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Jewesses with Attitude

Don't Settle: 5 Life Lessons From Your Red Hot Mama

I have always loved Sophie Tucker, but after seeing the New Rep Theatre's production of Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas with our new JWA intern, Gwen, I see her in a new light. What struck me about the show was that it condensed Sophie's wisdom into five important life lessons -- ones that I found particularly relevant to my life as a single woman today.

Recently there has been a lot of buzz about Lori Gottlieb's controversial Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. Gottlieb argues: "Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go."

Gottlieb's message is depressing, but the wisdom Sophie Tucker dispensed at New Rep Theatre is courageous, no-nonsense, and absolutely more feminist. Despite the fact that Sophie Tucker was born almost exactly a century before I was, her advice is more relevant today than ever, especially in the face of Marry Him and other scare-tactic advice books for women.

Today I want to share 5 life lessons that Sophie is still teaching us, 44 years after her death.

1. You deserve both great sex and fidelity.

Modern sexual empowerment for women takes many different forms. The basis of sexual empowerment is that women are in control of their sexuality and their desires -- that sex isn't just about pleasing men, but about pleasing women as well. Sophie Tucker is perhaps responsible for this attitude, as demonstrated in her joke: "My ideal man is French. He knows how to use his tongue and breathes through his ears."

Sophie talks about "knowing men casually" and not only expects them to satisfy her sexually, but also to be faithful -- an expectation often left out of conversations about sexual empowerment. Sophie unapologetically believes that a woman has a right to both great sex and fidelity. In one of her opening acts, Sophie Tucker sings "You've gotta see mama every night, or you don't see mama at all." There is no "settling" here. (It should be no surprise that modern sex guru Dr. Ruth Westheimer feels the same way.)

2. Don't settle for less than what you wanted or what you deserve.

In her post about the show, Gwen mentions Sophie's joke, "Why are Jewish divorces so expensive? Because they're worth it." Sophie Tucker wasn't afraid of divorce; she had three of them. She said: "Some people say I’m too strong for my men. If the man I’m with can’t handle me, I’ll find one who can." In one of her musical numbers, she comes right out and says it: "Don’t go out and chase him, just go and replace him." As much as we might not like the idea that men are replaceable, it's important to keep in mind that just because you're in a relationship or marriage doesn't mean you are ever stuck in that relationship. Just because a man leaves you doesn't mean you wont find happiness with someone else.

3. Don't change yourself for others/Love your body the way it is.

In yet another profound nugget of widsom, the New Rep's Sophie Tucker said: "Making changes for yourself is healthy; changing for others is not." This applies to almost everything, but here it was in reference to her weight. Sophie Tucker was known as a "voluptuous" woman, or as her pianist Teddy noted, "In all the best places, you’re ‘plump.’" But Sophie had no patience for this. "Teddy," she replied, "In all the best places, I’m fat." In a lesson that is particularly potent for young women today, Sophie Tucker owned her weight. She said, "I like being fat," and performed a number that went "I don't want to get thin. I'm doing very well the way I am." Sophie Tucker should be the mascot of the fat acceptance movement (if she isn't already). She loved her body and taught us that you can be sexy at any weight.

4. You don't need a man/You don't need to be married.

In one of the funnier numbers, Sophie sang, "I'm living alone and I like it." After 3 divorces, Sophie Tucker had no interest in getting married again (or paying more alimony). She liked being able to go out without having to answer to anybody and to be the boss of her own space. Virginia Woolf taught us that women need a room of our own, but Sophie Tucker took an entire apartment, and liked it. She also shared that "Life Begins at 40" and painted a picture of life as one that does not end with "I do's." For her, and many other women, "happily ever after" includes divorce, living alone, relationships, friendships and fun. It also includes careers, ambition, and travel. 

5. We all make choices.

In a poignant moment in the show, Sophie Tucker acknowledges that she was a poor mother to her son. She sighed, "We all make choices." Isn't this what feminism is about? Today we struggle with finding the work/home balance and continually beat ourselves up for failing at one or the other. Sophie Tucker chose her career over motherhood. While she is not proud of her faults and her failures, she acknowledges that we all make choices. We cannot always have it all, but we still have control over what we prioritize. Her story also reminds us that motherhood is not always the right choice for every woman, and that that's okay.

We all make choices, and I chose to listen to the time-tested wisdom of Sophie Tucker over the latest attempt to scare women into settling for "good enough." Sophie Tucker's life may not have been perfect, but she went for what she wanted - and she got it. I am grateful to the New Repertory Theatre and Mary Callanan (who played Sophie Tucker) for bringing Sophie's wit and good sense back to us.

Leah at New Rep Theatre
Full image
Leah standing in front of the poster for Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Don't Settle: 5 Life Lessons From Your Red Hot Mama." 8 July 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 1, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/dont-settle-5-life-lessons>.

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