When I was younger, in moments of my most impertinent, most naive arrogance, I wondered why my extraordinarily intelligent mother decided to become a housewife. Why didn’t she do more with her great gifts? It was Alice Walker‘s groundbreaking 1974 essay ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’ that matured me on this subject. In homage to Phillis Wheatley, Walker writes: “It is not so much what you sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song.”
Walker taught me that my mother is an artist in her own right. Her choices were narrower than mine, and her decision to support her husband and children was a noble one. Now that I am a “wife” and often find myself shifting between doing author appearances and washing dishes, I understand that such delineations are complicated, at best. I also understand that the success of my entire family, especially my father, was afforded by my mother’s sacrifices.
When I think of Women’s History Month, I want to pay homage to women whose role as wives often eclipsed their own sweet songs. What about all of the women who lived in the shadows of their husbands?
When National Book Award-winning author Ralph Ellison died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, he was survived by his wife, Fanny Ellison, who went on to manage his estate until her passing in 2005. Coretta Scott King carried on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy for 38 years following her husband’s death. As head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Rachel Robinson has kept alive her husband’s legacy by becoming a great humanitarian and philanthropist.
I do not mean to suggest that these women are not stars in their own right. Each woman I mention is uniquely accomplished, and most have gone on to emerge from their husband’s shadows. Rachel Robinson had a distinguished career as a nursing professional. Shirley Graham DuBois, wife of W.E.B. DuBois, was a novelist and playwright. Lil Hardin Armstrong, second wife of jazzman Louis Armstrong, was a pianist, composer and bandleader and collaborated professionally with her husband during the 1920s. Amy Jacques Garvey, second wife of Marcus Garvey, was an accomplished journalist and author. Even my own mother became a respected small business owner.
Yet the line between wife and public-sphere professional can be a difficult one to navigate. Winnie Mandela, former wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, has experienced her own share of challenges in her public life — a life that will be portrayed by actress Jennifer Hudson in the upcoming film ‘Winnie.’ First Lady Michelle Obama suspended a career as a lawyer and hospital administrator to take on the role of the nation’s most public wife of all — a role that has required her to re-imagine her contributions as a professional.
When we think of Black History Month or Women’s History Month, these women’s names are often hidden beneath the towering images of their husbands. Why not take a moment and admire them individually? Yet I refuse to stop there. This may sound a little old-fashioned; however, at the risk of offending my feminist colleagues and in the hopes of honoring women who toiled for years with little recognition, I venture to say that for these women, being wives is also an accomplishment in and of itself.
is the author of Wench
. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009
, The Kenyon Review
and North Carolina Literary Review
. To find about more about her work and to read her blog, visit Red Room