Last week I talked about Chemistry Lessons, the wonderful novel by best-selling author, Bonnie Garmus. I noted just a few of the challenges that the protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, faced as a woman scientist in a male-dominated 1950s-early-1960s world.
This weekend I just finished reading another excellent book, part memoir and part social commentary, by bell hooks, who wrote extensively on issues of race, gender, class and culture and how they intersect with each other. This now classic book is called: Where We Stand: Class Matters. Sadly, hooks died prematurely less than a year ago, on December 15th, 2021.
In the opening pages of her book, hooks writes: “Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender; the uncool subject is class.” (p. vii.) But as she notes, we cannot talk about ending racism or sexism without also talking about class. She asserts that the commonly held belief that America is a classless society is a myth, as is the notion that if the poor just worked harder they would be able to get ahead and live a life of comfort and affluence. The same myth is believed by countless Canadians too.
There is much to commend in this little book and I urge you to read it if you can. What strikes me, especially in light of Garmus’ novel about Elizabeth Zott, are the challenges faced by bell hooks’ real life 1950s-1960s mother. Like Zott, she was confronted by the limitations of poverty and misogyny. Unlike Zott, the fact that she was black meant that she also suffered from the debilitating oppression of racism.
Her description of her mother’s relationship to her father, especially in terms of how money was handled in their home, reminded me of my own mother’s situation. As in the case of hooks’ family, my father controlled the purse strings. My mother was given a weekly allowance on which she was expected to run the household. Like hooks’ mother, my mother never knew how much my father earned. Unlike hooks’ mother, she could go back to my father and ask for more if she found that what he was giving her was not enough to meet expenses. (One of my aunts was not so fortunate. Her husband never allowed her to do this. She was even expected to pay the phone and hydro bills from what her husband gave her for grocery money! He then reduced what he gave her once she began to receive the meager Old Age Security Pension, in much the same way as hooks’ father reduced the amount he gave his wife to run the household once she went out to clean houses.)
While my mother, as a white woman married to a middle-class professional, did not face the kinds of extreme challenges that hooks’ mother faced as a poor working-class black woman in the south, she did find it demeaning and humiliating to always have to go back and ask my father for more money. He was always generous, but that’s not the point. She was working hard to maintain a home and look after my brother and me. Moreover, she had given up a job she had worked at for seventeen years before she married my Dad and, while it was not the kind of work she would like to have done (her family had no money to send her to art college), she could feel proud of what she earned (which was more than my Dad made when she married him), an income that also gave her a sense of self-respect.
Garmus’ protagonist Elizabeth Zott found a way out of poverty, which makes her story both unique and novel worthy, the stuff of fantasy, which we all love. But for the vast majority of poor women, the so-called American “rags to riches” dream is just that: a dream. Until we find a way to eradicate the predatory systems of classism, racism and sexism that pervade our society, most poor women (especially women of colour) and their children will remained mired in poverty.