In her book Landscape for a Good Woman, the historian Carolyn Steedman describes her working class childhood in 1950s England. She does so not to tell another story of deprivation or to impart any great wisdom about what it means to be poor but to disrupt the narratives that labor historians and feminists have typically told about such childhoods.
She was illegitimate – the product of her mother’s attempt to persuade her recalcitrant boyfriend to marry her by providing him with children. It was a gamble that failed. Her mother longed for a different life and stared at the women who wore the “New Look” skirts Christian Dior popularized after World War II. She also resented the children that had failed to provide her with the life that she had desired. She incessantly reminded her two daughters about the long hours that she had spent in labor and told them about the things that she would be able to buy if they hadn’t come along.
Traditional labor historians have tended dismiss desires for material goods as a false consciousness that impedes the development of the working class as a political force. Steedman insists that we should take such desires seriously. Working class consciousness, she argues, is not so much the result of someone’s recognition of their relationship to the means of production as it is something that parents inculcate into their children through the expression of desires unmet and rendered impossible. Working class politics are as much a “politics of envy” as they are an expression of Marxism or a rejection of capitalism.
Historians also fail to deal with the complexities of Steedman’s family arrangement. Although her father was present throughout her life, he was only sporadically so. Her mother – ambivalent about the presence of her children and longing for a different life – was the dominant force in her life. As a result, the structures of patriarchy also seemed distant to her. Although she intellectually comprehended them, she had difficulty placing herself within this intellectual framework. It was a difficulty her father’s slim build compounded. Her father was never fully able to embody the patriarchy that society had ascribed to him. He was not a physically domineering man and held little real power within her household or without it. How, Steedman asks, do children learn about patriarchy when their fathers – the men who are supposed to embody that ideal – are unable to do so?
Steedman’s short work does not present alternative theories of class formation or the construction of patriarchy, nor did she mean for it do so. Rather, she sees it as a salvo against the idea that working class lives are uniform. She shows the multitude of ways in which the descriptions of patriarchy, class, and gender that she read during her undergraduate and graduate studies did not match her own life and offers those moments of disjuncture as places for other historians and scholars to begin their own work.
As I read Steedman’s book, I identified with her project personally and professionally. In her description of her life, I saw my own. I could empathize with the “politics of envy.” As a child, my favorite American Girl doll was Samantha, not because I saw my life reflected in her own, but because I wished my clothes were as delicate and fancy as hers. Likewise, my own father was largely absent from my childhood and although my mother remarried, I still understood that she was ultimately in charge of my sister and me. Patriarchy has always been something that I have understood as an intellectual idea but have had difficulty grafting onto my own life, which was largely inhabited by women.
I also understand her professional frustrations. As a scholar interested in Mormonism and women’s studies, professors have lamented that I seem reluctant to talk about polygamy as a literal production of patriarchy. Although part of my reticence may have to due with an insecurity about my knowledge of feminist theory, I have always felt that the models as we currently have them don’t fit. Mormon men were named patriarchs and could wield enormous power within their households, but they were also frequently absent on missions or visiting their other families. Steedman’s question about how patriarchy is produced in the absence of fathers is pertinent here. If Mormon men were frequently absent from the home, how did they maintain their power? How was patriarchy produced in the absence of literal fathers? In the absence of men, women were also frequently able to claim real spaces of power. How do we reconcile their frequently articulated feminism and occasional autonomy with the creation of patriarchy?
Steedman’s book and the experiences of Mormon women point to a complexity in the ideas surrounding patriarchy. Women sometimes exist in communities populated, not exclusively but primarily, by other women. In such worlds, how do we understand the maintenance of male power and recognize the existence of female agency? Like Steedman, I am without answers but look forward to trying to find some.