Friday, January 27, 2006

Arc of Justice

The arc of the moral universe is long,
But it bends toward justice.
-Abolitionist Theodore Parker, c. 1850's

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we blacks are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
-Langston Hughes, 1923

(from the frontspiece of Arc of Justice).

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle is an incredible book. It is very obviously meticulously well-researched (there are masses of endnotes on newspaper articles, court transcripts, insurance & real estate info., etc) - the author is a professor of history at Ohio State, but grew up in Detroit and got his PhD at the University of Michigan.

Boyle narrates the story of Ossian Sweet, an African-American doctor who bought a house for his wife & 14 month old daughter in a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925. When a violent mob of hundreds of people surrounded the house the second night after they moved in, one of the 11 people trapped in the house shot a gun out of an upstairs window and one man on the street was killed and another was wounded.

Boyle starts out with a riveting account of the night this happened, then moves back to provide Sweet's family history and a good history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the south, and then the Great Migration to the industrial northern cities in the years following WW I.

He makes it easy to imagine living in Detroit in the 1920's, either as an immigrant workman in the Ford plants, or as a doctor or housewife in the black ghetto in Detroit (the "Black Bottom" or Paradise Valley). He shows how ghettos and residential segregation developed from the economic and social changes of the 20's, and how the all-pervasive racism of the day fueled this.

Some of the mechanics of the history are a bit dry, but Boyle manages to bring the economy, sociology, and history back to actual people and how they dealt with these changes and events, and that really keeps you reading.

A lot of the history is shocking and not something that you probably read about in high school (or even college) when you learned about this era: lynchings and race riots. I never knew about the early 20th century riots in Chicago, Springfield, IL, Tulsa, East St. Louis, or Rosewood, FL until a few years ago. This book makes you realize that the north has nothing to be sanctimonious about just because there weren't as many lynchings here.

The last third or so of the book deals with the murder trial (all eleven people in the house were co-defendants, and included two of Ossian's brothers and his wife Gladys). The NAACP made it into a national event, and got Clarence Darrow (who had just finished the Scopes trial earlier in the year) to be one of the defending attornies.

I learned a huge amount about Detroit politics, the KKK, immigration and real estate practices. Boyle finishes up with a look at how segregation developed in Detroit (and elsewhere in the US) after the trial, and what happened to everyone involved after the trial. Not coincidentally, Detroit is still the most segrated major city in the US*.

There is a major shock at the very end, which I'm not going to spoil, so whatever you do don't read the ending of the book before reading the rest.

HNN has an interesting interview with Boyle, where he talks about why he chose Ossian Sweet's story, his research, and some of the other titles he considered. You can take a look at the Sweet house on the National Park Service's Register of Historic Places (where a marker was just put up in 2004), or here at a wonderfully detailed site provided by the Population Studies Center of the Institute for Social Research at University of Michigan. Just don't read the accompanying text unless you want spoilers for the book, or you know that you're not going to read the book.

There are pictures of all the major characters and more information on the trial here, and an interesting article in American History magazine was written in 2000 by John F. Wukovits.

*CensusScope says the Gary, IN metro area is slightly worse, but note how many other Michigan cities are in the top 25.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Flying Beagles

I don't know why it is so endearing when preschoolers get their words mixed up, but it is. Right now my 4 year old daughter confuses "eagle" with "beagle". This is especially confusing when she's playing with a little plastic vulture from a Happy Meal, exclaiming "Look at my flying beagle!" (whose favorite food is apparently string cheese).

Other recent word switches that took a few minutes to figure out were "caboose" instead of "cafeteria" or "lobby". Why yes, we can go into the caboose at your brother's school.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Mothers and Fathers in America

Men's and women's domestic roles are not ordained by human nature, biology, or men's and women's psychology. Rather, they are the product of particular historical circumstances, social processes, and ideologies, and vary widely by race, religion, and time period. Far from being fixed and static categories, motherhood and fatherhood are social, cultural, and ideological constructs. Their social definition and meaning has been changing, varied, and contested (by Steven Mintz, 2003; Mothers and Fathers in America: Looking Backward, Looking Forward, in Digital History).

This is the first paragraph of a fascinating essay on how Americans have perceived mothers and fathers over the last 300 years. I keep pondering how much of what Darla Shine and her supporters say echoes so many historical things I've read, like the wonderful online exhibits by the UVA's American Studies program on Late 19th Century Advice for Women, The Nineteenth Century 'Cult of the Lady', and the McCord Museum of Canadian History's Thematic Tour on The Cult of Domesticity.

Then there are the more recent popular works, like this commonly found internet graphic of the Good Wife's Guide from 1955's Housekeeping Monthly. Jennifer Heller has an interesting paper on Marriage, Womanhood, and the Search for 'Something More' through the 1970's in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture that includes a look at Marabel Morgan's The Total Woman, which really did have many amazing parallels with Happy Housewives, both in content and in terms of its self-help orientation.

But back to Steven Mintz and his amazing, challenging essay. It's a fairly long article, but really eye-opening, and I urge everyone who makes statements about what is "natural", "best", "the way it should be" or "the way it's always been" for mothers or fathers to read this before saying anything so simplistic again. Mintz's conclusion, which I think most of us would find unarguable: "What is unique today is that the conceptions of fatherhood and motherhood are more problematic and contested politically than at any time in the past."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Some Books for 9 Year Old Boys

...based almost entirely on my son's recent reviews. Some he picked out himself, some I saw on the new book shelf in the kids' section of our library, and he couldn't get enough of them. Which is a very good thing on a winter teacher inservice day when it is raining cats and dogs.

Billy Clikk: Creatch Battler and its sequel Billy Clikk: Rogmasher Rampage by fellow Michigander Mark Crilley were the most recent favorites. Great comic-book like illustrations, fun science fiction, we'll be checking his Akiko series out next. Hey, it's important that I read what he reads to make sure it's ok, right?

Another series by a Michigan author that is on its way to becoming more popular in the rest of the country is Jonathan Rand's American Chillers and the (even cooler for those of us living in Michigan) Michigan Chillers. They're a bit like the much maligned Goosebumps books, but I absolutely love the titles and the cover illustrations. Alien Androids Assault Arizona, Minnesota Mall Mannequins, Poltergeists of Petoskey, Kreepy Klowns of Kalamazoo, Sinister Spiders of Saginaw - who could ask for more? Except for some more titles on Ann Arbor, Lansing, Tecumseh, Benton Harbor, Cheboygan, Grayling, Kalkaska, get the idea.

Jonathan Rand himself is coming to visit my son's school for "Reading Week" in March, so I'm looking forward to getting a copy of Au Sable Alligators then.

And last but not least, How to Train Your Dragon (by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III), translated from the Old Norse by Cressida Cowell, and its sequel How to Be a Pirate, have the funniest illustrations I've seen since Captain Underpants. My son was begging for more of these, though he had to ask about some British slang.

You've probably noticed that these are pretty boy-oriented books. My son, like many of his classmates, was not an enthusiastic reader in Kindergarten and 1st grade. Luckily, Calvin & Hobbes cartoon books and Captain Underpants got him hooked on independent reading, and now he will even read to his 4 year old sister with minimal urging. He still prefers the the kind of stuff recommended on, however. He has little interest in Little House on the Prairie, so it's a good thing these authors have all these great books that appeal to boys (and that happily also have active girls that rank right up there with the Paper Bag Princess). My son really gets into series books, which according to the recent Newsweek article "A Series of Extraordinarily Fortunate Events" (get it? maybe you have to know Lemony Snicket) can be a good thing. Maybe it's a good thing my parents still have all those Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew books.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

7th Carnival of the Feminists... appearing at Feministe. This issue focuses on pop culture and feminism, so if you're interested in blogs, celebrities, comic books, movies, museum exhibits, popular books, tv shows, or video games, be sure to check it out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Petticoat Philosophy and Government

"No Time for Politics", by Charles Dana Gibson, 1910

Of all those acquirements which more particularly belong to the female character there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort and well-being of a family. In this opinion we are borne out by the author of 'The Vicar of Wakefield' who says: the modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queans (sic). She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes...

Good Temper should be cultivated by every mistress, as upon it the welfare of the household maybe said to turn; indeed its influence can hardly be over-estimated, as it has the effect of moulding the characters of those around her, and of acting most beneficially on the happiness of the domestic circle. Every head of a household should strive to be cheerful, and should never fail to show a deep interest in all that appertains to the well-being of those who claim the protection of her roof. From The Book of Household Management: With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all things connected with Home Life and Comfort, by Mrs. Beeton (1869).

So - no philosophy, no arguing, no whining, no nagging. Be happy with the status quo. Got it? But if you want to read more of Mrs. Beeton's famous Book of Household Management, check out this site on the Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain.

This was the standard advice for marriage in the mid-19th century, and some women (and not just "surendered wives") still think that's the way to go. I didn't go into it in my last post on Happy Housewives, but there's a lot in this just published book about how you should admire your husband, respect your husband, stop nagging, stop whining, get a good attitude and be grateful for what you have.

The phrase "petticoated philosophers" in Mrs. Beeton rang a bell with me - there is a fascinating history (in the US and Great Britain, anyway) of using "petticoats" to describe anything female in a disparaging manner. So for the last few centuries, at least, there were many popular references to "petticoat government" - both in terms of households 'unnaturally' ruled by women, and for different cultures (like the 18th century Cherokee), where women took an active part in politics and had a lot of personal autonomy.

Petticoatery shouldn't be confused with pettifoggery, although they both do share that diminutive prefix. But I don't want to be petty, so I'll stop here. Really, who wears the pants* in your house, anyway?

*or trousers, or breeches

Warning: Don't google petticoats unless you want to learn a lot about the cross-dressing habits of some British men. It's almost as scary as when I was pregnant and looked for cloth diapers for my baby on the internet.

Monday, January 16, 2006

"Happy Housewives" and the Cult of Domesticity in the 21st Century

I'm the target demographic for Darla Shine's recent self-help book titled Happy Housewives. I'm the right age, I gave up a career and professional training to stay home with two young kids, and I do the majority of the housework in our now seemingly June Cleaveresque household. I don't think or feel like June Cleaver, though. As I read Shine's book, I did wonder if some of my distaste for the book might stem from the fact that I am not as wealthy nor as conservative as the stay-at-home moms she depicts. I think that it could have been more accurately titled Happy Rich Republican Housewives.

There were some good things about this book. It is an honest and heartfelt account of one woman's life and how she took control of the aspects of it that were making her "a whining, miserable, desperate housewife." It is simply written and a quick (sometimes humorous) read, and includes some good recipes and gardening advice. If the comments on and a couple of SAH-mom blogs (see MotherSong and The Politically Incorrect Mom) are any indication, it has proven inspirational to many women.

However. There was a lot that really disturbed me in this happy, "I'm just talking to my girls" motivational book. First and foremost, as Jen has elaborated on in her LiteraryMama blog essays on My Happy Inner Housewife and My Inner Housewife: Shine Responds, there is the assertion that staying at home with your kids is always superior to working outside the home. There are no qualifications to this statement. (How about working while your kids are in school? How about part-time work? How about a stay-at-home dad?):

“Many of us are torn between our careers and our families. We work very hard, only to have to give it all up. What choice do you have? This is really what you were meant to do. If you made the choice to get pregnant, you should make the choice to stay home with that baby if you can afford to, and I think most of you could afford to.” (p. 19 in Happy Housewives, henceforth HH, emphasis mine).

I also found the advice on being a housewife (aka SAH-mom) unsettling. Darla states that she is unequivocally against the whole "Desperate Housewives" idea of competitive mothering, but she sends very mixed messages with her advice:

“I think one of the biggest reasons housewives have a bad image is that a lot of moms have let themselves go. Admit it, girls. Most housewives are in desperate need of a makeover – out-of-date hairstyles, jeans that should have been thrown out years ago, and worst of all, what I really cannot handle, no makeup!”, p. 32, HH.

Yes, I'm sitting here wearing jeans with holes, an old flannel shirt, and no make-up. This is what I wore to work as a professional archaeologist, however, and my husband still wants to have sex with me and I haven't been rejected by the other moms on the playground or my local Mothers & More group.

“We look cute, we’re thin, we’re in style, and we’re hot mamas! At least we think so. We’re constantly on top of each other, policing each other to make sure we don’t fall off the wagon. We force each other to look good……If you need help, look at what the women are wearing in the magazines. Real women in magazines like More, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, and InStyle.”, p. 33, HH.

Thankfully, I can't imagine any of my friends policing what I wear. And I was under the impression that the women shown in most magazines were media creations, not candid snapshots of real women. Even the women in that Dove Campaign for Real Beauty are not really real, if you know what I mean.

“The whole mommy clique thing is stronger than ever in the suburbs. I have been really studying this phenomenon, and it’s a clear fashion thing. I notice that the cute, stylish moms hang out with other cute, stylish moms, and the frumpy moms hang out with the other frumpy moms. I told this to my girlfriend, and she told me months later that that statement alone got her off her bottom and to the gym. Now she has a slew of new girlfriends, and she’s in the A-list mommy clique – which is stupid, I know, but it’s just the way it is. So look good, don’t be a bitch, and maybe you could be the new popular mom in town.”, p. 164, HH.

This makes Darla's rhetorical question on pg. 31 of HH “Am I shallow? Yes, a bit.” more than a little funny.

“I’ve often noticed in grocery stores that it’s the heavy women who are buying a whole lot of junk. The other day when I was grocery shopping I noticed the woman in line in front of me loading a ton of processed snacks onto the checkout counter….She was about eighty pounds overweight, and I wanted to shake her. Her son came up behind me to stand near his mother; he was about twelve years old and at least twenty pounds overweight. I was so angry that I wanted to smash my cart into her big fat ass.” p. 39, HH.

Didn't this bother anyone but me? Wasn't there an editor somewhere that said, "Honey, this makes your statements about not being a bitch and not being in a mommy clique look just bizarre, even if you follow it up with a section about being healthy and exercising and eating organic foods? And what's with that sentence on ridding yourself of toxins and parasites by simply changing your diet?" What parasites? If I get tapeworm or Shigella or any other parasites, you can bet I'll do more than change my diet.

The parts in this book that refer to men are the parts that really distressed me, though, and these are the sections that made me think of that Victorian "separate spheres" ideology, and how similar Happy Housewives is to the "Cult of Domesticity" of the 19th and early 20th centuries (I'll save further comparisons for another blog post, since this may already be straining your attention span). These are the parts that I couldn't wait to read aloud to my husband:

“The secret is that men are simple. They want only three things in life: attention, appreciation and sex. If they cannot get these three things from you, they will either look someplace else or become miserable bastards who annoy you every day of your life.” p. 55, HH.

“Ladies, you may think no one out there would want your overweight, sloppy husband who leaves his underwear on the floor and pees all over the toilet bowl, but I promise you there’s another woman willing to jump into your side of the bed.” p. 54, HH.

“Last year one of my best friends wanted a new dining room set, but her husband was not opening his wallet. I told her to go home, pay some attention to him, act interested in him, initiate some romance, do some nasty deeds that only married couples should do, and guess what? Two weeks later she had the furniture – and a new diamond ring to boot.” p. 57, HH.

“And ladies, I advise you to leave the baby with your girlfriend or your mother instead of your husband [snipped out story about her getting highlights and getting called by her dh five times]…You get the idea, girls? I would have had a very peaceful afternoon if my mother or Dana had taken care of the kids. They would have improvised. Men are just not capable of that. Sorry, guys.” p. 174, HH.

“Why do so many women insist on doing everything with their husbands? I say have sex together, and that is pretty much all you need to do. Really, sometimes communicating with your husband is overrated. I have my girlfriends for that!” p. 65, HH.

Now, you may argue that these quotes are taken out of context. But I didn't see anything in the context that negated the meaning of these statements, which I think speak for themselves. They reveal an understanding of gender relations that is very different from the one I hold, to put it mildly.

Although Darla is very big on female solidarity (and talks often about the support of her girlfriends), she feels that feminism has ignored (if not actively disrespected) mothers. I certainly agree with her that mothers deserve more respect and social recognition, especially for caregiving roles, but I personally didn't find the resources or inspiration for changing this attitude in Happy Housewives. Reading it made me feel desperate about communicating with other mothers, though. Instead of following Darla's ten easy steps "to stop being desperate - and start getting happy", I'd advocate that other mothers check out the following resources that don't combine motherhood with a new kind of "True Womanhood":

Thursday, January 12, 2006

De-Lurk and Discuss

I've recently discovered the writings of Ann Oakley, especially those concerning housewives (and are they the same as today's SAH-moms? That's another question).

Hoping to lure more of you out of lurkerdom, I'm putting up a famous quote from Ann Oakley:

Clearly, society has a tremendous stake in insisting on a woman's natural fitness for the career of mother: the alternatives are all too expensive.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

International De-Lurking Week

Thanks to Paper Napkin for the great graphics!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

January Thaw

After all the snow and temperatures in the single digits, it is nice to go out and see the ground again. Sunday we all went on a short walk through the woods at Lilley Park and saw a muskrat swimming under the ice in Turtle Rock Pond. My son looked for "microinvertebrates" and poked at a dead fish frozen in the top of the ice, and my daughter tripped and fell into a slush puddle, but it was still good to see some new things and get a little sunshine.

The European buckthorn that has invaded is really obvious at this time of year, and is especially thick along the edges of the walking paths.

Unfortunately, the sun still sets far too early at this time of the year.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Mommy Wars

For more interesting reading on mothers and how they're portrayed, see Toronto Mama's latest couple of columns in the LiteraryMama Blog.

Which is unfortunately hard to find if you don't have a link and you just go to LiteraryMama's homepage - I think that their introductory page really needs an overhaul. Anyway, to find the current blog entries, you have to know that these columns (which deserve the title just as much as the pieces in the Columns category!) are filed under Interact. Just looking at the homepage, it appears that the latest update on Interact was 8/30/05, which isn't true. Then you have to know you need to pick "Blog" instead of "Your Commentary" or "Mother Talk". It's confusing, and I guess I should write to them instead of commenting on it here. I'll send them a link. But it is frustrating to see great writing buried instead of highlighted.

And speaking of that - a fellow Mothers & More member posted a link to the first good article I've seen on "The Mommy Wars". Where was this thoughtful piece of journalism, you ask? Not in the New York Times, or The Atlantic, or any place like that. It was in the latest issue of Parents Express, one of those free monthlies you find at places like your library (but this one is in Philadelphia, not near me). So go and read Mary Ann Romans' article now.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Read the 6th Carnival of Feminists because... has some of the best writing on feminism around, and is now appearing at reappropiate . Once again, it is notably multicultural, but not lacking in recent pop references. It's got Barbie, it's got "The Liberator", it's got "mommybloggers" and even (insert gasp of geeky pleasure) an analysis of gender relationships on Firefly & the movie Serenity.

Then you can step over to and read At Home with David Brooks, by Rebecca Traister, for an engaging look at both Brooks's article (see two posts previous to this one) and Terry Martin Hekker's.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

And More on Domesticity & Paradise Lost...

...can be found at Echidne's Power is in the Kitchen, Ann Bartow's From the Department Of Still Doesn't Get It on, and at Mad Melancholic Feminista's No One Benefits from the Rat Race.

And a couple of women on my Mothers & More discussion list recommended this interesting site: Equality in Marriage Institute.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Brook's "Year of Domesticity" and more on Hirshman

Half the blogs* and e-mail lists that I read are buzzing today with the New York Times essay on "The Year of Domesticity" by David Brooks, which was fittingly published on the same day (but in a different section of the newspaper) as Terry Martin Hekker's much grittier, sadder and more eye-opening article on "Paradise Lost (Domestic Edition)". I'm certainly not the only person to notice this juxtaposition (see Sam I am).

As a bonus, I just ran across an interesting and well-reasoned response to Linda Hirshman's article at Cathy Young's blog. But still, I have to ask, why on earth are none of these people citing The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars? It's a whole well-written and tightly researched book on "Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother", which even looks at why the media likes the "Mommy Wars".

*ok, maybe "half" was an exaggeration, but the other half will probably speak up tomorrow. For now, see Pandagon,, and 11D if you're interested. And also 11D on Hekker's article.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

More Images of Prehistoric Women

Because I'm in the mood for pictures instead of prose.

This is one of my favorite pieces of Paleolithic art. It has been called an abstract female figure, but it could be stylized portrayal of a male part, or something completely different.

An interesting discussion on the portrayal of prehistoric women in popular media can be found in the Forum for Gender & Culture.

Prehistoric Women

Here's the popular image, ca. 1950:

Who needs an archaeology of sex roles when we already have such a clear idea of what our past was like?

Well, there have been a few changes. Here's an image from 1986:

Happy New Year

New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions. ~ Mark Twain