Women’s Perspective During the Twentieth Century

Joszann St. John, a Dominican author, has embarked on a virtual book tour and is making a stop at my site today. Joszann is the author of Wounded No More and her latest publication  Sonnets in Waking Moments is the story of life during the Great Depression. I have the pleasure of having Joszann as a host-blogger on my site. Welcome Joszann.

Thank you Giftus for hosting me on this virtual book tour celebration for Sonnets in Waking Moments. I look forward to interacting with your audience and welcome their comments or questions. 

In this post I look at women’s perspective during the twentieth century.

The domestic arena consisting of family and household systems has long been associated with woman’s work. As society progresses, women are constantly redefining many aspects of womanhood, however we are shaped by previous experiences. Women’s lives were impacted in major ways during the twentieth century, and it is through the eyes of ‘Anna Agnelli’ and ‘Ma William’, that we look back at two defining periods, in two different parts of the world. “Ma William” is a novel written by Giftus John, a Dominican author living in the United States. The novel depicts life in the Dominican village of St. Joseph. Its many themes include family, women’s work, and the transition away from traditional society into the modern era of Westernized Culture. Anna Agnelli on the other hand, is an Italian immigrant and a woman who lives through the Great Depression. Joszann St. John captures Anna’s story in “Sonnets in Waking Moments”, a novel largely set in Toronto and New York City. For every woman who has accomplished a dream, she has had to rely on the efforts of others. Let’s examine women’s work, family and culture, in relation to these two characters.

Ma William Ma William owns and operates a small shop in the village; but she provides more than customer service. As some village men congregate in her shop almost every evening, it is a place where the men hangout, a place to socialize and share drinks. Ma William enjoys the interaction immensely. John does a great job of exploring the dynamics of the many personalities as they interact with each other, and the vivacious shop-keeper. To Ma William, family is important, and the men become extensions of an expanded network of familiar connections. William is a married woman and the mother of two children, Shirley and Jason.  Her husband has his own business, he is a tailor. Mr. William does not interfere with his wife’s endeavor, allowing her free rein to make her own decisions concerning the operation of her business. For Ma William, work and family are intertwined. They validate who she is. In the novel we are told, “She had been in the shop since at 6 o’clock this morning … took a two-hour break to return home to prepare lunch for her family” (Ma William). For Ma William and many other women who work outside the home, they take pride in serving family and community at the same time. Ma William is a figure of confidence, she knows who she is and is comfortable in her many roles.

Anna Agnelli migrates to Canada at the turn of the century. Tough economic times had necessitated her leaving the old country, and Anna leaves a piece of her soul behind, in Italy.  She comes on the scene, when American and Canadian industries were expanding and needed workers to drive growth. Many people came from impoverished nations, and then invited other family members to join them. Anna met and married Ralph, a fellow Italian, on Canadian shores. When the Great Depression hits, their marriage also suffers turbulence. The worsening economic crisis, impacts Ralph in unique ways. Anna is a tower of strength for her family though, and like Ma William, she also works outside the home. During the onset of the Depression, Ralph is often out of work. Anna juggles Virtual Book Tour Poster - Joszannmotherhood, (she has a young daughter Viola) and a demanding job as a domestic, to a wealthy family.  Impoverished women have often held traditional roles as nannies to wealthier families.  An interesting dichotomy is highlighted, when Anna must leave her sick daughter to go to work, her job in essence, to see to the welfare of the Ackerlys children. Anna acknowledges the difference between her world, and the world of the Ackerlys when she concludes: ”It was nice not to have to worry about where your next meal or money for necessities was coming from.  She had come to the realization sometime ago that the world was not a fair place.” (Sonnets in Waking Moments).

From the lenses of Ma William and her friends we see transition at work in the Caribbean and on Dominica’s shores. Culture clashes, between the men whose lives have been moored on the island, compared to those who’ve had a chance to migrate. Blackouts, or interruption in the island electric system, angered the man who had spent years in Britain, as he was used to a different standard of living. Two other characters, Bamboo and Paul, also have an exchange, where we see American influence impacting the lives of the islanders.  Bamboo gets jealous of Paul’s yellow raincoat, questioning whether or not, he had received a barrel from someone in America. Dominicans are largely descended from the culture and heritage of slavery. When Ma William says, “I have to struggle to make a little livin” (John).  Her sentiment has double meaning, for it has been extremely challenging for islanders, largely descendants of slavery. Struggle and lack has often been the experience of many Dominicans. As the modern world is expanding its borders, the islands are also coming into their own. Ma William’s story is one about change, as the old ways erode. Case in point, her daughter Shirley has been given an opportunity to study abroad solidifying the new paths  being forged.

Anna Agnelli too, was forever changed by the decade of the 1930’s. Her family dynamic would no longer be the same. She was already a working woman, so the new culture that emerged from the 1930’s was one she celebrated. It meant that women were now able to occupy roles which formerly belonged to the men. Fascism and its ideology had dominated periods of the decade and subsequent war. Anna as an Italian Canadian had experienced racism. After the war, society attitudes were changing, and the future looked promising. The late 1940 and the 1950’s was a time of great change. Society was rebuilding after the economic collapse and new foundations were being laid, for all that would transpire in the following decades. Viola, Anna’s daughter, would eventually grow up to be a transformational figure, a bridge connecting the past and the future. The younger woman’s role as nun, and later wife, solidifies the woman’s place in the shifting culture of the twentieth century. Both stories capture the essence of great change at work in women’s lives. Women have arrived in the 21st century with a smorgasbord of choices. Where they go, and what they do with these choices is still being worked out.


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