A Woman’s Place: Good Wives, Happy Husbands and Why a Woman’s Work Is Never Done, compiled by Redmer Yska (Penguin, 2013), 128 pp., $24.99; Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890—1975, by Frances Walsh (Godwit Books, 2010), 375 pp., $49.99.
Yellowing and faded ephemera, whimsy, oddities, out-dated information and gender-specific beliefs feature extraordinarily in these two publications. In say 1957, a real woman with three or four children under five, how would she take the cheery ad-world housewife, zooming away chores with a new vacuum cleaner, fresh as a daisy due to castors on her fashionable furniture?
As a youngster, I wondered in those days what women said during morning teas. Children were always herded outside to play whenever a swish of visitors settled in to sip and chatter. They were fine secret-keepers, the coterie of women my mother cultivated and belonged to. She also mentioned, emphatically, after she’d, ‘Helped with an an old lady who’d passed away’s house, cleaned it up. The things we found.’ I anticipated revelations. But Mum snapped, ‘I went straight home. Cleared out everything I didn’t want left behind, of mine.’
My disappointment was as heavy as any teetering stack of magazines given to charity. (My mother loved the Woman’s Weekly).
Regarding people nearby when I was growing up, I noted many did their best to emulate fashions, and bought some shiny appliances advertised, but nobody seemed avidly concerned with appearances and parading around incessantly grinning like magazine women, as a rule. Popular media for women before the arrival of television, and even afterwards in the 1960s, maintained a steady attitude of fun, easy-to-make, keep your chin up, smile. Anyone overly rich or famous had to be admired from afar. Aspirations beyond family, home and fashionable good looks were often ridiculed in subtle ways in the print media which these two books rely on so heavily for their content now.
But adult women I’d observed had to have far more to them than what the Woman’s Weekly emphasised. It took ages for me to read about feminism, to find other magazines and newspapers, and to discover that the best TV shows were on air long after most people went to bed. A transistor radio also provided valuable stories and news. My interests were somewhat outside the everyday I suppose, but the women who cared for my childhood friends and I stayed mysterious beyond the obvious. And now the arrival of these two books promised to reveal more about wives and mothers we’d known during that era, with each publication providing individual insight, and reasonably well-produced at first glance.
A Woman’s Place (Penguin) seemed tongue-in-cheek. The cartoon femme in polka-dot bow and victory roll hair-do, circa 1940, on the cover declares, ‘I must ask my husband for some money so I can buy this book.’ No one seriously wants us to believe this statement nowadays, surely? A niggle in my mind grew however, with unemployment rife in 2013 and many women having lost paid work. Some still do need to ask partners for money.
Hopefulness bloomed nevertheless, that this publication would contrast 1940s, 50s, 60s repressive media, with new media, now that feminism’s part of our everyday world. What women thought of such beliefs would also be mentioned, in detail. Such anticipation kept me smiling.
Pink, polka-dotty and beribboned pages, (with bows) appeared in A Woman’s Place. In a tone possibly humorous, but actually it’s not at all clear, I read, ‘[Are you] … one of these modern women who insist that the domestic burden be divided evenly…. After perusing the material … we hope that even the sharp-voiced harridan will take a closer look at herself….’, and so on. By page 11, in bright pink, a large-size quote: A woman ‘likes to feel that the man who loves her also knows how to manage her.’
I began to frown; I gradually felt ill. Please, make up your own mind, but when every section finishes with a lipstick kiss motif, pink again, and those sections consist entirely of old-media excerpts, sexist, elitist, misleading, demeaning, and often shallow, my mind rebelled. A younger woman saw the book, said she hoped they were joking, but also noticed that real humour wasn’t apparent.
Dr Franck Musgrove believes the wife’s usually to blame for failed marriages, on page 64. A discerning reader could decide that’s unresearched nonsense however, with absolutely no commentary or comparison provided, but someone less analytical, more suspectible, might think this expert opinion tells an authoritative truth.
Misleadingly (their source only at the end of the book), some retro pieces are lifted without attribution on the page; but others clearly (but also confusingly) show sources under a heading. Any that lack references could be assumed to be written recently. On page 20 the statement: ‘A young girl is a delicate flower…’ is followed by a text which promotes chastity as the most important undertaking for a girl. Not having a well-informed circle of friends, and not having an education that allows for many points of view, no: virginity’s paramount. Also, page 68 states, ‘As we all know, a clean and tidy home is a happy one.’ But abusers may insist on a pristine house. Nothing mentioned along those lines in this one-eyed volume, which has begun to resemble a retro manifesto with a mission.
On page 69, advertising shows a woman abandoning marriage. Her spouse dared to complain about her cooking. But really it was her fault, she’d made no mustard. Some ridiculousness darkly amusing to someone it seems. On page 88, a mother cradling a baby advertises various brands of beer: ‘her example of wise moderation helps to ensure the proper enjoyment…’
Many tricks have been employed to get the public drinking breweries’ wares for decades, obviously. But we also know that abuse, neglect and other traumas drove, and still drive, countless women and others to drink. A dubious claim is made that women are more likely to be a good example than men. Women may have a propensity for alcoholism too. There’s no comment on that same page 69 that compares recent findings with old promotions.
Excerpts presented in this misleading and ambiguous fashion form this anthology’s entire content: alarming, strange and sometimes humourous, albeit the latter possibly by accident. Overall, A Women’s Place needs some contemporary viewpoints, a stated perspective, and a context — and the design is garish.
A Woman’s Place and Inside Stories both suggest a reader could hope for many personal tales about those women who tried, succeeded or failed; and commentaries by or about any who enjoyed a career and family. Throughout the ages, diaries were kept by females responsible for daily households, surely? Women sent letters to friends and family. These two authors could’ve mined some and found gold? My mother wrote to a pen pal all her days from childhood. Throughout the Second World War, the British pen pal sent medicine for asthma which probably saved Mum’s life. My mother sent her English friend desperately needed food. Some wives wrote stories, poems; enjoyed countless conversations, maybe someone recorded a variety of those?
Research from academics and marketers was also available somewhere, surely, about ‘housewives’, as we used to call them. Eye-witness accounts from women regarding issues, events, joys would more fairly demonstrate their lives than selective excerpts from post-War populist media publications ever could. Even now, popular entertainment magazines, newspapers, films and TV still often portray what is expected of women. A Woman’s Place appears — as presented and published, biases intact — to want women to live in the past, and (sadly) to take this volume as a guidebook.
Frances Walsh’s title Inside Stories — A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890 – 1975 promises on the face of it long-awaited tales from behind-the-scenes. An insider lives history, witnesses the truth, writes notes, recipes, lists, letters, journals, captions in photograph albums, compiles family trees and histories, keeps minutes at club meetings; some in paid employment record matters there. A rich mine of raw data exists in our country.
Inside Stories is beautifully produced. Coloured page-edges of vintage fabric designs look lovely, and the cover with jewel-like stripes of fabric swatches inside is a handy built-in book mark. Illustrations are plentiful, apt, and provided amusement or attracted interest.
However, the ‘ordinary’ women’s quotes appear from published letters to the editor, mainly: one of these asked Eve magazine to include ‘mystery’ in any short story, and offered other supportive ideas, as revealed on pages 19-20 . A frustrated woman complained to an Agony Aunt that her husband confiscated her diary, too, on page 26, but no answer is recorded regarding her plight. A mere smattering of such real-life situations frustrated my desire for many of those promised, inside stories. Overwhelmingly, material presented is from magazine articles, editorials, books already published, and from newspapers, advertising and so on.
As a New Zealander from French ancestors (who arrived 1840 and suffered extraordinary prejudice), I also didn’t appreciate the author calling the French ‘Frogs’, page 147. A quote from days gone by called the Japanese, Japs on the same page, but that’s arguably an abbreviation and also people were freer to express their supposed superiority then (showing less respect to foreigners was common, now it’s careless as well as ignorant).
The Worries was closest, from the book’s thirteen chapters, to actually revealing some inner female worlds. One mother writes she has to send children to bed hungry. She makes do, fishing. Another urges the well-off to donate to charity. Further issue-driven stories follow, first-hand accounts of daily life. If more of these featured in every section of this curious book, they’d improve the view, and make it more authentic.
Women’s true voices appear mostly silenced and hidden however, while pretending material presented is from them. Inside Stories is, though, much much more preferable than A Woman’s Place. Frances Walsh weaves research in with her own approachable, intriguing insights, often considering why media went one way or another and evoking what journalists and commentators at the time possibly thought of these elusive wives and mothers. It should nevertheless be more properly called: ‘From the Outside — A Media History of The New Zealand Housewife’.
In summary, both publications seem reminiscent of reading fascinating magazines, antique wonders, vintage treasures in some auntie’s spare room on a rainy day. Walsh’s book thankfully provides insightful conversation besides. Those past journalists’ idiosyncratic attitudes, that advertising aimed at fanciful versions of womanhood, are also quite remarkable. The ‘Helpful Information’ sometimes appears ridiculous too, and every excerpt is truly of its era as far as media goes (albeit pieces at times written by men merely about women).
But an opportunity has been missed. Readers deserve to know more about women of those times in a more acute and accurate way; and to be able to explore what those wives, mothers and career women wrote, said, needed, failed to achieve, did achieve; and to be properly informed in a clear way about who studied them, what they discovered and why.Were studies made of their lives? Did results match what media propaganda portrayed? These two books don’t reveal much for anyone seeking insights into who those fascinating, diligent, strange, foreign, local, fashionable, struggling — we could fill a book with such adjectives — women really were individually, through decades.
Both books entertain somewhat, but best is Inside Stories because of the author’s writing prowess, the range of her material, and the editing, presentation and design. Each work could have had far more from women themselves and so made themselves truly worthwhile reading, offering something new and in real regard, long-awaited. Must women be diminished, side-lined, seen as mainly subject matter in media images and phrases, turned into magazine, newspaper and moving image fodder for the most part, on and on forever? Let’s hope these books inspire something more considered from another generation of writers.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER is an Auckland-based novelist, poet, reviewer and blogger, who also lecturers in writing.