2005 at age 91, leaving two sons, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. Among her legacies are her sharply-observed novels, hard-hitting criticism, feminist scholarship, and frequent calls for vigilance against any lost momentum in the ongoing movement for equal rights for women. During the campaign for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in state legislatures, Janeway was wary of efforts by some forces to “turn the clock backward,” calling on women to renew their efforts for change: “Sisterhood is still powerful, but only if it gets up on its hind legs and hollers and pushes for its goals by means of the power process.” Indeed, she was prescient in predicting that, as women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, the women’s movement would need to focus on evolving family structures and the need for quality childcare.
On-going discussions about women “having it all” show just how right Elizabeth Janeway was—about so many things.