When Mary McCarthy published The Group in August 1963, just six months after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it painted a very different picture of the women of that generation. The fictional group of eight best friends—graduates of Vassar College’s class of 1933, McCarthy’s own alma mater and graduating class—would have come of age right before Friedan’s peers from Smith College. Unlike the stifled housewives of Westchester, the women of McCarthy’s novel are trailblazers professionally—but most memorably, sexually. From love affairs to contraception to masturbation, sex drives the narrative of their fictional lives.
The media didn’t react favorably, panning one of their own as a cheap pornographer. (McCarthy was a respected writer for publications like the Partisan Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harper’s.) In The New York Review of Books, to whose first issue McCarthy contributed, Norman Mailer wrote that the “little book so full of promise and quiver ends up soggy and damp.” The public, by contrast, gobbled it up: it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years.
Fifty years on, the sexual narrative remains a crutch for exploring women’s progress. Take the girls of Girls, whose awkward sex lives are highlighted more frequently than their frustrated professional ambitions. Or a recent New York Times article that raised an eyebrow at young women at the University of Pennsylvania who’d rather hook up than date because their focus is on schoolwork and career ambitions. And for every Lean In, there’s a handful of Fifty Shades of Greys. The Group helps illuminate the roots of this imbalance of attention: while it skewers the political notions of “progress” that leave its protagonists unfulfilled, it’s the erotic parts that dramatize their true struggle. As McCarthy’s women are among the first to pursue careers, the society around them asks not how quickly they’ll be promoted but how their jobs might help them find lovers and husbands. Sure, they can get jobs—but can they keep a man happy in bed?
The protagonists, almost all virgins when they graduate, lose their virginity with varying degrees of conventionality. While some wait until marriage, Kay (based in part on McCarthy herself) is intimate with her fiancé while in college. One friend loses hers to a married man who is separated; another, Dottie, to a roué who tells her that love will never enter the equation. Still another, Libby, thinks her Norwegian baron beau will propose and invites him back to her apartment only to find herself being forced upon, dress ripped, wrists pinned to the couch, “his lips drawn back across his teeth like a wild animal about to charge.” Right before the pivotal moment, he asks if she’s a virgin; she says yes, and he retreats. “Oh, what a bore!” he admonishes her. “It would not even be amusing to rape you.” This riposte, and the women’s love lives, doesn’t seem so out of place on HBO or in the real world today. And tragic or otherwise, these women’s romantic exploits define them.
Fifty years on, the sexual narrative remains a crutch for exploring women’s progress.
McCarthy was writing fiction, but it was hardly a stretch from the true sex lives of women, so often swept under the rug in her day. She would know. Decades before the legalization of contraception, McCarthy confessed in her autobiography, Intellectual Memoirs, “I realized one day that in 24 hours I had slept with three different men. And one morning I was in bed with somebody while over his head I talked on the telephone with somebody else.” She didn’t consider herself an exception to the rule. “I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at.”
But sex is less liberation and more a Catch-22 in McCarthy’s vision. Sexual exploration in The Group rarely leads to happiness—even when men aren’t part of the equation. Lakey, the most glamorous, beautiful, and aloof girl of the group, is absent after the first chapter. Away studying art in Europe, one wonders when we’ll be rewarded with tales of her romantic pursuits, surely more riveting than any of the others. When she finally returns, her companion is a swarthy, stocky baroness. At first, the group worries Lakey will “look down on them for not being Lesbians.” When that’s clearly not the case, they begin to feel that “what had happened to Lakey was a tragedy,” and they imagine the intimacies of the relationship as “something of which they would not approve.” Ultimately, Lakey becomes defined by her sexual orientation.
Not every aspect of the women’s stories still rings true, though, and some of it dates McCarthy’s novel. Dottie, the one with the uncommitted lover, is shocked when she climaxes on her first time and her lover, aptly named Dick, explains to her the birds and the bees. “Appearances to the contrary,” he says, “you’re probably highly sexed.” Dick also schools Dottie in several methods of contraception, from withdrawal to prophylactics (condoms) to diaphragms. When he tells her to get a pessary, she has no clue what he means. This prompts a visit to a gynecologist, who watches her practice inserting the device and instructs her in the proper use of a douche bag. (These devices, by the way, are of great interest to the men—if a guy visits a woman’s apartment and sees the bag hanging on her bathroom door instead of hidden away, “it was nine to one he would make her on the first try.”) Libby worries that she, too, gave some kind of sign to the Norwegian baron that she was “that kind of girl” because “she sometimes made love to herself,” which she was told causes “circles under your eyes.”
As much as McCarthy showed great daring in pulling back the curtain on sex, she was troubled by the possibility of fetishizing her characters. In a 1971 Q&A with the Times, she said writing the book “became a terrible problem—partly a moral problem—not about sex of course. But I began to feel as though I was persecuting those girls.” She knew she couldn’t write a novel with sexual elements without it being perceived as a book about sex—and she knew her characters would be judged as harshly as their real-world counterparts. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker recently pointed out about the legacy of Sex and the City, we still operate under “the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.”
A half century later, The Group is as titillating as ever. That’s good news for fiction, but bad news for women’s progress.