I’m a William Carlos Williams fan. “This Is Just to Say” is a favorite; “Danse Russe” is another. There’s much to love about his body of work as a whole. But the poem I most enjoy teaching today’s female college students is “The Young Housewife”:
The Young Housewife
William Carlos Williams
At ten AM the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
At first, the students notice the young housewife’s vulnerability going out of doors “uncorseted.” The student readers, young themselves, identify with her ducking outside without getting fully dressed – to grab the newspaper, to grab yesterday’s mail, to let a friend in. “I’ve done that before,” they say. Eventually, one of the women will notice, “That’s kind of sinister the way he’s leering at her. Is he casing her house?” “Why does the speaker compare her to a fallen leaf?” I ask. The students arrive at the conclusion that the speaker sees her as “fallen” or guilty, and he finds it seductive. I let them in on the poem’s suggestion of the young housewife having an affair with a delivery man -- “the ice-man, fish-man.” We discuss whether the speaker is projecting this idea onto this woman for his own reasons, or if the poem is, that is, the poet? We discuss “the male gaze.” And when I finally note the “dried leaves” being crushed beneath the wheels of his car after he’s compared her to a fallen leaf, the room erupts in disgust. “What a creep!” one student pipes up. “Stalker!” another cries.
I remember being a thin, fairly attractive young woman. I remember how self-loathingly, painfully self conscious I was because of it. Everywhere I went, I felt eyes on me. Every guy I met, I wondered if he viewed me in a sexual way, or to what extent he did. Sometimes I wanted to rip their throats out. It felt inescapable, paranoia-inducing. It was rare I could relax and just be myself without worrying about how I was being perceived.
Although I was a child of the seventies, raised during second wave feminism, I grew up in the suburbs where traditional gender roles were imbedded deep in my psyche at home, in school, at church. These roles were so pervasive I couldn’t see them. Beneath the surface, a boiling anger set in. One of the predominant reasons for my anger was that society had told me two stories growing up. One: You can be anything you want to be. Two: You should be a womanly woman while you do it. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict there, but what I discovered was the gap between theory and practice. It was confusing, contradictory, impossible even to perform the gender roles expected of me AND to be great at whatever I wanted to be when I grew up -- that is, if I valued happiness at all.
For example, I worked at a high powered law firm in Chicago as support staff in my early twenties while I decided if I wanted to be a lawyer or professor. I was quick to notice that some of the highest billing attorneys in the firm were women, but none of them were partners. But more importantly, everyone in the firm considered them awful bitches. It’s lonely at the top indeed – especially if you’re a woman. Was that what I wanted to claw and scratch my way into?
In my early thirties, I went through a phase in which I was severely depressed and was prescribed medication that caused weight gain. In the matter of three months, I gained about thirty pounds. I was mortified. I rarely ate. I starved myself and dreamt about food, but the weight kept piling on. I had to buy new clothes.
Eventually, I healed emotionally. The depression passed. Eventually, I met my current husband and moved to New York. I finished my graduate schooling. And at some point along the way, I realized, “Wow, I’m actually comfortable in my own skin.” I’ve been overweight for eleven years now, and I’ve never been happier.
Some of this happiness comes from getting older, I’m sure. And some of it comes from happiness in my relationship and happiness in my job. But some of it, I maintain, comes from no longer assuming men are thinking of me sexually. Now, they are listening to what I have to say. I’m forty-two now, which lends a gal some authority. But I’ve personally found not being distractingly attractive anymore to be priceless. Sure, I have days where I wish I were thinner. But generally speaking, I’m far more comfortable without huge doses of the male gaze eating up my airspace. It’s troubling to me the extent to which we condone the creep in the car lurking about the young housewife’s home.
I wrote the above blog post before Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Santa Barbara Friday night, and now it seems appropriate to tie the post into the discussion of cultural misogyny that is erupting around these murders. See Jessica Valenti in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/24/elliot-rodgers-california-shooting-mental-health-misogyny See also this piece by Jess Zimmerman in The Archipelago: https://medium.com/the-archipelago/1bb065f76278