The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity

The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity

The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity

The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity

Synopsis

The Parlour and the Suburb challenges stereotypes about domesticity with a reevaluation of women's roles in the 'private' sphere. Classic accounts of modernity have generally ignored or marginalized women, relegating them to the private sphere of home, sexuality and personal relationships. This private sphere has been understood as a gendered space in which a non-modern femininity is opposed to the masculine world of politics, economics, urban life and the workplace. The author argues, however, that home and private life have been crucial spaces in which the interrelations of class and gender have been significant in the formation of modern feminine subjectivitiesFocusing on the first half of the twentieth century, The Parlour and the Suburb examines how women experienced and understood the home and private life in light of modernity. It explores the identities and self-definitions that domesticity inscribed and shows how these were central to women's sense of themselves as 'modern' individuals. The book draws on a range of cultural texts and practices to explore aspects of domestic modernity that have received little attention in most accounts of modern subjectivities.Topics covered include suburbia, consumption practices, domestic service and the wartime figure of the housewife. Texts examined include a range of women's magazines, George Orwell's Coming up for Air, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, BBC Home Service's 'Help for Housewives' and oral history narratives.

Excerpt

Two very different representations of domestic identity led to the questions I explore in this book. the first is a photograph of my mother, taken sometime around 1950 and the second is a popular fiction of the 1970s, The women'ss Room. the photograph was taken by our next door neighbour, an amateur photographer who submitted work to competitions and exhibitions. It is not a family snapshot but a glossy posed composition. in it my mother is wearing an apron, a ‘pinny’, round her waist, on her feet she has a pair of carpet slippers and in her hand a cigarette. She appears to be presenting herself through an iconography of the ‘working-class housewife’ that is found in documentary photography and films of the period. Why? My mother was extremely conscious of her class and intellect: she took a law degree at Manchester University in the 1930s, her husband was a solicitor, and her father was partner in a legal firm. Throughout her married life my mother struggled with the tensions produced by the demands of housewifery and motherhood, and the aspirations generated by her education and background. Intellectually and socially snobbish, why did she choose to be represented as ‘just a housewife’ at this specific historical moment? Asking why a proudly middle-class woman would willingly present herself in the garb and dress of the working-class housewife in this period immediately after the war led me to think about the cultural meanings and identities that attached to the figure of the housewife in the first half of the twentieth century.

The second trigger for the ideas in this book, Marilyn French's The Women's Room, was first published in Britain in 1978. It quickly became a best-seller and, according to the blurb on the back cover, was ‘the most important novel yet written about the realities of life experienced by today's women … a landmark… of our developing consciousness’ (French 1978). the novel, endorsed by Betty Friedan, as ‘the best novel yet about the lives of women’, tells the story of a group of women who reached adulthood in the 1950s, bought into the American Dream of marriage and motherhood, but, through education and politics, gradually come to understand the ways in which this dream is oppressive to women (French 1978). the novel traces the development of a feminist consciousness in the narrator, Mira, and explores the tensions that result from attempting to live outside the orthodoxies of the time. Along with Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the women's Room attacked, what it saw as, a stifling suburban domesticity that was entirely damaging to women, particularly college-educated women. At a crucial moment in the novel . . .

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