Sunday, January 16, 2011


     In Silences Tillie Olsen underlines a sobering fact: Prior to the late 20th century, all the great women writers in Western literature either had no children or had full-time housekeepers to raise the kids. Olsen, born in 1913, famously blamed the delay of her own writing career on the demands of domestic life.  "I know that I haven't powers enough to divide myself into one who earns and one who creates," she lamented.

     My home work ate my doggerel.

      Helen Hooven Santmyer, born the same year as Olsen, didn't have children, but the necessity to earn a living and support her aging parents during hard economic times put her nascent creative career on the back burner for decades.  Ever since she read Little Women at the age of nine, Helen wanted to be a writer. She even managed to publish a novel in her twenties. But when the Depression and World War II made life difficult for her parents, she returned to Ohio to take care of them. She moved in with her partner (a daring move in those non-gay liberation times) and worked as a librarian.  Only after a half a century did she finally find the time to turn back to writing. By then, she was living in a nursing home. When her  novel, ... And Ladies of the Club, written to celebrate the joys of small-town living,  hit the bestseller list, she was quoted as saying, "Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I'm such an old lady."  She was 88.

     Throughout the 20th century, women continued to be similarly sidetracked.

     Ellen Gilchrist, who was born in 1935, went through four divorces and bore three children before going back to school and taking up writing. On the eve of her 50th birthday, she won the American Book Award.
      Jean Auel, who was born in 1936 and had five children before she was 25, didn't start writing her epic novels until she experienced empty nest syndrome in her mid-forties.

     Poet Ruth Stone's first book of poetry was published when she was 49 in 1959. That same year her husband Walter committed suicide, thrusting the support of the family on her shoulders. Getting only temporary teaching jobs, she shuttled her three children from university to university, finally getting tenure -- at age 72 -- at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She retired in 2001 and only then was able to devote herself full time to poetry. In 2002, her collection In the Next Galaxy won the National Book Award. She was 87. Her latest collection, What Love Comes to: New and Selected Poems, was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

     So, has the situation changed for women in the 21st century?

     In the U.S., women still are the primary caregivers for parents -- and in-laws -- in need of help. Men do take a more active role in child raising (although I suspect women still carry most of the water), but the time spent by both parents on their children has increased (for better or worse). It still is hard for women to find rooms of their own.

     Both men and women have, however, more time to fulfill their dreams of writing a book, painting a masterpiece or becoming a rock star. In 1913, a male child in the U.S. had a life expectancy of 50.3; a girl was expected only to live until age 55. According to the United Nations, today a boy in the U.S. has a life expectancy of 75.6; baby girls are expected to live just over 80 years (80.8).  We rank, by the way, 36th in world life expectancy, just better than Portugal and worse than Cuba.  Japan heads the list at 78 years for males; 86.1 for females.


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