Sunday, October 4, 2009

Androgyny . . . or Humanity?

In one of my college classes, we did a gender-role activity. We were each given some blue and some pink stickers, and we were to stick one on the back of each student in the class, depending on whether we thought they were feminine (pink sticker) or masculine (blue sticker). At the end of the exercise, I had an exactly equal number of pink and blue stickers on my back, indicating that the class viewed me as both masculine and feminine. I took great pride in this impression of androgyny that I apparently conveyed. I didn’t utterly reject femininity, but I did enjoy challenging gender roles and flouted them whenever possible.

My mother, too, was a mix of feminine and masculine. She got her hair done and made herself new dresses. I remember some of her dresses, both store-bought and handmade, and she also had an extensive collection of costume jewelry, much of which I still have. But for everyday activities, I remember her mostly wearing jeans, shorts, t-shirts and cotton tunics. In fact, she typically bought men’s jeans, as she claimed that they were better made than women’s. She wore little or no cosmetics on most days, but sometimes put on makeup when she dressed up. I particularly remember a frosty pink lipstick that she was fond of wearing that perfectly matched one of her necklaces. But she might then top this outfit with one of her men’s hats.

In some ways, she had a significant masculine streak. She was no shrinking violet, demure and quiet. She was assertive, straightforward, and unafraid to speak her mind. She belched without apology, saying “you get to enjoy your meal twice.” Her laugh was loud enough to embarrass me when we were together in public. (But then, adolescents are embarrassed by almost anything, so this may not mean much.) She loved all kinds of physical activity and enjoyed being fit and strong. She took us hiking and camping and wasn’t afraid of getting dirty. She even pulled the ticks off of us afterwards without squeamishness and taught us how to kill them. She was not ashamed of her sexual desires and felt entitled to sexual pleasure. She seemed to get along better with men, and most of her close friends were men.

But at the same time, so much of what she did was quintessentially feminine work. Her letters are full of references to decorating her living spaces: making curtains, refinishing furniture and hardwood floors, wallpapering and painting. She was even paid for some wallpapering odd jobs, so she must have been quite expert at it. Even in college she talked about decorating her dorm room, but she seemed to really throw herself into the work of homemaking after getting married, enthusiastically redoing first their house in Chicago and then in Piscataway. I don’t remember many of her decorating projects, and I suspect that her passion for these “nesting” activities waned somewhat after my parents’ divorce. I do remember her doing over the bathroom in our Highland Park townhouse, though. It all started with a brightly colored, striped shower curtain. It must have reminded my mother of a circus tent, because the next thing I knew, she was painting balloons on the wall. Phrases like “Free Beer” and “Test Your Strength” were carefully outlined and painted. I remember her tracing the letters with stencils, lining them up precisely. The whole bathroom was circus-themed when she was done. I thought this room was wonderful; it was playful and fun and unique. We could bathe under the big top every day!

She cooked and sewed and gardened and put up preserves from the garden. I remember the dinner parties she and my father had, and I have no doubt that she did a great deal of cooking and planning for these soirees. Yet even here, her feminine and masculine qualities seem to blend seamlessly together. Take this story of a dinner party she and my father had while they were living in Piscataway:

We’ve just suffered another natural disaster. We had extremely bad rains last weekend . . . and on Friday in the middle of a dinner party for 10 I discovered the basement filling up . . . straight from the bottom . . . weel[sic], what could I do but change into jeans and ask the guests to be patient while I tried to fix up a pipe attachment to my new pump just attached to the sink in order to tie it into the sewer line which we just had installed for a mere $590! Don’t bother to understand the last sentence since, as a solution to the rising water, it barely rippled the surface (so to speak). So the dinner party went on and all had a good time. Afterwards the water was still there and coming, so we had to turn off the furnace (you know what that means – no heat, no hot water) On Sat. afternoon I finally got a stronger pump from a rental place and it and mine worked valiantly thru the night so on Sunday we could have installed a new furnace transformer, and on Monday the plumber could realign the plumbing I fiddled with, and on Tues. the dryer man could figure out why the dryer worked but didn’t dry. Unrelated to all this, the Volvo decided it needed a new battery . . . ! Ah so, some weeks are like that.
Nancy Driessel Stearns in a letter to her parents (Feb. 7, 1973)

I don’t think my mother went out of her way to flout gender roles. She wasn’t on a mission to overturn the system of gender norms. After all, the toys she got us as children were often conventionally gendered (a train set for my brother, a dollhouse for me), and she seemed to have no fear of embracing her own femininity. I think she just refused to be confined to the narrow slice of life traditionally allowed to women. She did what she wanted and what was needed – what seemed sensible, what was set before her – without worrying much about whether it was feminine or not. The dinner party story is a perfect example – the basement was flooding, so she needed to try to fix it. She didn’t fret about whether the hostess should be wearing jeans or whether it’s acceptable for a woman to do plumbing repair. She didn’t assume that her husband would take care of such things. She just waded in (literally) and did it. And then she came back up, served the dinner she had prepared, and got on with the party. Not feminine, not masculine. Just human. Just her.

Nancy Driessel Stearns, date and place unknown