If what it takes to create are long stretches of time alone, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect
A few months ago, as I struggled to carve out time in my crowded days for writing, a colleague suggested I read a book about the daily rituals of great artists. But instead of offering me the inspiration I’d hoped for, what struck me most about these creative geniuses – mostly men – was not their schedules and daily routines, but those of the women in their lives.
Their wives protected them from interruptions; their housekeepers and maids brought them breakfast and coffee at odd hours; their nannies kept their children out of their hair. Martha Freud not only laid out Sigmund’s clothes every morning, she even put the toothpaste on his toothbrush. Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste, not only brought him his daily coffee, croissants, newspapers and mail on a silver tray, but was always on hand whenever he wanted to chat, sometimes for hours. Some women are mentioned only for what they put up with, like Karl Marx’s wife – unnamed in the book – who lived in squalor with the surviving three of their six children while he spent his days writing at the British Museum.
Gustav Mahler married a promising young composer named Alma, then forbade her from composing, saying there could be only one in the family. Instead, she was expected to keep the house utterly silent for him. After his midday swim, he’d whistle for Alma to join him on long, silent walks while he composed in his head. She’d sit for hours on a branch or in the grass, not daring to disturb him. “There’s such a struggle going on in me!” Alma wrote in her diary. “And a miserable longing for someone who thinks OF ME, who helps me to find MYSELF! I’ve sunk to the level of a housekeeper!”
Unlike the male artists, who moved through life as if unfettered time to themselves were a birthright, the days and life trajectories of the handful of female artists featured in the book were often limited by the expectations and duties of home and care. George Sand always worked late at night, a practice that started when she was a teenager and needed to take care of her grandmother. Starting out, Francine Prose’s writing day was defined by the departure and return of her children on the school bus. Alice Munro wrote in the “slivers” of time she could find between housekeeping and childrearing. And Maya Angelou got away from the pull of home by leaving it altogether, checking herself into an unadorned hotel room to think, read and write.
Even Anthony Trollope, who famously wrote 2,000 words before 8am every morning, most likely learned the habit from his mother, who began writing at age 53 to support her sick husband and their six children. She rose at 4am and finished work in time to serve the family breakfast.
I think of all the books, paintings, music, scientific discoveries, philosophy I learned about in school – almost all by men. The conductor Zubin Mehta once said, “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra,” as if they didn’t have the temperament, or the talent. (Blind auditions put an end to that notion.) I think of an interview Patti Scialfa gave on how difficult it was for her to write the music for her solo album because her kids kept interrupting her and demanding her time in a way that they never would of their father, Bruce Springsteen. And it strikes me: it’s not that women haven’t had the talent to make their mark in the world of ideas and art. They’ve never had the time.
Women’s time has been interrupted and fragmented throughout history, the rhythms of their days circumscribed by the sisyphean tasks of housework, childcare and kin work – keeping family and community ties strong. If what it takes to create are long stretches of uninterrupted, concentrated time, time you can choose to do with as you will, time that you can control, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect, at least not without getting slammed for unseemly selfishness.
Even today, around the globe, with so many women in the paid labor force, women still spend at least twice as much time as men doing housework and childcare, sometimes much more. One study of 32 families in Los Angeles found that the uninterrupted leisure time of most mothers lasted, on average, no more than 10 minutes at a stretch. And in mapping the daily lives of academics, the sociologist Joya Misra and her colleagues found that the work days of the female professors were much longer than their male colleagues, once you factored in all their unpaid labor at home. Even so, she found that the men and women she studied spent about the same amount of time at their paid work. But the women’s time at work, too, was interrupted and fragmented, chopped up with more service work, mentoring and teaching. The men spent more of their work days in long stretches of uninterrupted time to think, research, write, create and publish to make their names, advance their careers and get their ideas out into the world.
In his Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen wrote that throughout history the people who had the ability to choose and control their time were high-status men. He dismissed women on page two, writing that they, along with the servants and the slaves, have always been responsible for the drudge work that enables those high-status men to think their great thoughts. Feminist researchers have argued that women have often had, at most, “invisible leisure” – enjoyable, but productive and socially sanctioned, activities like quilting bees, canning parties or book groups. Yet pure leisure, making time just for oneself, is nothing short of a courageous act of radical and subversive resistance. Easier to do, one researcher joked, if, like the writer, composer, philosopher and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, you became a nun.
Feminist researchers have also found that many women don’t feel that they deserve long stretches of time to themselves, the way men do. They feel they have to earn it. And the only way to do that is to get to the end of a To Do list that never ends: the chores of the day, as Melinda Gates writes in her new book, killing the dreams of a lifetime. Indeed, I’ve been trying to carve out time to think and write this essay for more than four months. Every single time I’ve sat down to start, I’ve gotten a panicked call or email from my husband, son or daughter; my mother, dealing with the strange frontier and endless paperwork of the newly widowed; a credit card company; or a mechanic about some emergency or other that requires my immediate attention to stave off certain disaster.
I remember interviewing psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, famed for identifying the state of flow, the peak human experience when one is so absorbed in a meaningful task that time effectively disappears. It’s the state that artists and thinkers say is a requirement for creating anything of value. I asked him if his research explored whether women had as much opportunity to get into flow as men. He thought for a moment, then told me a story of a woman who lost track of time as she ironed her husband’s shirts.
The poet Eleanor Ross Taylor lived her life in the shadow of her husband, the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, short story writer and professor Peter Taylor. “Over the years, many times I would say to poems, ‘Go away, I don’t have time now,’” she told an interviewer in 1997. “But that was part laziness. If you really want to write, you can. I did keep the house scrubbed and waxed and that sort of thing.”
I feel such a sense of loss when I think of the great, unwritten poems that took a backseat to polished floors. And for a long time, I thought the expectation that others be tended to first and the floors be polished and that she was the one who was supposed to keep them that way was what kept those untold stories coiled inside her, compressed, as Maya Angelou writes, to the point of pain. But I wonder if it isn’t also that women feel they don’t deserve time to themselves, or enough of it that comes in unbroken stretches. I wonder if we also feel we don’t deserve to tell our untold stories, that they may not be as worth listening to.
The writer VS Naipaul claimed that no woman writer was his match, that women’s writing is too “sentimental”, their worldview too “narrow” – because, you know, men’s lives are the default for the human experience. And I’ve often wondered: would a woman who’d written a carefully observed six-volume novel based on her own life have received the same attention and international acclaim as the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle?
Virginia Woolf once imagined what would have become of Shakespeare were he born a woman, or if he’d had an equally gifted sister. (Think of the musical prodigy Nannerl Mozart, whose early compositions her brother Wolfgang praised as “beautiful” but have been lost, or remained coiled inside, unwritten, as she disappeared into an expected but loveless marriage.)
The female Shakespeare, Woolf wrote, would never have had the time or the ability to develop her genius – barred from school, told to mind the stew, expected to marry young, and beaten if she didn’t. In Woolf’s telling, Shakespeare’s sister, despite her great gifts, wound up crazy, dead, or shut up in a cottage in the woods and mocked as a witch.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Woolf imagined that, in the future, a woman with genius would be born. Her ability to blossom – and the expectation that her voice, her vision, was worthy – would depend entirely on the world we decided to create. “She would come if we worked for her,” Woolf wrote.
I do not claim to have any particular genius. But sometimes, I dream that I’m sitting in a dusky room at a kitchen table across from another version of me, who sits, unbound by time, quietly drinking a cup of tea. “I wish you’d visit more often,” she tells me. And I wonder if that searing middle-of-the-night pain that, at times, settles like dread around my solar plexus may not only be because there’s so little unbroken time to tell my own untold stories, but because I’m afraid that what may be coiled inside may not be worth paying attention to anyway. Perhaps that’s what I don’t want to face in that dusky room I dream of.
I also wonder: what if we really did do the work to create a world where the sisters of Shakespeare and Mozart, or any woman, really, could thrive? What would happen if we decided women deserved the time to go to their dusky rooms and stay awhile at the kitchen table? What if we all decided to visit more often, drinking a quiet cup of tea with ourselves, listening to the coil of stories as they unspool, knowing they have value simply because they’re true? I’d love to see what happens next.
- Brigid Schulte is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine. She is also fellow at the New America Foundation. Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte is published by Bloomsbury in March 2014