What’s in a name? Evidently quite a lot if current marketing trends are indicative of success. Some names are labored over others just slip out intuitively. Jack Dorsey, who thought up Twitter now brings us Square – the innovation that is touted to change our relationship to money transactions. Square was first dubbed Squirrel but not surprisingly some other internet entrepreneurs had already laid claim to the small furry moniker. Square “works” according to Dorsey, who is interviewed in this month’s Wired, because “square deal” and also “squaring up” are monetary indicators. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it also means, “out of touch” and plainly “unfashionable”.
Other times the naming process is less calculated but often inspired. When Beryl Bainbridge dubbed Rebekah Brooks “Snakelocks” a legend was born. Brooks’ luscious and expensively primped and tinted mane was the mainstay of her glam image as power woman of the gutter press, but “Snakelocks” invokes her dark power, the Medusa of the Murdoch media empire.
In our 21st century world of simulated reality, words and images are the building blocks of the simulacrum, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily reflecting everyday reality.
Snakelocks, Rupert’s henchwoman is easy to loath, the social-climbing power-hungry Rebekah is currently an easy target despite her powerful boss, thoroughbred spouse and lofty mates. Even they may not be able to save her from a hefty helping of porridge at Her Majesty’s pleasure sans hairdresser. I hope she does end up answering for her media crimes but I don’t feel entirely sure about her demonization. Recently Vanity Fair published an in-depth character assassination of the most hated redhead. Cheap shots abounded in the vitriol: Brooks’ lowly origins as the daughter of an alcholic tugboat crewhand is relished, the way she channeled her personal charisma into her signature “niceness” to win friends and influence. Despicable though her journalistic morals are there is an undertone of classism and misogynous intent running through the article. Old Snakelocks is presented as an upstart and self-made woman of power and it makes for good copy.
This brings me to Heinrich Boll’s “Group Portrait with Lady”, a remarkable novel published in 1971. Boll, a German writer who lived through both World Wars tells the story of a woman, Leni Pfeiffer who is the victim of post 1945 society. Her life, like that of most Germans was irrevocably changed by the war and the social climate that emerged after Hitler’s defeat. The war years affect Leni by stripping away all her assumptions about what constitutes good and evil and she emerges as a free spirit, massively despised by society but really a fabulous individual. Boll’s intricate novel exposes the grotesque nature of popular belief and the way archetypes are created by each epoch. Leila Vennewitz, the woman who translated the novel into English, has to be congratulated, not least because she came up with the fantastic term “sex granny.” Leni, who is forty-eight years old is despised by her neighbors because she has a child fathered by a Russian prisoner-of-war and then years later takes up with a younger man, a low-status Turkish immigrant worker. Her hair, which falls a little below her shoulders, is considered inappropriate, sluttish, and designates her as a “sex-granny”. Ultimately Leni transcends all this viciousness and does not trim her hair to conform.
It was this small detail that made me marvel, not only at Boll’s brilliance and Vennewitz’ great translation but also at the signifiers that we all respond to.
The redefinition of womankind and her place in Western society has been a long intense slog from the early days of the feminist movement in the 1850s and it is still far from over. The Atlantic’s cover article this month is by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a mother and uber-career woman, it is underwhelmingly titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton writes about her dream job as Director of policy-planning at the State Department and why she had to give it up. Slaughter is a real green & purple feminist and she laments that women are often unable to take leadership positions when they are mothers: it boils down to the demands of motherhood which are largely incompatible with working a full-time job whether its as a cashier at Safeways or heading up a multi-national. Old school feminists worry that Gen X and Y women are unwilling to “go the distance” in terms of working crazy long hours and recognize that our physiology demands that if we want to become mothers we had better get our timing right: Slaughter suggests getting established on a career path in our twenties, reproducing in our mid-thirties and re-entering the workforce as soon as the kids are out of the house. There are worthwhile observations, the best in my estimation is that workday hours should be synched with school day hours and that some wily corporations and government agencies are bringing work-family considerations into their mandate in order to retain the women who they have trained and mentored. Slaughter’s lofty perspective is fascinating, she reveals that many powerful women juggle like crazy and push for reforms that will improve the workplace and the possibilities of women to take leadership positions in the future.
The downside of her commentary for me is that she assumes that women “want it all” in the first place. While she is clear that many women want a family and a career she doesn’t address the basic incompatibility of an individual having two full-time jobs which that proposition implies. High-paid women can employ help to take care of the family and she acknowledges that regular working moms don’t those kind of resources, but she doesn’t really consider the mindset of women who put their familial responsibilities at the very top. For these kind of women, prioritizing the work of raising a family means they often end up working strange hours at any old money-making venture so they are available at home. Plainly she is not in touch with women, good feminist types who will not conform to the male-centric values of a career. There are many women who struggle to succeed in a system they do not believe in. Let me clarify, many women desire a success that is unquantified in mainstream thinking: they do not desire power and immense wealth in our capitalist society, they just want to provide for their families. There are obviously females who have large organized brains that can accommodate familial duties as well as stupendous business feats. Most mothers I know truly struggle with their schedules of working in and out of the home together.
Feminist issues are most often expressed by academics and women who succeed in mainstream society. In every day reality I see that ordinary women are holding down the feminist frontline, by creating a new paradigm of success which doesn’t include a lofty job title or household staff. This scenario is underpinned by a desire to live in a society where being a full-time mother, a “homemaker” is a credible part of a resume which will validate an older woman who seeks to re-enter the conventional workforce.
Well, we can dream! Meantime stay-at-home moms who work for money when and where they can are developing prodigious skills: multi-tasking, budgeting, cleaning, cooking, patience, compassion and endurance. These women are largely invisible to society at large, they are not easily identified in work statistics, one tends not to notice them in their shitty old cars and dowdy second-hand clothes. They hear a different drum and when the strollers and car-seats are duly dispatched to the thrift stores they may well emerge, with long untamed grey hair and a mettle that will warm the hearts of those doubting feminist thinkers and challenge the order of today.
Photo credit: Rebecca Teague
Billee Sharp’s book “Lemons & Lavender: the eco guide to better homekeeping” Viva Editions, 2012 is available at bookstores and on amazon.com.