Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Misconceptions of 1970s feminism

I wrote this in response to a discussion held on a blog entitled Dreams of an Everyday Housewife. The discussion, regarding the modern housewife was thought-provoking and forthright, and I encourage you to check it out.

We have the feminists of the 70s (and note, there have been other feminists in other time periods, even going back to the 1700s), to thank for really giving woman the power of career choice in their lives. However, what the 1970s feminist did that was utterly damaging is that they fiercely deprecated and devalued the woman's role in the home. It's as if they thought that biology and eons of evolution could be wiped away by simply donning a business suit.

The feminist movement made several core assumptions that were not universally true.
1. That all women at the time were 'trapped' in the traditional housewife role. The thing we need to realize is that many women went into this role joyfully. Remember, they were survivors of World War II. They had seen brothers, high school sweethearts and other loved ones killed in battle. Many thought that marriage and settling down might not even be a possibility. And after growing up in the "dirty 30s", a streamlined kitchen with a modern fridge and all the other conveniences would have, indeed, made a housewife's heart sing.

2. Following the traditional role keeps a woman from growing up and having a meaningful life. Many of these women were the backbone of their communities. They were powerhouses in charities, church functions, and politics. They were actually around to discipline their children, and kept a close watch on the other children in the neighborhood. My mother's talents were/are enormous. She sewed all of my clothes until I was in high school (including underwear), quilted, canned, gardened, baked from scratch, and actually knew all her neighbors, just to name a few.

3. A meaningful life can only be found outside the home. As a career woman most of my life, I can tell you that this isn't true. How many of us have office jobs that suck the life out of us? And what could be more meaningful than raising good, well-rounded human beings and building a solid home for them? I believe that sometimes feminists confuse meaning with difficulty. It is powerfully difficult to deal with kids day after day, to feed them, clothe them, listen to them, clean up after them. Those so-called menial tasks are hugely important...and yes, meaningful.

4. That the feminist movement knew best for the next generation of young women. In this belief, where they silenced the views of women who might want to be homemakers, feminists stiffled women as much as the repressive Freudians and other patriarchal institutions.

5. And lastly, that men hold women down. Personally, I have found that many housewives run the finances in the home. My husband gets an allowance, and he is truly happy with the he loathes paying bills. My father was the same way. Ironically enough, I think that my husband respects and honors me even more now that I am back home. It seems like we have more quality time together because we are not frantically, and wearily, cramming household tasks on top of our already exhausting work day. I think this notion of men suppressing women has much more to do with individuals, and should not be a wide-sweeping label for the genders.

Just some thoughts. I am certainly not telling anyone what they should do. However, as an artist, home business owner, and yes, proud housewife, I can tell you that I've never been happier.

Much of my art deals indirectly with this topic, from paintings of retro hats, to hard-edged views of the American Dream. It can be found at my website, Loud Colors online gallery.

A book that I am finding of some great interest is "Radical Homemakers" by Shannon Hayes, that examines the political, economic, and sociological aspects of working in the home.

* One more thing I wish I had added to this blog post. It is also important that the majority of the suffragettes of the 1900s were fighting for the vote, not for equality with men in the career sphere.

Friday, July 16, 2010

So, what are we really saying?

Type in the words "retro housewife" on youtube, and you might be in for a surprise. There are a plethora of homemade videos out there, mostly lampooning the June Cleaver-in-pearls-and-an apron-waiting-at-the-door-with-the-pipe-and-slippers image we so associate, for good or ill, with post-War America.

I chose this one because it's obviously made by young people who very likely have never even seen an episode of "Leave It to Beaver." And the narrative in the video is taken from an actual 1950s era article, which I believe comes from "Good Housekeeping" and made the email rounds a few years ago. It's a list of tips advising women how best to run their households, and (*gasp*) "serve" their husbands. The clip is a strange mixture of cute and cuttingly sarcastic, a brew of the Greatest Generation meets the college Goth. You can almost hear these kids waxing indignant whenever the camera is shut off, declaring "Can you believe that people EVER lived like this?"

Don't get me wrong. There were gender roles in the 1950s that needed a bit of a stretch. Repression and perfection were the order of those days...but my theory is that it was more to be found as a message in the media than in those actual suburban neighborhoods. And the video did make me chuckle. But it also made me think.

What's the hidden things that are being mocked here? Could it be a well-ordered home? A woman who cares enough about her husband to cook his favorite thing for dinner? The very concept of giving to others? Could one even say that it was mocking of women/wives/mothers in general?

Caitlin Flanagan, in her insightful and controversial book "To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Your Inner Housewife", comments about this same narrative:

"[It] advises the housewife to prepare for husband's arrival at the end of the day: to have dinner ready, to minimize household noise and clutter, to avoid assaulting her man with a litany of domestic problems and disappointments, and to inquire about his day. There was a sense back in those innocent years that a day at the office was a tiring event that required a bit of recuperation: a cold drink, a sympathetic companion, a decent meal--all of which, I suspect, functioned as a sexual tonic."

Tonight I'll have homemade Chicken Parmesan waiting on the table when Dave comes home. Our evenings are cozily predictable, marked by good conversation about daily adventures, favorite books, and curling up on the couch. My husband works a dangerous job, and to me, it is a special occasion every time he walks through the door. He even says, "Honey, I'm home!" If he wore slippers or smoked a pipe, I'd bring them to him in a heartbeat.