Crushing on Shirley Jackson

It always surprises me when I come across a major author of whom I’ve never heard.  I’m a serious reader and even if I haven’t read someone’s work, I’ve usually heard of him or her but what I’m increasingly discovering is that that the “hims” of the world have been way more advertised than the “hers.”  Recently I’ve encountered two prominent women writers who I’d never heard of before—why is that?  Our patriarchal world—whether in politics or literature—heavily favors men, with a few women thrown in during the last two decades to relieve the conscious of the men who have decided who and what to include in the cannon?

One woman I recently discovered is Shirley Jackson.  I must have heard her name or of one of her stories before, but I have no memory of it.  But I’m deep into her body of work right now, brief as it may be.

Betty Friedan mentions Shirley Jackson in the Feminine Mystique, deriding her as a “housewife.”  She says of Jackson (and Jean Kerr and Phyllis McGinley) that as they “picture themselves as housewives, they may or may not overlook the housekeeper or maid who really makes the beds.  But they implicitly deny the vision and the satisfying hard work involved in their stories, poems, and plays.  They deny the lives they lead, not as housewives, but as individuals” (Friedan, 108).

As someone who has devoted countless hours to housework and raising two children while also slipping in time to do paid labor teaching and mostly unpaid labor writing, I believe that you can’t separate the two—and nor should you.  Friedan calls these ladies “housewife writers” but all that does is perpetuate the patriarchal view of the world that dominates everything about our lives—still, in 2016, when we are at last looking at a female president of the U.S. of A.

It would be lovely, as Friedan is assuming here, if women could find a subservient people (our husbands?) who would spend their time primarily caring for house and family, freeing females to do the work they want, plus have time for hobbies and interests.  Those “lesser” people (the husbands) could then fit their “extra” work in the cracks between.   But even if this dream was possible, and I’ve yet to meet a man hankering to be a househusband, that simply perpetuates the patriarchal paradigm.

Perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm.  Women have pushed at the glass ceiling, it’s true, but usually with the broom they are holding in their hand because they’ve just finished sweeping the floor.  I don’t know how to shift the way we look at paid work versus home/family unpaid work.  Perhaps some relationships have it figured out.  I certainly do not.

But instead of mocking writers like Shirley Jackson who managed to write, win awards, and raise four children, we ought to hold them up as symbols of women’s ability to overcome all that a male-dominated world throws at us.   Shirley Jackson wrote AND tended a house and family.  And that’s a hell of a lot more than most men could ever manage.