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The Grasinski Girls

The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made

Justyna Sempruch

By Mary Patrice Erdmans. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press (Ohio University Press Polish and Polish-American Studies Series), 2004. 352 pages. ISBN 0-8214-1581-6. Hardcover. $49.95.

Mary Patrice Erdmans takes us on a remarkable journey into the lives of women homemakers of Polish descent, their commitments to the American lifestyle, domestic routines, and motherhood. What is usually assumed to be a common and uneventful story of an average “nonworking” woman in the United States unfolds in Erdmans’ account as a proposal to look at the more subtle ways that social structures constrain ordinary lives, and to search for resistance where assumptions, stereotyping, and prejudice practiced by a majority of traditional sociologists have prevented a deeper reach. While deciphering and tracing this resistance, Erdmans discovers numerous paradoxes, such as the fact that the ethnic minorities and women immigrants are too often grouped together with working-class women, whereas in fact they often represent different social cultures. She also notes that ethnicity, assisted by religion, sorts the various groups into neighborhoods and occupations before any class structure actually does. Social class per se appears in Erdmans’ analysis as a “muddy category,” merging the “ poor” and “ financially stable” working-class families with the “lower-middle” and “middle-class” categories of status. However, her discussion of the Grasinski girls’ assimilation to the American lifestyle clearly reminds us that class and status do matter, and that their integration is inevitably linked to social mobility.

Erdmans’ research subjects have generally been classed together with working-class women, but they also emerge as her own relatives of Polish descent. On that basis it becomes apparent that moving up the social ladder for these women (including Erdmans herself) meant moving away from the ethnic community. Erdmans painstakingly analyzes this process of moving away, in which she also comes to understand her own connections to “Polishness.” We assume, perhaps too quickly, that “Polishness” derives from Poland. The relation is not that simple. In defining its constructedness as “some sort of bastardisation,” Erdmans rightfully argues that the traditional values originating from Poland are visibly based on the “blue blood” experience. In the process of cultural loss and successive assimilation to a foreign culture, it is predominantly upper-class home culture that constitutes itself as authentic and, subsequently, as “traditional value,” while many other facets of culture, such as peasant culture, are discarded from collective memory.

One of such discarded traces, as Erdmans reminds us, is the centrality of motherhood in the Polish peasant tradition, and its continuous persistence in the lives of the Grasinski girls. Indeed, their life stories are deeply immersed in this culturally devalued maternal territory. The primacy of this identification seems to gesture toward a psychic paradigm of emotional attachment that, despite its own vagueness, constitutes itself as their dominant “status.” When asked about the meaning of “being a mother,” these women do not describe the various tasks of mothering but persistently point toward the privilege of motherhood, the emotion of maternal experience, and the spiritual depth of their attachments. Mothering in this sense becomes a “hidden status,” embedded in the daily routines and often taken for granted or overlooked. Both her characters and Erdman herself articulate this difficult, indeed, seemingly impossible position of everydayness in domestic settings-“There are whole years I don’t remember,” “Life was a blur, if you ask me”-an exhaustive but also extremely fulfilling emotional work that taps into the familiarity untranslatable into language: the experience of listening, consoling, touching, encouraging, soothing, laughing, supporting, and loving.

Thus the book is devoted to the lives of mothers who do not rebel against patriarchy, but whisper their own modifications of the very system that takes away their opportunity to develop their nonmaternal potential. In arguing that these women often use existing structures to “carve out spheres of influence” rather than directly challenging oppressive structures, Erdmans recalls specifically gendered ethnic routines as acts of resistance against culturally dominant taxonomies. Not only motherhood, but also the religious spaces of the convent are territories defining their “career,” involving continuous activity invested with “moral and meaningful” intent.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the book is the author’s approach to her subjects of research. For the sake of authenticity, Erdmans, a middle-class academic feminist, has invited them to join her in an attempt to recreate their lives, make them coauthors who equally construct their stories for the purpose of the manuscript. There are clear consequences tothis empirical method. Their stories are partial, but not necessarily false. In allowing them to edit and comment on the manuscript, Erdmans corrects some of the biases that arise from her academic (and feminist) perspective: “I did not write this to expose them but to better understand the private worlds of white women in this generational cohort.” And although these women may be constructing a positive image of themselves for the sake of the sociologist niece and her public document, we nonetheless must ask, why the positive construction? How do they manage to have such strong feelings of self-worth in a society that renders them second-class citizens, treat them unequally, undervalue their work as mothers and housewives? As Erdmans is clearly aiming at voicing this question, she also needs to ensure that they develop an understanding of this empowering exercise. And, possibly, this is the weakest of the book’s achievements.

While it is clear that the Grasinski girls provisionally accept the idea of gender equality, they do not see themselves as feminists. Neither can we (readers) resolve the ambiguity as to the actual outcome of the underlying practice. Positing the family as a unit rather than themselves as individual subjects, these stay-at-home mothers do not subordinate their needs to those of their husbands, who are similarly caught up in the paradigmatic division of family labor. What unmistakably remains to be addressed is that the very same division of labor perpetuates gender inequalities, privileging paid labor (and career as apposed to job) as an economically valuable and therefore recognizable form of activity. In this structure of labor, “nonnworking” or part-time working mothers may be less willing to leave the safety of marriage, and will continue to build on the paradigm of the self-awarding economy of mothering. However, the family-focused economy argument inevitably crumbles when the marriage falls apart.

An in-depth feminist investigation of the complex set of reasons why the Grasinski girls refuse to challenge the conditions that create inequality would have certainly improved this book. Instead, we end up with a framework addressing choices that are both self-affirming and self-limiting, a framework attempting to challenge both the patriarchal and feminist narratives on who women are or what women should be. In this framework, motherhood and feminism as a particular blend of identity remains difficult to voice, underprivileged and, once again, unnecessarily paradoxical.

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Last updated 4/12/06