Friday, February 06, 2009

Women, Work, Wedlock

Over eighty years after Virginia Woolf delivered her famous lecture on Women and Fiction at Cambridge, which would become the impetus for her essay "A Room of One's Own," and a series of essays under the same title published a few years later, women still struggle to write and create in the world of men.

I was struck by this exchange, on the idea of "wives," in an interview with writer Mary Gaitskill (Bad Behavior, Veronica) in The Believer's February issue, conducted by Shelia Heti. I think Gaitskill's work is fantastic, mainly because of the way she deals with gender. I was lucky enough to talk to her once, and I said, "I like your books because you write about issues women deal with that remain taboo." And she said, "What issues?" And I said "Sexuality, body image, aging, drug-use, and violence." And she replied, "Oh, you think those are still taboo?"

Here's the excerpt, below.


SH: Do you ever feel like you would rather have been born a man, or are you happy to have been born a woman?

MG: I think, for my type of personality, I might have been better as a male. When I was a kid, I did want to be a boy. I didn’t like to play with dolls, and most of my friends were kind of sensitive, sissy boys. But as I got older, the mystique of being a girl began to interest me. It was confusing what sexuality was, and the responses of other people, but it didn’t make me feel terrified or vulnerable. Then once I got into being a girl I did like it, although I was very conscious of and angry about certain inequalities or ways that women were treated. I became aware of that early and I didn’t like it.

One thing I’m very envious of men for is when they get married—this is less true than it was, but I still think it’s true—their wife is going to help them. Look at Nabokov. He was a brilliant writer. He would have been a brilliant writer no matter what. But do you know how much his wife did for him? She did the shopping. They would drive to the store together—she would drive. She did all the dealings with the landlord, she shoveled the walk. She typed his manuscripts, she edited them. I don’t think most women would go that far, but women are far more willing to do the support work, which is really, really helpful. Virginia Woolf—I’m sure she would have been a great writer, regardless, but she had a lot of help, too. Leonard was a wife. That’s invaluable. Women do not have that very often.

Also, the fact that women are expected to have children and most of them want to have children. That is a lot of work. Men can have children and enjoy that and have the pride and love but they’re not expected to do most of the child-care and they don’t. Even if they want to, most children, when they’re young, the connection is with the mother more than the father.

My husband and I have a pretty mutually supportive relationship, but sometimes we joke about, Somebody needs to be the wife around here! Where’s the wife? Will somebody please be the wife! I mean, we sort of take turns being the wife to some extent, but both of us would really secretly like a wife.

SH: But would you have respect for a man who would be your wife?

MG: No! That’s the problem. I mean, I would appreciate him, but I think that most women—not all, but most women—would have some degree of difficulty with that, whereas men don’t.

SH: I would find it hard to be very sexually attracted to somebody who was doing everything for me.

MG: Well, Virginia Woolf and Leonard didn’t really—I mean, maybe they did, sometimes—but I don’t think that was their primary relationship.

SH: Is not having children part of wanting to write?

MG: Well, I never wanted children, up until my forties. Then at forty-one I got married and started to think of it. I think I still could have conceived. My sister had children when she was forty-three and I probably could have, too. If things had been different, we might have, but both of us were in very bad shape financially, and I had to teach, and I was trying to write Veronica, and it would have meant giving up being a writer, and I wasn’t in a position to do that for ten years. So it did involve a decision based on writing. It was something that I did feel a degree of sadness about, because children are wonderful. They are. And it is part of the gift that women have, that they can do that. Not being able to have a child is another way in which it’s hard for me to imagine being a man.

SH: Do you think it’s more of a role to be a man in the world than a woman?

MG: I don’t know. It’s certainly been the conventional wisdom. I think there’s a sense where you have to prove being a man, where you don’t have to prove being a woman. But I think there’s a great deal involved in the woman’s role as well, and having children is proving that you’re a woman. I think that if you don’t have children, people are very critical of your femininity. There’s a strong tendency to feel that a woman who doesn’t have children is somehow failing in her role as a woman.


I couldn't agree more with Gaitskill's feelings on the subject. Oftentimes, in a marriage, or relationship, there isn't room for both careers. And certainly the introduction of children compacts the situation. If both people have to / want to work, who looks after the kids? And if there's a financial problem or a strain, who takes the time off their busy schedule and career to help their partner? Who makes the sacrifice, and why?

The answer is that women conventionally do, even when they have a career. Especially when it comes to kids. This is changing, certainly, as some men elect to stay home for work for "paternity leave," or work less when their children are young. But what Gaitskill says about Nabokov is true. I like the idea of the inverse, in Woolf's case, or, more recently, the success of young "novelist" (as you can see by my use of quotes I am not a fan of her work) Marisha Pessl's debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Pessl's husband is fairly wealthy, and supported her while she wrote the book.

As a woman who wants it all: a successful career, a husband, children, and french bulldogs, these issues really cut like a knife. I'm wondering, readers, what your thoughts are on the subject. Do you think it's alright to accept support in order to write a book? Is housewifery a cop-out? Would you still respect your spouse if they waited on you hand and foot and devoted their life to supporting your career?

Woolf offered up a suggestion that every woman she have a room of her own and five-hundred quid a year if she wants to write. It's a nice idea, but does it work in 2009?


Anonymous said...

I couldn't respect a man who was waiting on me hand and foot, no. I think monetary support is wonderful, emotional support is necessary, but if my husband were to give up his own dreams for mine, I would feel guilty about it all the time. I suppose if he was a writer himself, and we supported each other in turns...
I think there still is that inequality in the idea of a "wife"... because as I write this, I'm imagining myself being the selfless wife of a writer, helping him discover his genius, and the idea doesn't seem as repulsive to me as having a man do that for me... how horrible that there is such a disparity and I didn't realize I held it!

But I don't hold it -- not consciously. I'd rather have a marriage where neither of us conforms to the other to the extent of living just for the other's dreams.

Oh, and I love reading your blog, btw.

Snobber said...

anon: i agree. me neither. i would feel guilty, too. but i don't think men feel that way when the roles are reversed. i think it feels natural for them.

thank you so much for reading!

maitresse said...

This is a great post, thanks for the Gaitskill excerpt. I was just complaining about this yesterday, though not in these terms. I was thinking in a more 19th century vein. As in, I need a servant. :)