Occupation: housewife, Anne Else

Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975
Frances Walsh
Godwit, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869621650

 

I was really looking forward to this book. As soon as I could read, I started reading my mother’s magazines. Every week she sent me to collect the fat bundle from the stationer’s – the large full-colour Woman, the small slippery pink-and-blue English Woman’s Weekly, and our own home-grown New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (NZWW), completely unglossy and mostly black-and-white, but with by far the most reading. I devoured them all, cover to cover, from readers’ jolly stories in “Over the Teacups” and sad letters about stingy or indifferent husbands to the full-page Horlicks cartoon-strip ads on how to ward off Night Starvation. My mother kindly waited until I’d finished going through them before she cut out the recipes and knitting patterns.

By the time she became a housewife, she was in her late 30s. In 1966 I was only 20 when I found myself at home all day with a baby, waiting for my husband to get back from work and wondering what had happened to me. When Eve hit the news-stands that year, followed by Thursday in 1968, I looked forward to them as eagerly as Mum had to her magazines. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to become a contributor, with one of those knowing, wry, determinedly amusing columns about the trials and tribulations of the housewife’s lot.

In 1971, Pat Mainardi’s classic piece “The Politics of Housework” reached New Zealand (40 years on, women are still discovering it on Google), and struck an instant chord. A year later I became one of the founders of Broadsheet. It ran for 25 years, longer than most of its commercial counterparts, and it’s the last magazine quoted in Inside Stories – the first, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, began in 1890 (though its end date is unknown).

Frances Walsh introduces her book as telling:

the story of New Zealand housewives from 1890 to 1975 – from the decade when women gained the vote (1893) to the decade when women gained the right to have a legal abortion (1977). It ends around the time feminism had dug in deep and housewives had lost faith in the job.

She told Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan that she set out to write a broader book about housewives, but became so fascinated by the 22 magazines she started trawling through for material that she decided to focus on them.

So this story is told almost entirely “through women’s magazines, and women’s pages and columns”. Walsh cleverly sums them up as a “strange melange”, able to “represent conflicting views” in a “promiscuous mix of literary genres … without buckling under the weight of the anarchy into incoherence”. Then she relates this to her own book: “Within the following pages you’ll find a similar format … a wayward compendium of housewives’ lore and preoccupations. There are dispatches from the front … [and] instructions from experts.”

Sure enough, what we get is mainly a kind of scrapbook, with some historical context here and there, neatly organised into topics from “Good Housekeeping” to “Putting Her Feet Up”, by way of “The Child”, “The Filth”, “The Husband” and so on. As Walsh sees it, neither magazines nor housework changed much over 85 years. In other words, essentially they had no history:

From 1890 to 1975, magazines traversed the same old ground … . Truth was, a housewife wrangled much of the same load down the ages: she cleaned, she cooked, she did the laundry, she sewed, she decorated, she managed the help (if she was lucky), she shopped, she made ends meet in and out of wars and depressions (her country’s and her own), she looked after children and husbands, and she worried.

It was precisely this idea that “nothing changed” – that housewives doing housework were simply a kind of natural, ahistorical phenomenon – which feminist historians (including all those looking at magazines) have gone to so much trouble to explode. Reading between the lines, what’s gathered here undermines the “no change” notion at every turn.

At least as far back as 1932, in the very first issue of NZWW, housewives “were questioning their role”. The remarkable quotation which follows – it’s picked out in the book’s publicity sheet – could have come straight from the pages of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (which arrived here in 1965):

Is a woman in duty bound to subordinate all her natural mental gifts to the conduct of a household? Are brilliant brains and exceptional business acumen to be broken into harness so that the domestic wheels shall roll along smoothly and the man of the house shall never find a button missing or his breakfast bacon burned – and the baby shall have her meals up to the minute?

This question kept surfacing time and time again over the next 40 years. It was partly what drove us to start Broadsheet, though we soon realised there was much, much more to it than that. But here and elsewhere throughout the book, it’s quickly pushed aside while the quotations veer off to another, safer topic (in this case, do-it-yourself). It’s this fragmented approach, often involving page after page of quotations ranging randomly over the whole 85 years, that I found so frustrating.

Walsh does astutely point out that “Cleverly, magazines themselves liked to remain indefinable”. Yet “For the most part [they] fostered trust, collegiality and solidarity … sometimes regard[ing] themselves as proxy neighbours – not the snoopy kind but those who could be trusted with confidences.” Or as Jean Wishart, longstanding editor of NZWW, put it in 1964, when the circulation hit 200,000: “We see it as a friendship with the women of New Zealand, which has grown constantly stronger with the passing years.”

Women’s magazines also existed to help sell things, as the many ads reproduced here show. To do this, they needed to keep housewives firmly focused on how they could and should do better. As every advertising primer points out, one of the most effective ways to achieve this is by skilfully fostering anxiety and discontent (though never, of course, with being a housewife). Their pages may have looked, as Walsh says, like a “mad woman’s knitting”, but there was serious, profitable method in their madness.

Walsh doesn’t tackle this in any depth, nor does she explore the contradictions at the heart of both the magazines and the role of “housewife” itself. Only rarely does she step back to get any kind of broader take on what the women’s voices recorded in these pages might mean. Parts of the chapter on “The Worries”, for example, come across quite differently and often movingly, dealing as they must with distinctly unamusing topics such as poverty, birth control and depression. But even here, the historical leap-frogging tends to get in the way of any sense of change. Many of the quotations and full-page illustrations – mostly ads, since they had the best graphics – seem to have been chosen for their power to amuse enlightened modern readers. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get us anywhere new.

Inside Stories has instant appeal and readability, thanks in part to Godwit’s charming production. It also has impeccable references, bibliographies, a useful list of magazines and dates etc. I’m not suggesting it would be better if it were more scholarly or academic. It’s clearly not intended to be anything like, for example, Ann Oakley’s Housewife (1974), and it doesn’t need to be – it’s aimed at a much broader audience.

But what was ground-breaking about Housewife was its insistence that housewives and housework matter, that they’re an important part of our shared history. (Oakley later recalled how her original study proposal was greeted with incredulity and derision – how could anyone possibly think any of this was a fit subject for academic investigation?)

So what disturbs me most about Inside Stories is that, despite Walsh’s stated admiration for housewives, and the wealth of material she’s painstakingly unearthed, the tone and structure of her “wayward compendium” can’t help but imply that in the end, none of what’s recorded here really mattered very much.

 

Anne Else is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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