The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.

In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.

Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a  return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”    

Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.

And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294). 

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.

Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Order of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Marble bust of Actaeon with animal skin on his head, Hadrianic Period (AD 117-138), Museo delle Navi, Nemi: Following Hadrian/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

As many of you know, if you’ve read my blog post about the title evolution of False Fathers, the idea of Actaeon, the hunter who earned the goddess Diana’s displeasure and paid the consequences, plays a role as a metaphor for Gilded Age masculinity in the book. 

One of the ways that Actaeon (whose story you can find here) figures into False Fathers is in a male fraternity called The Order of Actaeon (or, as they refer to themselves, the “Actaeons”). I talked about the importance of male secret societies and fraternities in the 19th century here. Many men belonged to such societies in the Gilded Age, because it was a way for them to cement their identity as men in the chaotic twists and turns of the last decades of the 19th century, when the definition of masculinity was changing just like the definition of femininity. Women had the suffragists and the New Woman  to help them cope with these changes, and men had their societies and fraternities.

The Order of Actaeon (which, by the way, is entirely fictional) operates on the principle that there is, in the Gilded Age, a “disturbing inclination of modern young men toward falling into the twin traps of profit-seeking and vicious competition characteristic of civilized life and thus losing their manly strength and virtue.” It began, in fact, so that older men (known as “Patriarchs”) could guide younger men (known as “Youths”) and help them live a purer, more decent life with beliefs and virtues that were honorable and admirable. Each Youth enters the order on the recommendation of a Patriarch who then becomes his mentor throughout his life (or the duration of his involvement with the Order).

The Order’s activities evolve mainly around masculine pursuits, such as carpentry, fishing, and hunting. In fact, the hunt is an important metaphor for the Actaeons and the reason why they named their fraternity after the Greek mortal. The Order believes that hunting develops skills of “strength, aggression, instincts, pride, and self-control.” To this end, the Order organizes weekend hunts, where each youth is expected to participate and submit to guidance by his Patriarch.

Another important aspect of the order is secrecy. They don’t even allow men to know one another’s real names. Each member that enters the order choses a name for himself by which he is known in the order (Jake chooses the name “Carlton,” his beloved grandmother’s maiden name). Neither are the men allowed to know about one another’s life outside of the order. This secrecy is so important that, as one of the men explains to Jake, one of their founding members was asked to leave after he revealed some of their activities to his wife.

The quotes I use above are from a document that appears in False Fathers, where the Order of Actaeon principles and philosophies are outlined in writing. Harland Stevens, the main father figure in Jake’s life, is the one who creates it, brought into the order as a Youth by the man who was asked to leave it and, now, one of the leading Patriarchs. Stevens’ vision of the orders’ philosophies are very clear and precise:

That emotional attachments may drain a man of his intelligence and virility, and he is to maintain some distance between himself and his loved ones beyond keeping the secrecy of the Order.

That modern man is forced to separate his pure life from his civilized life to cultivate his development and well-being.

That each man shall agree to the virtues of hunting not only as a means of athletic skill and success, but also as a way of developing his strength, aggression, cunning, and wile. He shall seek to make himself a skilled hunter and help others do the same.     

The order and especially its vow of secrecy plays a major role in Jake’s journey at the end of the novel. 

If you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers involving the Actaeons, you can do so by joining my readers group. For more about the book, go here. And don’t forget to check out the series page to find out more about the entire Waxwood series.

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Teddy Roosevelt in the Gilded Age

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Roosevelt was known to pose for many photos that showed of his user-masculine persona. In this one, he’s posing in his hunting clothes, complete with rifle and hunting knife (which, according to the notes on the photo, came straight from Tiffany’s!)

Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt as the Badlands hunter by George Grantham Baine, 1885, New York City: w:en:Beao/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

There have been a lot of caricatures and stereotypes of Theodore Roosevelt. For example, there is the impression given of a small man with a big voice in the popular 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, where actor John Alexander puts a screwball comedy twist on Roosevelt by portraying him as a loud, aggressive, “take charge” kind of guy as in this scene. Then there is the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs appears in a fake handlebar mustache and spectacles, waving a “big stick” around.

But Roosevelt was a complex man who had many talents and passions, and his Gilded Age persona (before he became president in 1901) gives us a glimpse at the extraordinary person he was. He was the ultimate Gilded Age hero who met with adversary using strength and eloquence. He threw himself into any endeavor and that included politics, ranching, writing, and war in the last quarter of the 19th century, all before he entered the White House

Roosevelt, though, was not one of these presidents that came from humble beginnings. In fact, he was born into a family much like the Alderdices, my wealthy San Francisco family in the Waxwood Series. He was born of privilege and ease and, in fact inherited a large sum of money as a young man upon his father’s death that allowed him to live in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. But, like many Gilded Agers, he pursued several careers to prove his worth as a man. Even as a child, he never let the “big boys” bully him. The infamous story of his passion for boxing came about when he was beat up by two older boys on a camping trip. Determined never to allow such a thing to happen again, he took up the “strenuous life,” involving himself in boxing, rowing, and hunting (among other athletic activities) and advocated for boys and men to take up vigorous exercise and competitive sports as a way of developing not only the muscles but the mind as well.

Roosevent’s pre-presidential career was shadowed by political aspirations but his interests were also taken up by other (decidedly masculine) pursuits. He was passionate about naval history and published several books on the subject (including a book on the role of the navy in the war of 1812). This knowledge served him well in 1896, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position that helped usher him into the famous role he played in America winning the Spanish-American War. He wrote other books on hunting (one of which is referenced in False Fathers, the second of the Waxwood Series), conservation, and ranching, many of which were published before he became president. He wrote about these things from experience, as in between his years as a rising political figure in the Gilded Age, he retired to a ranch in the Dakota Territory and lived the life of a cowboy. He also spent a time as police commissioner of New York, cleaning up the rather haphazard ways of law enforcement at that time.

I find it interesting that Roosevelt sought to make a name for himself in the very spheres which the Victorians deemed appropriate for the manly man (I talk about the concept of the separate spheres for men and women in the 19th century here). From politics to ranching to sports, he went full force into the areas that, at that time, were the true test of manhood. The emerging ideal of masculinity that was abut aggression, success, control, and cunning were largely created by him, both before and during his presidency.

In False Fathers, those same masculine ideals are what drive Jake in his journey toward figuring out who he is after his grandfather dies and he is left, at twenty-one, to shoulder the burden of not only his own coming-of-age, but of his responsibilities as the new family patriarch. The main father figure who guides him in the book, Harland Stevens, is a staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and his manly way of life and quotes him often in the book.

You can find out more information about False Fathers here You can also read more about the series here

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The Spanish-American War of 1898

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This is a very touching image showing that, while the Spanish-American War may have only lasted 4 months, Americans took it very seriously.

Photo Credit: Farewell Arch in South Framingham, Massachusetts, where Massachusetts troops departed for the Spanish–American War in 1898, from Reminiscences of Company F, Second Regt. Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V., First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, Of Gardner in the War With Spain, With Historical Data, 1906, author unknown: Kges1901/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

When talking about historical fiction, time matters. Even specific years matter because history has shown that what can happen from one year to the next can rapidly change the world. This was my thinking behind setting the Waxwood Series in the last decade of the 19th century. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, takes place in 1892, and Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, takes place six years later, in 1898.

Authors always have to consider what events occurred outside of the text in the time period in which the book is set and whether to incorporate those events or ignore them (as Jane Austin largely ignores the Napoleonic Wars in much of her fiction). My approach is primarily to focus on the psychological reality of the characters as they live within their time, so outside events may or may not play a role. I am not a fan of historical fiction that includes copious amounts of information dumps about historical events and people in order to create an atmosphere of the past for readers. I believe the specific details of life, especially social and psychological, makes the historical context more real than any detailed description of a historical event that may not be relevant to the characters’ conflicts and journeys.

However, this doesn’t mean that historical events don’t have a place in my fiction. In fact, in False Fathers, the Spanish-American War plays an important role in the story, not so much the events of the war itself as its meaning to Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of the book, and other male characters in the book.

The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898 and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war officially ended four months later). America involved itself in this war for both financial and humanitarian reasons. And the consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.

The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. Author Gertrude Atherton, in her novel Senator North, published in 1900 and set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish). 

A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation insured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).

In False Fathers, which takes place during the summer of 1898, the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:

They were, Jake realized, not completely ignorant of all but their tight little world of games and touching the edge of vice. They discussed with some seriousness the war in Cuba, bringing forth different opinions peppered by the usual boyish attitude of having taken words out of the mouths of their fathers or uncles.

“— Says we ought to pull out while the getting’s good,” said Norris Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives already given for it.”

“And let Spain take over?” Andrew Trent scoffed as he spilled two balls in the pocket. “We’re not there for fancy, boy. We’re there so all can see we are a power.”

For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level, but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres. 

You can find out more about False Fathers here and more about the series here.     

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New Year’s in the 19th century

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Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and, in an older blog, Christmas in the Gilded Age. No historical holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

We have a lot of New Year’s traditions, and it’s fascinating to see where they came from and why. For example, New Year’s has always been a social holiday, more so than Thanksgiving and Christmas, which have been (and still are) mainly family holidays. But the nature of that socialness has changed over time. In the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve, where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh.

The ones who turned New Year’s into a party holiday was, not surprisingly, the Gilded Agers, and for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a lavish extravaganza of dining out. They wanted to show off, to let all their wealthy and success glitter and glow, basking in their social and financial glory. So they began to throw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls, providing eight-course dinners, and generally making a lot of noise and spectacle. Many of the Gilded Age wealthy who had lavish summer homes in places like Newport started throwing extravagant parties for the new year in those homes that were the envy of may of their contemporaries and of the non-wealthy.

There were other traditions that became staples of what we accept as New Year’s celebrations that came in the 19th century. One of them is the singing of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that signals the sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s celebrations.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated in 1904 and was first dropped for on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood and populated with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last time in 2008, so that it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds and, rather than be lowered by hand with ropes, now uses a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for the midnight hour to strike so that we can let go of the old year and enter the new. In fact, the reason why New Year’s Day is January 1 has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please visit this link. The first book of the series, The Specter can be found here and the second book here. The third book will be out in the summer of 2020 and the fourth and last book will be out at the end of 2020 (just in time to celebrate the coming of another new year 🙂 ).    

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