I'm just a working gal. I can't afford a vacation so I write because writing takes me to different places.

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” That is one of the most famous lines from Hollywood’s classic, The Graduate (1967). Through Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) relationship with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)—a young fresh graduate with a bored middle-aged, middle-class housewife turned seductress—the movie tells a story of a noteworthy period in American history.

Following the postwar economic boom and increase in population, in the 1950s young middle-class couples moved from the overcrowded cities to new housing areas in the suburbs. These homes, equipped with new efficient home appliances, particularly in their kitchen design, were dubbed the “typical American house”. In 1959, Nixon once tried to enlighten Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev about the dishwashers directly installed in these houses. Nixon claims, “In America, we like to make life easier for women.”

It was during this Cold War period that the ideal white middle-class American family consisting of children, a male breadwinner and housewife was part of a political propaganda. In the US Cold War propaganda abroad, gender ideology played an important role to establish capitalism’s success over communism through the image of the Western middle-class, breadwinner-housewife nuclear family.

In fact, in the 1950s, the term middle-class Americans was more of a political term rather than an economic term, as political scholars have pointed out. The term was used to refer to an American identity associated with a set of values, a specific lifestyle, taste, and culture. This was marked by the rise of a consumer culture and a culture of conformity. It was against this setting that counterculture movements began to emerge.

The counterculture movements criticized the establishment, class divisions, education, gender norms, as well as the family and marriage institutions. The movements' dissatisfaction with American society is reflected in The Graduate through Ben’s journey to leave his dull privileged-life and break free from society’s conventions.

The story line reflected the hypocrisy of the privileged life in the comfortable suburban homes, which confined women to domesticity. In her research published in her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan revealed that behind the doors of many seemingly happy suburban homes, lived an unhappy educated housewife who was discontent with domestic life. As much as the counterculture movements, such as the Beat and hippie movements, appear to offer a kind of sexual revolution—women—as disclosed in Beat women’s memoirs, remained as sexual objects and domestic creatures.

It was not only traditional values that encouraged women to primary be domestic beings, but it was also the politics of the day. For example, political issues surrounding childcare in the US had a significant contribution to the domesticity of women. During the Second World War, women were mobilized to work due to the urgent need of fulfilling war production. To encourage and enable women to join the workforce, the government provided quality federal-funded daycare. When the war ended and women were expected to return home to make way for male employment, the daycare initiative ended, despite considerable opposition from many women.

When the need for federal-funded collective childcare was raised again in the 1960s and ‘70s, it continued to face objection, in part, because the Cold War foes use such a system, so it was deemed incompatible with American values. Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 arguing that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Thus, childcare was and is still treated as an issue for individual families—particularly the women—to cope with, rather than an economic investment that will empower women and their families. Not surprisingly, to date, the US has no adequate childcare infrastructure intact, a problem which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

However, as with the politics of the Cold War era, male-dominated countercultures which emerged at the time too, did not want to deal with any issues that might disrupt the gender power structure too much at their inconvenience. In terms of gender equality, changes were slow. As we see, after Mrs. Robinson’s liaison with Ben, she comes back to the comfort of her suburban home, behind the doors of domesticity that define her.

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2021)

#ColdWar #counterculture #US #childcare #WorldWar2 #gender #history #writing

More on The Graduate More on US wartime childcare More on countercultures

Sources Dratch, Howard (1974). The Politics of Child Care in the 1940s. Science & Society, 38(2): 167–204. [Accessed 25 July 2021].

Friedan, Betty (1973) ‘Up from the Kitchen Floor.’ NY Times. [Accessed August 22, 2020].

Krasner, Barbara (2014) ‘The Nuclear Family and Cold War Culture of the 1950s.’ Academia. [Accessed December 21, 2019].

Maragou, Helena (2015) Lawrence R. Samuel, The American Middle Class: A Cultural History. Review [Accessed 14 November 2021].

Punch, David A. (2018) The Graduate: Symbolism in Film. [Accessed 21 November 2021].

The Kitchen Debate-transcript 24 July 959 Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev U.S. Embassy, Moscow, Soviet Union. [Accessed August 16, 2020].

“Calling to arms all men from 21 to 55 years old, Italy can mobilize 8,000,000 men, and adding young men of 18, 19, and 20 years more than 9,000,000 ….”

The nation’s leader, Benito Mussolini—or better known as II Duce to his people—did not fail to cast a spell on the cheering crowd on the 30th of March 1938. His speech continued to spark the crowd as he shouted,

“This shows how ridiculous are the polemics of certain circles beyond the Alps according to which the African war, the formation of two army corps in Libya and the participation of volunteers in the Spanish war have weakened us.

On the contrary, all that strengthened us …”

In fascist Italy, the modern Italian man is what makes up the nation—he is the nation, the nation is him. War was no longer seen as misery, but an honor. It was a time of great hope and pride as II Duce attempted to revive the glory of the Roman Empire. The men were the soldiers; the women were mothers who earned medals for supplying the nation with its soldiers and workers.

The fascist regime promoted espresso to the workers. In the morning, workers line up against the counters of espresso bars, sipping their cups only for minutes, before dashing off to work for the nation. The new steam espresso machine makes coffee fast like a speeding steam train, but just cool enough to immediately drink. In only seconds the espresso will flow smoothly from the machine like a long mouse tail into the small cups, an analogy with the steam trains, which in a split second, will arrive at the stations as scheduled. Even though the promptness of the trains was false, both the train and the espresso machine served as Mussolini’s propaganda to demonstrate the technological advancement, industrialization, and modernization of what was once a war-torn Italy.

The nation was trying to rise from its knees by the lift of a strongman as the memory of the First World War had slowly dwindled but not forgotten. For Mussolini, founder of Italy’s National Fascist Party—the Italian espresso was the nation’s drink, that of a modern Italy. For the nation’s strongman, it was political as much as cultural.

Looking back, who would have thought that the strongman, who vowed to lift Italy from the trenches, would be executed in humiliation as he was by the people of his country? On April 28, 1945, Mussolini was captured while trying to flee with his mistress.

The empire Mussolini aspired to build did not, by far, have the military skills of the Romans. The dictator who was responsible for the war losses and death of his people had left his wife of three decades and their children to escape and save himself.

Even more humiliating was what happened after his death. On April 29th, 1945, the bodies of II Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci, and three supporters who were executed along with them, were hanged upside down at the town square of Milan to satisfy the angry mob. This event is what is best remembered of the strongman who fell from grace.

Nonetheless, the Italian espresso and the coffee bars that Mussolini used in his fascist propaganda were quickly disassociated with the strongman. The Italian espresso culture lived on to be celebrated around the world.

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2021)

#fascism #WorldWar1 #WorldWar2 #Italy #Espresso #history

Note: Mussolini’s speech is quoted from:

I first wrote this piece as a historical fiction short story, although it may have not turned out too well. In case you are interested, you can read it here: The Strongman's Espresso

The moral devastation experienced by the US after the Great War led the country to the quest of achieving a new stability. This was sought through regaining economic strength and retaining traditional values. It was during this aftermath that many American modernist writers, in search of a safe haven, emigrated to Europe. Many settled in Paris, finding the freedom that could release them from the disillusionment caused by the war.

For many years Paris was home to American modernist writers, poets, and artists during an era of postwar recovery and prefascist political power. These writers were then known as “the Lost Generation”—those who due to the war had lost their faith in the government, God, and the American dream.

Even with the economic and social independence that American women gained in the roaring '20s, the literary and art scene still offered less freedom to women. This led many American female writers and artists to join the emigration to France in the 1920s and '30s. Among these women were Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Solita Solano, and Thelma Wood, just to name a few. However, “the Lost Generation”, a term first coined by Stein, remained associated mainly with male writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—the major heroes of this generation.

In the 1920s and 30s, Paris had inspired women modernist writers and artists as the city gave them freedom to live an alternative lifestyle to that of the conservative postwar American society. These Parisian women, who led the unmarried, bohemian, and bisexual lifestyle, were later dubbed the “Left Bank women writers”, as they famously resided in this part of Paris. Their work and lifestyle quickly became a subculture within the male dominated literary and art community of American modernists.

The Left Bank women writers were less acknowledged in modernist literature than their male peers. They were eventually recognized but labeled as “women writers” or “lesbian writers”. Some writers find this separate category of recognition as derogatory. Barnes, who is well-known for her classic novel, Nightwood (1936) which was influenced by her relationship with Wood, once said, “I hate women writers!” and wanted to disassociate her work from this label. The category had emerged owing to the absence of white heterosexual male bias (albeit still predominantly white) in the works of Left Bank women writers. Despite this, arguably, the category may have kept the work of Left Bank women writers at the margins of the modernist literary movement.

The male comrades of the Lost Generation emerged from a state of cultural changes and turbulent times. Even though breaking with traditional literary conventions, they were often criticized for preserving a predominantly masculine culture; thus, contributing to modernism’s marginalization of women.

Photo: Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes in a Paris cafe around 1922 (Maurice Brange)

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2021)

#literature #Worldwar1 #womenwriters #lostgeneration #history #US #Paris #gender

If you are interested in this topic, you might like to read: Unsung Women Writers of the Postwar Era

It took an incompetent ruler, a foreign queen, a mystical healer, and a starving nation to bring the fall of a three-hundred-year empire. The last Czar, Nicholas II, with his wife, Alexandra, and their children—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei—were executed in July 1918.

The Russian power couple, Nicholas II and Alexandra, were one of the very few royals who married because of love. One historian described them as the only royal couple of their time to have shared a bed. Along with their five children, they were also one of the most photographed and filmed royals. Not only did they hire someone specifically for this purpose, but photography was a favorite pass time of the Czar’s. Some of the pictures, which are still available today, were taken by the last Czar of Russia himself.

The starvation of the masses and the devastation of wars lost led to a series of events that pivotally contributed to the fall of the Russian empire. One which always sparked interest was the event that began the Romanov’s special relationship with the Serbian peasant and mystical traditional healer turned holy man, Grigori Rasputin. It all started one night when the Czar’s only son, Alexei, suffering from hemophilia finally stopped bleeding after a visit from Rasputin. Politics in early modern Russia would never be the same again. Rasputin instantly became the Czar’s and especially the Czarina’s confidant; not only on issues which concerned their son’s health but also on how to run the country.

The peasant man was fortunate to have landed on the doorsteps of the royal palace, which in turn, helped him climb the social ladder and into the beds of women of the Russian elite circle. Rasputin—who believed that to achieve a higher spiritual level, one must sin—was legendary for his notorious sex life and exceptional sexual appetite.

Rasputin’s reputation with elite Russian women and his closeness with the Czar’s family led to speculations about Czarina Alexandra’s relationship with Rasputin. Rumors were fueled by the leak of affectionate letters she had written to him. The Czarina certainly held Rasputin close to her heart, but never between her legs, as historians have assured us. However, much like what happened to Marie Antoinette, the alleged sexual relationship was used against the foreign German-born and English-raised Czarina who was also the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to justify the people’s discontent with their rulers and the nobles’ hatred of Rasputin.

It is somewhat hard to tell fact from myth when it concerns Rasputin as there is so much legend surrounding the man. Such an example is the legend surrounding his assassination in 1916 by the Russian nobles. The strong mystical man allegedly did not succumb to the poison in his wine, so the assassinators had to shoot him until he finally collapsed and died. In real life, the autopsy revealed he was not poisoned.

A year later, the Czar and his family were under Bolshevik house arrest and moved to different places until the fateful night of their execution on July 17, 1918, inside the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. There are many accounts of the life they lived during the time of their house arrest, including those revealed from the girls’ journals and letters, as well as from witnesses. In the earlier time of the family’s house arrest, the young male guards and the Romanov girls in fact were in friendly terms with each other. Maria, the Czar’s third daughter, was said to have had a thing with one of the boys. The boy who had a crush on Maria gave her a cake on her 19th birthday. He was removed and allegedly the other guards were immediately replaced by hardline Bolshevik guards.

The story of the Romanovs tends to end with the climax of their execution, the infamous execution that went all wrong. To the surprise of the firing squad, the children did not die of the shots fired at their bodies. Thus, other violent methods were employed, turning the execution into a blood bath.

Only later when disposing the bodies, the men understood why the children survived the initial shots. Jewels were sewn into their undergarments. Journals left by the children revealed that the girls had done this with aim of saving the Romanov’s jewels, but unintentionally the jewels had shielded them from the Bolsheviks’ bullets.

Actually, the execution was followed by another scenario gone wrong: the Bolshevik’s ill-prepared attempt to dispose of the bodies. The executors were drunk and brought only one shovel (yes, one!), and their truck broke down. Sounds like a joke, but nonetheless, a fact which is part of a history that wouldn’t be revealed until decades later.

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2021)

#Romanovs #Russia #history

Note: An earlier slightly different version appeared on:

I've also written a post on the Romanovs on Blogspot:

Coffee has always had the magic to draw people together and chat. For some autocratic rulers, this is a recipe for political unrest. So for reasons related to rulers’ anxiety, coffee was banned in Mecca in 1511, Cairo in 1532, Constantinople in 1623, and Prussia in 1777, and was almost banned in England in 1675.

On the contrary, Mussolini, who founded Italy’s National Fascist Party in November 9th 1921, was not afraid of a coffeehouse full of men. In fact, coffee bars and espresso were an important part of Mussolini’s state propaganda to build a national identity. Mussolini replaced the English word “barman” with “barista” to certify the Italian coffee culture. Espresso bars with the modern technology of espresso machines represented the “modern Italian man”, just like a quick cup of espresso: vigorous and on the go.

Fascism of course relies on cultural unity, but equally important is the making of a national economic vanguard. Mussolini found the latter in Italy’s domestically produced aluminum which was set to lead the national economy. Interestingly, this idea went hand in hand with the idea of espresso representing Italy’s national drink. In 1933, Alfonso Bialetti invented the first celebrated stovetop “Moka Express” espresso maker using guess what? Aluminum! (Read more in Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ‘The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum’, 2001).

Interestingly too, while for fascist Italy coffee resonated with the idea of strong, dynamic, and energetic men, its ally, Germany had a completely different view of coffee. Under Nazi rule, caffeine was viewed as a stimulant that would poison the pure Aryan flesh. But the German people could still enjoy that ah… irresistible taste of fresh brewed coffee. Decaffeinated coffee, invented by Ludwig Roselius in Bremen in 1905, was widely popular in 1930s Germany. Would you have guessed this link between decaf and fascism? But that’s a story we will have to discuss another time.

Back to Italy. Apparently, the aluminum Moka Express didn’t take off that well during war time. In part, this was due to limited production and marketing. It was not until post-World War II when Bialetti’s son launched a nation-wide marketing campaign and increased the production of the Moka Express, that it finally became a household name. Along with the fall of fascism, changes in postwar Italy’s family values and gender roles encouraged the acceptance of this home appliance. This changed espresso from being a drink associated with the male-dominated public domain to a common drink in the private domain. Made in the comfort of the kitchen, a cup of espresso is now a family affair. Nothing like politics and a good cup of Italian espresso!

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2019)

#coffee #espresso #Italy #fascism #worldwarII #history

Do you think that there is a gender gap in the publishing industry? Just by reading a few sources off the internet, I found women writers claiming that they get more responses from publishers when using a male pseudonym, suggesting that the publishing industry and society in general do not take women writers seriously.

Not that women never had a prominent position in literature; if you look back, some of the earliest poets in history were women. Consider Akkadian/Sumerian poet and high priestess, Enheduanna (2285–2250 BCE), who—historians generally agree—is the first female poet, if not the first in the world. And of course we all have heard of the famous Ancient Greek poet Sappho (c. 610–c.570 BCE). Another female poet, Al-Khansa (575 to–645), was said to be the greatest Arabian poet of her time.

Other female writers over the course of history include 11th century Japanese novelist Murasaki Shikibu, Byzantine 12th century author and historian Anna Comnena, Italian-French Christine de Pizan—the first professional female writer of the late 14th century. However, like the female poets who came before them, these women were from affluent circles or have a strong connection to them.

Even though the 18th and 19th century saw the presence of some notable women writers, such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, many women still chose to write anonymously or under a male pseudonym. There were women reformers who were avid writers and who were getting published, such as English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and later, American novelist and lecturer Charlotte Perkins Gillman. But generally speaking, the fact that most women writers tend to hide behind male or gender neutral pseudonyms indicates that it was harder for women to be accepted as authors.

The Victorian Era, with its ideology of separate sphere, contributed much to the challenge women writers face as women writers were, well… considered silly, because men (even those who were ruled by a queen) thought women lacked intellectual capacity. However, the use of pseudonyms was instrumental for women writers to gain entrance to the publishing industry. Anonymity also made it possible for women to contribute to quarterlies on conventionally male subjects such as politics and economics, while female novelists can write without being confined to the feminine literary tradition. Nonetheless, the double standard did rule. Tuchman and Fortin’s 1989 analysis of the Macmillan publishing archive from 1867 to 1917, tells us that men enjoyed higher acceptance rate and that by the 1880’s, women were being paid less (Alexis Easley in Linda H. Peterson, 2015).

It is interesting to know that even today female students and academic writers have confidence issues as they struggle in a male dominated academic world. The “confidence gap” is experienced by many professional women, according to The Atlantic (2017). I also once read that JK Rowling was told by her publisher to use her initials because boys wouldn’t read fiction written by women. Similar to what women in the academic field face, the female writer experience of harder acceptance may be a result of a gender gap that has long existed in society.

I’ve heard some say that the issue is not of any discrimination of some sort, but just the fact that there are less talented women writers. Even if this is true, we will have to ask why and any sufficient answer would need to look at issues in the education system as well as gender socialization and stereotyping. But then again, you will have to admit that some forms of sexual discrimination are just so subtle and difficult to prove even if you know that they truly exist. This may be the case with the writers’ gender gap. Just saying.

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2019)

#writing #gender

Music and fashion in our pop culture eventually become a regular part of our life because we hear, wear, or see them every day. We tend to forget that some pop cultures first started out as a subculture or even a counterculture. In fact, if we look back in history many trends were actually a response to the social, political, and economic environment. Many of course started as a youth lifestyle characterized by the music and fashion youths strongly identified with.

During the 50’s in the UK, a new urban youth culture called the mod (from the word modern, because the youths were into modern jazz) began to emerge. Like other social or cultural changes that have happened in the past, coffee houses were also an important part of the mod social setting. The mods would cruise around the city at night on their scooters and hang out in coffee houses where they listened to jazz and ska out of a jukebox—popular music genres of postwar Britain.

The mods had a distinct style and were very fashion conscious. Influenced by French and Italian art films, these youngsters wore tight suits and pointed shoes. The mods came from urban working-class communities who, because of better economic conditions and job opportunities after the Second World War, were able to live a somewhat consumptive lifestyle of fashion and staying out at night. Buying clothes was an important part of the mod lifestyle, where mods spent most of their wage.

Mod women popularized androgynous fashion by wearing masculine leather jackets as they rode their scooters through the night. Women were quite visible in the mod culture. As working women, their economic independence allowed them to adopt the mod lifestyle.

At a glance, the mod lifestyle may appear to have no political relevance, but it was a political statement in itself: a rebellion against the conventional postwar English life of hard work and conformity. The youths felt that the values their parents held did not get them anywhere better.

In the swinging 60s, the mod style became a trend in London’s center of fashion, Carnaby Street, and overnight the fashion industry launched Twiggy as a mod fashion icon. Likewise in the music scene, mod was the buzzword and new rock bands, such as The Who and The Small Faces, identified as mods. David Bowie also sported the Mod look. Once a counterculture, mod became commercialized and turned into pop culture.

The mods later evolved into the skinheads. These original skinheads had reggae and ska on their jukebox playlist, and were a mixed-ethnic group of working class youngsters; quite different from what would be commonly associated with the skinheads of today.

Fashion and music associated with mods experienced a series of revivals, especially in the ‘80s. Rather than being too fashion conscious, the mods of this era took a lot more interest in political issues. Such is the case with bands like The Jam and The Style Council who sported the mod look.

Nice to see that mod-influenced fashion is still present today, although unrelated to what mod had stood for and only reminiscence of the rebellion the counterculture once inspired.

-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2019)

#Mods #history #music #UK #fashion