Category Archives: Gender

Visit to the Mil

This week’s trip to Milwaukee was short but full of wonders.

First stop: a pilgrimage to my dear friend Katie’s childhood home to reconnect with her parents and the lucky Otis.

Otis

Otis and his parental units

Next came an evening at the Lynden Sculpture Garden with a well attended presentation on A Home of Her Own followed by a book signing. The event was sponsored by Bronze Optical, Lynden, Milwaukee Reads, and Historic Milwaukee, Inc.. Thanks to all, and especially to Margy Stratton, Polly Morris, and my hosts, Will Fellows and Bronze, for putting this event together.

On Thursday morning I gave a finishing techniques workshop at Lynden, where this set of instructions, complete with injunction to use the Golden Rule, was posted on the wall:

Sign at Lynden

Remember, keep your hands to your slef!

I was delighted to have a chance to visit Bronze Optical before driving back to Bloomington.

Will and Bronze

Will and Bronze in the gorgeous front room at Bronze Optical. After seeing the loving care with which these two fixed up and furnished their place of business, and having heard them discuss their approach to fitting clients with just the right eyewear, I must confess that I am fantasizing about a long-distance consultation.

Stay posted for details of Will’s talk in Bloomington in May 2014!

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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.
 
 
 

More on Home and Gender

Author Will Fellows learned about  A Home of Her Own through my essay, “Women and Their [Sp]Houses,” which was published in the October issue of Old-House Interiors.  Fellows contacted me after he read the book, pointing out some intriguing parallels between the intense relationships the women I profiled had developed with their homes and those of gay men he included in his 2004 work, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.

He writes,

“I came to see your book as something of a companion volume, recalling a comment by a fellow whose work at the National Trust led him to remark on the longstanding design- and preservation-minded alliance of straight females and gay males: ‘There’s a joke at the Trust, that it’s staffed by lots of gay men and divorced women, which, if you look closely, is not far from the truth.’”

In A Passion to Preserve, Fellows  describes what he calls “key traits of preservation-minded gay men, past and present: gender atypicality; domophila (my term for ‘deep domesticity,’ an exceptional love of houses and things homey); romanticism; aestheticism; connection- and continuity-mindedness”–many of the same traits shared by the women in A Home of Her Own.

“To my mind,” he continues,  

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.”

                                                                    ********

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, calls Fellows’s book “a rich and detailed examination of an important and heretofore neglected aspect of our urban heritage.”

Darden Asbury Pyron, author of Liberace: An American Boy, writes: “Clearly Will Fellows has hit a nerve with many gay men…. As with his previous book, Farm Boys, Fellows presents the material in people’s own voices as much as possible and the best of these essays (and there are many) are wonderfully readable capsule biographies and histories.”

Will Fellows is also the author of Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s.