I always feel uncomfortable at the beginning of a new writing project. I tell people that I’m used to this – that I know that I can just “carry it around in my head” for a while and then it will come out okay on the screen and then on the paper. That doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable, but it’s what I tell people.
But as I start on this particular journey, I’m not sure that my head has room to carry everything around, and I’ve decided that I want to ideas onto the screen earlier, even if they don’t feel fully formed. If I’m the only one who sees these pieces as they emerge in all their undeveloped glory, it will do the project good. And if others read and respond, it will undoubtedly do the project even better.
My career as a scholar and writer has taken a number of turns. I started as a classic social scientist – sending out the surveys, crunching the numbers, writing by formula. I was pretty good at it. I was a bit of an academic butterfly, though, never able to sustain my work into what others might call a solid “research program” building in that incremental way that social science is supposed to work. I soon got to the point where I wasn’t just following interests and changing research methods, I was centering my scholarship in various aspects of my life. When the Aggie Bonfire collapsed at Texas A&M University I wrote about the emotional work of coping with tragedy. When I started taking on responsibility for my aging parents, my research shifted to family caregiving. When my father died and we found a “box full of letters” I wrote the book War Makes Men of Boys: A Soldier’s World War II.
And now my work has turned again, and I’ve decided to blog during this part of the journey. My mother, Margaret Miller, died almost a year ago. She had a full life – wife and mother to four daughters, active community volunteer, and successful journalist. She worked at the Associated Press during World War II, quitting in 1953 after marriage. As her fourth daughter entered kindergarten, she re-entered the work force as a women’s editor for a chain of community newspapers in the Detroit area. When I finished writing my “Dad Book” I decided I wanted to move on and write about my mother and her career. What I found, though, was that my mom exemplified a movement – female journalists during the 1960s and 1970s who transformed the women’s section, represented both the traditional values of “food, family, furnishings, and fashion” and the changing lives of American women on their pages, maintained a contentious relationship with feminist leaders of the time, and balanced work and family before it was a stylish thing to do.
So my current project is about these women – the times they lived in, the work they did, the stories and columns they wrote, the families they nurtured, the paths they cleared, the sacrifices they made, the rewards they reaped. That is the “then” portion of this project – a look at women’s pages editors and columnists during the height of the “women’s lib” movement. But the experiences of these women still echo 50 years later. Though there are new wrinkles in our talk of leaning in, off-ramps and on-ramps, opting out and back in, and having it all, the undercurrents are the same. So exploring the “then” also means confronting the “now.”
In future weeks, I’ll post about these women — my mother and many others — and consider various aspects of their lives and work. I’ll also ponder what the female journalists of that era can teach women in all walks of life today. I hope you’ll join me in the journey and the conversation.