OK, I can hear a resounding chorus of, “Who?” It’s not surprising. Phyllis McGinley, a poet of what was termed “light verse” focusing mainly, without irony, on the joys of housewifery and suburban living, died in 1978. That’s before many of the people interested in the Mothers’ Movement were born or, if they had alighted on the planet already, before they were much concerned with pay equity and work/family life balance. Even to me, who in that year was juggling marriage, motherhood, graduate work, co-op nursery school participation and the mighty task of trying to coax my family from refined carbs to whole grains, her name rang a very dim bell. I had to read the essay to recall her work at all.
Phyllis McGinley wrote in praise of the everydayness of things. Dalmatians foraging for winter bones and the canvas chair coming out of storage were material for “June in the Suburbs,” one poem in her 1954 volume “The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley,” a collection that went into seven printings in hardcover. In another poem entitled, “The 5:32,” a woman describes the time spent at the train station, waiting for and greeting her husband at the end of his work day, as, “This hour best of all the hours I knew.” McGinley was quoted as saying things like, “A hobby a day keeps the doldrums away.” She married in her early thirties and happily decamped to Larchmont, where she and her husband raised two children. By all accounts she loved being married, entertaining, the whole warp and woof of family life. The picture in the Times shows her in classic suit and jewelry, leaning against an evenly-slatted fence with flowering trees behind her. She is smoking a cigarette. Well, it was probably the early ‘60s.
Betty Friedan disapproved, if not of the lifestyle then of the glorification of it. She and McGinley engaged in something of an early version of the either/or split that the media so adores. Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, in which women were cautioned about the stifling dead-endedness of being solely a wife and mother. McGinley countered with A Sixpence in Her Shoe, in which she insisted that being a housewife, rather than being seen as a difficult or wrenching job, should be recognized as a worthy profession requiring the same skill and intelligence as other honorable and rewarding work. A Democrat, social liberal and believer in choice on the question of abortion, she also supported women’s right to choose how they wish to live their lives. She deplored the guilt she was beginning to see among young women who did not have the fire in their bellies to spearhead a social revolution or storm the executive office, who felt devalued by their wish to devote their time to their homes and families.
But what is missing in this discussion is the economic reality of “choice.” The post-war suburban push was on in 1954, when McGinley’s love letter to domesticity was published. As a child in a crowded Brooklyn neighborhood in that year, I remember playing games with my girlfriends in which we fed our dolls while wandering through make-believe spacious homes, watering our gardens and applying make-believe lipstick to greet our husbands when they returned from work. These pretend husbands, of course, all had jobs that could support this happy lifestyle. If we knew about commuter trains at that time, which I’m sure we didn’t, we probably would have thought these men all arrived on the 5:32 like the man in the McGinley poem.
But today we know that most commuters cannot afford to live close enough to a city to be home by 5:30. We know, too, that careers often demand 60-hour-plus workweeks, making the thought of arriving home before 8 PM a memory of a distant time. Most importantly, we know that women who depend on this household arrangement for their financial security often find themselves, for various reasons, struggling on diminished Social Security and pensions when they reach middle to old age. Add the fact that our country’s limited to non-existent tangible recognitions of the demands of family life have forced many women who could earn well out of the workforce and this noble profession of housewife/mother becomes a rather risky one indeed. Even if a woman on any part of the economic spectrum wishes to take control of her economic security, old attitudes about women and work can still stack the deck against her. It’s ironic that McGinley died the year before Lilly Ledbetter began working at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Alabama, the company whose blatant gender discrimination against her has led to our being close to passing a Fair Pay Act in the near future. It has only taken 30 years.
As Friedan pointed out, whatever she was on the page, McGinley in the flesh was no traditionalist. In 1961, her “hobby” won her the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She sold children’s books and magazine articles as well as poetry, and, at a time when a woman’s working outside the home was considered threatening to many, her income eclipsed that of her husband. When she and her husband entertained, their guest list included poets, writers and critics. Most women, then and now, do not have access to such stimulating company and economic security.
Friedan’s point is well taken, but maybe she did not get the whole picture of Phyllis McGinley. By all accounts, McGinley loved the life she was able to choose, but there are hints of another understanding. Her poems are not always blithe. There is a sardonic tone to some of them. In the poem, “Occupation: Housewife,” she describes a woman keeping up her end of the deal – staying pretty, raising the children well, enjoying the occasional concert – who also thinks about how she could have been a painter or a writer. But she married young. The poem ends by noting how the woman “delays the encroaching desolation of her days.” Signs of regret? Of “what if”? Of ambivalence? Recognition that all is not always what it appears? I see here a poet who saw that happiness and melancholy sometimes must coexist, and that choice can be more complicated than it seems.
We can learn a lot from both Friedan and McGinley separately. We can learn more from them, taken together.