Category Archives: Feminism in general

Me and Arianna

Back in 1978, I watched 28 year-old Arianna Stassinopoulos shred an opponent during a Cambridge Union Society debate. I had attended other events at the Union–a screening of Carrie, a lecture on meditation–but the Stassinopoulos performance made by far the deepest impression.

I no longer recall the substance of that debate, but I will never forget Stassinopoulos. What captivated me was her sparkling blend of confidence with an apparent mastery of the topic at hand. Of course there was also that exotic Greek accent, so thick that even if you weren’t persuaded by her arguments, you had to admire her for speaking  before an audience composed overwhelmingly of privileged English students. She deftly skewered her adversary’s claims and tossed them flailing off the stage. At least, that’s how it looked to someone who spent her days in the hermit-like study of ancient documents in dead languages. There was no way the woman wasn’t headed for something big.

Fast forward to 2011. Arianna Huffington had become a household name. And again we found ourselves in the same room, at least figuratively speaking. My second book,  A Home A of Her Own, had just been published by the Indiana University Press. A publicist called to tell me that the Huffington Post wanted to include our book in its list of “Books We Love” and asked for a related essay.  A few months later, the Huffington Post published a grittier piece decrying ridiculously objectified images of women who work in manual trades and professions.

We still haven’t met in person, and we probably never will. But it’s fun to recall the fearless young woman I saw in action more than a quarter-century ago.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

I love men

Fifteen years ago I had to replace my refrigerator. Being a person who breaks into a cold sweat at the mere thought of facing the wires, tubes, and electrical panels that make up the contemporary fridge, I bought a new one–the lowest-end, no frills model from Sears, which came with a warranty–instead of gambling on a used appliance.  Delivery added so little to the price that I signed up for it.

Two young men arrived with the refrigerator, which they carried up the steps to the side door just off the kitchen. I know a fridge is a beast to handle, but as this pair crashed carelessly into the original fir door trim, they piqued my concern. I’m no stranger to the challenges of delivering unwieldy objects to homes where nervous customers hover close by (“Be careful of that newel post!” “Watch the wallpaper!“), and so I asked them, as a fellow working person, to show a bit of care.

“She don’t like men,” one of them commented dryly.

“No, she don’t,” agreed his colleague, casting a knowing glance at my workboots (Redwing, men’s size 8-1/2).

How do you respond to such a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, whereby it’s acceptable to dismiss legitimate concerns of an individual by casting him or her as somehow other, deviant, and therefore undeserving of heed? This pair left me speechless.

Well, here’s the thing, boys. I love men. And this has nothing to do with my sexual orientation.

One of the most gratifying aspects of this book project has been its reception by men, starting with my collaborator, Kendall Reeves. Yes, the book’s primarily about women, but we did our best to present the subject matter in a non-gender-stereotyped way. Following are a few remarks from male readers.

From author Scott Russell Sanders:

Nancy Hiller is a premier cabinetmaker with a fondness for wood and old houses, and with a storyteller’s feel for character. Here she offers us a gallery of women who have created distinctive homes, often in buildings that others had abandoned, sometimes after having been abandoned themselves, always with resourcefulness and imagination. As these women restore the outward fabric of houses and gardens and furnishings, they also restore the fabric of their lives. Hiller honors their skill and pluck, and Kendall Reeves, through his photographs, enables us to glimpse the beauty of their creations. After reading this book, you will see your own home place with fresh eyes.

From English designer Johnny Grey:

I am always a sitting target for American settler stories and seeing ordinary people’s well-crafted houses seems a solid triumph in the battle for existence in a new country. It brings out a deep sense of the sanity of the culture, and something that I believe America should hold up as one of its key civilised offerings to the world – the ability to be able to build your own decent ‘home’.  The country has truly been able to provide this opportunity to willing souls, even those who are not at the centre of the monied groups and traditional male-orientated society. More so than many European countries – at least over the last hundred years. Your book outlines that so clearly. You must have spent alot of time listening to stories of your subjects’ lives and trying to make sense of them.

From Will Fellows, author of A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture

To my mind,  your book lends considerable support to one of my key conclusions: Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females.

From Bruce Gleason, professor of music education and music history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota

Several weeks ago, I was pleased to come across your October 2011 Old-House Interiors article, “Women and Their (Sp) Houses.”  While I’ve read numerous articles on home restoration and construction during my own twelve years of projects, this was the first that truly captured my own feelings about restoration and soul work. In a mere two pages, you synthesized what I have attempted to tell countless people, but you added the further dimension of intimacy, which I hadn’t considered in so many words until now. After living with this idea for a few weeks, I’m pleased to report that this added piece gives further meaning to my work and life.

After reading the article, I ordered A Home of Her Own, which I began reading yesterday—and concluded ten minutes ago. Needless to say, I connected with your work deeply. I’m not sure which story/woman/house is my favorite.  All are remarkable on many levels, and I’m writing simply to thank you for sharing your work and wisdom.  Your writing is poignant and clear, and your treatment of each individual as well as the individuals who passed through their lives is reflective, respectful and reverent…. 

In another note, Bruce adds:

When I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique twenty years ago, I was surprised and grateful to find that she wasn’t setting up an “us and them” scenario, she was simply advocating for the retrieval and health of the human soul by examining gender roles and what motivates them….

I was surprised and grateful that I didn’t have to take issue with anything throughout [A Home of Her Own]. I assume it would have been easy to paint any number of the side characters in a dim light—and to focus on why the work of the protagonists was more involved and/or difficult because they were women.  You steered around this and you wrote about the central characters in such a way that we were able to identify with them as human beings—not as women or men—which resulted in telling men that there was room for us as well. Betty would be proud of you.

From Jack Longacre of Elkhart, Indiana

Normally I would not be too enthused about reading stories about women and their home acquisitions and on top of that, written by a woman!
When I first opened the book I was taken by the beautiful pictures. The Introduction was great! I find it hard to believe that Ms. Poore’s home was built as a Summer Cottage. As I continued reading I realized that many of the subjects were close to “dirt poor”. What they each have accomplished is remarkable…. 
I have had to lay the book down from time to time even though I… could read straight through–I have to rest the old eyes. What I am saying is I have  enjoyed each and every page.
From Herb Hiller of Deland, Florida
I marvel at your sensibilities, at how you integrate the world around you, like a plant absorbing nourishment from roots, grounded, that sureness allowing you to be yourself and unwavering….
For awhile before I watched Leonard Cohen. He was himself and holy for it. The production values fitted his subdued mantra. No pizzazz, only the setting in which his croak was masterful. With maybe eight supporting musicians, I felt that I’d come to the corner of a street I’d never walked in a town I’d never noticed. He made me think sparse as if I were reading Cormac McCarthy.
Of course my reading your work did not invoke Leonard Cohen this evening. Yet it’s easy to experience you as thrum, indulge passing thoughts of who people are, how they become and evolve in their way, and I find myself an observer of clarity. You and Leonard draw me in from wherever I otherwise am. I feel channeled, further along where I otherwise am but now, reading you, hearing him, I’m myself in reflected light. A good place to find.

Yael Ksander Really Does See Spot Run

Ksander in radio mode

Some of us call her the next Terry Gross.

Yael Ksander’s  finely crafted essays and voluptuous voice have made her a favorite among Indiana Public Media listeners. But the brilliance of Ksander’s broadcasts begins with her close reading of texts.

Ksander recently wrote a segment about A Home of Her Own for the WFIU program Artworks. While the book’s lavish illustrations may tempt many to linger at the surface, this graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Art History took the time to absorb the words.  And how.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she astutely calls the work. “Betty Friedan disguised as Martha Stewart.”

Instead of taping interviews for her program at the studio, Ksander chose to visit one of the houses in the book, confident that immersing herself in context would enrich her story. She arrived at the home of  Linda Oblack, subject of Chapter 7, with microphone, recording device, and her well-read review copy of the book in hand.

No sooner had Linda retired than she painted her living room and replaced the well-worn carpet.

For a  recording and transcript of the broadcast, along with more of Ksander’s writings on Hoosier history and culture,  cut and paste the following link into your browser: .


Colleagues David Brent Johnson and Yael Ksander at the offices of WFIU, Bloomington, Indiana

Substance and Style: Peggy Shepherd

From about 1990 ’til 2004, Bloomington, Indiana was home to a store called Grant St. Named for its location, Grant St began as a hole in the wall nestled in a bohemian enclave next to Pygmalion’s Art Supplies and around the corner from the Runcible Spoon cafe.

Some of us who knew Grant St in its early days, when it occupied a couple of rooms in an old-house-turned-retail-space, consider those years the store’s golden age. Packed floor to ceiling with surprises–quirky lamps made from dead tea kettles, ’20s  couches refurbished in velvet or paisleys,  ’50s dinettes  before ’50s became the height of cool–the store had an intimacy of scale that made customers feel like part of the family. 
Behind the counter you’d almost always find one of the owners, Sharon Fugate or Peggy Shepherd. Stylish and savvy, they grew their business steadily over the years, expanding first into a storage area at the rear of the store, then opening up a wall into the retail space next door. 

A furniture-filled corner of the original Grant St store. Yes, this may look like a chaotic pile of merchandise, but in reality every object was carefully arranged to heighten the shopper's sense of adventure. You had to be there.

In 1996 they relocated, becoming the  anchor business in a newly restored 1913 meat packing plant at the corner of Third and Rogers. With the move came other upgrades–a certain slickness and sophistication, a wider range of clothing. The store became a well loved destination. 

Frosted Foods Building, Bloomington (Photo: Paul Puzzello)

Peggy and Sharon at the store

Those of us who knew Sharon and Peggy beyond the sales counter–and there are lots of us, since many customers became friends–understood that the secrets to Grant St’s success were the proprietors’ sharp eye, entrepreneurial skills, and dogged work. Trips to shows in High Point, New York, and Chicago sound glamorous until you consider that they involved 14-hour drives, 20-hour days, and sharing a hotel bed to minimize expenses. Dressing in stylish clothes and serving a hip clientele in industrial-chic surroundings may seem enviable until you learn that closing the store at the end of the day opened up an evening’s work of balancing receipts, making follow-up calls to customers, and cleaning the bathroom.

Grant St at night

After they closed Grant St in 2004, Sharon opened a new store, Relish. Peggy, ready for a change from retail work, explored some interests she’d had on hold and worked to finish the barn conversion on which she had already been working for a few years.  The cover of A Home of Her Own features a view of that barn’s completed interior.


Peggy dressed up to watch the Miss America Show, circa 1959. Her mother recalls that after the show, Peggy asked her father if he would buy her a mink stole.

David Bender, Carie Bender, and Peggy Bender in American Gothic pose, preparing to build a new family house.


In the 1980s Peggy worked as an interior designer at the Bloomington business EnviroConcepts


Working on a friend’s roof in 1989
The Civil War-era house outside of Spencer, Indiana, the restoration of which is mentioned in A Home of Her Own:
Front porch

Watering flowers outside the kitchen, a more recent addition to the house

Front view across a small part of the lawn


Peggy with her son Brian, circa 1998, at the party they threw before leaving the Civil War-era Spencer house and moving to Sixth Street

Never one to sit still, Peggy dreamed up an even more daring project once she’d restored her house on Sixth Street.

The barn, pre-dismantling


The barn during dismantling


Packed on a truck, the barn timbers were driven to their new location


The completed barn conversion (Photo: Kendall Reeves)

Meanwhile, life went on. Brian moved to New York, and Carie married, then had two sons.

Peggy with her first grandson, Ross


With her second grandson, Trey, wearing the pipe cleaner crown he won in the Cutest Baby Contest at the Monroe County Fair

Inside the barn house, view toward the dining area



Betty Shepherd and Carie Bender with Trey and Ross, September 2011



True Grit: Amy Brier

Limestone sculptor Amy Brier has an impressive résumé. She studied stone carving in Italy and Germany, earned a BFA in sculpture from Boston University, talked her way onto the crew of artisans constructing New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and spent six years on that project before earning an MFA at Indiana University’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts. She’s the first female board member of the national Stone Carvers’ Guild. She co-founded, and continues to direct, the Indiana Limestone Symposium, currently in its fifteenth year. Now a professor of art at the Bloomington campus of Ivy Tech Community College, she spends much of her time outside of the classroom on commissions from private and institutional clients.

But one of the things I find most impressive about Amy is that her home studio, in the walk-out basement of her house, shares space with lines of drying laundry. I find this impressive not because she hangs her laundry, rather than using a clothes dryer (though line drying is certainly the greener option), but because this particular aspect of her situation so powerfully expresses the down-to-earth reality of most working artists, and countless working women (though in this day, such realities characterize members of every gender and sex), in an era that privileges surface over substance.

You know what I mean. There’s this insidious pressure to present oneself as Successful And Loving It!—but only if we subscribe to a definition of success rooted firmly in the ongoing commodification of everything. It’s not that we–and here I’m speaking to those of us who are women–are to see ourselves as commodities for purchase by men. No. Things have become far more subtle than that. We–men and women–are now invited, even pressured, to purchase ourselves, cosmetically made-over and professionally reinvented.


To look older than 35 has become unacceptable in an age when dermatology, surgery, and (for the less affluent) Photoshop are available. Rail-like thinness continues to be de rigueur—the ultimate sign of power (requiring, as it does, an admirably steely will), yet simultaneously, I can’t but observe–at least among women–a reassuring signifier of our delicate frailty and thus supposedly inescapable dependence on a “provider.” And of course one must, throughout, display a stylish joie de vivre; even if one does not have the longed-for partner or satisfying, appropriately compensating job, one must avoid complaining or appearing to be anything less than “Fabulous.”

This is why I find Amy Brier, with her subterranean laundry-sharing studio, so impressive. She, like her home workplace, is real. And proud of it.

Stone rubbing of lettering by Amy

(Header image is not by Kendall Reeves.)

“Elbow Grease and Ingenuity”: Amy Rybacki

The lovely note below arrived this week from Amy Rybacki in response to “Women and Their [Sp]Houses,” published in the October issue of Old-House Interiors.

Amy Rybacki in her dining room (Photo from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Dear Ms. Hiller,
I really enjoyed your recent article in Old-House Interiors. I never really had given my relationship with my house much thought, but your words rang true with me!  Restoring my home did give me a sense of purpose, something I felt I was always meant to do.  A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote an article on my restoration (, and when it was picked up by the Scripts News Service, the headline was changed to say, “Single Woman Updates House…” I remember wondering why they felt the need to tell the world that I was single right there in the bold print of the headline, but I guess I should have been flattered instead by them focusing on the fact that I did it myself, the adventurous soul that I am!
Amy Rybacki
Please note: The header image is cropped from the photo published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.