Landscape for a Good Woman, or Why It’s Better to Just be an Orphan

I do not think I remember ever reading anything quite like Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. It made me think so many questions as I went along. Is this a gendered reading? Is it an analysis of the implications of the class system in England? Is it both? It must be, right?

All I know is: I prefer Foucault, I miss his fluidity and abstraction and even his nothing. I resisted the definitions and implications that Steedman created, or rather that she believes exist. As I read, I felt like a cage was being built around me. Instead of steel bars, though, it was built from life experiences and the perceptions of strangers and pressure to feel emotions that I have never felt, or to have thoughts I have never thought.

I grew up in a fatherless home. Yet, to me, I never knew about a “patriarchy” until I was in middle or high school. For me, my mother wasn’t my mother: she was my parent, and all you needed to make a family was one parent. I never felt the things Steedman implies that all girl children feel at some point during their lives. I found myself having to acknowledge the validity of the experiences recounted in this book, and yet fundamentally maintain that just because you share a trait doesn’t mean you should have similar experiences. I realize that my feeling of being caged is rooted in my own ideals and perceptions, and is not necessarily a construct of this work. This is me attempting to be reflective rather than reactionary. Is it working?

Throughout this book, Steedman is analyzing her memories as a primary source, which is both intriguing and potentially problematic. I can see this as being troubling because you cannot compare personal memories with those of other people—you cannot collect or curate their memories the same way you collect and curate your own. You can compare your memories from a time to your memories from another time, yet again you cannot contrast or compare them with other similar sources. Memories are difficult to contextualize. In fact, what I found most difficult about this book was the lack of context. I kept wondering if other mothers and children in similar situations had similar experiences and emotions. Steedman implied that was the case, but didn’t offer any examples.

I found myself wondering how much her mother’s situation had to do with being a child of World War I, just as I wondered how much Steedman’s situation had to do with her being a child of World War II. I wondered how much both situations had to do with the economic depressions of the early 20th century. All of these topics were touched on—“They happened,” Steedman seemed to say, “but that’s not the story.” I think that, perhaps, they played a larger role in creating a cultural and emotional climate than they were given credit for.

Throughout my reading, I had to keep pausing, flipping back to the first few pages, and reminding myself: this book was published in 1986. I can appreciate where it rests in the historiography of Women’s Studies, and how radical it was when first released. I can see how important it is to exist and to be exposed to it. But, now it is 2014. How has Women’s and Gender Studies changed since 1986? Has it changed? Is there a landscape for good Women’s Studies, or does there even need to be?



Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

3 Responses to Landscape for a Good Woman, or Why It’s Better to Just be an Orphan

  1. Claire G.

    Hi Sara,

    I think even your own experience of growing up in a fatherless home could be a microhistory for someone looking at a certain context, as Carolyn Steedman’s autobiography is. While I agree with you that personal memory can be problematic, all historical sources have their limitations, and discounting autobiography too much as a source also calls into question letters, memoirs, or anything that conveys information about a person’s life from his or her point of view.

    I think, though, that Steedman is using her own memories as a window for looking at English working class women and children during her childhood and her mother’s lifetime, kind of like what Darnton did with the cat massacre as a window into 18th century France prior to the French Revolution.


  2. We must talk about this in class! But let me just note here how much I cherish the narrative arc of your post and the authenticity of your response to Steedman. Thank you!

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