Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Dreamed . . .

I remember the famous Maidenform “I Dreamed“ ad campaign from when I was a very little girl. If I am not mistaken, it is the longest running series of ads in print ad history. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the ads depict an attractive model, clad in a costume that allows the Maidenform bra to be revealed. She is doing something fun or daring in the ads. The implication is a cross between if you dream it, you can do it, and this is so outrageous it can only happen in your dreams.

The campaign began in 1949 and ran through 1969 in its original format, “I Dreamed I... [did such and such] in my Maidenform bra” but then continued with variations on this theme which have continued into the new millennium. The dreams started out rather tamely, with “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra” and “I dreamed I went strolling in my Maidenform bra” in its early stages; then got more imaginative throughout the 50s; just a few examples—”I dreamed I broke the bank in Monte Carlo...” “I dreamed I was a toreador...” "I dreamed I played Cleopatra..."

By the early 60s many of the ads in the series (and there were a ton of them) took on a real action-adventure flair— “I dreamed I walked a tightrope...“ “I dreamed I was a knockout...“ (referring to boxing in a double-entendre) “I dreamed I took the bull by the horns...”

In the late 60s and early 70s, as more women were opting for serious careers, Maidenform dropped the fantasy element of the ads. By the 80s, the ads depicted women in their skivvies, performing their high-powered jobs (doctor, attorney, businesswoman) in a campaign with the slogan “The Maidenform Woman: You never know where she’ll show up.” Women everywhere disdained these ads and they were pulled. Here’s an example on the left, below.

Fast forward to 2005, smack in the middle of the previous He Who Shall Not be Named administration’s era. Here is that year’s ad. We’re back to dreams. Yikes! this one scarcely needs comment (despite this particular "dream" coming true, this is definitely not a nursing bra. Or the breasts of a real mother of a 4- or 5-month old). What’s next for Maidenform? A campaign titled “This feels right.” I haven’t been able to find images.

The endurance of the “I dreamed” ads (they are now quite collectable) speaks to how little it takes to fire the imagination of a nation of unfulfilled women. That ads for basic lingerie could spark the yearning for expression, adventure, daring and sometimes a bit of outrageousness speaks volumes. No wonder these fantasy-filled ads were so popular in an era when women lives were defined by domesticity.

Wait . . . hasn’t the average, contemporary woman’s life gone back to being defined largely by all things domestic? I wonder if Maidenform shouldn’t go back to that “I dreamed” campaign.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sluts and Studs

I've done several versions of this limited edition artist's book titled Sluts and Studs (and its companion, Tomcats and Trollops, which shows vintage photos of couples). I'm not the first artist/writer to explore the dichotomy between male/female sexual language, but it continues to fascinate. The images are from the 40s and 50s, and most of the language harks from an even earlier era. A sexually prolific man is a Stud, Romeo, Ladies' Man, or at worst, a Tomcat, Rake, and Womanizer. He is to be admired, or just a bit naughty.

Sexually active ladies are called, on the other hand, Slut, Tramp, Nymphomaniac, or variations on prostitute: Tart, Floozy, Strumpet. The dictionary definitions, which I've designed as part of the endpapers, only emphasize the contrast in language even more.

There still seems no term for a woman who is sexually active in a healthy sort of way, the female version of stud, perhaps. A recent movie (I Love You, Man) used the more recent word, Cougar, which I understand refers to a sexy older woman, but I'm not sure it has a positive connotation to it; there is a tinge of the predatory about it. If anyone knows of some recent sexual terminology along these lines, please let me know. It's a subject I'd like to continue to explore through my artwork.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grab that Brass Ring Already!

I’ve been thinking about why so many women are underearners. Most of the answers are obvious: cultural conditions, economic trends, the fact that women have only been in highly paid professions for such a relatively short time, etc.

A few statistics from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research: For full time workers, women made 77.8% of what men made in 2007. Translated into real salaries, this means that that average salary for a full time female worker in the U.S. that year was $35,102;for a full-time male worker it was $45,113 (before taxes). I wonder if these average salaries have eroded in the last year, what with the poor economy.

As an artist and writer, a recent article in the journal of the National Museum of Women in the Arts caught my eye. Women artists between the ages of 45 and 54 (years when we should be at the top of our professions) earned only 67% of what male artists in this age group made. And by the way, women artists are less likely to have children, according to this report. I can just imagine the thinking, because once those were my thoughts, too: “How can I have a family? I want to devote myself to my [art, writing, singing, acting, etc.]. So not only do many creative women forego having a family, they give up on making money, too. Not exactly a win-win.

Sorry to say, but even in a higher-paying profession like medicine, female physicians make 15 to 25% less than their male counterparts in nearly every area of specialty. Female attorneys salaries recently slipped to 70% of their male counterparts, as compared to 77% in 2005.

I’m reading an interesting and helpful book titled Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny. She quotes Betty Friedan: “The enemy isn’t men. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” The underlying theme of the book is that until we learn to value ourselves, we can’t fully realize our potential. Of course money isn’t the answer to everything. But it’s symbolic, often, of self-worth. As Stanny points out, it’s not that underearners don’t work hard. Some of the hardest working women she interviewed were the most chronic underearners.

I love this quote from the book: “What scares us most about financial success is not that we may fall short but that we may actually take flight and discover that we are, indeed, ‘powerful beyond measure’ (this alludes to a quote by Nelson Mandella). For many of us, that’s the very thing we’re trying to avoid.”

Certainly, cultural forces, conditioning, and real discrimination shape the wage gap. But I do believe that it's also a product of women’s perception of self-worth and self-esteem, or lack thereof. To close that gap, we’ve got to feel we’re worthy, and deserving. I’m working on it, how about you?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Taboo Subject Not as Taboo as it is Today

This is the cover of the March 1956 issue of McCall's magazine. Apart from the announcement of an excerpt of Sloan Wilson's new novel, the only headline is The Kinsey Institute Report on Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion. Remember, this is 1956. It is pre-Roe v. Wade, the decision legalizing most abortions, handed down in 1973.

The purpose of this post is not to debate abortion. No one would deny that it's a difficult subject. But it is one that needs to be discussed, and rarely is, by anyone aside from the far right. Can you imagine one of today's popular women's magazines featuring a headline for a sober, objective article on abortion on the cover, along with the celebrity interviews, diet tips, and decorating and shopping advertorials? Truly, it's almost unimaginable.

Nothing I could say would be as surprising as tone and content of this article, so I'll just let it speak for itself:

"Unwanted pregnancy," says the new report of the Institute for Sex Research, "has been a problem of mankind since probably the appearance of the first mammal meriting the word human... [note from me—the aforementioned sentence implicitly accepts the concept of evolution; I'm not sure today's ladies' mags would even want to get into that debate, either]

"Since the dawn of history prospective mothers have met this threat through some form of abortion, and the new Institute report showe just how frequent abortion still is today. It proves to be a modern social problem of far greater scope than most people ever would have dreamed.

"Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion is the first large-scale study ever made on this highly secret and elusive subject; it casts the bright light of statistical knowledge into a murky area where it was previously impossible even to make an informed guess."


The article proceeds to unveil statistics regarding age, social class, abortion deaths, and other data, in a dispassionate report. The conclusions are not really as important as the fact that the magazine and its advertisers were wiling to highlight this content and make it important. The article promises to be continued in the next month's issue, focusing on wives, widows, and divorcees, promising to "present the candid facts about the sexual activities, pregnancies and abortions of the growing group of women who have been separated, divorced, or widowed."

Surprised? I was. Abortion was discussed frankly at a time when out-of-wedlock pregnancy certainly carried a lot more stigma than it does now. Abortion continues to be a taboo subject in mainstream media, recent movies very much included. Think Juno, Alfie, Knocked Up. It's a subject not to be touched with a ten-foot pole, let alone examined. How can there be better solution to a painful problem if it is so difficult, if not impossible, to discuss?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

For the Exciting Woman with a Job!

For my ongoing media/cultural comparisons between today and yesteryear, I looked at several issues of popular magazines aimed at young women. I have in front of me several issues of Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Charm (which was later incorporated into Glamour) from 1956 to exactly 50 years ago--1959. The focus of these magazines is fashion and beauty. And oh, what fashion. I'm no fashion plate but I just melt when I see these beautiful, classy, affordable clothes. Where are they all? I scour vintage stores and all I see are corny Ethel Mertz-type dresses and other unattractive schmattes. But I digress.

What is the subtext of these magazines? That you are just biding your time, working at a nothing job until you find the man of your dreams, get married, and become a housewife? No, no and NO! The featured articles treat their readers and their professions and aspirations very seriously. Here are some of the features in these issues:

Charm, August 1959 is billed as the "special issue for the young tycoon." The lead article is "Are You Afraid to Be a Boss?" The articles in the Jobs section include What Makes a Young Tycoon, and Young Tycoons: On Their Way Up. In addition, there is a long feature on traveling in London (independently!) and "Boom in First Novelists" which very interestingly features the very young Philip Roth and John Cheever. What foresight! It also includes several female novelists such as Nora Johnson, whose first novel was The World of Henry Orient, later made into a film starring Peter Sellers.

Glamour, January 1956 ("the fashion magazine for the girl with a job") punctuates their fashion spreads with articles such as "24-hr. mothers with 8-hr. jobs," a lengthy discussion of the issues facing working mothers, and some solutions; Careers for women in the armed forces; an in-depth article on various forms of insurance; and In Your Future—Job, School News to Come.

Mademoiselle, January 1957 featured a thoughtful article titled "Who belongs?" discussing the inclusionary/exclusionary aspects of culture; Around and about MirĂ³ (about the artist); two short stories; profiles of several colleges; and not least, an in depth article titled "14 professions: what to study and where." What do you think Mademoiselle was proposing as professions to young women in 1957? Nursing? Teaching? Yes. But the other professions profiled were: Engineering, Architecture, Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, OT/PT, Pharmacy, Extension Work, Dietetics, CPA, and Actuarial Work. The article following, titled "The Best College for Me," briefly profiled 14 colleges by current students who spoke about how much they earned with part-time work at the college and why the college suited them.

I wondered, what the hell happened? These magazines are giving young women the message to take themselves and their careers seriously, to be well trained, well presented, and ambitious. Many of the professions above were then not hospitable to women until well after the feminist revival of the early 70s, and some are probably still not. I know female MDs (I have one), female dentists (I had one, and know a few others), pharmacists, and architects. I don't know any female engineers (maybe software engineers) and I don't know too many people, male or female, dying to be actuaries. But women in these professions are still in the minority, despite their swelling ranks in universities.

Fast forward. I hadn't looked at Glamour magazine since I was in my twenties (which still seems to be the demographic). The focus is still on fashion and beauty, though not in very classy terms. The other sections in today's Glamour are Health and Fitness (which are mainly about dieting and body image) and the big one, men and relationships. The underlying message is How to get your man, and in particular, How to hook him in with sex. Every issue blares at least one sex headline: 10 Things He's Thinking About When He's Having Sex (do we really want to know?), A Sexy Move to Heat Things Up in the Bedroom, 16 Sexy, Sneaky Acts of Seduction. By the way, in the 1950s versions there were no "How to get your man" articles. The rest is basically about shopping. No real articles on careers, or college, or culture. In one issue the closest it got was "Secrets of 5 women millionaires," which was basically a 5-part celebrity interview—in fact many of the full-length articles are celebrity interviews.

So the question is, does media shape culture, or just reflect it? Do young women want Glamour to instruct them on how to give a better blow job rather than enlighten them on art and literature and professional issues? I'm really not sure. All I know is that looking at today's Glamour was excruciating in comparison to its 1950s counterparts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

True Confessions

Today is the one-year anniversary of the day then-governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, gave his terse resignation speech, having been identified as “Client 9” at the same type of prostitution ring that he had prosecuted when the state’s Attorney General. And there was his wife, Silda, at his side, another victim of the public humiliation reserved for the wives of very public figures. Though she looks here as if she’d struggled through many sleepless nights, she looks like a lovely person. No one knows what goes on behind the closed doors of any home, let alone a governor’s mansion, or even, looking back to Bill Clinton, the White House. One has to wonder, what would make a man of this kind feel he needs to pay a prostitute $4,000 for a 4-hour session?

If you go back to True Confessions, October 1955, Dr. George Crane, Ph.D, M.D, says, “The wife, not the other woman, is to blame when a marriage starts to fail.” And he elaborates, “Yes, women have always been frigid as compared to the masculine standard. For woman was not designed anatomically to be a passionate creature.” His advice? “A good wife must adopt Shakespeare’s adage that all the world’s a stage and we are but actors thereon. A topnotch wife must be a talented actress in her own boudoir! She must train herself to show ardor and delight on many occasions when she really isn’t hungry for intense affection.” In other words, behave like a prostitute, albeit an unpaid one.

Thank goodness that advice-giving “Doctors” like Crane are dead and buried! Whew! Oops—not so fast. Following the Spitzer debacle, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the syndicated right-wing advice-giver, went on the Today Show and said this about the issue, “When the wife does not focus in on the needs and the feelings, sexually, personally, to make him feel like a man, to make him feel like a success, to make him feel like her hero, he’s very susceptible to the charm of some other woman making him feel what he needs.” This statement blazed around the print and electronic media, as variations of “Dr. Laura: It’s Silda’s fault,” and “Dr. Laura blames Spitzer’s wife.” This may be a bit overstating, but the message is still, if we don’t act the ego-stroking slut in our relationship, our man will seek someone who will.

No, men “cheat” because, as anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, monogamy is the most challenging of all marital models. Humans, like other mammals, are not naturally monogamous—throughout most of human history, societies have been polygynous. And in many cases, women were not expected to remain faithful to the same partner for life, either. I love her quote that “Humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.” Many of us, especially women, love the ideal of being mated for life, like swans (supposedly) are; but in this we’ve chosen a most daunting task. So, what’s the answer? Apparently, no one knows—not Dr. Crane, not Dr. Laura, and apparently, not even the brilliant, thrice-married Dr. Mead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Can Women's Hands Do?

Women's magazines of the 1940s and 1950s featured many ads showing women's hands (and thus creating an entire category of work for "hand models")—graceful hands with perfect nails, doing mostly domestic chores, and in some cases, shopping. Though today’s most popular women’s magazines rarely, if ever, feature “hand models,” I wondered whether they imply that women’s hands should still do the same things as they did sixty years ago. Or, do these publications somehow convey a broader idea of what work women might do with their hands—brain surgery, technical work, sculpture, farming . . . I wasn’t sure what to expect.

So, I picked up early 2008 issues of Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Quilting, and Family Circle. I didn’t even need to consult the ads, because now, many articles are “advertorials,” rolling content and advertising into numerous short, mind-numbing chunks. Sorry, ladies. According to the bland, white world of women’s print media, the main purpose of your hands is still to cook, clean, polish, wash, do needlework, and shop.

What are you waiting for? Take off your gloves, buy the recommended products, and get to work!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hooray (?!) for Hollywood

With the Academy Awards coming up in just a few days, it might be fascinating to look at the Best Actress categories over the decades, to see what kind of archetypes, stereotypes, professions, or lack thereof, the leading actresses portrayed. Movies are such cultural barometers that I expect we’ll find some interesting trends here. I’m going to look at eight years, in each decade starting from 1938, so that I can end with 2008’s winners. I’ll list the nominees in this category, and briefly describe the woman’s role in the film. The first name in each set is the winner for that year. Thanks to Wikipedia for making this information so easy to research!

Bette Davis - Jezebel, as Julie Marsden (a strong-willed southern belle)
Fay Bainter - White Banners, as Hannah Parmalee (a peddler)
Wendy Hiller - Pygmalion, as Eliza Doolittle (another peddler made over into a fine lady)
Norma Shearer - Marie Antoinette, as Marie Antoinette (the French Queen)
Margaret Sullivan - Three Comrades, as Patricia 'Pat' Hollmann (the tubercular love object of three German soldiers)

Jane Wyman - Johnny Belinda, as Belinda McDonald (a deaf girl who is raped)
Ingrid Bergman - Joan of Arc, as Joan of Arc (the sainted teen warrior)
Olivia de Havilland - The Snake Pit, as Virginia Stuart Cunningham (the wife of a financier, who finds herself committed to an “insane asylum”
Irene Dunne - I Remember Mama, as Martha 'Mama' Hanson (a loving mother)
Barbara Stanwyck - Sorry, Wrong Number, as Leona Stevenson (a spoiled, bedridden millionaire’s daughter)

Susan Hayward - I Want to Live! as Barbara Graham (a prostitute and drug addict convicted of murder)
Deborah Kerr - Separate Tables, as Sibyl Railton-Bell (the meek daughter of a manipulative mother)
Shirley MacLaine - Some Came Running, as Ginnie Moorehead (a poor “bad girl” with a heart of gold)
Rosalind Russell - Auntie Mame, as Mame Dennis (the eccentric aunt of an orphaned nephew)
Elizabeth Taylor - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as Margaret 'Maggie the Cat' Pollitt (a striving wife)

Barbra Streisand - Funny Girl, as Fanny Brice and Katharine Hepburn - The Lion in Winter, as Eleanor of Aquitaine (tie) - Barbra as the film star and comedienne Fanny Brice and Katherine as one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages
Patricia Neal - The Subject Was Roses, as Nettie Cleary (mother of a troubled WWII soldier)
Vanessa Redgrave - Isadora, as Isadora Duncan (the flamboyant dancer)
Joanne Woodward - Rachel, Rachel, as Rachel Cameron (a repressed schoolteacher)

Jane Fonda - Coming Home, as Sally Hyde (a veteran’s hospital nurse who falls for an injured vet)
Ingrid Bergman - Autumn Sonata, as Charlotte Andergast (a world famous pianist paying the price for having neglected her children)
Ellen Burstyn - Same Time, Next Year, as Doris (a housewife who meets the same man once a year for more than two decades for an affair)
Jill Clayburgh - An Unmarried Woman, as Erica (a spurned wife who finds work, liberation, and happiness)
Geraldine Page - Interiors, as Eve (an interior designer left by her husband and neglected by her daughters)

Jodie Foster - The Accused, as Sarah Tobias (a working class girl who is gang raped)
Glenn Close - Dangerous Liaisons, as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (a manipulative 18th-century marquise)
Melanie Griffith - Working Girl, as Tess McGill (a secretary who works her way to the top)
Meryl Streep - A Cry in the Dark, as Lindy Chamberlain (a religious mother accused of killing her baby)
Sigourney Weaver - Gorillas in the Mist, as Dian Fossey (a biopic of the American zoologist)

Gwyneth Paltrow - Shakespeare in Love, as Viola De Lesseps (the daughter of a wealthy merchant who disguises herself as a boy so she can star in a play)
Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth, as Elizabeth I (yet another depiction of the powerful Queen of England)
Fernanda Montenegro - Central do Brasil, as Dora (an embittered old woman)
Meryl Streep - One True Thing, as Kate Gulden (a cancer-stricken mother)
Emily Watson - Hilary and Jackie, as Jacqueline du Pré (biopic of a British cellist whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis)

2008 (winner not yet determined at this date)
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married, as Kym (a recovering drug addict coming home for her sister’s wedding)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling, as Christine Collins (a single mother in 1928 whose son goes missing)
Melissa Leo - Frozen River, as Ray Eddy (a desperate single mother who gets involved in human trafficking)
Meryl Streep - Doubt, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier (a nun)
Kate Winslet - The Reader, as Hanna Schmitz (a Nazi guard)

What stands out for me is that, with the exception of biopics, where the actress is portraying a historic or inspirational character, their roles are very often mainly defined by their relationships to others—mothers, wives, daughters, lovers, victims. In a couple of cases here, if a mother is more defined by her profession, as in the case with 1978’s Autumn Sonata and Interiors, she pays a heavy price for alienating her family. Outside the family fold are roles of queens, prostitutes, general “bad girls” who either stay bad or go good, nuns. Few interesting professions or even adventures. The roles that go outside conventional narratives are usually based on real women, like zoologist Dian Fossey and dancer Isabella Duncan. In years not covered here, there are biographical films of Erin Brockovich, Camille Claudel, and Isak Dinesen, among others, depicting outside-the-box female lives. It’s as if screenwriters can’t begin to imagine fictional roles for women outside the standard narratives.

Best Actor Roles are filled with flawed men defined more by what they do than their relationships with others. There are businessmen, lots of boxers and soldiers, musicians, criminals, lawyers, spies, cops. Movies with strong (even if flawed, like Erin Brockovich) female protagonists are rare—just as rare today as ever. And two new popular movies (not Oscar caliber by any means), Bride Wars and He’s Just Not That Into You, play on tired female stereotypes.

I’d love to hear some recommendations for good films with strong female protagonists. I’d like to recommend, believe it or not, Little Women (1994), with Wynona Ryder playing Jo March, an autobiographical depiction of the book’s author, Louisa May Alcott; and My Brilliant Career, also a semiautobiographical film about the Australian (female) author Miles Franklin.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Best-Selling Women

Daphne Du Maurier

In troubled economic times, books and movies are necessary forms of comfort and escape. I’ll be doing a couple of posts about movies in the weeks ahead as we head toward the Academy Awards; but now I’m going to look at what Americans were reading during the 1930s—the era of the Great Depression, and which of the bestselling books of that decade were written by women.

As everyone knows, what makes it to the best seller lists these days is not necessarily what endures and is most often not literature. I had no idea what to expect when I explored the lists of top 10 best selling novels for each of the years of the 1930s, but what I did find floored me! At least forty percent of the 100 top selling novels of that decade were by women authors, and of those, many have endured and have indeed become classics. Others were by authors whose names are perhaps less familiar now, but who continue to be well regarded, and perhaps now underappreciated. Ellen Glasgow is one of them.

Take 1931. The #1 selling novel is The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. At #2 is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather. The #3, #4, and #5 novels were also by women, but whose names were not familiar to me. #5 was Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes. This won the year’s Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The following year, The Good Earth remained at the top spot, and Pearl Buck also occupied the third spot with another novel titled Sons.

In the years to come, the names that grace the top-selling fiction list, both male and female, are literary legends: Isak Dinesen, Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne Du Maurier, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. And get this: Virginia Woolf made the list in 1937 for The Years. Do you think that, with its dense, complex language, a Virginia Woolf novel would make it to today’s best seller list? I would bet against it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was the #1 novel both in 1936 and 1937.

Just to give the men their due, some of the names on the 1930s lists include Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and George Santayana.

I don’t think that there’s a dearth of good fiction these days, but the best novels are not necessarily those that are read by the public in droves. What makes it onto the top-selling lists is awash with formula fiction by both men and women. I went through the list of top 10 novels for each of the years 2000 through 2008. Compared to the 1930s, what a letdown!

The percentage of the top-selling novels by women is less than 25%. Taken as the sheer number of women, it would probably be even less, since a few of the women appear multiple times—Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, and, sigh, Danielle Steele. Cornwall and Evanovich write crime/mystery novels, and I haven’t read any, so I can’t be judgmental, but it seems safe to say that they will not be handed down to future generations as classics. By the way, women authors are currently an even smaller minority on the non-fiction bestseller lists than they are on the fiction lists. Some of their bestselling male counterparts who appear multiple times on the 2000-2008 lists include Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and Tom Clancy. Lots of formula fiction from both female and male authors.

Notably absent from this decades lists was J.K. Rowling, due to some “rule” made about who can or can’t be on the list. No doubt, she has been the top selling female author of this decade, or indeed any decade. Of all the books on the current lists, I would bet that she would be the one of the only, if not the only, authors whose works will endure.

The few non-formulaic female authors appearing on this decade’s list include Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones, one of my least favorite books), and Sue Monk Kidd (Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, both of which underwhelmed me). No one is nearly in the league of Virginia Woolf or Isak Dineson, and no books are nearly as compelling as the more accessible yet wonderfully written Rebecca or Gone with the Wind. We can’t entirely blame the publishing industry for this. They give the public what they want. It’s painfully apparent that the paths of literature and commercial fiction are nearly completely divergent.

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this post!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tough Times for Mistresses

A mistress in better times: Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress of King Louis XV of France

Last week the New York Times ran an article titled It’s the Economy, Girlfriend. It centered on a social group in NYC of mainly young women in their mid-to-late twenties who have formed a support group they call Dating a Banker Anonymous. They meet once or twice a week to commiserate over the Wall Street banking fallout and how it affects their relationships with their hard-charging, alpha-male boyfriends. Or ex-boyfriends, or married boyfriends. In addition, they’ve started a blog they bill as “free from the scrutiny of feminists.”

As the article states, they invite like-minded gals to join “if your monthly Bergdorf’s allowance has been halved and bottle service has all but disappeared from your life.” I have no idea what “bottle service” is, and the owners of this blog claim that much of it is tongue-in-cheek (though it doesn't come off that way). Bottom line: said alpha males are losing great chunks of their income, if not their jobs altogether, and thus, apparently lose their appeal.

The girlfriends, as they bill themselves, are clearly disappointed over what they are no longer getting, from vacations, to gifts, to regular sex and/or attention. Are these girls, in the traditional sense of the word, mistresses? defines “mistress” as a woman “who has a continuing, extramarital sexual relationship with one man, esp. a man who, in return for an exclusive and continuing liaison, provides her with financial support.” Taking out the word “extramarital” these Dating a Banker girls seem to fit the definition. I suppose many of them hope that the banker boyfriends will eventually become husbands (that is, if they can keep their jobs and bonuses), but these gals are clearly in it for richer, not for richer or poorer.

Perhaps investment banking (at least as we once knew it; good riddance!) and high-stakes trading are still male bastions, but if these smart, educated like money so much, WTF don’t they at least try to make more of it themselves? Most of them hold “glamour” jobs, something to do until a ring is slipped on their fingers. Most of the girls in this group are dating (or have broken up with) single guys; a few are seeing or are on the outs with married men. Apparently some wealthy men are finding that it’s too costly to maintain a wife and a mistress in these trying financial times (violins, please).

Mistress: Such an old-fashioned word, such a dated concept. Why do these young women want to perpetuate it?

Saturday, January 31, 2009


A few nights ago I saw a story on the evening news about the upcoming elections in Iraq. Though I opposed this costly and violent war from the start, there was something quite bracing about the courage of those running for office. Specifically, that there are so many women seeking to be representatives in the highest legislative body. A recently enacted law in Iraq requires that at least 25 percent of each party in office must be made up of women.

So, how do we compare in our time-honored democracy, as compared with the fledgling one in Iraq? The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members. As of last year’s elections, there are 74 women serving (17%). There are currently 17 women in the senate (also 17%), an all-time high, so at least that’s good news. So in total, of the 535 senators and congresspeople, 17% are women. Not such good news.

Fascinating facts:

  • Hillary’ Clinton’s run for president in 2008 was considered a really big deal, often described as “historic.” However, 59 women from 45 countries have served as presidents, prime ministers, or chancellors around the globe. Currently, there are 14 countries led by women. Not a huge number, granted, but one not often acknowledged by American media.

  • Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives, elected in 1917. Montana and a few other states gave women the right to vote before passage of the amendment that gave all women the right to vote in 1920.

  • Hattie Caraway of Tennessee was the first woman elected to the U.S Senate (another had been appointed, and served very briefly, before her) in 1922.

  • Margaret Chase Smith of Maine served in both the House and the Senate (1949-1973) and was the first woman of a major party to run in the presidential primary (Republican) in 1964.

  • Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president (Equal Rights Party) in 1873. Though considered a fringe candidate, and spent election night jailed, she brought a great deal of attention to the cause.

Whenever women do anything significant in American politics, the media somehow leads us to believe that new ground is being broken, ignoring both history and the rest of the world. Getting back to Iraq, even though their law requires that 25% of their legislative body is female, it isn’t clear whether that will actually come to pass; we’ll find out in the next few days. Still, it's humbling that in Iraq, where repression and discrimination are so prevalent, the aspiration to increase female representation is such a publicly stated goal.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nothing to Wear

A reader who left a comment on the previous post wrote that she loves the feminine fashions of the 50s depicted in this blog. So do I. In fact, a few of my most treasured clothing items are from that era. I have a little cropped jacket from the 1940s that will be with me until I take my last breath. The covered buttons, the padded shoulders, the subtle gathers at the waist make it a real classic. The workmanship and detail in yesteryear’s clothing will never again be matched.

Well-dressed women in the late 19th century, it has been recorded, may have worn more than 35 pounds worth of clothing in wintertime! More than half of that weight hung from the waist. A woman could do some serious resistance training just walking around, were it not for the unhealthy, constricting corset. According to an article by Dorothy Hartman, corsets could put as much as “22 pounds of pressure on internal organs. Long term results of wearing the undergarment included fractured ribs, collapsed lungs, displacement of the liver and uterine prolapse. Physicians rallied around the idea that corsets compressed the genitals, thus weakening the woman’s ability to bear children.”

Women's clothing did come a long way by the 1920s. Women were freed from these constricting fashions, with shorter skirts, looser clothing, and even trousers. Summer fashions were breezy and flowing, and in winter, practicality reigned with jackets, capes, trousers and hats with more man-tailored but still flattering looks. For me, no era beats the 1940s and 1950s for women’s clothing that was as practical as it was beautiful. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca; Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (though of course they had the height and classic figures to look good in anything). And the clothing in all my 1940s-1950s magazines just makes me so envious. It’s not easy to find the really good stuff in vintage outlets.Where is it all? My theory is that all those lovely beaded wool sweaters were eaten by moths. Anyone with any tips, send them my way!

Women’s clothing from the mid-20th century was feminine yet classy. You don’t see the kind of cheesy fabrics and absurd daytime decolletage so prevalent today. For example, former President Bush’s former press secretary, Dana Perino, was recently on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart wearing what looked like a cheap bright red prom dress, really low cut in a non-flattering way and you just wonder, what was she thinking?
I’d like the pendulum to swing back to the detailed, feminine, yet non-revealing styles of the mid-20th century (OK, with the exception of the hideous shirtwaist dresses like those worn by TV moms like June Cleaver and Donna Reed), but that, I’m afraid, will remain a fantasty.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Magazine Mamas

I have a nice little collection of women’s magazines from the 1930s through the 1950s. In that era, especially those of the pre-televsion age, magazines held a lot of sway as the primary conduit between advertisers and consumers. We tend to look back at that era as a time when a woman’s home was her universe—a view that's far too simplistic.

A comparison of women’s magazines from those decades to similar ones of the present day favors the former for intelligent content. Sure, the magazines of yesteryear focused mainly on domestic issues—marriage, motherhood, cooking, home decorating—but they also contained idea-filled articles and as many as a half dozen dense, wordy pieces of short fiction. These stories, though mostly, but not always, with a romantic theme, were solidly written and their contributors were occasionally literary stars—I noted stories by Shirley Jackson, Pearl Buck, and Rebecca West.

Every issue, whether
Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, or others, offered at least a few articles on pithy topics. Here are a few examples:

- "Marie Curie, My Mother" by Eve Curie (book excerpt about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, and then later in chemistry, by her daughter, an author and journalist—her other daughter, Irene, also won a Nobel Prize in chemistry) - Ladies Home Journal, 1938

- "The Kinsey Institute Report on Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion" (can you think of any woman’s magazine today that would touch this topic with a ten-foot pole? The advertisers would be aghast!) - McCalls, 1956

- "Why do Women Vote the Way they Do?" (an in-depth look at women’s political opinions and affiliations) - Woman’s Home Companion, 1956

Waiting in a doctor’s office last week, I had a chance to peruse the contents of the top women’s magazines(such as
Redbook, Good Housekeeping, LHJ, and the like) and without a doubt, their offerings are much thinner than their counterparts of the past. There are few actual articles, and those that are of any significant length are either celebrity interviews or trite tips on how to improve your marriage and/or marital sex. Many of the so-called “features” are merely advertorials.

Women’s magazines, past and present, assume an extremely narrow narrative for what a woman’s life looks like. You are generally white, married, and have a couple of kids, and most of the articles and ads are geared toward that scenario. No one has a female partner, or a lover named Eduardo, or a twice-married boyfriend with some addiction problem, or is, heaven forbid, single. Did you know that about half of adult women in the U.S. are single? Of course, for young single women there are magazines like
Cosmopolitan and Glamour, which are mainly about shopping, beauty, and attracting the right man.

Bottom line: even in the 1940s and 1950s, when the cultural paradigm was even narrower than it is today, magazines offered far more thought provoking, well-crafted, lengthy articles and stories than they do today. This is definitely an area where we've not come a long way, and in fact, have regressed!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gender Role Casserole

That’s what I titled one of the “recipes” in my forthcoming book, Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife. It describes how many couples, fresh from the altar, vow never to fall into stereotypical gender roles . . . and we know how that goes in many cases, especially after a child or two.

A January 9, 2009 article in the New York Times titled
Daddy’s Home, and a Bit Lost talks about the economic impact on high-earning families in NYC and its suburbs. The focus is on the Berry family living in posh Darien, CT. Mr. Berry lost his job in the financial sector in Dec. 2007, so Mrs. Berry has returned to work. She, having gotten used to a certain lifestyle as a stay-at-home mom, is none too happy, but does what she’s got to do. The article points to a trend among other such wives, who file for divorce after their breadwinner husbands lose their high-flying jobs. I find this incredibly cynical—they apparently married a lifestyle, rather than a life partner. But then what do they do, once out on their own?

What happened to all those trends that started percolating in the 70s and 80s— part time hours, flextime, excellent on-site day care, extended family leave? When the economy is strong, do women feel more secure in making the “choice” to stay home and play the more traditional role? I wonder how they feel about that choice when all their assumptions and expectations are upended. As the NY Times article observes: “For many couples . . . the assumption of what their marriages would look like; the traditional model— executive husband and stay-at-home wife — may be a little dated, or unworkable.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More Housework = More Sex for the Guys?

A recent study I read claimed that men who do more housework might get more sex, since the message they're sending is that they don't see their wife or partner as a servant, though I must say that no "hard" statistics were offered. Who does these surveys, anyway? Seems like some of them need to be taken with a big grain of salt!

Another study by the Council on Contemporary Families claimed that men’s contributions to household work went from 15% of it in the 1960s to 30% of it in the past decade. I often wonder whether calculations of how much time which gender spends on what household chores counts the work done around the outside of the home as well as inside. Does cleaning gutters, snowblowing, minor electrical and plumbing repairs and such “count” as housework? In my mind, these type of tasks should count; I haven’t spent a single second of my entire long marriage engaged in these traditionally “male” tasks. I confess I’m glad not to have to do them.

Yet another poll cited by Psychology Today found that 40% of American women would prefer to return to to 1950s-style gender roles. While part of me is horrified by this statistic, another part of me thinks, “Return? Have we ever really left?” And for all my talk about equality, I’d much rather make dinner than repair the roof.

Wedding Belles

Why does the bridal image still evoke such potent desires? The so-called “wedding-industrial complex” has been estimated at 80 billion dollars a year in the United States alone. And it’s no wonder—judging from the sheer number of bridal magazines and their advertising pages, the bride is the ultimate consumer.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when the ideal of marriage was promoted as never before, there were perhaps a half-dozen bridal magazines. Today, there are dozens—the national publications, as well as regional ones like Hawaiian Bride and Groom, not to mention entire publications devoted entirely to the cake!
In my local Border’s store, I’ve counted two dozen different wedding magazines. I wonder, are there really that many brides-to-be around here? Or does each bride-to-be buy every bridal magazine in the store?

It seems like a conspiracy, almost, to keep the engaged couple so busy planning for the wedding, which lasts for a few hours, that there’s no time left to think about the actual marriage, which is theoretically supposed to last a few decades.