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.