Anne-Sophie at UEA

An International Student of Literature in England.

“Home”, Modernity and the Housewife

Hi everybody! 🙂

It is such a shame that I haven’t been able to write more on literature and academic stuff recently because I loved doing reviews of all the books I read last year. Unfortunately, I have been incredibly busy with studies, looking for jobs and graduate schemes, and trying to remain sane by being social. To fix this, in a way, I have decided to publish on my blog a little formative task I had to do for my module Cultures of Suburbia, that was peer-assessed. 

I am still enjoying this module so much and am so happy to be doing it! I thought it’d be okay, but it’s actually amazing. For this week, we had to read the novel The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing — one of my all time favourite books. I talked about it before on my blog in an article about books that have changed my life. This one influenced it a lot, firstly because the story always touches me, and secondly because it’s the first novel I ever studied in English and I believe it is what made me want to study English Literature. Oh and what’s super cool and exciting is that we did this week’s seminar in the archive room of the library (in its deep dark depths) because UEA hold Doris Lessing’s archive! We got to see recordings, private letters and love letters that few people have seen before! 

BBC images

BBC images

In a nutshell, I love Cultures of Suburbia! This week and last week, for instance, we’ve been focusing on the question of “home” and the “suburban housewife” — which involved reading a long essay that was a discussion about second wave feminism. Now I really want to learn more about this topic and the literature produced around it. 

The following formative task was fairly simple: we had to summarise the argument made in the essay by Giles I just mentioned, entitled “Legacies: the question of “home” and women’s modernity’, and discuss the argument that seemed more or less convincing. Finally, we had to connect the argument’s raised in the essay with anything we’d read so far, so I chose the short story “The Herriots” by Stevie Smith: it tells the story of a suburban couple who experience money issues, unemployment and are deeply unhappy, until the housewife finds a job and helps support the family (role reversal) until the husband finds a new job.

I don’t believe that my work is particularly amazing and I tried to do it as quickly as possible if I’m honest but it gives you an idea of the kind of things you can study when you do English Literature, and what is expected.

I feel like I learnt so much by reading it and that it really informed my reading of The Fifth Child and other pieces we’ve read. That’s what I love about my studies. 

The Formative Task

Giles opens this chapter by explaining that she wants to redefine modernism and modernity – a clear move away from conventional modern criticism, highlighted by her focus on women and ‘home’. She wants to ‘[rescue] women from historical invisibility’ (p.1). To do so, Giles describes the way in which post-war consumer society in the UK and USA has created the idea of an ‘ideal home’ and how feminist critiques concentrated mainly on the idea of female liberation through work (p.2). Indeed, second wave feminism in Western culture saw childcare and household labour as tools for women’s oppression and talked about a ‘regression’ of women’s status after World War 2 (p.2). Giles later goes on to explain the influence of American writer Friedan’s Feminine Mystique – a book in which the author talks about “[brainwashing] women into accepting the role of the “happy housewife”’ and a ‘revival of a traditional domestic ideology’, mainly due to masculine anxieties (p.6). However, Giles believes that the issue with Friedan’s work is that she focused excessively on middle-class women and did not confront racial differences. Furthermore, her book paint a very dark picture of the era, despite the author herself being involved in politics and community projects supporting female empowerment. Friedan thus portrays a vision of suburbia where housewives are ‘passive victims of a mass culture’ (p.10) and, according to Giles, unwittingly supports gender dichotomies and an education system based on ‘male thought and culture’ (p.14). Finally, by claiming that such a domestic life robs women of their identity Friedan ironically deprives them of their individuality by ignoring the positive aspects of domesticity (p.15).

In the following part of this chapter, Giles brings up evidence of a general liberation of women in the 1950s through magazines: although the messages were mixed, they conveyed a picture of freed working women who were also happy housewives (p.16). This culture valued the ‘ethos of hard work’ and condemned idleness (p.17). In the final part, Giles focuses on the categories of women who have been left out: working-class women. For them, she suggests, home became a safe place that provided financial stability, space for creativity and achievement, as well as the hope for a better and healthier future for their children. Giles oppose this category of women with middle-class women who suffered from a loss of status and authority. Nevertheless, the writer stresses the fact that among all classes, women’s position was strengthened, their work was more valued and one thing allied them all: the feeling of being part of the building of the new nation, through raising up children. Being a housewife thus became a highly politicized position but there remains an issue: women were still being used. They were undeniably freer and part of the post-war reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s, but they did so mainly at home.

While Giles’ offers a more balanced version of ‘the housewife’ in post-war British and American cultures and focuses on the usually invisible working-class – using historical accounts and examples from the media at the time – the chapter of her book raises less convincing arguments. Among these issues is that idea that women were given a more equal status to that or men and that they were participating in post-war reconstruction. Although this is true to some extent, her claim implies that women were important, but only because they were tools to serve the nation and a patriarchal society (p.24), by being housewives and raising children at home. Once again, women were confined to the domestic realm. Furthermore, this argument relies on the inextricable mother/child link and essentialism: women was only be fulfilled or useful through their reproductive functions, according to such an argument. Despite demonstrating that home, especially among the working-class, could be a place of pride and achievement, women’s role simply cannot be reduced to it.

Stevie Smith’s short story ‘The Herriots’ highlights some of the points raised my Giles in her book. The opening paragraph is a nostalgic one that describes past life in the suburb of Bottle Green, at a time when suburbs was composed of a highly ranked middle class: ‘everybody in Bottle Green hired a maidservant’. This line is reminiscent of Giles’s argument that in the post-war period, the middle-class loss its status and power while the working-class gained access to a healthier and more stable life.

Smith’s short story also raising one of the major concerns of suburban life: domesticity. In her short story, being a housewife and having children is not associated with happiness and success and it was usually depicted in some of the magazines of the 1950s and 1960s that Giles mentions. Rather, Smith’s short story is a reaction against the usual picture of the happy housewife and the happy home: the couple is poor, Coke struggles to make a living and their child comes too early. While they are an example of the working-class rising status and the new opportunities they can get, their life is far from being the ideal one advertised. Indeed, Peg is an unhappy mother and woman who suffers from total financial dependence on her husband (‘she felt that the happy feminine-independent days of her childhood were over indeed’ p.75) and there are hints of physical abuse (‘he struck her’ p. 76).

However, Peg’s confidence and pride are regained once she goes to work and reverses roles with her now-unemployed husband: she tells the lady she works with that ‘I used to feel if I could get away from Bottle Green I should then be happy. But now I do not wish to go away’ (p. 79). This positive ending to an otherwise grim story echoes Friedan’s argument in Giles that the only way for women to be emancipated was through work. 

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