What’s in a Name? Women, Work and the suburbs



There was a girl at my suburban New York Catholic high school who really seemed to have it all.  She was a cheerleader (natch) – she may in fact have been captain of the cheerleaders, but this was a very long time ago and I could easily be exaggerating her status in retrospect. But she was definitely on the team.  Her boyfriend was a Senior when we were Juniors, and he was the darling both of the basketball coach and the math teacher who were known to hate pretty much everyone. She was blonde and quiet in a snotty sort of way, known to be quite clever, and besides all these god-given riches, she had two more attributes that represented  her unattainably, even unthinkably superior lifestyle: firstly her name was the unspeakably elegant, sophisticated and un-Long Island-sounding Cecelia,  and secondly, it was rumoured that Cecelia’s mother employed a housekeeper.

Looking back from where I am now, I realise that the two extraordinary traits for which we envied Cecelia the cheerleader are linked in an interesting way that has to do with women, work and immigration.  Like many suburbs of Manhattan, the neighbourhood in which I grew up in the 1970s and 80s was peopled for the most part by the descendents of the European diaspora that arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th century via Ellis Island, and you could generally tell how far removed you were from the shackles of the “old country” of your ancestors by your first name.  So for instance a middle of the road to Americanisation name like Mary, Margaret, Robert, Maria, John, Walter or Anne would tend to signify that your parents had been born in America, but their parents were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc.  while a name like Angelo, Siobhan, Helmut (that poor kid) or Analisa meant that the parents of those kids were what was to us then the most embarrassing of all creatures: relatives with an accent. The way such parents spoke was anxiety- provoking enough, but worse still to our cruel, tribal teenage eyes  were their old-fashioned ways of dressing, of decorating their homes and of course of cooking.  Shame befell the teen whose mother cooked authentic goulash instead of the hamburger helper kind the more Americanised moms were making, and horror belonged to the kid who brought a friend home after school only to have their mom feed them pirogues instead of twinkies for a snack.(Exceptions to this rule were allowed in the case of Italian families for everyone loves lasagne no matter who makes it or what their accent might be).

But generally speaking in my white working and middle class 1970s suburb, being  100% American (that is, just like the people we saw on television) was where it was at and everything else was cringe-worthy. And while most of our names reflected our links to some distant past in a country we never knew, we Margarets and Marys and Helmuts and Angelos longed for a name that represented our true allegiance to the one country we cared about: The United States of Television.  Names like Jennifer and Chad and Marilyn and Greg spoke to an idealised (and non-specific) heritage we wished to be ours, and Cecelia’s name seemed to represent the apotheosis of that form of white-bread Americana for which we had been prepared by the Brady Bunch, Petticoat Junction and the Partridge Family (Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Billie Jo, Bobby Jo and Betty Jo, Keith and Laurie Partridge were not eating cabbage soup or latkes at home, that’s for sure).(And BTW, Blonde haired, blue eyed Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie was meant to be Persian).

What’s funny is how the second of Cecelia’s unattainable attributes (the cleaning lady) haunted us just as much as her television-perfect name.  A housekeeper was something we saw on Hazel, on Nanny and the Professor, and of course, on the Brady Bunch (by the way, wtf was Carol Brady doing all day while Alice slaved in her pinafore and longed for a night out with Sam the Butcher? ) Like every kid  I knew (except the cheerleader whose name still arouses my ire) in our family we had just as many kids as the Bradys and Partridges but the idea of a housekeeper or cleaner was as distant and unlikely to us as being renamed Pippa .  And as a result some kid’s houses (like mine) were a continual source of anxiety, dread, remorse and sticky feet (the kitchen floor was rarely clean). And other kids who tended to be deeply afraid of their mothers had very clean houses, of which they (I figured then) must have been very proud, but which (I now believe) they actually couldn’t wait to get the hell out of.  And why is that?  I mean why is it that middle-class parents, many of whom were both working and had two or more cars and sometimes swimming pools and paid the fees for private Catholic education would never have dreamed of paying someone to clean their houses for them? I figure it has something to do with the proximity of many of our parents to the poverty of the previous generation, and in particular, to the poverty of many of their mothers, who, having arrived in the New World as children or young adults had to struggle with their accented English often in menial jobs that offered very little pay for seriously hard work, all so that they could the next generation of their families could have the American dream.  So while our parents enjoyed the relative luxury of only having to clean their own homes, their children, my generation, longed for the part of the American dream that meant we could make as much mess as we wanted and never, ever have to clean it up.  We wanted to be Marcia Brady goddamnit, or at least her cheerleader equivalent in the legendary Cecelia of Long Island. Back when the legal drinking age was eighteen (so half of high school seniors were old enough to go to bars) my boyfriend (who was eighteen) invited me to a party at a bar.  I was still seventeen.  I waited outside while he went in to borrow someone’s ID to bring back out to me.  He came back a few minutes later with – you guessed it – Cecelia’s driver’s license. We were of similar height and coloring, and anyway, in those days the license didn’t have a picture. I was both thrilled at sickened at the chance of pretending to be her and it took several minutes for my boyfriend to convince me to give it a try. I gathered up my nerve and walked brazenly into the bar with my fake id, for a moment inhabiting the Olympic heights of being a housekeeper-employing and television-name-bearing-goddess. But when I handed the id back to the real Cecelia with a thank you and she gave me one of her snotty smiles and I suddenly noticed that she had really bad teeth and her nose was crooked and her hair was actually kind of weird. In other words, Cecelia was really rather a lot like me (apart from my house being dirty and my name being Margaret.) And looking back now the idea that my vision of an ideal life came from Friday nights on ABC is both frightening and kind of funny, particularly as I seem to have spent much of my adult life researching the origins of words, images, and ideas, stripping away the false, the processed, the pre-digested in a variety of forms.  Like many women of my generation, I buy organic (sometimes) search out “authentic” ethnic recipes and ingredients that my own mother would not have recognised (but her mother might) and scoured the baby name books for “original” sounding names that reflect the childrens’ cultural heritage. Hell, I don’t even watch television anymore.  But lest I try to pretend that the Long Island girl has been entirely left behind, I confess that long ago I changed my name from Margaret to Meg.  And recently, I hired a cleaner.


I Got All My Sisters with Me: Why BFFs Matter


‘To yield readily— easily— to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.’
‘To yield without conviction is no compliment
to the understanding of either.’
‘You appear to me, Mr. Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection.’  ≈ Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

‘Nobody sees a flower reallyit is so small it takes timewe haven’t timeand to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’  Georgia O’Keeffe

‘It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.’  Marlene Dietrich

Women are hard-wired to be social in ways that not only reduce stress but help them stay healthier as they age.  In fact, not having strong bonds with family and friends is the equivalent of poison–as detrimental to physical well-being as smoking or being overweight, according to U.C.L.A. researchers.  ‘Social ties are the cheapest medicine we have,’ writes psychologist Shelley E.  Taylor, author of The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Our Relationships. Men typically rely on women for that protective shield of intimacy, often in marriage. But studies have shown that, for women, it doesn’t matter whether they are married or not, as long as they have close relationships. From Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to Sex and the City, where would we be without our girlfriends?

The Silence of Eve






I have been thinking in verse this week (as a way in to thinking about prose) about women and writing and here’s what came out.




Naming the animals

I have thought of silence for some time now,

imagined the space between us

disappear inch by inch,

or expand in exponents settling

at the average human distance:

abyss.  I like the sudden drop

when I turn off the street, shut my door

the squeal light bulbs make when even the cat

is sleeping.  But today I heard the sound of falling.

The quiet that followed the bite of the apple,

the slip out the gate

that gap before Adam first shouted her name.

Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield



I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).


That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:


‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)


This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.

Too Many Mothers





I don’t often get to the theatre, which is ridiculous as I live in London’s West End where every show is on my doorstep – but lack of time and money seem to collude to keep me away from the dramatic arts.  But last night I saw a great show – a new play called Reunion by playwright John Caine with really extraordinary performances by Peter Guinness and Roberta Taylor.  http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/

Here with a little blurb on each of them:
Peter Guinness is a hugely respected stage and screen actor. His recent theatre credits include; The Pianist (Manchester International Festival, Royal Exchange Theatre and Hong Kong Festival) and Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre). He has recently been seen on television in: Hidden, Zen, New Tricks, Ashes to Ashes, Silent Witness, Kipling: A Remembrance Tale, The Bill and Bleak House whilst his film work includes roles in Secret Passage, Greenfingers, Conclave, Sleepy Hollow, Christopher Columbus: the Discovery and Aliens 3.

Roberta Taylor has a rich and varied career in theatre and television and is probably best known for her work on Eastenders as Irene Hills and her portrayal of Gina Gold in The Bill. Her stage roles have included seasons at The RSC and Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as parts at The Royal Exchange and in the West End.

I have been friends with Pete and Rob for several years now, and my few outings to the theatre usually involve seeing them individually in various notable productions, but I have never seen them work together and they were mesmerising playing a husband and wife facing the ethical and judicial dilemma of assisted suicide after the husband has been diagnosed with and incurable degenerative disease. 

But I first got to know Roberta through her writing.  When I first met her about five or six years ago, I had been a fan of her acting for a decade, following her from Eastenders on, but when we sat next to each other at a mutual friend’s party, we talked about writing autobiography, and her then recently published memoir Too Many Mothers (2005). http://www.amazon.co.uk/Too-Many-Mothers-Roberta-Taylor/dp/1843543001

This wonderful book is miles away from the celebrity tell-all that you might expect from the rather un-literary cover image.  In fact, I won’t be giving anything away to say that it ends well before the young Roberta has any inkling of her future career, and not much hope of any kind of success at all. Too Many Mothers tells a true story set in south London in the 1950s, at once more intriguing and more shocking that any soap opera, of a family at war with itself and the outside world. From petty crime to pet monkeys, tender romance to emotional blackmail, illegitimacy, adoption and even murder.  For Roberta, travelling from her real South London childhood to the ersatz one she inhabited as Irene Raymond in Eastenders must have been a strange journey.  Unlike narcissistic and mainly ghost-written celebrity memoirs that tend to portray their subjects as “chosen” or “Special” or triumphing over adversity, and unlike much contemporary misery memoir, that feeds on the willingness of readers to side with victimised authors in their uncorroborated portraits of the past, Too Many Mothers,  written entirely by Roberta, and with style, offers enormous amounts of wry humour and a great deal of love for the family she writes about, admiration for their strengths and deeply felt compassion for their weaknesses. A gem of a book, and no assisted suicide in it at all.

Welcome to Writingwomen.org

Now all philosophers agree
That WOMEN should not LEARNED be
For fear that as they wiser grow
More than their husbands they should know.
Anonymous c. 1739

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.
Virginia Woolf, 1928

WritingWomen.org is an information sharing and discussion site devoted to the daily life of writing women, as well as to the history, practice, concerns, aesthetics, theoretical perspectives and life stories of such women from all cultures and time periods. I am a creative writer and an academic, and my own research expertise and personal interest is in American and British women writers in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. I have developed and now teach a course in this subject at Kingston University in London (see my short bio), and this site will become both a resource for my students and also a place for them to share their own work.

In addition to research-based academic writing, I also write creative non-fiction, poetry, and autobiographical fiction. And I am a woman. Over the last decade, I developed the department of Creative Writing and Kingston University and therefore have unique access to any number of well-known women writers. Likewise, in over a decade of teaching and researching English and American literature, I have come to know and learn from dozens of highly respected academic women. Over this period, many of these women writers, both creative and academic, have become friends and mentors, and I will to draw upon and share their knowledge and experience via this blog. Taking Virginia Woolf’s warning above as a guide, I hope to eradicate the anonymity and invisibility of women’s wisdom and women’s voices, by both sharing and listening to the words of my sisters.

The aim of the blog is two-fold and reflects these two different “hats” I wear when I am writing and thinking about writing:

The first is my “Creative Writer”hat:
Writingwomen.org aims to offer daily inspiration to those women who, like me, consider themselves to be writers – whether they are published professionals, secret scribblers or something in between.
Such inspiration will come in the form of wise words my students and I have collected over time from contemporary and historical writing women, including free access to podcasts of bespoke interviews I will undertake with many well-known women writers. I will also share a bit of my own daily writing practice and the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish short stories, non-fiction, poetry and literary fiction for commercial and general trade publishing.

The second is my “Academic Writer” hat:
Writingwomen.org aims to offer links to current, cutting edge research in the field of women’s studies, literature and history by, about and for women. Such information will come in the form of links to key influential and contemporary studies in these areas, and in podcasts and interviews with academic women writers. I will also share a bit of my own academic writing practice and offer insights into the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish academic writing with University Presses and peer-reviewed journals.
I look forward to hearing from you!