Getting some culture: two plays…

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Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

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The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

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Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

Why – Hello there. It’s me.

Negative Space Embroidery. Credit:?

Negative Space Embroidery. Credit:?

In reading other blogs (as one does), I’ve been paying attention to the individual posts that strike a chord with me, and much as I love the book reviews, I also like the personalized peek into my bloggie friends’ lives.

I really enjoy reading about how people spend their days (or at least the parts that they’re willing to share), and this makes sense as I’m a nosy parker interested in social history.

So I thought I’d let you into my life a little bit. (Don’t want to overwhelm you with my perfectly run life so I’ll give you small doses…)

Warning for Non-Domestic Readers -Domestic Details Follow for a Bit:

So – what I have done today? Hmm. Saturdays are usually Domestic Catch Up Days for me in our house: start/finish laundry (amazing how many clothes two people can wear especially when we’re both serious worker-outers!); Superhero handles groceries (what a HUGE gift as I can do it, naturellement, but god, it takes me ages as I go back and forth between the aisles and go waaaaay off the list if I’m hungry.)

End of Domestic Details Bit. Non-Domestic Details Resume Here.

At the moment, I am in a craze of wanting to attend some community-type one-time lectures or similar to learn something. I’m pretty open in what I’d like to learn – just anything that strikes my fancy, really – so I’ve been digging around and seeing what I can find.

Last weekend, I went to a local historical society presentation on the university’s Home Management School building that I hadn’t even known was there on campus where I’ve been the last twenty years or so. Wow. (It is very hidden away and unmarked so I do have those excuses.)

(I did happen to be the youngest person there and the only one in casual clothing (i.e. t-shirt and shorts), but I’m glad I attended as the other people were very friendly, the presentation was entertaining, and they had cake… :-))

In the early twentieth century, quite a few universities across the country participated in the government’s Home Management House program whereby qualified (white) women could attend university and yet still keep up their domestic skills. (Lucky them.) The program was open to (all? mostly?) women and once they had completed their courses and had the required living time at the campus’ house, they could graduate with a degree in Home Economics.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather during "clothing class" in 1911. (Credit: Univ.Wis.Mad.)

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather during “clothing class” in 1911. (Credit: Univ.Wis.Mad.)

Each university that participated in this program built a large house (called a practice cottage) on campus where a small number of young female undergraduates would live and all take part in living in and running the house, from cleaning the windowsills to cooking up a storm. (I think participants may have taken other classes but I’m not sure of that. I would think so…)

Texas Tech University did have its own Home Management House and this is where the talk occurred. The house fits snugly right into campus as it is built now, but at the time, would have been far from the other campus buildings. It was built in 1927, only four years after the university was founded and 18 years after the city was incorporated and the first railroad made its way across West Texas. So it was a pretty cutting-edge program for the time and the place, historically speaking, and was a non-threatening way that bright young women could go to university without unbalancing the status quo (of men getting a university degree).

A practice cottage at the University of Idaho. Not sure when this pic was taken, but the building stood between 1920-1966.

A practice cottage at the University of Idaho. Not sure when this pic was taken, but the building stood between 1920-1966.

I had no idea that the U.S. had this Home Management House system in place but there doesn’t seem to be much on-line about it. There are lots of old photos of other university’s practice cottages (Idaho, Iowa, Arkansas et al.) but not much otherwise so I wonder if it’s an understudied area of history. It was pretty interesting learning about it as I had not heard of it before and had never noticed this building on campus. (It’s now very close to where the academic daycare facility is, so perhaps its original founding philosophy hasn’t strayed far from its roots.)

I also happened to go to an educational offering was at the university museum and covered historical embroidery. The publicity hand-out had mentioned eighteenth century pieces so I was curious how this university (out in the hinterlands of Texas) had received these pieces. Unfortunately, there were only two of those pieces, but that’s ok. Texas is not that old in the big scheme of things, so it was only to be expected that the majority of the museum’s holding would reflect that.

Still interesting, to be sure, and had lots of twentieth century examples of embroidery on domestic linens, clothing, bags and other samples. The museum holds Come and See events that invite local people to literally come to the event and see what’s in the holdings. It’s a pretty large academic museum and has limited exhibition space, so it’s pretty fun to see what the curators and museum historians have dug out of the basement and brought to light.

As it was a Come and See event, the historical information was pretty scarce and mostly covered who the donors’ families were, but we, as audience members, did get to handle some lovely pieces.  Plus, the presenter was very well informed so that was fun as well.

Plus – bonus: there was a lovely well curated exhibition of the Embroiderer’s Guild of America pieces which were colorful, innovative and opened the boundaries of how I had previously thought of embroidery. Here’s a good link to introduce you to textile art and some of contemporary artists who made some fabulous pieces.

So – who knows what’s up for community learning next weekend? …

So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (1980)

book333“…the path of life is not smooth; one is bruised by its sharp edges…”

This is an epistolary novel (swoon) written with the goal of bringing attention to women’s rights in Senegal and it’s certainly a powerful novel. The narrative is a collection of letters from the POV of a newly widowed wife whose husband has just died leaving two wives (herself and a much younger much newer one) and it gives a clear-eyed perspective into what it’s like to live as a woman in a polygamous culture. Her friend (to whom the letters are written) elects to leave her husband when he takes a second wife, even though doing so puts her at an economic and societal disadvantage — she must do what she must do to maintain her dignity. The narrator, on the other hand, has elected to stay with her husband when he chooses to take a second wife (although she hates having to accept this), and it is this comparison of the two Senegalese women’s lives that form the basis of the narrative structure.

senegalThe narrator’s husband has been married to her for more than 12 years – they have children and an established life together – and the new wife he takes is one of her daughter’s friends, much younger and prettier and now very much spoiled by her husband’s wealth (developed, I might add, by the support of his wife #1). Her husband now ignores his #1 family and wife (with his 12 children), and as you might expect, the book simmers with the anger of wife #1 as she relates the story of her life, both before wife #2 and after.

With the husband now dead, both wives are in the 40 days of Islamic required mourning, and this leaves ample time to meditate on her life so far. It’s a powerful construct.

Bâ writes as tightly as a spring ready to be released, and describes life in Senegal extremely well. Life in both the city and the rural villages, the early stages of the labor movement (which is what her husband has done for a career), the machinations of politics, the rights of women and children, and the oncoming unstoppable force of the end of Colonial Rule and changing societal roles – all of these mean that a New Africa is on the way whether Old Africa is ready or not.

I adored this book, although it was not an easy read subject-wise, but the pure emotion that was elicited via the text was incredible. I’m not sure what else (if anything) Bâ has written, but I will be looking for her name from now on. Highly recommended.

(Above) - Mariama Ba.

(Above) – Mariama Ba.

February 2015 Reading Book Numbers…

black-history-month_2 For February 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (F)

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (NF)

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (F)

March Book Two – John Lewis/Nat Powell (GN-NF)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (F) – post to come

Victorian Hospitals – Lavinia Mitton (NF)

  • Total number of books read in February: 5
  • Total number of pages read: 1,446 pages (av. 289 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 1 F and 4 NF
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books and 2 owned books. 0 e-books this month. (Total of 8 books off TBR pile this year.)

One special note was that I read some African-American literature (and non-fiction) which was eye-opening and fascinating for me. In case you’re interested and so they are all in one place, here’s the list:

(And more titles from POC authors on the way… I am really enjoying finding new titles.)

Goodness gracious me. I seem to not have read as many books as usual… Work has been very all encompassing which helps to explain the low numbers. Several big reports mean two tired eyes at the end of the day!

tired eyes

The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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Like One of the Family – Alice Childress (1954)

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(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition. The first day of February in 1960 was the first recognized lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, NC, when four college freshmen from North Carolina A&T sat at their local Woolworth’s requesting service. Looking back at this fairly recent history, I continue to be amazed at how people treat at each other – and continue to do so.)

I actually have no idea from where I got this title (probably on a fellow blog or similar), but it was on my TBR shelves and it fit perfectly into my February themed reading for Black History Month (in the U.S.).

Alice Childress

Alice Childress

Although this is fiction, it’s based on how life actually was for many people, and this book recounts the snippets of life for a black domestic worker in the 1950’s. (In fact, Alice Childress the author had experience in this position at times in her life.)

It’s written as a series of one-sided conversations between Mildred and her friend Marge who is also a housekeeper for another white family elsewhere, and, as both women live in the same apartment building, they usually get together for a chat after they get home as they’re friends as well as neighbors. This narrative structure worked really well, for it left a lot unsaid in its writing, which allowed the reader to become particularly engaged. It was like hearing only one side of a telephone call, or perhaps like reading a diary (except more immediate). (And it’s epistolary of sorts and you know how I like those.)

The title, “Like One of the Family”, was taken from a related conversation that Mildred had with the family for whom she cleans (and much more). For example, the (white) woman of the house was having a small gathering of her (white) women friends one morning, and as Mildred passed through the room, refilling plates and coffee cups, the hostess had said “Oh we love Mildred. She’s just like one of  us.”

This, of course, was patently untrue on many levels (and insulting on others), and as you read this part of the book, it’s crystal clear that, although the phrase was meant with benign intention, it was still insensitive. Mildred is not one to hide her feelings, and so once the visitors have left, she talked with the lady of the house and made it patently clear just why she feels it is not so. After you read why, you’ll agree as well as this is such a cogent obvious argument that it’s tough to realize why people did not understand that fact in those days. (Well, there was not a lot of clear race-focused thinking at that point in general, methinks.)

This is not a comfortable book to read as White writes Mildred with a simmering anger that bubbles just under the surface and you’re not quite sure when it’s going to emerge. It’s also difficult because as one looks back to that period in time, you know the life of the African-American person is not going to get better until many years into the future which added a little poignancy (combined with annoyance at the situation) for me. I just do not understand how one group of people could treat another group with such inhumanity. Mildred was not the only one getting angry in this story!

So this was a seething look at the world of domesticity, although this time was viewed through the lens of people who were forced to do it as they had few other options open to them (as opposed to the current New Domesticity crowd who have a wide range of choices). First published in 1956, and then not republished until Beacon Press released it in 1986. 1956 was at the cusp of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and was slap-bang in the middle of Jim Crow. Brown vs. the Board of Education had just happened in 1954, Doris Day was popular, the space race was picking up speed, and the Red Scare of Russian communism was a huge concern. The times they were a-changing and I can well imagine that this unnerved quite a few (white middle class) readers in the US of the 50’s.

This was a good read to begin February and Black History Month as I think it gives the immediacy of how frustrating and horrible the culture was if you were black (or African-American or similar) even a century after slavery had been outlawed. I’m looking forward to reading other titles as the month progresses, so more to come.

If you have titles that you’ve read or have heard of and would like to suggest them, please feel free. I’m always open for ideas, and I know that there are a lot of good reads out there of which I haven’t heard. Suggest away!

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The Fifties: A Women’s Oral History – Brett Harvey (1993)

book323Here’s a quote from an early 1950’s Life Magazine trying to convince women to give up the best war jobs now that the men had come back and women should really be back in the house now (or only in certain jobs suited to her female constitution):

“Household skills take her into the garment trades; neat and personable, she becomes office work and saleslady; patient and dexterous, she does well in repetitive, detailed factory work; compassionate, she becomes teacher and nurse.”

Fashion Advice from 1953.

Fashion Advice from 1953.

With current fashions having a focus on Mid-Century Modern (or MCM) – furniture, fashion, cars etc. – it’s interesting to look at how the U.S. really was back then, politically, socially and others. It seems to me that the decade has been idealized somewhat or perhaps that people have this large stereotypical image of how life was back then when it was really much more complicated than martinis and cigarettes. This book addressed some of these issues from the perspective of how it impacted the women who actually lived in this time. It was really fascinating.

The 50’s had a lot going on, worldwide, and the U.S. was smack in the middle of the Red Scare and the arms race between U.S. and Russia. Add to that set-up a frenzied fear about being infiltrated with Communism, and the country was smothered in paranoia on several levels: uppity women who weren’t always satisfied to go home and be a good wife, returning military men (mostly) who had been exposed to radically different viewpoints and now brought that back to infiltrate American communities, the government idea of the Soviet Union taking over the world, the civil rights movement just starting…  and it all turned into a rather weird time.

mccarthyismHarvey, the author, brings up an extremely interesting perspective on this world view, comparing the nation’s political perspective of containment (i.e. keep the Communists out and keep the “American” way of life in) to the societal containment view of the role of women (i.e. keep women out of the workspace and keep women in the domestic arena). It’s as though everyone was very uncomfortable with anyone getting out of their boxes while, at the same time, everyone needs to stay to their allocated historical place in the world.

As American servicemen were still returning from tours overseas from WWII and Korea, women were expected (and sometimes forced) to give up their independent lives (and to hand over the jobs that they had been doing just fine) to the returning troops. That was the patriotic thing to do and the right thing to do, and if anyone didn’t conform to that pattern, then it was seen as almost dangerously rebellious by the Establishment. Quite a few women who had been working were not happy having to go back and try to fit their former lives into a very small box just because people (mostly men) said so. Obviously, this led to a few problems.

The majority of women settled back into their routine, but some didn’t, and these are who are the book focuses on – oral histories of women looking back from present time (well, the 1990’s) to their younger selves and the decisions they made. It was clear that this forced domesticity, if you will, did not sit well for all, and as I read some of the recorded conversations in this book, the common theme was one of regret of chances not risked and paths not taken.

woman_workWomen had been working for many decades, and with two world wars under their belt, the American women knew that they were capable of working many jobs usually considered only to be suitable for men. However, society was such that the expectation was that the women who worked in these formerly unsuitable jobs were temporary and should return to their domestic lifestyles once peace arrived. Women knew that there were jobs out there that would be workable and were not necessarily the usual format of nurse/teacher/shop assistant/menial factory worker, and yet so many elected to fit themselves silently back into their reduced roles post-war. And this is what the book reports: the featured modern older women look back on their younger selves and ask themselves “why?” Why did they give up their foothold in the men’s worlds?

It’s interesting to think about: what would you have done if you were a woman in the 50’s in this set-up? Would you have gone back and fit the accepted mold: college degree/wife/home/children? Or would you have been brave enough to break free and do your own thing? Several women in the book did exactly that, but faced friction almost everywhere, both from men and women, in their early careers. Most continued with their careers and ended up doing just fine, but imagine where these pioneers would be if they hadn’t had to overcome these obstacles. (And the same question would clearly fit with other disenfranchised groups throughout history as well.)

Anyway, as you can see, this book set me off going down several trains of thought and was a fascinating read. Not every woman regretted what they did – some were very happy to remain in the domestic role – so there was a good mix in the book. I have another topic related to this book which I’ll chat about next time, but I’ll keep this post a manageable length. Obviously, this was a good read in that I’m still thinking about it days after.

More to come.

Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (2012)

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This title has been pretty high on my TBR for about the last year or so. Why I haven’t read it is a question for the ages, but eventually I pulled it off the shelf. Written by Emily Matchar (who writes the New Domesticity blog), I was familiar with the general tack of the narrative and the whole book stayed quite close to that, overall. Material-wise, it wore a bit thin in places and there was some repetition (probably to keep a word count up there), but as mentioned, there were salient points in it.

Matcher takes a critical look at the world of what she calls “New Domesticity” – the Gen Y-ers who are embracing back-to-nature “crunchy” lifestyles of urban homesteading (keeping chickens, growing veg etc.) and home crafts such as knitting or making jewelry. This is not that notable in and of itself, but Matcher’s perspective is through more of a feminist lens which studies what this rejection of the workplace in lieu of being a SAHM/F (but mostly mothers) could mean for women in the future. It’s really quite an interesting read to consider this return to domesticity being viewed as a political statement (which some participants would argue it is).

From the book, it seems that quite a few Gen Y-ers (more than 95% female in this particular non-academic study) appreciate the steps that the first-wave and second-wave feminists have taken but blame this early feminism for their retreat from the workplace to the remolded idea of June Cleaver life, saying that their parents rejected domestic life to work and parent, and now they want to reclaim it back (“except it’s different”).

“New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming, yet struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.”

Emily Matcher.

She likens the people in their 20’s and 30’s as being raised by the “I’m OK You’re OK” parents who taught their offspring the lovely (but rather idealistic) idea of everyone being “as special as a snowflake” and thus having unrealistic expectations of beginning jobs once they’re graduated.

Additionally, as a human, one tends to make friends who reflect what you individually believe (“birds of a feather flock together”) which is both strengthening for their beliefs but also adds a great deal of peer pressure. Matcher reports groups of friends aligning very strict parenting behaviors (e.g. intensive attachment parenting styles) with almost a moral quality, seeing peers who don’t follow their way of acting as being “worse” or even “bad” parents at times. (Obviously, not everyone holds that opinion, but it was quite a common occurrence in the book. May have been the sample though which did seem rather limited at times.)

The adoption of this “new domesticity” is also very class-oriented, with only people who have reliable and middle-class working partners to support them and make them able to reject working in a full-time job. As the saying goes, “only those with enough money can say that money doesn’t matter”…)

It takes resources to do lovely but expensive and time-consuming hobbies like quilting or making jam, especially when you add in the common pipe-dream of making a sustainable living from a small Etsy on-line shop. (Most people don’t succeed, but it’s a nice idea. The reality, according to Matcher, is that the majority of these micro-crafting enterprises either don’t sell anything (re: the former website Regretsy) or do sell some but with the owners having to turn into temporary mini-sweat shops to get the orders out. (“I’d like 150 mini jars of home-made plum jam for my wedding please. It’s on this next Saturday.”)

Additionally, other critics and Matchar have linked this withdrawal from working life to the domestic front as changing how society views its community problems and rejects the social good. For example, numerous examples shown in the book report that people want to follow Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” , which is a lovely idea, but when it’s employed in a “my family first and pooey on everyone else” does move the focus from solving community problems as a whole to just solving your own immediate family’s problems (when really, they’re not even “problems”). To wit, parents who may have otherwise volunteered as a PTA leader (or with other vital skills) are now more focused on these intensive home-life choices, which means that the PTA would miss out on this individual’s leadership skills. So it’s a big ripple effect in some ways…

The misguided anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this, along with some cases of home schooling where the parenting “teacher” is in absolutely no position to be teaching science or other subjects and, despite their intentions, are only putting the “protected child” at a disadvantage when they enter public school life. (Not everyone, of course, but I do worry about the more extreme examples.)

There was also some repetition from chapter to chapter, but I think it was because each chapter had been written at a different time with specified word counts (or page counts), and the author was struggling to meet those parameters. (Maybe not the case, but I’m going to give benefit of doubt here.) Oh, and If the author mentioned “crunchy” as a description of the eco lifestyle one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall.

Still, I enjoyed the critical perusal of the world of cupcakes (and more) and I still don’t really get why people try to follow such extraordinarily complicated parenting rules (such as attachment parenting guides describe) which only seem to add an extra unnecessary level of stress to their lives…

I also don’t really get why these (mostly) women force themselves to live a work-intensive home life – “from scratch” is a common refrain like their great-grandmothers — whilst rejecting working life. Why not put that home-focused effort into something that pays good money (like a job) that will be able to support you in the unpredictable future? This lifestyle seems almost selfish in a way.

It also brings to the fore the risk that this New Domesticity population bring to their lives whilst they completely reject the serious side of working life (like having a job). Removing themselves from the workforce places a huge financial risk on themselves – the kids will grow up, their relationship/ supporting spouse could leave or die, and then what happens to the domestic maven? One cannot live on cupcakes and hand-made bread alone forever. (I might be of a more pragmatic bent than others though.)

It might well be that this book was just focused on a very small sample of people and that the majority of New Domesticity fans are well-intentioned and sensible; if that’s the case, then the world can relax, but if this is true to form, then it’s a bit concerning to think about.

Needless to say, if anyone would like me to taste-test any cupcakes, please feel free to send me one. 🙂