Buy Yourself Something For Valentine’s Day
Whitney Houston’s death last Saturday alerted me to a part of her story: the roles played in her rise to fame by her mother, Cissy Houston, a gospel and pop singer who sang back up to Aretha Franklin, whose triumphant hymns to women’s independence heralded my political coming of age. Aretha was Whitney’s godmother.
This matriarchy, source of strength and grace, is rarely recognized as such. It’s reconstructed, in a far different culture, in the story of the Santa Clara Pueblo painter, Margarete Bagshaw, whose transcendent exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture here in Santa Fe pays explicit tribute to her mother, painter Helen Hardin, and her grandmother, the artist, Pablito Velarde—who was told by the boys at the Indian School here that she should go home and bake bread.
In one of Bagshaw’s enormous, brilliant canvases, three robed katchinas, their powerful iconic masks centered by round mouths that seem to be singing, or shouting, represent Bagshaw towering between her mother and grandmother, sharing their power and their skill.
Yet in my Anglo family, as in many others I know, the link between grandmother, mother and daughter, or daughter-in-law, is frail to the point of disappearance.
I believe this is because in certain white, middle and upper-class families, we women are repeating the lesson learned over the centuries of our disempowerment: that our very survival depends on men.
Of course this is no longer literally true, as women begin to dominate, numerically, in advanced education and even make progress toward the top in some of the professions and in politics.
But the fear, and the faith, remain: a man will always have a paycheck—a faith that should have been severely undermined by the current recession—and will afford us various kinds of protection based on his presumably larger size and strength.
I see this fear and this faith repeated in the Valentine Day’s advertisements which feature a man buying a piece of jewelry or a box of chocolates for a woman, leading me to wonder whether we women ever buy such baubles for ourselves.
I also see this every day in the way we pair: younger brides with older grooms (even when the groom is old enough to be out of the question entirely); taller husbands with shorter wives; the woman hiking a mountain trail here, always behind her man.
Whether the men in question are able, or willing, to provide what we expect them to provide is of course open to debate. But in any case, we cannot hope for powerful women artists until we reclaim our matriarchal lineage, including memories like Margarete Bagshaw’s, of a childhood where meals didn’t appear on time and the house was a mess.
Bad mothering, anyone?
The other kind of matriarchy—and there are many kinds—is represented for me in the house here called informally The House of the Three Wise Women, built and maintained by three generations of women collectors and painters, supported by a large fortune, generated by the great-grandfather but ably augmented over the years by his daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter.
The house, supported in part by the foundation these women established, is to become an international center for women scholars and independent researchers in the three areas these women supported: business, the arts, and conservation.
The idea is barely born, and it will be years before the center is funded and begins to extend its possibilities beyond a small group of grant recipients.
But the very existence of the house itself, a treasury of early twentieth century Hispanic and Anglo art, is a living example of the kind of creation which three generations of women who share a vision can bring into existence.
But of course they hired other women to take care of the childrearing.