Feminist Pryde Brown Finds House-Husband Dan Sullivan a 'Wonderful Mother' of Ten
In the Ms.-managed concept of contemporary marriage, the wife raises her consciousness while her husband raises the kids. Pryde Brown and Dan Sullivan stop short of any such total reductio ad feminism in their own lives, even though on most days it’s Pryde who is out winning the family’s bread while Dan is at home turning it into sandwiches. So convincingly have they reversed traditional sex roles that in July a New Jersey judge awarded Sullivan child-support payments from his wealthy ex-wife. “Dan,” Pryde explains proudly, “is a good feminist and a wonderful mother.”
Somebody has to be in the household. Pryde and Dan share a brood of nine kids from earlier marriages, their own 2-year-old daughter Joan, 10 chickens and six dogs on their $200,000 homestead called Omega Farm near Princeton, N.J. Dan, 45, is a group therapist, but now most of his daily encounters are with children, pediatricians, orthodontists and grocery clerks. Meanwhile, Pryde, 40, rises from their water bed to head into Princeton for two demanding careers as a studio photographer and a founding member of a feminist publishing company.
Though some sexist types would find Dan’s dependency on past and present wives emasculating, house-husbandry seems no threat to Dan’s ego. “Machismo is silly and futile, and it makes equality, and therefore love, impossible,” he argues. When his first wife of 17 years, oil-and-newspaper heiress Sally Welling, cut off her monthly support checks of $2,250 for their five children in his custody, Dan unhesitatingly sued on grounds that it was “arbitrary and unreasonable” for her to make him support them. “Sure, Dan doesn’t have a conventional job,” says Pryde. “But he can feel relaxed in his role as a house-husband. He’s not forced to always be the leader, and I’m not just stuck with taking care of the kids or making all the money.”
It was Dan who got into feminism first—seven years ago he helped organize the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women. At that time Pryde was a sheltered traditional housewife who “thought I was doing everything right, cooking the right meals and saying the right things.” But then she and her husband of a dozen years, New Yorker writer John McPhee, were divorced, leaving Pryde with four daughters and no marketable skills. “I was scared and anxious,” she recalls. “I’d lived life vicariously through my husband. I’d never even written a check before. It was like recovering from a stroke and learning to do the basics all over again.”
Her helper turned out to be Dan, then leading a therapy group Pryde joined. Before, “Pryde was always Miss Prim in her Peter Pan dresses with white collars,” says one friend. “Suddenly, she had a new realization of her role.” Pryde’s first reaction was to take on public causes, like enrolling her daughters in their school’s all-male woodworking classes. Then as she plotted a career of her own, she realized, “I needed a man willing to stay home and help out with the kids. And there was Dan worrying about dentist appointments and his little guy wetting the bed.” For his part, Dan says, “I dug her because of her energy and gut strength.” In his more cynical moments Dan observes that “most people fall in love out of a need to lean on someone else.” But he regards their own marriage three years ago as unusual—among other reasons, because most therapy “conditions you so you won’t need anyone anymore and then you won’t get hurt again. My idea is to allow yourself to be vulnerable but with strength.”
He came from Dallas and what looked like a career as a professional student before opening his own Gestalt center in Princeton. His stopovers had included Holy Cross, a Jesuit seminary (for three years), Notre Dame, the Sorbonne and the Esalen Institute. Pryde grew up in Jersey, where well-to-do parents sent her to Virginia’s Sweet Briar College and taught her that “marriage was an unassailable institution.” Now, she wonders, “I don’t know how a conventional marriage can work if the father is away from 9 to 5 and leaves everything to the mother. If these men want to have families, I think they’d better rearrange their schedules to spend more time at home.”
Dan, who’s working on a book, earns barely $300 a month taking an occasional therapy patient, while Pryde nets $12,000 a year from her photography studio. She also draws some $3,500 from the anti-sexist publishing group, Women on Words and Images, which she started with five friends. So far, it has tellingly exposed sex stereotyping in children’s readers (Dick and Jane as Victims) and prime-time TV (Channeling Children). An ardent female capitalist (“Volunteerism is another women’s stereotype”), Pryde is especially gratified that the group’s revenues now run $50,000 a year.
For all Pryde and Dan’s abhorrence of sexual role-playing, their children tend to see them as an old-fashioned mom and pop. Asked who’s the boss at home, his kids(Danny, 19; Mary, 17; Carrie, 14; Henry, 11; and Tony, 10) chime out, “Dad!” Her kids (Laura, 17; Sarah, 15; Jenny, 13; and Martha, 11) echo, “It’s Dan!” Carrie reports, “In some ways Pryde’s not a feminist, and between them there are still a lot of male chauvinist traits. Like she changes the baby’s diapers, and Dad always drives the car by habit.” (Pryde rejoins indignantly that she drove precisely half the mileage on this summer’s trip to Colorado.)
Dan admits that “the traditional conditioning has already gone too far in Pryde and me.” When he caught Carrie necking with a boyfriend, Dan came on like Father Knows Best. “Dad bawled him out pretty bad,” Carrie groans. “The guy was really scared.” There’s no double standard, though, since Pryde and Dan claim they’re just as puritanical about their sons’ love lives.