Monday, 1 October 2012

The Home-maker

I wanted to read The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield ever since I read a review by Claire.  I've often wondered how "lucky" women are nowadays to be able to do as we please (ok, most of the time - I'm sure there still exist sectors where women would be looked upon suspiciously). 

When I was in university, I wrote a thesis on the suffragettes, and my research actually came to the conclusion that despite the success this movement had at the time,  women, especially after the end of the world wars, preferred to return home and lead a "conventional" life... (and yet, I got a very good grade!).

While I would not characterise myself as a feminist, I do acknowledge that women in the past have not always had the opportunity to lead the life they may have wanted. I cannot imagine the accumulating frustration some of them experienced seeing the years go by unfulfillingly, so I was intrigued by a book written at that era (1924).  How could a woman dare write about such a subject, and more importantly, how did she get the book published???

In The Homemaker, we follow the family of Lester and Evangeline, a couple like all in those days:   father works, mother stays home to care for the household and the children.  Everything in the house is spotless, Evangeline is always the talk of her Ladies' club, for her efficiency and perfection.  We also come to realise, however, Evangeline's distress:  She's only trying to play her role to the best of her abilities.  She's  house-proud and will never dare to fall short of her traditional duties, especially not in front of the outside world.  She's the exact opposite of Aunt Mattie, who does not seem to mind to admit she's not a role model (she dares to BUY dinner for the family...)

Evangeline is one of those women who have other dreams for their lives.  They regard this role of the homemaker as a duty.  As a result, while the rest of the world will only see a picture-perfect family and household, she is dying inside, little by little, a slowly-increasing spot of eczema betraying her real situation.   Her family suffers as well:  her children appear to face different malices and her husband is depressed, totally unhappy with his life.

Sounds like there's no acceptable solution for this family:  society will never accept that mothers want to do something with their lives ...

"The mother is the natural homemaker"

Canfield describes the little incidents in the family life as matter-of-fact, with no emotional overflow, so that remain true: I could feel the struggle all members of the family dealt with -  because the unhappiness of one of the members inevitably affects the whole team.  

The Ex-Deus solution comes in a ghastly accident:  Lester is paralysed and has to stay at home.  At the same time, Willing, Lester's boss (who had just fired him...) is thinking of recruiting someone to head one of his departments.  As he discusses this with his wife (the Willings are portrayed in a modern manner), they come to the conclusion that a woman would actually do more for the same pay.  As luck would have it, Evangeline (who's unaware of her husband being unemployed) goes to the Willings to ask for a job.  Long story short, she ascends to her true calling, solving problems, organising, selling merchandise!  In the meantime, Lester overcomes his severe pains, to regain his will to live and be there with his children.

For the rest of the book, all is well in the world:  Evangeline is happy to work, she's even promoted, and the children  discover with Lester a new dynamic that makes everyone  happy.  Win-win situation, right?  well, yes, until Lester discovers that he feels his legs again... what to do?
"if Lester got well, of course he could not stay at home and keep house and take care of the children... no able-bodied man ever did that.  What would people say?"

While the story told is sometimes too good to be true (Evangeline does get the job she longed for, Lester did really want to stay home with the children, the children are magically rid of any trouble), what really impressed me was the commentary Cranfield inserts in between the main plot:  the injustice she sees and feels towards the homemaking work on the one hand, as well as the expected roles for women and men towards work on the other.  These points made this book special, and I suppose these were also the points that created a mini-conflict in the audience of that time. 

"Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all.  Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women's work in the home.  The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human realtionships and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.  As for any man's giving his personality to the woman's work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them... fiddling foolishness!  Leave it to the squaws!"

There is no single recipe as to what makes an "acceptable" social composition.  While growing up, I saw the family module changing:  among my classmates in primary school, I was the only one whose mother was working; when I went to university, I was one of the few who actually wanted to use their degree towards work (several of my fellow women students intended to stop working when they got married).  When the crisis came,  and men were the first to be fired, it was their wives who were all of a sudden the sole bread-winners.  Whichever module, it's fine as long as it works - in Canfield's words: 

"If a man and a woman manage to construct with their children a life-in-common which keeps them reasonably happy, healthy, good and strong, with a permanent affection for each other, they have made a successful marriage, no matter by which sort of pattern."


  1. Such an interesting subject, so much to discuss! I especially like reading about your own experience in school and afterwards. We think we're so far ahead and yet.

    Do you know that most kindergartens in Belgium close on Wednesdays afternoon? Which means one of the parents either has to work from home or not work in the afternoon at all. I was discussing with some friends over the weekend, and none of them know of any father who does this, it's always the mom, even when she has the most stressful (and highest-paying) job.

    1. There are so many tiny things that prove the point that there's still a lot to be done... Still, I believe that once the changes occur within the family, at some point they will also occur within the society (btw, I have male colleagues who work from home on Wednesdays for that exact reason you mention...)

  2. Indeed, no matter by which sort of pattern! I missed most of these important developments... growing up in the 1980s, most of my classmates' mothers were working (or their parents were even separated) and I hardly know anyone from back in school who stopped working because she decided to have children. Then again, I don't know whether it's relatively easy for the Belgians to work parttime? I think most of the Dutch parttime workers are women, and mothers at that. They complement their partner's income, who usually works fulltime. In that aspect, not much has changed. And women still earn lower wages than men :/

    It is incredible though, that Canfield book was deemed publishable back in 1924. Hopefully it made many people think about "traditional" gender roles!

    1. As far as I've read, she caused a little uproar and had to be cautioned to stop dwelling on such subjects...

  3. Thanks for linking this in to Books You Loved: October. If you pop back in a day or so there will be even more good book links to check out. Have a great week.

  4. A very interesting subject indeed! I was recently talking to some people at work about the fact that everyone says it's such a shame that there are no more women in managerial positions but at the same time no one wants to give them the workplace flexibility to be able to go for the higher positions. At the moment it's just a lot of talk.

  5. I would love to read this book....I think women are still put on the back burner.


    Silver's Reviews

    1. the book is an eye-opener, and I'm sure you will enjoy it!




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