The Personal is Political

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Photo Credit: Feminist symbol (Venus symbol with clenched fist, first used in the 1960s), created 8 August 2006, author unknown: Hill~common-swiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD Ineligible

In one of my recent blog posts, I brought up one of the slogans associated with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s: “The personal is political.” But what does this slogan really mean and why was it so important to the movement at that time?

These words weren’t just a catchy phrase but a political argument. If we recall, the goal of 19th and early 20th centuries suffragism, women were specifically fighting for their right to vote. They had a very specific agenda. By the time the 1960s rolled around, the issues surrounding women’s rights were much more complex and needed to expand. Women weren’t fighting for just their political right to influence laws and policies. These things were often very closely related to their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They touched upon very personal issues, such as reproductive rights, rape, domestic violence, and abortion. Feminists argued these issues should not be kept out of the public sphere, as they affected not only the women personally involved, but other women and future generations. In other words, these weren’t just the problems belonging to one individual woman or group of women. They were problems relating to a world that sanctioned sexual oppression and discrimination. To solve them took fixing the whole system, one woman at a time.

Exactly where the phrase “the personal is political” came from is difficult to pinpoint. Some identify its origin in an article written in 1969 by activist and writer Carol Hanisch for a book of feminist writings published a year later. But Hanisch herself denies the phrase came from her and, instead, credits the editors of the book, Shulamit Firestone and Anne Koedt for coming up with the slogan. But these women also denied that the phrase originated from them. They insisted it really belonged to the thousands of women in consciousness-raising groups who used the term to describe their own revelations regarding their personal and collective oppression.

As I was writing (or, rather, rewriting) the stories of my latest book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which touch upon themes of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique and the crumbling of the happy and fulfilled American housewife ideal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it struck me how the slogan “the personal is political” is almost a slap in the face to the separate spheres of the 19th century. A new generation of women were insisting that, rather than two separate arenas in life, the private (for women) and the public (for men), one was enmeshed in the other, and the problems of the private were the problems of the public and vice versa. The walls that had kept 19th century women pent up in their own world without a voice were crumbling and continue to crumble even today.

If you would like to know more about the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, you can find out about them and order your copy of the book here.      

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May. This year (2020), the holiday is on May 10. This also happens to be the exact day when, in 1908, Anna Jarvis, editor and activist, created the first official Mother’s Day by holding a celebration in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her home town to commemorate her own mother.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first one to come up with the idea. Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis, has that honor. From all accounts, Jarvis’ mother was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist of sorts, but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. That is, her work was confined mainly to areas where it was acceptable for women to instigate changes. Her activist work was nonetheless important, as it consisted of forming Mothers’ Day Club events, where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene so as to curtail the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in general. Her daughter, on the other hand, confined her 1908 celebration to her own mother, and her advocacy to make the day a national holiday was about men and women honoring their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

Putting this activism in the historical context in which it belongs, it might seem a little contradictory that the fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century. This was the era of Progressive reform where women were taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in the social and political arena for their rights and identities as individuals. So it might seem a little odd that Jarvis would lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was, for all intents and purposes, one of the New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But if we take a second look, it actually isn’t so incongruent. Suffragism was also about making women visible and respected on their own merits and for what they had to contribute to society. Mothers fit right into this category, so it makes sense that the fight to get mothers recognized and respected would find a lot of support.

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hair style and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Jarvis campaigned with the government for Mother’s Day and won. In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that declared Mother’s Day a national holiday in the United States. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a very profitable one, specifically for florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this commercialization of Mother’s Day toward the end of her life, and she spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she and her mother deserved for being the godmothers of the holiday. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the appreciation they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of the Lessons collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother. Note quite the sort of mother whom you would want to tuck you in at night, she nevertheless has an admirable strength and survival that runs throughout the series.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out all about them here.    

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Jake and Vivian Alderdice: Isolated Siblings

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Photo Credit: Siblings,  Carl Froschl, 1913, oil on canvas: Mutter Erde/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 80 expired

May 2 is National Brothers and Sisters Day. Since I’ve been working on Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, I thought this would be a perfect time to revisit the characters of Vivian and Jake Alderedice, the sister and brother of the Alderdice family. I say “revisit” because I’ve written about both characters in the past (about Vivian here and about Jake here). But Book 3 finds them both older, wiser, and, in some ways, very changed.

I talked here about how a novel I wrote in 2004 evolved into this series and some of the changes from novel to series. One thing that didn’t change was the relationship between this sister and brother. I envisioned Vivian and Jake as rather isolated as children which, in that contemporary version, was due to the dysfunctional family dynamics of the Alderdices. That disfunction became more complex when I decided to put the series in a historical context because so much in the Victorian era was hidden and “not talked about”. Often times, my fiction works off of metaphors, images, and symbols and the playroom became the metaphor for Vivian and Jake’s isolated world. On the top floor of the massive Alderdice Hall, Vivian and Jake spent many hours there, left to themselves because of the Victorian era idea that “children should be seen and not heard.” In The Specter, the first book of the series, Vivian describes the playroom in this way:

The playroom looked just as she and Jake had left it the last time they had played there as children. Maids still kept the dust out, and the sailboat window was locked so as to keep out intruding creatures. She turned on the gaslight, and the yellow glare immediately illuminated the small cabinet with the transparent door where the glass circus still stood in mid-action, ready for its audience of delighted children. She approached the cabinet and feeling for the panel at the bottom of it, pressed the flap back. 

There were images that stuck in my mind when I was writing about the playroom in earlier versions of the story: The round windows, like you see in a ship’s cabin, toy soldiers Jake’s grandfather had bought him as a child as a sort of token of the manliness he expected from him in the future, and the display of glass circus animals in the cupboard (which, I frankly admit, was inspired by Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie). As children, virtually ignored by their elders, Vivian and Jake created a make-believe world together, though one that was less defined than, say, the worlds of Gondol and Angria created by the Bronte sisters, but in Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, Jake asks his sister to pose for a painting in the wax woods, and the picture he creates is a sort of mythical child-like Diana in an enchanted forest.

Photo Credit: Sister and Brother (Portrait of Ernesta and Philip Drinker), Cecelia Beau, 1897, The Atheneum: BoringHistoryGuy/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 70 expired   

When I started to rethink the series in the Gilded Age era, I also realized that, while family secrets and lies play a role with this family, there was another element that contributed to the close-knit relationship of these two siblings: time. The Gilded Age saw a lot of families rise to the top and legacies form and along with that, generations of young men and women who were burdened with rigid social and conventional expectations. Vivian and Jake, I knew, were not ones to bend to social conventions and therein lay their psychological reality. Conflicts of family expectations and obligations on the one hand, and the quest for their own identity on the other, are what drive both Vivian and Jake in the series.

You can read more about Vivian and Jake in The Specter and False Fathers, the first two books of the Waxwood Series. And to find out more about the series itself, you can go to this page.    

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“The Most Beautiful Train in the World”: The Coast Daylight in the Mid-20th Century

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Photo Credit: Postcard of the Noon Daylight leaving San Francisco, 1949, Jim Fraiser, Los Angeles, CA: We hope/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Today, trains seem like one of those quaint, old-fashioned things we reminisce about. But if you’re a writer or reader of historical fiction (or, for that matter, a fan of classic films), trains seem as real as the SUVs and 747s of today.

There’s a romance attached to trains, and this is something I wanted to capture in my story “Soul Destinations,” which is part of the collection in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. The story takes place in the mid-1950s, when more modern forms of transportation were starting to become popular (such as cars and planes). Joan, the protagonist of the story, is the old-fashioned kind, and her dreams of traveling begin with a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I was happy to find in my research that there was an actual train that traveled that route during this era, in fact, quite a famous one.

The train, run by the Southern Pacific, was called the Coast Daylight, or, simply, “the Daylight”. The Daylight’s first run was in 1937, and it soon rose in popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The train was indeed advertised as “the most beautiful train in the world” because of the amazing California scenery that graces the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco (which, if you’ve been fortunate enough to travel the Pacific Coast Highway, you may have seen). The train ride in the mid-20th century was about 10 hours, so people had a lot of time to sit back and enjoy the coastal views and mountains rolling past their windows, to read or sleep or chat or do some soul searching. And they could do it in a luxurious style that I think hardly any train (and certainly no car or plane) can boast today. If you’re curious, here are some photos from the era of the inside of the Daylight passenger cars. They look pretty comfy to me!

Photo Credit: Southern Pacific steam locomotive at Jack London Square in Oakland, CA, May 1981, taken by Drew Jacksich: Flickr upload bot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The Daylight was also pulled, for a while, by one of the most famous steam engines in America, the 4449 steam engine. It has a futuristic look to it that immediately reminds one of the old 1950s sci-fi films and TV shows (The Jetsons, anyone?) The locomotive was used to pull the American Freedom train in 1976 which traveled all over the county in what made up a moving museum, with lots of American relics on it, stopping at many cities so people could admire them. The 4449 now rests in a museum in Portland. You can see it and learn a bit more about its history here.

The Daylight isn’t only a practical means of transportation for Joan, the protagonist of “Soul Destination” but it’s also symbolic of the journey she and Gary, an aging musician, take into their own pasts that end, as most trains do, at a new destination:

“Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

For both of them, the Daylight, then isn’t just a physical destination, but a psychological one as well.

The Daylight, unfortunately, went the way most trains did later in the 20th century, when both car and plane travel became more popular, efficient, and time-saving. In 1971, Amtrak took over the few remaining Daylight trains and turned them into the Coast Starlight, A 35-hour train from Seattle to Los Angeles that still runs today.

To read “Soul Destinations” and the other four stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, plus an author’s note and a sample chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, go here.   

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Art in Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: Vintage art flea market, created 2 March 2014, uploaded 24 October 2016: teliatan/Pixabay/Pixabay license

If you’ve read some of my books, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love to make associations. I’m drawn to different works of art that often times relate to my characters and help bring out their psychological reality. For example, in False Fathers, the myth of Actaeon and Diana plays a heavy role symbolically in Jake’s story (something you can read more about here and here). 

I usually don’t plan these things ahead of time. During the outline or first draft phases of my writing, certain associations will come to me, and I’ll research a myth, book, artwork, musical piece, etc., and realize the symbolic and/or thematic significance of it and then weave it into the story. Sometimes it becomes something major (like the myth of Actaeon and Diana), and sometimes it gets only a mention. 

Although literature is my usual comfort zone, I also find certain works of art fascinating, and two of these found their way symbolically and thematically in two of the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Photo Credit: The Nightmare, Henri Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old)   

A painting I found a while back while looking for images for my old blog site that absolutely intrigued me was Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare. I actually did use it for a time until I got my logo and put that on the site. The painting, as you can see above, has very gothic, dark undertones reminiscent of popular late 18th century gothic novels (and the painting was indeed created during that time period). As described in this article, the painting was shocking in its immoral and sexual undertones when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781. The painting appears in my story “Soul Destinations” where Gary, an aging musician haunted by ghosts from his father’s past, tries to explain to Joan, the woman he meets on a train, about a hallucinatory demon named Lucas that exists in his father’s mind:

“Have you ever seen Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare?” Joan nodded. “That woolly demon sitting on the sleeping woman in white,” said Gary. “That’s Lucas. Always crouched over someone with those hollow, evil eyes and that twisted mouth.”

Lucas becomes a symbol for Gary of many things: his failing musical career, his father’s unstable mental health, and the tragedy of a man he never met caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Photo Credit: The Disquieting Muses, Giorgio de Chirico, 1916-1918, The Hidden Art Treasure: 150 Italian Masterpieces, Exhibition in Naples, March, 2017: Carlo Raso/Flickr/Public Domain

The other painting that makes an appearance in Lessons is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Disquieting Muses, which appears in my story “Two Sides of Life.” The painting depicts two of the nine mythical Muses of Greek mythology: Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy (representing by the sitting muse with the red mask lying near her feet) and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy (who stands beside what looks like a straight candy cane, which represents her staff). The picture, even with its brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and greens, is disturbing in its abstractions of the faceless, bald muses. 

However, the protagonist of the story, an empty-nester named Leanne, sees the muses differently in a sculpture inspired by de Chirico’s painting shown to her by her husband’s lab assistant, an art enthusiast:

“I’m not familiar with the Muses,” she admitted.

“I wouldn’t expect you to be.” He smiled, sitting on a box in the corner that was too low for his long legs. He looked like a grasshopper resting on a tree stump. “The one with the sword is Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Her sister, Thalia, is the Muse of Comedy.”

“I see,” Leanne murmured. “The two sides of life. Sadness and joy.”

Leanne later relates this idea of two sides of life in her connection with Arlene, a woman who is a generation younger than she is and has only disdain for the women of the Occupation: Housewife era.

I first heard of de Chirico’s painting through reading Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Disquieting Muses”. The painting is striking, through not really my style (I prefer more classical paintings like The Nightmare). Plath’s poem, like my story, appropriates the painting in a different way. You can listen to Plath reading the poem herself here.

If you want to read these stories, feel free to pick up a copy of Lessons From My Mother’s Life. Buy links can be found here.       

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