Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Frequently, when I see my mother, she tells me that she doesn't know where I came from. It isn't my feminism she questions, or my interest in gender, or film, and it isn't my being a wife and mother. When my mom questions my origin, it usually has to do with my knitting and cooking.

For my mom, when I took up knitting it marked me as not hers partly because she is terrible at crafts. When I was a kid, she had an old fashioned Singer sewing machine -- one of those with iron wheels, built into a table that ran by foot power, not electricity. It was old then, and clearly outmoded. On it, she would occasionally sew a hem here and there, or maybe a dress, but they were awful. She managed to make slipcovers (something of an obsessive specialty of hers) because she could hide the flaws more easily than on clothing.

I have, in fact, proved myself her daughter when it comes to sewing. A few years back, I bought a cheap portable sewing machine so that I could hem my own pants, a modest ambition motivated by the fact that I am 5' 2" (and shrinking) and have to take a minimum of 4" off every pair of pants I buy. But I am terrible with a sewing machine. Every single time I use it, I have to use the handbook to remember how to thread the thing. My hems are uneven, and sloppy. I rarely assay anything more complicated than a hem, and when I do, like when I made my son's Halloween costume last year, the results are poor (let's just say that his monster costume was not quite what we had imagined.) I would probably be better off paying the $10 to have my pants professionally hemmed.

Knitting, for me, differs from sewing. There is no practical reason for me to knit. It costs way more to knit a sweater or baby blanket than to buy one. And it takes a long time. I started knitting to pass the time when my kids were little and I found myself in a room with them when they were watching Elmo or playing but could not be left alone. Now, it supplements my own TV watching, provides an activity on planes, and otherwise fills the void. I like the process, like learning new techniques, and admire the artistry of watching knots become patterns.

Where my mom would sew out of practical necessity, like me, she could never imagine knitting for pleasure. More than just a skill question, my mother's surprise at my knitting registers as a kind of alienation. She simply can't fathom it. To her, it smacks of something too homespun, too old fashioned. For her, feminism meant never having to take the long road again. Betty Friedan diagnosed the feminine mystique as, in part, being about creating unnecessary work. For Friedan, the housewife's move to suburbia represented an expansion of domestic duties, as a way to fill the void (if you have to drive your kids everywhere, and you have to volunteer at school, then it justifies your not working and helps fend off the boredom of inactivity). So, Friedan recommended moving back to the city, getting a smaller place, and, in effect, what could be called good-enough housekeeping. For my mom, who worked most of her life and worked full-time from the time I was ten, with four kids and a husband to care for, domestic duties were full enough, thank you! So she, like many women, treasured convenience. She wanted ready made clothes, store bought knits, and convenience foods. She wanted to make her life easier. She never settled for good enough housekeeping -- though lord knows none of us cared or merited her high standards, though I now appreciate them -- but she took what shortcuts she could.

While Friedan's model could be seen as proto-sustainability (less is more), current feminist practice diverges from hers. Now, as part of sustainability movements and green politics, we tend to seek ways to make life hard again. Rather than shop at a supermarket, we choose to visit the farmer's market, Whole Foods, specialty butchers, and organic bakeries, making multiple trips and stops. Rather than processed foods, we try to cook from scratch, to make healthier and more natural foods. We have live chickens in our yards! We poo poo the convenience my mother treasured. Where she tells a story about discovering the miracle of McDonald's on a cross country road trip with four kids and very little money, we view fast food as a poison, if not a crime. My mother is shocked that anyone would make tomato soup rather than buy canned. To her, it is like hunting for meat when you could just go to the store. We, a la Michael Pollan, tend to think that hunting would be more honest, natural, better.

Third wave feminists initiated the DIY movement as a means of reclaiming craft and the pleasure of domesticity from what they considered an overly rigid feminism. But let's not forget the reasons women walked away from much of what we now fetishize as DIY: for them DIY wasn't a choice, but a necessity. Now, when I choose to make the soup or knit the blanket, I know I can also choose not to, and that the pleasures of post feminist domesticity should not lead us down a path where we imagine that being organic means that those activities are "natural" or "organic" to our role as women.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Captive Women

I recently read Emma Donoghue's THE ROOM. Amazing book. The story of a women held captive in a soundproof backyard shed is narrated by the five year old son she bears while in captivity. The first part of the book details his routine, and expresses his attachment to the small space he lives in, which he calls Room, and the objects that fill it, a bed, a rug, a toy made of leftover egg shells. At first, the boy, Jack, does not know, because his mother, called Ma, chooses not to tell him, that there is a world outside the room. He thinks everything else -- except the man he calls Old Nick who visits his mom nightly -- is TV. Dogs are TV, cars are TV, stores, outdoors, all TV. The book eventually allows Ma and Jack to escape and details their adjustment to living in a bigger world. The trauma of this, of being let out of an enclosed space and from a very small and simple world to a much bigger, more complex and interactive one, is as compelling as imagining the enclosure. The book makes you aware of space, of what it means to be truly removed from the public sphere, from being able to circulate and speak. (It also reminds you how small and simple life can be, in almost a Walden way.) It intensifies the mother-child bond, as the child relies exclusively on his mother, still nurses at five years old, and has never spoken to another soul (he hides in a wardrobe when Old Nick visits).

THE ROOM led me to read Jaycee Lee Duggard's memoir, A STOLEN LIFE which details her 18 year captivity in a backyard enclosure. Duggard's story differs somewhat from the fictional THE ROOM. Where Ma, in the fiction, tries every day to contact the outside world by screaming at the soundproof skylight and flicking lights in the night, Duggard never tries to escape. Too young and scared, and eventually too dependent on her captors and afraid of angering them, she stays put, even when they begin to allow her small outings to thrift shops and other stores, and even as she begins working with the computers and the Internet. Even when her captor bizarrely brings her to the FBI, she initially does not reveal her identity.

While both these books present situations that are obviously extremely rare -- stranger abductions are only 1% of all abductions and rarely are successfully maintained this long -- they both have some resonance as tales of "marriage," or marriage as practiced in the 19th century. The women, taken quite young, are brought into sex by a man without really knowing what sex is. They leave their mothers when they are still children. They have babies with no knowledge, but somehow assume the role of mother. They are left home while the man goes into the world and they depend upon him utterly to bring food and other necessities. While this deep split between the private sphere of the wife and the public sphere of the man has broken down since the 19th century (and was always somewhat less strict than we have been taught), there are still residual assumptions about the male's role as breadwinner and still ways in which many women are relegated largely to the home. More than that, both stories remind us how difficult it is for women in any kind of abusive situation to break free. Duggard articulates this well, at one point saying that the verbal abuse was more crippling and disabling for her than the physical. They suggest how important it is to be aware -- not just of the creep lurking near schools or playgrounds, but also of the clues around us of women in crisis.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sometimes I Slip

As the Juan Williams scandal made clear, even the most staunch liberals sometimes have bad thoughts. And, despite all my best intentions, sometimes I fall into pre or anti-feminist traps:

Sometimes, I wish my daughter would care more about her appearance.

Sometimes, I wish my son were more of a jock, or even vaguely interested in sports.

Sometimes, I want my daughter to have a crush on a boy, or Johnny Depp.

Sometimes, I wish I were a stay at home mom.

Sometimes, I want to tell my son that he is being a "pussy," or to "man up."

Sometimes, I hope my kids will be popular.

Sometimes, I wish my daughter would wear a dress.

Sometimes, I want to purge all my son's less masculine toys.

Sometimes, I want my daughter to like anime and superheroes less and read Little Women or Heidi.

Most of the time, I love them exactly as they are and hope the world loves them as much as they deserve.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hello Princess

The Disney Princess phenomenon has been well-bashed, by Peggy Orenstein among others. Thankfully, I never had a Princess-loving daughter. She had a small moment. One time, when she was about five, she was invited to a birthday party at which girls had to dress up in princess costumes and have make-up put on them. Worse, they then had to humiliate the birthday girl's dad, who had to sit in a chair and have the girls all dress him up in princess garb, for reasons unclear to me then or now. I was appalled. We had been listening to Free to Be You and Me in the long car ride to the party. This was a key record for me when I was a kid -- my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sullivan, a hippie with Ali McGraw hair, would play it every day and we'd run around the classroom and dance. I got the DVD years later and both my kids liked it a lot. So, after listening to "Parents Are People" and "William's Doll," and other songs aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes, there we were at a princess party, with my daughter, wearing eye make up and a gown and glitter on her face. She loved it. But she never got full-blown princess fever and she never went for dolls. And over time she became super cynical about both dolls and princesses. She and I shared a feminist disgust at the after-school Princess class organized at her K-8 school, which consisted of little girls and the grown teacher wearing tiaras and gowns, with parents PAYING for this. So, when we went on a Disney cruise recently, it was she, more than me, who was appalled. Because every time, and I mean every time, she entered a dining room, or a theater, or when she re-entered the boat after an excursion, or when she arrived at a hotel, or got on or off a shuttle bus, someone who worked on the cruise would greet her, saying "Welcome home, Princess." (When I was her age, my family went to London and my pixie haircut and brown velvet pantsuit led the entire staff of the hotel to greet me as The Little Master, so perhaps hotels are geared to humiliate ten year olds). For me, it was the "home" that galled -- as if Disney were some ur-home for all of us, our collective womb (and maybe it is). But she really hated being called Princess. It was both the offense of being assumed to want to be a princess, and the constant need to define kids by gender that irked her. And what about the boys? The Disney folks had no idea what to call them. Prince doesn't have the cache of Princess. Pirates seem to be now the gender equivalent but you can't really hail boys with "Welcome home, Pirate (murderer, rapist, thief)." Maybe they could just call them Mickey and Minnie? Or maybe they could just say "hello."