Women in the Material World

A couple years ago we took a trip to Oregon, tagging along with my husband for work. We spent beautiful, mild days traipsing through Portland, a break in the rain that leaves you asking yourself, "Can the rain really make it that draining in winter?" By the end of our week I decided that I could definitely be a diehard Pacific Northwesterner if my job was to drink coffee and read all day. I'd have to forego annoying things like picking up kids, going to get groceries and pulling weeds. Curling up with a book and a warm mug from the list of coffee shops I'd frequent would be my only responsibilities. Sounds nice, doesn't it? 

We made several trips to Powell's that week because one stop is just not enough. On a visit where the kids were engrossed in choosing their new books (our standard offering for a trip souvenir), I started chatting with a lovely employee. We'd recently read a lot of the same things and had similar taste in fiction and non-fiction. It was like the start of a really awesome blind date. Somehow we came around to anthropology and women and before I knew it she shoved this book into my hands and ordered me to read it. I'm so grateful she did. 

This book is exactly what you'd expect to find, but done so with just the right blend of objectivity and compassion. If these pages look familiar you may have seen the authors' original book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait. This time they've gone back to many of those original families to see what life is like, day to day, for the women and their families. Although the floors and food and clothes may seem different, the interviews will instantly shrink your world view to realize how similar, how interconnected we all actually are. I found myself nodding silently when one woman lamented the difficulty of balancing home and children without letting herself slip away, lost to the demands of those jobs completely. And I could have thrown out an, "Amen, Sister!" when another laughingly shook off the notion of equality when it comes to household chores (my husband is a gem, who is off fixing our garbage disposal as I write this, but when that man puts away dishes it's like an April Fool's joke). Restlessness, anxiety, joy, fear, it's all there in every country, on every continent. "Should I go back to work? Do I want to go back to school? Can I go back to school? Did I say the right thing? Should I have done that differently?" 

Carmen in Mexico cleans while the kids are at school, a particularly futile sounding chore when you consider that they live on a dirt street. She left school at age 12 because her father said they didn't have money for her to continue. Now she'd like to take sewing lessons to eventually bring in money for her family, but her husband says it's not financially possible. 

When Sayo, from Japan, is asked, "Is marriage what you expected?" Her response: "No, no. I thought it would be much merrier and happier. [Laughs] At one point I wanted us to have the same interests - to go to art galleries. I wanted him to go with me, but he was not interested, so we do not have any activities to do together. And my husband, he maybe feels the same way..." I found this story especially interesting because Sayo's favorite childhood chore was helping in her mother's midwifery practice and the woman she most admires is Catherine Deneuve. Oh but for thousands of miles we'd be off to the museum, chatting about births and quoting our favorite lines from Belle de Jour

Thumb through the pages visiting Thailand, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Ethiopia, China, Mongolia, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Russia, Italy and take comfort knowing that all over the world piles of laundry are threatening to topple, kids are asking for one last drink of water and toilet seats are left up. 

Women in the Material World by Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel