Saturday, October 11, 2014

Class and Women Writers

Photo by Filip.
I spent over a decade in college studying English language and literature and then more time than that teaching undergraduates how to read, write, and think critically.

Now that I have left that career to be a gerontologist, I'm reading more books about aging, including a great deal of nonfiction about related topics of caregiving, living with an illness, late-life career changes, economic issues of aging, humor pieces, managing grief and gleaning wisdom and spiritual insight in late life.  

I try to read broadly on the topic of aging, but sometimes I discover big gaps in my reading selections.

What if Shakespeare had a grandmother?

As a British author, Woolf noted that there were far fewer female writers than male. She attributed this as primarily a matter of financing.
"All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point -- a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."  Virginia Woolf from A Room of One's Own.  (1929)
Part of her argument includes describing all the menial work Shakespeare's sister would be doing. She could possess talent that rivaled her brother's genius, but she would lack the time and space to write great works.

I have been thinking about Woolf's observation lately.  Why?  Recently, I've been reading about wisdom and spirituality achieved in late life, and I noted that many of the books I first selected on this topic were by men.

What if Joan Didion had a working class sister? 

Now that I am working through a pile of books on wisdom and spirituality written by mature women, I am noticing their lifestyle.  And I'm remembering running into overt mention of details denoting a privileged lifestyle when reading caregiving books written by established authors now caring for ailing parents or spouses.

The women who have the time and money to write well-marketed books usually include class markers in their prose that make them seem a bit alien to middle class readers.  At least I notice these details.

They talk about travel.  They have summer homes.  They go to catered dinner parties. They hire caregivers. They make regular trips to the salon to get facials and massages.  They socialize with famous people, whom they mention maybe a little too often by name.  They see a lot of specialists if they have health problems.  

When I read these class markers scattered among their insights about spirituality and aging, I find myself recoiling a bit.  Can I benefit from their life experience if the material conditions of their life differ so much from mine?  Or do people share enough universals regarding love, life, family, friendships, aging and illness that class differences really don't matter?

What if Studs Terkel had a sister? 

But then I wonder about the working class women or even middle class women and the wisdom and spirituality they have accumulated while doing menial labor jobs and working as hands-on caregivers (with no paid caregivers providing respite). Where are these women's stories?.

I keep thinking about Studs Terkel and the interviews he conducted with people from all walks of life. To a degree, the Facebook page Humans of New York recreates Terkel's mission. But I am eager to hear a diversity of voices across the economic spectrum.

I do concede that I found a few voices tucked here and there among books on aging I have read in the past four years.

As Gail Sheehy writes in Passages in Caregiving about her experience giving care and coordinating additional care for her ailing husband, she interviews other women.  She also specifically mentions how she and her husband have more resources for addressing his illness than many other people have.

In Dancing with Rose, Lauren Kessler sets aside her work as a journalist and college instructor so that she can train as a nurse's aid and work in a nursing home. (This book's premise reminds me a bit of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.)  Kessler works primarily with residents who have dementia.  Kessler--like Ehrenreich--also includes voices of some of her co-workers, who are providing good care to residents even though they are just barely making ends meet.  

I applaud women with the time and money to write who also take a broader view so that voices of women in more diverse situations can share their stories.

And maybe I need to start interviewing women and sharing their stories here.  Yesterday, I talked briefly with a women in her mid 70s who has worked as a certified nurse assistant for decades. She's worked in assisted living centers, nursing homes and in private homes.  Now she is also doing family caregiving for her husband and her son in addition to still caring for a couple of clients. I imagine that she has a lot of wisdom to share--if only she had the time, the money or the audience to make it happen.

I should ask her if she'll talk with me sometime.


Women's Voices on Spirituality and Aging
Books about Aging
Books on Aging and Spiritual Growth

1 comment:

  1. You should definitely interview that caretaker, and others like her. Sounds as if it could be a good book.