Source of book: I own this.
Every March for the past 5 years, I have read a selection for Women’s History Month. I have generally chosen works connected with Feminism. Although demonized by the Cultural Fundamentalist circles I was raised in (and sadly by an increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist Evangelicalism as well), it really shouldn’t be controversial. Feminism is simply this:
The Cultural, Political, and Economic Equality of men and women.
Of course, the problem with this for many is that this idea is anathema to them. Their worldview depends on a structural inequality of the sexes, one where men control the institutions of power and the money we use as a means of exchange. In order to justify this, they cling to ideas of a congenital inferiority of women (whatever euphemisms they use to deny this), whereby women are unfit for leadership, or even control of their own lives and destinies.
Here are my selections for previous years:
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (2015)
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (2016)
Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara Babcock (2017)
This is a book my wife suggested I read. She read it a few years back, and realized that it in many ways describes our own marriage.
The plot is pretty simple. Evangeline and Lester are the parents of three children. The family is, shall we say, deeply unhappy. Lester works in finance at a department store, and absolutely hates his job. He dropped out of college to marry Evangeline, and never did get to be the English teacher he probably should have been. In any case, he likes poetry and children, and hates commerce and capitalistic striving. Evangeline is razor-sharp, type A, driven, and is being driven insane by her domestic duties. The children are in varying states of dysfunction as well. Henry’s digestion is wrecked by stress, Helen suffers debilitating lack of confidence, and Stephen obliterates rules with a savage ferocity.
Lester is passed over for a promotion in favor of a younger man, then loses his job altogether. He considers suicide, and has his opportunity when he is asked to help with a neighbor’s chimney repair. But he can’t even succeed at this: he ends up paralyzed from the waist down instead.
Since the family must be fed, Evangeline takes things into her own hands, and scores a sales job at the store. She is thoroughly suited for it, and quickly rises into management. Lester, in the meantime, finds his own calling as a “homemaker.” Sure, he can’t scrub the floors into oblivion like Eva did, but he is a natural with the children, and a little paid help on the most physical tasks takes care of that.
In short, the reversal of gender roles makes everyone happy. Well, except for all the judgy neighbors and relatives who are sure that this is all in defiance of the Way Things Should Be™ - and Divine Command™.
The Home-Maker was published in...wait for it...1926. That’s pretty darn close to 100 years ago. To be sure, it was ahead of its time. But it is also, in my opinion and experience, ahead of OUR time too, in many ways.
Before I get to that, let me mention some of the most perceptive passages in this book. First is one where the ladies guild (essentially the gossip gals) talk about Eva.
“Poor thing. She has so many burdens to bear. Mrs. Prouty often says that in these days it is wonderful to see a woman so devoted to her duty as a home-maker. She simply gives up her whole life to her family! Absolutely!”
And it is true. Eva focuses all her energy on her home and family. Which means her house is spotless, and her kids are so micromanaged that they are falling to pieces as a result. The thing is, this IS the expectation placed on Fundie women. I know. I have seen it. My wife lived it in many ways as a teen. (She was excommunicated from the cultic group when she went to college. Her parents have always supported her in this, but she lost what few relationships she had with her peers in that group over her refusal to be a home-maker only.) I wish I could say this is limited to the cultic fringe. But it isn’t. Women are to a significant degree expected to give up their entire lives and personhoods to their families, both in our culture at large (although less than before) and particularly in an increasingly fundamentalist Evangelicalism. Pretty much universally, a woman’s worth will be judged by her status as a mother and as a home-maker, rather than her other qualities. (Okay, and her adherence to cultural beauty and modesty standards.) She will never get full credit for breadwinning like a man will.
Another thing to mention in this context: I do believe there is a significant correlation between helicopter parenting (and specifically women who take their entire identity from their mothering and have no other outlet) and sickly children. Let me be clear: obviously this isn’t the whole story. I was sickly and that is why I ended up homeschooled - which required my mom to stay home. Likewise, I know plenty of parents whose children have legitimate medical issues, from birth defects to diabetes. I get it. Not all illness is caused by stress and overparenting. But there is enough of a correlation that I do believe that a significant proportion of it is connected. A woman needing an outlet for her energies will find it. If there isn’t one outside the home, chances are, she will find one inside it, and this is rarely healthy, in my experience. I blame a lot of the shift toward cultural separation that plagues the American (white) church on this. Mothers who had to work to support the family would have little time to obsess about every detail of what their children are exposed to, bacterially or culturally.
Another passage in which Fisher absolutely nails it is this: Lester is perceptive enough to notice that his children are suffering. But he also knows that he has absolutely no right to say anything. Why not? Because he is a financial failure.
Well, he was bound and gagged to complete helplessness about everything in his life and his children’s lives, bound and gagged by his inability to make money. Only men who made money had any right to say how things should go in their homes. A man who couldn’t make money had no rights of any kind which a white man was bound to respect - nor a white woman either. Especially a white woman. The opinion of a man who couldn’t make money was of no value, on any subject, in anybody’s eyes.
This is exactly the point. Anyone passingly familiar with history is aware that brown-skinned women (and immigrants, and low income women in general) have ALWAYS been expected to work. And work hard, grueling jobs for long hours. Being a “home-maker” has always been a privilege of upper-class (and eventually middle class) white women. It is a signal of privilege and wealth - but spun into a “virtue” like everything else connected with money in this country.
In fact, Fisher makes the other point here that male “virtue” has always been spelled “m-o-n-e-y.” This is one of the key explanations for how a morally appalling man can be excused - and elected to a high position. He has money. And that is evidence of his virtue. And, in contrast, a man without money lacks virtue. He has failed in his only truly important task, which is to make money. That this also justifies contempt for the poor and for those (say, African Americans) who are systematically excluded from economic opportunity is a feature of this system. It really is about signaling virtue and privilege.
Moving on to the next one, there is a great scene when Aunt Mattie shows up. She quizzes Helen and Henry about how they are getting on. Helen (happy in their new life) carefully explains that ALL of them do the cooking now. Lester reads the cookbook, and they learn more each day about how to do that task.
Aunt Mattie’s face instantly smoothed into comprehension of everything. She had wondered how they managed without a woman to keep house for them. Now she knew. They didn’t manage.
I would have been so tempted to slap that nasty woman right then and there. Fortunately, this particular bit of sexism is less common today. My late grandfather came of age in the 1940s, and he was always a fine cook. (An Army cook, to be exact, with a well-earned reputation of making anything edible.) All the men on my dad’s side of the family cook. Most of us quite well. We are expected to - it’s family pride at stake. I am no exception. I started cooking when I had to use a chair to reach the stove. As a teen, I cooked once a week. When my brother and I were batching it, we were fully capable of feeding visitors on a minute’s notice. My wife and I split the cooking since we were married (although the kids cook more these days - they have mad skills too.) Come to our house, and I’ll show you “not managing,” thank you very much!
So yeah, a little touchy about that one. Men in my family can also do laundry, ironing, dishes - the whole works. Because we take pride in our domestic skills.
Just one meal from earlier this month:
Tabbouleh, hummus, grilled tomatoes, and lamb kebabs (plus pita from our local middle eastern grocery.)
I can cook a little.
On a related note…
Later in the visit, Lester, who has made a remarkable progression from a beaten-down man to confident father and home-maker, finally has had enough, and puts the smack down on Mattie, after she expresses horror that he is darning socks.
“Eva darned them a good many years, and did the housework. Why shouldn’t I? Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.”
EXACTLY! I have had discussions with Fundie sorts who lament that home-making is somehow disrespected. (Of course, they think it is because women choose to do other things…) But my thought is, no shit! Anything that is relegated to the category of “women’s work” will be disrespected, just as women are. Home-making will get respected just fine when men embrace it. (And honestly, there is a huge generation gap here. Few of my grandparents’ generation had men who cared for infants. Pretty much every 30ish man I know is fully capable of caring for an infant overnight without issue. And cooking dinner too.)
The final bit which I found fascinating was Lester’s thoughts on capitalism and materialism. It is particularly interesting because Eva seems perfectly comfortable with a life of selling possessions to others. Lester, though, is not so sure. He pretty much rejects the whole consumerist system outright.
He knew now what it decreed: that men are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them in all human beings. It decreed that men are of worth in so far as they achieve that sort of material success, and worthless if they do not.
For an instant he understood why Tradition was so intolerant of the slightest infraction of the respect due to it, why it was ready to tear him and all his into a thousand pieces rather than permit even one variation from its standard. It was because the variation he had conceived ran counter to the prestige of sacred possessions. Not only was it beneath the dignity of any able-bodied brave to try to show young human beings how to create rich, deep, happy lives without great material possessions, but it was subversive of the whole-hearted worship due to possessions. It was heresy. It must be stopped at all costs.
Yep. Possessions make the man, and consumerism fuels our economy. And a male who defies that will be punished. (And a woman who defies the system by stepping out of her place will be punished too.)
Okay, let’s talk about the present.
On the one hand, having experienced Fundie culture, I can say that within that subculture, nothing has changed since 1926. (Or, more correctly, since the Antebellum South.) Women are still expected to pour their lives and their selves into their assigned role. And to forgo a career. More personally, much unnecessary friction was created with my own family when my wife went back to work three months after each of our kids was born. (I, like Lester, love kids - particularly mine - and wouldn’t trade those long nights of feedings and snugglings for anything.) My wife paid dearly for her choices, and some relationships will probably never be whole as a result.
On the other hand, in general, these days women in the workforce are embraced. My wife is respected in her profession (unlike in the Evangelical church, I might add) and outside of the Fundie/Evangelical subculture, few bat an eye at the idea that she has a career.
But the reverse isn’t true, at least yet. I have the best of both worlds. As a lawyer, I have a prestigious career. I don’t have a lot of wealth, though. Lawyers make less than most people assume (particularly in smaller towns), and I have chosen reasonable hours over a high income. Because of this, my wife makes more than I do. But, I don’t really pay the price for this, because people know I am a lawyer. As a result, I actually get brownie points for being domestic, and yet don’t suffer the contempt of being a low-income male.
However, if I were to quit my job and stay home full time, there is absolutely no doubt that I would suffer every bit the contempt as Lester would. It was only his catastrophic injury that saved him from being viewed as lower than low - an un-man, so to speak. While feminism has enabled (middle class, white) women to enter the workforce, it hasn’t changed the basic cultural dynamic that insists that men bring home the bacon, and women clean the house and care for children.
I do blame some of this on a deliberate and egregious mistranslation of Scripture, by the way. In the original, I Timothy 5:8 is NOT gendered. The idea is that expecting a relative to be cared for by limited church funds was a big sin. All should care for their own if possible. It certainly did NOT mean that only males had the responsibility of breadwinning. Fortunately, some modern translations have rectified this error. (And often been castigated by Fundies for it.)
On an even more personal note, let me return to what my wife saw in this book. From the beginning of our relationship, she understood that we would not have a “traditional” marriage. She was committed to a career - and really didn’t expect to marry. That I came along and she fell in love was a good thing for both of us. But we also had no illusions that we would now fit the cultural template. She was going to work, kids or not, and I wasn’t going to do the 100 hour weeks that making partner requires. It just fit BOTH of our personalities better. So I essentially “mommy tracked” my career, and she focused on hers. We both split the household and child care duties in a mutually workable manner - and we change it as circumstances change. The key point here is that we are BOTH happier this way. It took a while for me to adjust to it, I suppose, because I worried that her love for me was dependent on my being the primary breadwinner. But that wasn’t the case, actually. It was just my cultural insecurities - and the residual belief that my work is tied up in my paycheck.
I do not want to appear to be dissing female home-makers here. My mom stayed home during our childhood (although she loves her post-kid career too), and given the circumstances, she made a fully defensible choice. Every family is different. I get that. I also get that for those outside the middle class economic status, these choices aren’t available. What I do want to say, however, is that gender roles of this sort are NOT (contrary to Fundie doctrine) a matter of morality, but a matter of circumstance and choice. And personality and gifting.
There is a lot of insight in this book. However, I would not say that the writing is spectacular. It isn’t bad, but from time to time, Fisher tells rather than shows, and she can tend to moralize. The book is pretty short, too, so many of the personalities do not have time to be fleshed out fully. The focus in the first half is split, while the second half is mostly about Lester. At that point, Eva becomes kind of a super saleswoman, but her internal life is left mostly unsaid.
Likewise, the book leaves some things unexplored. After all, Lester is happy in his role as a parent, but what of the future? It is harder to see him fulfilled after the kids depart and he is left as a (more or less) cripple at home with little to do. An astute reader will ask the obvious question here as well: what about a woman in the same situation? True enough. Which is why I think that the very worst busybodies are women who have no job whose kids have grown up. (If we were honest about the meaning of some of Saint Paul’s teachings on this, we might realize that “rule one’s own household” means in 21st Century language, “get off your lazy ass and get a job.”) I can think of more than a few women who really should take this to heart. If you have time to tell everyone else what to do, maybe you should polish your resume a bit…
I also wished the book had explored the relationship between Eva and Lester a bit more. (Again, short book, limited space.) Clearly, they had something going before kids. And yes, circumstances damaged their marriage a lot. But what of things after the change? One almost gets the impression that Eva is so busy with her career she doesn’t have time for the marriage. At least, she doesn’t have time to micromanage the household, which is good. But what of the relationship? I know ours: while there are some adjustments we had to make, like all married couples, I think we both respect each other more as a result of our choices. We are partners, and respect each other more, if anything, because of our strengths, whether they fit gender roles or not. It would have been interesting to see that dynamic at work in this book. In my view, this is as much of the story as the facts of the gender reversal. It is obvious what the response of society would be. Less obvious is how Eva and Lester negotiated the significant change in the dynamics of the family.
I haven’t gone into too much detail regarding how Lester and Eva reflect Amanda and myself. But there are a lot more parallels which anyone who knows us personally can undoubtedly recognize.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is how Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s own marriage mirrored this book. Her husband too was secondary to her economically. He did spend World War I as an ambulance driver, and eventually served in Congress. But she was the primary breadwinner, while he managed the household. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage.
This book is both fascinating and uneven. It’s a quick read, and one well worth exploring. It is thought provoking as to how much has changed - and how much really hasn’t.
Our edition is from Persephone Classics. This British press has been re-releasing books by female authors, mostly from the years between the World Wars. I also read and reviewed Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson. There are some intriguing titles here, and I expect I will explore more of them in the future.