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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

Is It 'New' When Middle-Class White Women Do It?

We need reminding that all too often, "news" means something different is happening among more-or-less privileged white people, in this case women. On Mother's Day weekend 2023, The New York Times published, "'Mommunes': Mothers Are Living Single Together," although the newspaper version's title, "'Mommunes': Single Mothers Join Forces," was a bit less awkward. For me, the article was not only frustrating, but the underpinning idea that it is news silences the history that might allow more people to create more options for themselves, drawing on history to make their lives better--and not buy into tired options or reinvent the wheel.

The article's author, Debra Kamin, describes a few instances of women deciding to share living space as they raise younger children. Ms. Kamin briefly notes that "the living arrangement isn't novel," writing that, "mothers, particularly those in nonwhite communities, have been house-sharing for centuries." Yet no clearly identifiable nonwhite women are visible in the story and nothing more is mentioned about that history.

Within the article, although some of the women have been without jobs at times, those featured generally had well-paying jobs, even as of course child care and living on a single woman's salary pose significant challenges.

The 605 comments (as of May 20, 2023) on the article include those from people who think the idea brilliant, note their own experiences being raised in similar households, or who wish they had done likewise.

Some also remembered the 1980s sit-com, Kate and Allie, something not mentioned in the article. Given some significant similarities between the show's characters and the article's subjects, it suggests that even 1980s popular culture is not on the historical radar of far too many. We need to change that.

The comments section also featured a mix of people who believe only a man and a woman in a marriage is the way to raise healthy kids, that the women are the ones in the wrong, and many more versions of the tropes long used to enforce women's dependency on men.

Rather than look at the history, if only to contextualize the article's focus and preempt some of those expected comments, the article skips to the pandemic and the "rising number of white, non-Hispanic single-mother households in the United States." The information matters because of this demographic.

But what if two women don't have the funds to "evenly split the $835,000 cost for a sage-green fourplex in a Washington suburb"? What if renting "a three-bedroom apartment in a gated community" isn't an option? You know, like most human beings--especially women--on the planet and in the United States?

Due to historical research on working women in 1870-71 Paris during war, siege, and revolution--and my own experience trying to figure out how to earn some money when in a bad marriage and with no college course credits--I continue to investigate how women-headed households a century and more ago supported themselves. Most led what I've termed, interdependent lives, with other women, sometimes family members but often not, whether or not they lived with them.

Women have long been single by choice or circumstance. The rates of women who never married skyrocketed at the end of the 19th and into the early-20th century. Even that could be choice or circumstance.

But married women often have become single due to circumstance. Those have included the disappearance or death of a husband, events not at all historically uncommon. What did a miner's husband do to support her children when her husband was killed in a mine explosion? For financial reasons, some remarried--often a survival strategy in itself in an era when the ideal woman was legally dependent on and defined by her relationship with a man (father, husband, brother, son). But many did not. How did they navigate the economic realities that often meant they were not welcome in housing and in jobs available to men--or women married to men?

At the end of the 'mommunes' article (and really--do we need cutsie titles for a serious solution that might help more of the "80 percent of single-parent families in the United States [...] headed by women"?), Ms. Kristin Batykefer says, "I never thought about finding another single mother to live with and do it together. We just fell into it. But now, it's like, why isn't it more common for us to join forces?"

Why indeed?

What if the realities of women's historical lives were more visible, not only to those who have grown up in seemingly less traditional family formations?

What if middle class white women were not the basis for noticing a "new trend," when in fact the trend is of long standing and common?

In, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Maya Angelou tells the story of Mrs. Annie Johnson's decisions in 1903 Arkansas in a chapter titled, "New Directions."Annie had two toddlers, little money and basic reading and arithmetic literacy. She and her problematic husband decide to separate; he takes most of their cash to head to Oklahoma and she keeps the one-room house. She determined not to do domestic labor, which would mean leaving her children each day, among other racialized challenges of her time and others'. Being female and Black, she would not be hired at the town's factories. As Angelou quotes, Annie said, "I looked up the road I was going and back the way I come, and since I wasn't satisfied, I decided to step off the road and cut me a new path."

Although the very short story needs reading, ultimately, Annie plotted and planned and created her own business making food for the men working in those factories--something no one else was doing. She corners the market, eventually growing her business from hauling food to two different factories on alternating days, to a stall between them, to a profitable store. The story emphasizes the need to create change in our own lives and make adjustments even as we shift our direction in life. Not to assume that the obvious options are the only ones available.

What some may not know is that Annie was Angelou's grandmother. Angelou's grasp of thinking historically is woven into her work as a whole and suggests many things useful for 2023, not only 1903.

Thinking historically, looking to history for ideas about how to solve today's problems, can help each of us move forward.

Where are we looking to find solutions to problems made harder by baked-in historical falsities? Those that say that until recently, men "took care" of women, that women-headed households are something new or (tragically!) only developed in recent decades with another round of feminism, and that if a person needs childcare, well, too bad--it's not anyone else's responsibility, least of all the government's (unless it's World War II when the US government paid for it)?

I'll close this ACTIVHIST blog post by mentioning an experience I had at, of all places, a women's history conference some years ago. I was in a session that I thought would be about the historical challenges of issues related to this post. Yet, the speaker--a tenured white female professor now able to research anything she wanted--was only focusing on contemporary white women--some very well-known--with extremely privileged status.

When she concluded I asked, basically, why the demographic focus was so narrow. If only because I have lived poor and have read a lot of history focusing on women's lives, I was shocked by her response. "Well, if women with all these advantages can't figure it out, who can?" I was stunned--to the point I likely stumbled through a follow-up comment, suggesting in too-polite terms: LOTS OF RESOURCEFUL, CREATIVE, LESS PRIVILEGED WOMEN, THAT'S WHO! I really wanted to walk out. Maybe I should have. Maybe I would now.

Until all of us--including journalists, policy makers, and single women figuring things out on their own--realize history offers alternatives that perhaps for calculated reasons have not been recorded as carefully as we need them to be, we all lose.

Your input: Do you know any of your own history related to similar living arrangements? Do you have parents or grandparents who lived in ways reflecting parts of the article's "news" or Mrs. Annie Johnson's story? Have you been in an LGBTQ+ relationship at a time when marriage was not possible and have similar stories? would love to hear them.

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