It’s where modern woman finds herself today: she can’t cling to a child and she can’t cling to a career, but she certainly needs to hold something to call her own.
In the olden days, a century or more ago, a woman did not live as long, did not have many choices in the life that she lived, and she did not too often contemplate what to do with her life. Life decided that matter for her.
Undoubtedly, she had dreams. Perhaps marriage was a dream. I think what was more important to her was whether she could find a man to marry who would help her to fulfill her dreams. That possibility -- finding someone to help her dreams come true -- might have been a dream in itself back then; and it might persist as one today, even with all of the “progress” made by modern women.
Many women today take for granted having been granted the freedoms and the opportunities to fulfill all kinds of dreams. Such an attitude of ingratitude is the first step toward the sabotage of the fulfillment of any dream. There are now almost as many ways for any woman to scotch her dreams, as there are women and dreams!
The opportunity to pause and reflect has become the compulsion to reflect-in-the-mirror, pause to look at Self; reflect-in-the-mirror, pause to look at Self; reflect-in-the-mirror, ad nauseam. When I spotted at an online retailer a neon-ish fabric design of Queen Elizabeth I in a Selfie pose, my first thought was: How preposterous!
That woman would not have taken a Selfie! True, she was a bit obsessed with the whiteness of her skin (and I do believe the lead in that white plaster foundation was part of what did her in!). But the Virgin Queen hardly approached the narcissistic state of any modern Queen of the Pop Tarts!
The sense of self that women of bygone eras possessed was a rare possession indeed. It was born early in life, nurtured slowly but firmly, and displayed only upon necessity, not often with desire. Modesty did not mark the woman of antiquity but she knew well how to play her cards close to her chest, or bosom. Out of the sheer need to survive, she developed a steely center that formed her rudder through life, an existence that was certainly filled with uncertainty.
I knew elderly female relatives, born circa 1900 or even a decade or two before. If they survived childhood, a phase replete with deadly illnesses such as influenza; and if they survived childbirth, which could easily kill a woman before labor, if not during or just after; if they faced the vexations and vicissitudes of marriage and of child-rearing, and if they prevailed over them -- those women then had the opportunity to face the rest of their lives.
A woman either soared through those years with cheerful productivity or she capsized in her own ocean of pure emotional agony. The tormented woman bewailed this stage that seemed to suddenly be sprung upon her – to make a life for herself – and yet that choice had always been there – the duty to create “something to call her own.”
No one is going to hand to any person, woman or man, the opportunity to create a world in which she feels “at home,” to develop “something to call her own.” Sometimes, a woman must forge her identity - and her dreams - despite the reality that surrounds her. Oftentimes, it is the daring to dream that defines the dream. The desire to fulfill her dream depends on the strength and the courage and the will of the dreamer.
These women of the long ago did not have the “liberation” that modern females consider to be “equal pay, equal opportunity, equal everything.” They had few rites of equality, only rites of passage to places that were largely not of their own pursuit. They held dreams and hopes that remained often unfulfilled, perhaps even unexpressed.
Every time an elderly aunt showed me a new skill in sewing on her old black metal Singer machine, I saw within her eyes the dreams that had almost died. I heard in the impatience of her voice the fear that time was running out on her. The dimming of her hopes measured the ticking of that body clock.
Somewhere along the way, the girl that used to be, the child that was – had been lost along that way, and there was no getting her back, no matter how hard this aging woman tried. The sense of her flower in bloom had been misplaced or forgotten.
Maybe I, this girl not yet in bloom, would be able to fulfill that portion of her sacrificed self. Perhaps I could voice a measure within the missing, unwritten score of her life, this song that soon would no longer echo any dreams gone by, dreams gone forever. The one fervent hope remained that I could find a fragment of those fading dreams and weave them together to redress the balance through this beautiful dress that I was designing and sewing: my creation would recreate a vision of lost time.
With the mere fashioning of fashion, I could create the vision of a future life that this woman could no longer see, would soon not see. Her visions had not really left her; she’d left them, but it was too painful for her to confess this solitary sin: she’d abandoned the girl she’d once been. That girl had held the key to “something to call her own.”
As a girl, I knew many elderly and aging women with this muted yearning. I recall with a wistful smile an Italian widow and mother. She lived in a brand-new house, one that had just been built, complete with all of the modern appliances that have been so responsible for the liberation of women.
And in the living room, which she called her “parlor,” she sat on the piano bench in front of her old, dark wood upright piano. Adorned in a floral housedress, she played “Oh, Promise Me” and sang to her own accompaniment. Her voice was thin in its high pitch and scratchy as she sang the lyrics, but each word was wrought with passionate sorrow.
I did not look at this plump, gray-haired woman as a widow or as a mother. I saw her as a person who, late in life, was keeping alive a spark of a dream in her eyes each and every time she saw those notes of the sheet music. She held “something to call her own” each and every time that her soul gave voice to those words of romance, written in 1889 for what is called an “art song.” I believe that this young old woman was creating art from the song that had been her life.
She once made a bonnet for me from the most wondrous midnight blue velvet and corduroy. It was a Victorian bonnet and it was completely out of fashion in the early 1970s. I wore it every day during the next few winters of my young life, until I no longer saw this woman in the final winter of her life.
Those women of a bygone era lived busy lives, marked by joys and fears and woes, parties and parades, funerals, feasts, and feats of quiet courage. Their days had proceeded calmly, for the most part, perhaps too calmly. They’d been happy, for the most part. And it was that smaller part, the silenced part that, as time passed by, would not remain small or silenced. This portion within each woman knew that she had not worked to obtain “something to call her own.”
Acquiring or developing that “something” is not merely a matter of money or time or opportunity, freedom or fortune or lack thereof. I’ve observed the poorest of women regale themselves in their older years with an indomitable sense of self, that “something to call her own,” which was utterly deficient in women of comfort or of means who wore their sense of indignity like a badge of honor. And so I determined that the impetus for that magical mastery within the female psyche comes from a sense of fulfilling a talent or a skill that is unique to each female.
I’ve not read “A Room of One’s Own,” by Virginia Woolf (I was too busy working to pay for a room of my own). I have, however, read just about all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, many of which deal with the perplexing problems caused by the strength and independence of women. I’ve always found it amusing that Mr. Shaw was a misogynist, as well as a misanthrope, and yet he got to the root of a female psyche quite well.
When we have what we want, we are not fully happy; when we have what we need, we are content. Happiness is perhaps a male attribute. Fulfillment does not connote the fixed state of “being there” that induces happiness. Likewise, triumph is good; but it is a final step. It is finite. Whatever has been overcome is behind you; the triumph separates you from the past but it also demarcates you from the future. You must then create the path that takes you to the next level, the next phase. You must plough your own furrow.
Ascendency, success, mastery: those actions are continuous and evolving. Those actions are the movements of the ploughshare tilling the soil.
Women in the United States today are blessed with freedoms that were unheard of in this country 100 years ago. Such freedoms are still non-existent in many other parts of the world. It seems to me then that freedoms alone are not the fundamental building blocks toward “something to call her own.” Many a female remains trapped within her own mind, regardless of the liberties given to her in a free land.
One of the most arduous and emotionally costly feats for anyone, but especially for a female, is to permanently leave her place of birth for a distant and foreign land. There is always a part of her “back there.” She can attempt to compensate for the void; she can find new vistas, new views, but the sight of the land she loved as a girl is encased, or perhaps entombed, in her memory. This female as a woman will often work diligently toward something to call her own simply because what was her own – her native land – is no longer her own.
It then appears that a certain amount of deprivation or privation is the impetus to not only creating “something to call her own” but it is the key to nurturing it, enriching it, and tending to it like the farmer with the backyard garden that feeds his family. To know there is something there – inside – to return to each night after the baby is put to bed, or the lights turned off and the doors locked – that place is where a woman returns to know that she is safe, that she is real, that she is necessary.
With all of the demands placed upon any woman today, the greatest demand is the one that she still tends to ignore – the demand to provide for herself “something to call her own.” All of her joys and inspiration for life inevitably spring from that one portion within herself, the nourishing space where she feels “at home.”
It is my hope that each woman finds the quiet moments within a busy day to hear those promptings of her heart. And may she answer back: “I understand.” From that tender understanding comes the first small steps, baby steps if you will, toward that “something to call her own.”