AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
By Joan Eyolfson Cadham
As a teenager I was a passionate fan of American author Taylor Caldwell. So, when a friend found a used copy of a book of Caldwell’s that I hadn’t read, I couldn’t wait to start it.
It began as I remembered Caldwell’s books — strong characters, strong plot, heavily faith-based — until, at page 79, a conversation between two of the main characters, both pastors, stopped me dead in my tracks. The older one says, “By the way, where did this infernal business of women working side by side with men originate? What normal woman wants this?” The younger pastor, who has been an army chaplain during the Second World War, says, “It began in Russia. I heard a lot about it in Europe.” His older mentor responds, “The American Communists have come a long way in our country in the last 10 or 12 years, son.”
I mentioned the line to a friend. Her immediate reaction was, “Were these the good guys?” Well, yes, they were. But we started to muse about prairie life, homesteading, when women worked alongside their men to break land and bring in the harvest. It was later that I realized women and men have worked side by side for centuries. Some of these scenes have been captured in wood blocks by the creator of a French 15th-century manuscript, others in oils on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, Julien Dupré, Jean-François Millet, all classic painters from the 1800s.
A few days later, the light bulb turned on. I checked the publication date of the Caldwell novel. 1956. I typed “the McCarthy era” into my search engine. This popped up on Wikipedia: “McCarthyism, named after American Senator Joseph McCarthy, is the practice of making unfair allegations, accusations of disloyalty or treason, in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.” The term had its origins during the American “Second Red Scare,” roughly 1950 to 1956, characterized by McCarthy’s campaign of spreading fear of the communist influence on American institutions.
Meanwhile, Caldwell’s “What normal woman wants this?” may be the reason why some North American politicians still feel our salvation lies in women returning to their proper roles as wife, mother and homemaker.
Not just politicians. I ran into trouble in the late 1980s shortly after I started seriously freelancing. I’d sold a fair bit of material to an American Catholic weekly newspaper until I wrote a column on tips for surviving as a single mother of three school-aged children. Nothing inflammatory, no preaching, no moralizing — just practical stuff. The editor phoned me a week or so after the paper came out. He’d never had so much mail and he printed a full page of letters. The letter I most clearly remember, from a male American, came straight to the point: “She is taking a job away from the father next door.”
Made me wonder whether the “father next door” would be prepared to support my family, too. But the editor couldn’t handle the situation. Although he assured me that he had read and re-read my column and had found nothing in it that should have raised the ire of a nation, he never used a line of mine again.
The Wikipedia information might explain the voiced concerns of some politicians, and my reader who worried more about the father next door than the single mom. But how many avid readers from the late 1950s took the “I heard a lot about it in Europe” on face value, forgetting that, just a few years earlier, women in slacks, in the U.S. and Canada, worked in munitions factories, not because they wanted to escape from their wife and mother and homemaker responsibilities, but because they were desperately needed.
Caldwell obviously bought into McCarthy’s campaign. But Caldwell also had some other strongly held opinions. When I did a little research, I discovered that this writer, who described herself as a practising Catholic, and wrote Dear and Glorious Physician, the highly acclaimed novel about St. Luke, questioned the existence of God, and questioned God’s mercy if God did exist. She also had some fairly rigid goals for herself. “My childhood was appalling. I have always had a horror and detestation of poverty. I never deviated from my grim determination to someday have all the money I needed and wanted.”
I did finish Caldwell’s book. But I will forever wonder how I would have reacted had I been 14 when I read it for the first time.
Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.