Saturday, January 26, 2013

Reading J. Edgar Hoover in Woman's Home Companion, 1944

A short article written by J. Edgar Hoover for Woman’s Home Companion in January of 1944, offers a useful entrance into a conversation about the role women’s magazines played in the construction of domesticity, both for its content, and for the curious nexus of state power, commercial enterprise, and expertise contained in its intersection. Written as an ostensible warning about delinquency, the narrative contains all of the elements that would eventually make up what Betty Friedan would eventually call the ‘feminine mystique’, placing an extraordinary psychic, social, and political burden on the domestic labor of women. When one pairs this article with Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, we find a structure of expertise that both chastises mothers for spending too much time with their children as well as not devoting enough attention to their children. Without dismissing that particular hypocrisy, Hoover’s article gestures towards a set of discursive structures of a newly expanded domesticity, one that incorporates the previously excluded new immigrants and working classes, and folds them into a expanded cross-class alliance that produces whiteness. In effect, the domestic space of the home is meant to play a central role not only in consumption, but in social reproduction of the society, providing That burden is inextricably linked to the concept of futurity contained in the child, in this case through it potential threat to security in the form of delinquency. Hoover opens his article by posing ‘juvenile delinquency’ as a threat to the nation, one that has been exacerbated by the war, but was preceded by two generations. Delinquency is cumulative and progressive, in Hoover’s description of the phenomenon.

“Girls and boys who are now mothers and fathers suffered from adult delinquency of the past. If they allow the disintegrating process to continue until they and their own children are completely isolated one from the other, it is because they have never been taught how to do otherwise. They are themselves second-and-third-generation delinquents, adults in years but not in parenthood.” (Hoover 45)

The current crisis as identified by Hoover can be understood as a generational one, a crisis produced through the sins of the past, each family passing on the blight of delinquency to the next generation. It’s not difficult to see this as an obvious precedent to the concept of the culture of poverty that would become a sort of common sense thirty years later, but more significant to this discussion are the linked concepts of development and futurity, both of which are implicit in the argument. Hoover notes that the forms of disintegration in the present are easily explainable in terms of the development process, arguing, “They are themselves second-and-third-generation delinquents, adults in years but not in parenthood.” The parents of delinquents continue to produce delinquents because of their inability to completely develop, due to their abnormal parentage. One might even go as far as to argue that they are not fully modern. The parent who fails to fulfill their role as sufficiently mature parent poses a substantial threat, one that threatens to transform the current crisis into a catastrophe of the future.

Hoover then sees the mother as the key figure in rescuing the future from this present crisis, to rescue the process of raising children from abnormality, a threat that is placed in terms that would be familiar to any reader of Lee Edelman’s recent polemic, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. The mother becomes the one who can guarantee the development of the child, guiding it into the norms of patriarchal heteronormativity, recognizing the central role of women in the reproductive labor of industrial and consumer capitalism. He notes,

“The mother who does not provide that decent place is definitely falling down on her war job. Whatever rearrangement of her own eating, sleeping and working hours is entailed, she must be ready to give her children and their friends—no matter how recent vintage the latter may be—hospitality and decency. If she fails to do this she is driving them to places of their own choosing, clandestine places, where there may be hospitality, but where decency is unknown.

If her burdens are already too heavy or her strength too frail to permit her becoming a two-shift or three shift mother, she must find some way of staggering these emergency duties among relatives, neighbors, friends. This applies to the comparatively small group of mothers who must take jobs which keep them from their homes at the hours their children most need them, and to the unfortunately larger group whose families live in such cramped quarters that both old and young are driven into the streets and into the taverns during those hours when the family wage-earners must sleep.” (Hoover 47)

Hoover immediately characterizes the work of mother as labor, indeed, as a form of labor designed to support the war. Drawing on the nationalist fervor of the time, he argues that any failure for a mother to live up to these expectations “is definitely falling down on her war job.” Drawing on a discourse of sacrifice that is best described by Lauren Berlant amongst others as key to the generic form of the domestic melodrama, he places the difficulties and hardships at the forefront of this article, emphasizing the burdens of the mother, and the exhaustion of her labors. Hoover notably recognizes a number of problems that limit mothers from taking up their proper role in the feminine mystique, notably poverty, but also physical limitations such as the health of the mother and the cramped quarters that many families live in. Hoover minimizes the genuine need for mothers to take on waged labor, but he recognizes this as well. In each of these cases, he links these needs to the threat of the tavern, with its pathological forms of sociality. Within these situations, Hoover recognizes a limitation of the nuclear family form, and advocates a solution either in extended kinship networks, neighborhood networks of friends, or in the limited governmental programs set up to provide daycare or other services.

Perhaps more significantly within this passage, the labor of the mother is defined in primarily affective, rather than productive terms. Hoover already assumes an audience of mothers who are no longer engaged in primarily agricultural labor, who live without servants, and who exist in either urban or suburban spaces. Within this context, the labor of the mother is primarily defined by the care of children, or to draw on the direct language of Hoover himself, “she must be ready to give her children and their friends—no matter how recent vintage the latter may be—hospitality and decency.” The terms ‘hospitality’ and ‘decency’ play a central role in this discourse, defining both a normal and a pathological sociability in its formation. The mother’s attentive care creates a ‘hospitality’ needed by children in a manner that also creates a sense of ‘decency.’ Presumably this indicates a fidelity with the conventions of patriarchal heteronormativity, in line with the rising consumerist, social democracy. However, the potential threat contained in neglect is far more interesting. Hoover notes that “if she fails to do this she is driving them to places of their own choosing, clandestine places, where there may be hospitality, but where decency is unknown.” What is notable here are a number of curiously structured dangers. The first danger takes the form of self-organization; children might find their own alternative spaces of ‘hospitality.’ These spaces are defined in terms of both their ‘clandestine’ nature, and their lack of ‘decency’, but the full implication of those terms is deliberately left open, gesturing towards sexual deviancy, criminality, and possibly even radical politics. Through the motif of what would become the feminine mystique, Hoover marks the family as the sole legitimate space of socialization and community, the space that would regulate the forms of sociality and protect against the various forms of ‘deviance’ discussed above. As Stephanie Coontz notes in The Way We Never Were, not only were women discouraged from entering the public sphere in the post war period, but previously acceptable homo-social spaces such as the saloon became increasingly marked as pathological.

Despite these dire warnings, Hoover ends his article on an optimistic note, stating,

“In short, the situation is far from hopeless for any mother who really wants to do a good job for her children and will give time and thought to working out a practical program for doing it. And if enough mothers do give that time and thought, the situation is far from hopeless for the nation and its youth.” (Hoover 47)

Despite the strong critique of the lack of developmental maturity and lack of parental skills on the part of parents, Hoover’s article ends on a surprisingly volunteerist basis. The vast problems of delinquency and developmental disfigurement laid out in the early part of the article wind up being easily solved through the simple enactment of a ‘practical program.’ I want to argue that, in effect, that popular women’s magazines play a significant role in filling that gap, in producing and accessible and popular version of the modes of expertise, in the form of developmental psychology, psychoanalysis, and home economics developed to reconceptualize the family in light of the radical transformations in the structures of domesticity due to both industrialization and the structures of consumerist social democracy put into place to stabilize that structure. Those transformations not only took the form of economic transformations, but also came in the form of new forms of intimacy, child-rearing, diet, manners, and forms of sociality. Within these transformations, women’s magazines become a key forum for negotiating the crisis, for producing new forms of common sense built upon the normative structures of expertise contained in their pages. Beyond that, one can think of the magazines as a pedagogical space in a double sense, both creating new forms of common sense, but also as a space that disseminates the technical and disciplinary apparatuses for the collective laboring practices occurring in the household. Instead of accepting the common sense premise referenced by Ruth Schwarz Cowan, the notion of the untrained housewife, or the primitive labor of the household as claimed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, domestic and women’s publications gesture towards an intense training process for the domestic labor of the housewife, a set of disciplinary apparatuses that links to not only the school system, but to corporate structures as well as the informal ideological state apparatus of the home. In order to do so, I am looking into a number of publications, notably the archives of Good Housekeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens from the period of 1942-1950, in order to explore the movement from the years of the war into the initial post war period. This will supplemented by both the run of the Journal of Home Economics along the same period, and the edited collection, Women’s Magazines 1940-1960, edited by Nancy A. Walker. Together they represent a broad set of approaches to domestic publications, reflecting the diversity of publications within the genre, and can provide a basis for understanding the discursive shift in domestic structures that are developed with the post-war era.

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