Then, was the family itself and the male political structure enclosing it invented by primitive women to ensure their own survival and that of their children? Where did they see power and freedom residing? What would equality mean?
That is a note I found in a notebook from my last year at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I was in a seminar on “seminal” thinkers (and how male-oriented can you get?) reading Mary R. Beard's On Understanding Women.
The argument that women launched civilization by nurturing human life, that the “arts of life” began in the mind of women, caught my imagination and changed my approach to the study of women’s history. Somewhere, in the same file drawer that holds this notebook, is my senior thesis, in which I argue that a history of woman as victim does us little service. I still hold to that view, although I do not negate the actual victimization of women as a whole. The questions in the opening paragraph here are questions that I still ask.
When I was relatively young, probably a teenager, I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset, that follows a Norwegian girl from maidenhood to maturity (note to self: reread these). I don’t recall much of the plot, but one thing remains with me. Kristin knows that the mistress of the house has power, and that a symbol of that power is her keyring. On that ring are the keys to the buttery, to the larder, to the laundry and the cellar and the kitchen. To the house itself. She who holds these keys is the mistress of her world.
It stuck with me, although “mistress of the house” was not an ambition of mine. What I actually wanted to do was to live alone (well, at that time I would have wanted a lover as well) to think and write, and every once in a while I would call somebody to tell them I had an idea – for which they would pay me a small sum. Yes, my fantasy world is wide and deep.
It wasn’t until much, much later – actually it was the very night when the country rejected Jimmy Carter for a second term – that I decided to withdraw from the public arena. Not that I was really in one, but I was hoping to get my graduate degree in intellectual history and eventually have a small office from which I could generate an idea or two. I can’t blame Reagan for my dropping out of graduate school, but I do remember thinking that if I couldn’t help make the world into a better place, I could do so in my own space. Wherever I lived. I could care for it and the people in it. I could hold onto the keys to my own kingdom.
And so I managed to do for a few ensuing decades, even when I had no place of my own. Even while I still fought for my own place in my world. Even though I was hurt, even though I hurt others in ways I did not intend to, even though sometimes I even wanted out of the world, still I insisted on hanging onto the keys to my own kingdom whenever I could. I had long since forgotten Kristin, but I remembered her importance. Which I have had trouble explaining to some others ever since.
When I put my first novel, The Year of the Crow, through Writers’ Cramp, my fellow critiquers criticized my heroine, Sybil, for cooking too much. For not being “kick-ass.” For trying to understand rather than insisting on having things her own way. Well, for one thing, I was writing that one very much from life, and that sort of character would not have fit my narrative at all – in fact, that sort of character would have sent the whole thing off in a direction I was purposely avoiding. A direction that might have made violence and open conflict the resolution. When one of my themes was quite otherwise.
But I was taken a little aback that they, including a couple of women, objected to Sybil and Ellie’s penchant for cooking, for making things comfortable, for keeping fights to a minimum (there were bikers involved). I always thought those things were signs of strength, not weakness. I thought I was writing both of those characters with as much strength as I could give them. I stuck to my guns, and many people have loved that book with no one complaining about the food.
At some point during the Obama administration, I heard people complaining about Michelle Obama calling herself the “Mom in Chief,” so I wrote this in defense of her. If I had unearthed my notes on Mary Beard’s theory of women as the very foundation of civilization, I could have added that to my argument at that time. Because I still believe it to be true.
But it leaves me with another problem. I recently started a short story in which I echo my own mother’s all-too-cheerful wake-up call of “Get up! Get up! There’s work to be done.” It was the bane of my girlhood. When, as I outline in “More Than,” a career as a wife and mother was nothing I ever dreamed of. The gist of the story, as it goes on, was that the young heroine, Gwendolyn, who continues to see fairies dancing on her windowsill, will come through necessity to see the value in her own mother’s role. So far, so good idea.
However, I began to ask, how do I frame this in such a way that “More Than” does not mean “Only”? It does not mean that becoming a doctor or a lawyer or even an insurance agent is, by definition, “Less Than.” And that idea will have to be gotten across without a lecture on the subject. There will have to be a realization that occurs naturally, and since I just threw Mom down the basement stairs where she dies of a cracked skull (in order to force dear Gwendolyn into the Mom role), I got a bit stuck. I think I am going to have to resurrect Mom and incapacitate her in some other way, but right now that makes everything feel a bit bogged down.
Maybe the fairies will help. If I remember correctly (don’t quote me), Kristin Lavransdatter herself left bowls of milk on the doorstep for the elves. And no one knew better how to run the civilization of home than she.
Recent realizations that the governments run by women seem to be doing a much better job in our current crisis of a global pandemic could be the solution I’m hoping for. Not for my short story, because I don’t plan for Gwendolyn to run for office, but for the extension of the civilization of home into the world at large. And as we shelter in place, perhaps more of us will want to take the love and comfort of home into the wider world as well. After all, banana bread is, indeed, one of the arts of life.