9th 2010
An organic cotton layette of one’s own? (Srsly?)

Posted under: art, European history, Gender, weirdness, women's history

Who's afraid of my non-motherhood?

Since we’re on the topic of “the ideal of the good mother” and her evil twin, the “bad mother,” and on the erasure of women’s history and feminist history in particular, I thought I’d share this trenchant observation from The Rebel Lettriste:

I have found the hipster baby store in my hometown, and its ethos and title just make me laugh. Let’s just say that it’s named after a certain famous feminist writer who wanted to have her own space in which to write. The store–which sells $16 baby hats made of organic Egyptian cotton, and sponsors mom meetups and classes on how to set up your nursery in JUST the right way–is named after this writer and her famous room. The owner advertises herself as having been a women’s studies and English major. And yet. The writer for whom this store is named never had children, probably didn’t want any children, and found her sister’s endless reproduction a little horrifying. She knew that having babies would destroy her ability to be a writer. She is not exactly the postergirl for adorably upper middle class stay-at-home moms and their perfectly outfitted babies. And let’s not forget that she suffered terribly from mental illness and eventually committed suicide. But who cares about that! Those little baby hats are so cute, and the store is so soothingly organic and English-y!

What was the store owner going for with this maneuver of naming her baby store after a famous non-mother?  There aren’t all that many famous English women writers who were also mothers, alas–The Brontes, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and even the famously twee Beatrix Potter all were confirmed non-mothers.  Mary Wollstonecraft’s motherhood famously put an early end to her life.  Agatha Christie had one daughter, whom she had to support through her writing after her first marriage fell apart.  My guess is that the famous writer in question would be horrified to see her name repurposed to sell high-end nursery gear.

What I find really fascinating about this–even moreso than the Rebel Lettriste–is the erasure of feminism and alsothe retro-application of motherhood.  What else could be implied?  These would appear to be allied strategies:  to ignore the feminism and mommify the author in one blow.  Well played.  To the contrary, this distorted vision of the author in question may very well be “the postergirl for adorably upper middle class stay-at-home moms and their perfectly outfitted babies,” after all.


26 Responses to “An organic cotton layette of one’s own? (Srsly?)”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 09 Jun 2010 at 8:34 am #

    There are SOOOO many things that I want to say about this, but I should probably hold back. I will say that Woolf’s attitude to motherhood/mothering was *powerfully* shaped by her own upper-middle-classness and by the death of her mother (Julia Stephen) when Woolf was just 13 years old. I will say that I found this sentence in TRL’s extract a little weird: “The writer for whom this store is named never had children, probably didn’t want any children, and found her sister’s endless reproduction a little horrifying. She knew that having babies would destroy her ability to be a writer.”

    1) While we don’t know much about Woolf’s personal desires in relation to children, it is the case that her doctors strongly advised her against child-bearing, which they thought would exacerbate her mental illness. In other words, I think we’ve got to be careful about characterizing Woolf’s stance about her own reproductive life without attending to the fact that all of these figures of authority did everything they could to stop her from becoming a mother. Woolf speaks much more about lack of education, independent income, and intellectual resources as an impediment to women’s writing than she does about motherhood as an impediment to women’s writing. From all accounts, Woolf enjoyed children, and she had close relationships with her nieces and nephews.

    2) I assume TRL is talking about Vanessa Bell here, but I’d hardly call having three children “endless reproduction.” It is true that in diaries and letters Woolf often will be quite catty in her statements about Vanessa and mothering, but it’s important to note that their relationship was exceptionally competitive and that Woolf has a tendency to be quite cutting about those with whom she perceives a rivalry (her comments about Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce come to mind).

  2. Dame Eleanor Hull on 09 Jun 2010 at 8:54 am #

    How about Elizabeth Gaskell? I’d totally buy gifts for all my child-ed friends at a shop called Mrs Gaskell’s.

  3. The Rebel Lettriste on 09 Jun 2010 at 9:20 am #

    Oh, Dr. Crazy!
    You are right, and you are the expert on all things Woolfian. (My comments were made largely based on Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of VW. But I am not a Modernist in the least.) So much of VW’s life was colored by her mental illness. Including her end: the stones in her pockets and the river Ouse.

    Perhaps the store could also sponsor a Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton reading series, called “The Gas Oven, or, How I Learned to Love Being a SAHM.”

    Or perhaps there should be a mommy shop called “The Yellow Wallpaper?” You could buy Xanax in little steam-punk vials, next to the cash register.

  4. Dr. Crazy on 09 Jun 2010 at 9:23 am #

    TRL – The Lee biography is a good one – I just thought that I should pipe up since I had some relevant background material in my head :)

    I LOVE your ideas for the reading series and the mommy shop called the Yellow Wallpaper :)

  5. rootlesscosmo on 09 Jun 2010 at 9:23 am #

    I think “English” and “literary” have come to be signifiers that don’t have much to do with England or literature. They evoke a mythical past in which everyone was white, and no one was poor except the servants, who were content with the station to which (as the Book of Common Prayer said–and wasn’t everyone Anglican?) it had pleased God to call them, and even murder, as in the endlessly recyclable stories of Agatha Christie, was genteel. In this PBS theme park called England-land, the heartbreak and distress in Woolf, like the money and status calculations that haunt Austen’s characters, are unwelcome. On this supposition the store owner is announcing to her clientele that she’s selling up-market goods for up-market Moms who wouldn’t mind looking like that famous image of Woolf–delicate, pensive, porcelain-skinned, well-bred; whether they’ve read A Room of One’s Own or <Mrs. Dalloway is immaterial.

  6. Historiann on 09 Jun 2010 at 10:05 am #

    A-HAHAhahahahahaha! I’m laughing my a$$ off at the idea of a kitchen store named after Sylvia Plath and/or Anne Sexton. (Sexton, BTW, was brilliant–she wrote a series of poems based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales at one point–not quite for the kiddies, if you know what I mean, but fascinating for the grown-ups.)

    Maybe the chic swimwear shop should be named after Virginia Woolf, instead?

  7. rootlesscosmo on 09 Jun 2010 at 10:33 am #

    a mommy shop called “The Yellow Wallpaper?”

    The Golden Notebook for all your gracious staionery needs.

  8. Z on 09 Jun 2010 at 10:37 am #

    LOL, this conversation is all so funny and clever!

  9. Indyanna on 09 Jun 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Wollstonecraft, it should be said, was a pretty committed mother, even if the pronouncements of two of the head doods in her life; viz., that she was “ever a worshiper of domestic life” (William Godwin), and given to exercising a “parental sort of care” over a variety of relatives (Joseph Johnson), considerably exceed the mark. She also orchestrated the rescue of a depressive post-partum sister from a dysfunctional spouse when that automatically meant never seeing the child again, and didn’t hesitate herself to return to sender a foster child who failed to meet her behavioral standards. She usually managed to find child care assistance for her own daughter. An interesting anecdote by a friend, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, of first meeting her on the streets of Paris in revolutionary chaos in 1795: He and a friend “joined a lady who spoke English, and who was followed by her maid with an infant in her arms, which I found belonged to the lady… [B] whispered [to] me that she was the author of the ‘Rights of Woman.’ I started! ‘What!’ said I, within myself, ‘this is Miss Mary Wollstonecraft, parading about with a child at her heels, with as little ceremony as if it were a watch she had just bought at the jewelers. So much for the right of women, thought I. But upon further inquiry…’,” he changed his opinion.

    Three months later the same team (Mary, daughter, and maid, sans Rowan) charged off into Scandinavia trying to track down a missing treasure ship. Maybe a good name for an Arctic Extreme Sports equipment shop, then?

  10. Roxie on 09 Jun 2010 at 11:06 am #

    Oh, dear, I can’t come up with anything but Beloved, and I really don’t think any mom-to-be would want to shop there. :-(

  11. Historiann on 09 Jun 2010 at 11:24 am #

    A-HAHAHAHahahahaha again. I don’t care if it’s in bad taste–it’s hi-larious.

    Beloved, indeed.

  12. The Rebel Lettriste on 09 Jun 2010 at 11:30 am #

    “Babies haunting your dreams?” Come to our infertility workshop on Beloved!

  13. EnglishAdjunct on 09 Jun 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    I’m cracking up at all these names, especially
    “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which, for some reason, brings to mind that scene in Trainspotting with the baby on the ceiling.

    Creepy babies aside, a “hipster” baby store? Must hipsters get into everything?

  14. Katrina on 09 Jun 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Not all of the women writers mentioned were childless by choice of course – and Charlotte Bronte was pregnant with her first child when she died (at 38).

    Regarding hipster baby fashions (ugh, they are in my street too). It could be worse, the store could be called “The Turn of the Screw”, or “Children of the Corn Organics”.

  15. Historiann on 09 Jun 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Katrina, thanks for the intel on C.B. I never knew she was pregnant when she died.

    How’s this: infant and child twinwear by The Shining?

  16. Tree of Knowledge on 09 Jun 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    This thread is hilarious.

    Angela Carter did have a kid, but clearly, there must be a store called “The Bloody Chamber.” I’m thinking hipster maternity clothes. Or even better, goth maternity wear.

  17. Susan on 09 Jun 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Well, George Eliot didn’t have children either, but I can’t think of a clever store using her names. On the other hand, I’d totally shop at Cranford, or Wives and Daughters :)

  18. Bardiac on 09 Jun 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    You folks totally crack me up. I have no suggestions, but if someone opens the cooking store, we need a Titus Andronicus pastie cookbook.

  19. Wednesday Link Love « The Feminist Texican on 09 Jun 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    [...] An organic cotton layette of one’s own? (Srsly?) What was the store owner going for with this maneuver of naming her baby store after a famous [...]

  20. Dame Eleanor Hull on 09 Jun 2010 at 9:47 pm #

    Fanny Burney had a child. Hester Thrale Piozzi had several. Dorothy Sayers had an illegitimate one, if we’re getting into the 20th century.

  21. Sisyphus on 09 Jun 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Oh, you people! What about Felicia Hemans? Anne Bradstreet? (Too bad Aphra Behn didn’t have children bc then the shop could be all smutty.)

    You could call the shop The Burning Deck and have comparative versions of Hemans’s and Bishop’s “Casabianca.”

  22. A on 10 Jun 2010 at 4:28 am #

    Nearby, a spa, The Awakening. “The children are at piano lessons and soccer practice. Hubby has a meeting that will run late. Now it’s time for you…”

    Behind the cash register, a massive photo of a serene woman floating in clear, blue waters (think of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland or something off the Florida Keys).

    (Six for Kate Chopin, btw!).

  23. Comrade PhysioProf on 10 Jun 2010 at 5:53 am #

    Dollars to donuts the NY Times has a 51% ownership stake in the store.

  24. wini on 10 Jun 2010 at 10:22 am #

    A toy store for when your baby becomes a toddler: “A Doll’s House.”

  25. Michele on 10 Jun 2010 at 10:53 am #

    “A Womb of One’s Own”? Ugh.

    I once stood for a moment, eyes and mouth wide in disbelief, outside a maternity shop in Ireland called “Mum’s the Word”. And then I had to move out of the way for a big-bellied lady in a trenchcoat and dark glasses who was trying to enter it.

  26. Dr. Koshary on 12 Jun 2010 at 10:20 am #

    I have nothing to add but admiration. I’m laughing in horror at this entire thread. Part of the horror comes, I think, because I can actually envision some ignorant hipster becoming vaguely aware of Toni Morrison and opening a maternity store called Beloved. It may only be a matter of time.

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