Sunday, May 11, 2014

My mom, grandma and Betty Friedan

Note: This was first published in on January 20, 2006

Last Sunday my mom phoned me, and with a flustered and excited tone to her voice said, "You're not going to believe it, there's a picture of your grandmother in the New York Times today!" My grandmother past away in 1980. She was not a public person, and as far as we know, photographs of her appeared only once in a newspaper or magazine during her lifetime. So, unless she had led a secret life unknown to the family, we had a pretty good idea what the source of the photo in the Times must have been - Occupation: Housewife 

"Occupation: Housewife" was an eight-page photo essay that followed the daily routine - from breakfast in the morning, cleaning the house, doing laundry, entertaining guests, to putting the kids to bed at night - of an American housewife (my grandmother) and her family. The article, which appeared between a spread for Tyrone Power and Betty Grable's new movie "A Yank in the R.A.F." and photos (that terrified my mom, then age four) of a child victim of Nazi bombing, was published in LIFE magazine on September 22, 1941.

When I asked my mom about how LIFE chose her family, she recalled;  "LIFE wanted a 'typical' American family for the article. Kankakee, Illinois, where we lived was in the Midwest, and at the time was growing fast. The reporter and photographer went to the owner of the Ford auto agency in town, Romy Hammes, to see if he knew of such a family. Romy felt his family was too wealthy for what they were looking for, so he suggested us since we lived only a couple of blocks away from him on Cobb Boulevard." Sure enough, the photo was taken directly from the LIFE article, with one very obvious photo-shopped alteration. In the original photo, my grandmother is shown "picking-up" in the living room. Around her are carefully staged props: a carpet sweeper, dust mop, trash bin, and some papers strewn across the floor. She is bending over the couch. Above her, in an oval frame, is a painting of a stern looking man with an Abe Lincoln beard. This was my great, great, great, great grandfather John Ward Amberg. The Times photo is identical except that, in place of the portrait of Grandpa John, there is a photo of Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique."

The article by Patricia Cohen that accompanied this 'photo illustration' was titled "Today, Some Feminists Hate the Word 'Choice'." My grandmother would probably agree, because in both cases, in LIFE and in the Times, her image was used to illustrate stories that were not of her choosing. After some consideration, my mom decided to write a letter to the editor, that would explain her relationship to the photo and how it had originated in LIFE. Below is her letter, which appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday, January 18th

To the Editor: 
I agree that issuing marching orders to women today is "not helpful." To try to label women is an act of futility, making them one-dimensional when in fact most women's lives are complicated and change with time and circumstance. But I was most taken with the photograph accompanying your article, because the woman portrayed cleaning her house was my mother, Jane LeValley Amberg. As noted, the photo was taken by William C. Shrout for LIFE magazine and was originally published September 22, 1941, in a feature article titled "Occupation: Housewife." My mother was unhappy with the published article, because she was portrayed as a "typical" American housewife who cared only for home and family. Not mentioned was the fact that, with no college degree, she was also a voracious reader and a committed liberal Democrat who cared deeply about national and international issues. Our first TV was bought so that she could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. Sixty-five years after the Life article, women still struggle with the rigid, one-dimensional labels of "stay-at-home moms" and "women who work." 
Pamela Loewenstein Lawrence, Kansas 

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