My mother, a wonderful woman in many ways, a loving presence in the lives of my sisters and me, had a major flaw. She was a sexist. One particular adage I remember from my childhood was "a man's place is not in the kitchen." The implication, of course, was that a woman's place was, in the kitchen and the nursery and the bedroom. My father was far from a tyrant. He and my mother were simply products of their time. They represented the ethos of the mid-twentieth century.
Even as the sexual and political revolution of the 1960s raged, women were secondary figures. The men wrote the manifestos; the women ran the mimeograph machines (if anyone can remember those mechanical dinosaurs).
Two decades earlier, a different arrangement prevailed. During WWII millions of women went to work. They made airplanes and delivered them to the fighting men, ploughed the earth and harvested the crops, ran offices, and served in government positions. They were often treated as second-class citizens, but many of them came to realize their worth. Then the war was over, millions of men suddenly out of uniform went looking for jobs, and governments feared another Depression. The solution, male officials decided, was to send women back where they belonged, yes, the kitchen, the nursery, and the bedroom.
This official line was buttressed by more subtle messages. The easy-to-move-in fabric-rationed clothing of the war years gave way to Dior's New Look that wrapped a woman in yards of skirt and made it impossible to do anything but stand still. Women's magazines that had run recipes to get dinner on the table in twenty minutes now published "haute cuisine" that would keep a woman in the kitchen for hours. But here is the ironic and delicious upshot of that conspiracy. The daughters of the women whose worldly ambitions were thwarted after the war grew up to be the feminists of the 1970s who fought for their freedom and rights.
The story of women's ups and downs at the hands of male dominated society is crucial to their continued struggle for self-realization. We must write it. We must read it. We must educate our daughters in it.
There have always been women who broke the mold that men shaped for them. I have written about some of them. Margaret Sanger's lifelong battle to legalize contraception made it possible for women to plan their educations, their careers, their lives. Eleanor Roosevelt devoted herself to social and racial justice and individual dignity. These women and their ilk have been my models.
I have also created fictional women whose battles were more personal. As Camus told us, fiction is the lie that tells the truth. While their stories are not autobiographical, the inspiration for them is. I was raised to be one kind of woman. I have struggled all my life to be another kind. I find solace and camaraderie in the experiences of other women, both real and fictional, who have waged the same war, suffered similar setbacks, and celebrated occasional triumphs.