Bombeck, Erma (1927-1996)

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Bombeck, Erma (1927-1996)

Erma Bombeck, writer, humorist, and television personality, was primarily identified as a housewife and mother. Because she knew it so well, she was able to offer the housewife's-eye-view of the world in her writing. And it is because she took those roles so seriously that she was able to show the humorous side of the life of homemaker and mother so effectively.

She was born Erma Louise Fiste in Dayton, Ohio. Bombeck's mother, who worked in a factory, was only sixteen when Bombeck was born, and her father was a crane operator who died when she was nine years old. When little Erma showed talent for dancing and singing, her mother hoped to make her into a child star—the next Shirley Temple. But her daughter had other ideas. Drawn to writing very early, Bombeck wrote her first humor column for her school newspaper at age 13. By high school, she had started another paper at school, and begun to work at the Dayton Herald as a copy girl and reporter.

It was while working for the Herald that she met Bill Bombeck and set her cap for him. They married in 1949. Bombeck continued to write for the newspaper until 1953, when she and Bill adopted a child. She stopped working to stay home with the baby and gave birth to two more children over the next five years. Until 1965, Bombeck lived the life of the suburban housewife, using humor to get her through the everyday stress.

When her youngest child entered school, Bombeck wrote a column and offered it to the Dayton newspaper, which bought it for three dollars. Within a year "At Wit's End" had been syndicated across the country, and it would eventually be published by 600 papers. Bombeck also published collections of her columns, in books with names like The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976) and Family: The Ties that Bind … and Gag (1987). Out of twelve collections, eleven were bestsellers, and from 1975 to 1981, she gained popularity on television with a regular spot on Good Morning America.

Beginning in the 1960s when most media tried hard to glorify the role of the homemaker with the likes of June Cleaver, Bombeck approached the daily dilemmas of real life at home with the kids with irreverence and affection. Because she was one of them, housewives loved her gentle skewering of housework, kids, and husbands. Even in the 1970s, with the rise of women's liberation, Bombeck's columns retained their popularity. Because she treated her subject with respect—she never made fun of housewives themselves, but of the many obstacles they face—feminists could appreciate her humor. Both mothers with careers and stay-at-home moms could find themselves in Bombeck's columns—and laugh at the little absurdities of life she was so skilled at pointing out.

Though Bombeck never called herself a feminist, she supported women's rights and actively worked in the 1970s for passage of theEqual Rights Amendment. She also worked for various humanitarian causes, such as cancer research. One of her books, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise, describes her interactions with children with cancer, something Bombeck herself faced in 1992 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She managed to find humor to share in writing about even that experience. Shortly after her mastectomy, her kidneys failed, due to a hereditary disease. Refusing to use her celebrity to facilitate a transplant, she underwent daily dialysis for four years before a kidney was available. She died at age 69 from complications from the transplant.

In spite of her fame and success, Bombeck remained unpretentious. She was able to write about American life from the point of view of one of its most invisible participants, the housewife. From that perspective, she discussed many social issues and united diverse women by pointing out commonalities and finding humor in the problems in their lives. Her tone was never condescending, but was always lighthearted and conspiratorial. Fellow columnist Art Buchwald said of Bombeck's writing, "That stuff wouldn't work if it was jokes. What it was, was the truth."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Bombeck, Erma. Erma Bombeck: Giant Economy Size. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1983.

Colwell, Lynn Hutner. Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist. Hill-side, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 1992.

Edwards, Susan. Erma Bombeck: A Life in Humor. New York, Avon Books, 1998.