By Anne K. Kaler, PhD
Cinderella is to blame.
The romance genre started with the Cinderella story where the innocence and loneliness of the heroine, as well as her lack of a satisfactory mother or a female support group, hindered her success in life. That meant that the early heroine had to be rescued by the rich nobleman who knew what was best for her.
Still it is not all Cinderella’s fault entirely because she was deprived of a suitable mother-figure to mold her perception of herself. Mothers, you see, are necessary mentors for the female hero. The irony of this is that Hera, the queen of the Greek Gods, gave her name to the original hero Hercules whose name means “one who does great deeds in the name of Hera.” The word “heroine” is a weakened form of “hero” suggesting something smaller and of less value. Take, for example, the difference between the words “actor” and “actress”, “waiter” and “waitress”, and “poet” and “poetess”. The feminine form of each word suggests lesser ability even though the work accomplished is the same (and for 25% less pay.)
So what is a nice girl supposed to do when she’s stuck in a dead-end job scrubbing out hearths and catering to two spoiled stepsisters? Implicit in this is the misconception of the relative powerlessness of a young woman. In early romance novels, which satisfied the fantasy imagination of English women after World War II, this formula worked. When the unprotected heroine is rudely shocked from her comfortable rut by an invading and invasive force – the hero – she finds security in his paternalistic strength and offer of marriage as an ultimate goal and end.
Imagine selling that concept to the new wave of women writers who proclaim their independence. Modern heroines are required to have strongly masculine aspects, shown in their fierce defense of their hard-won independence from the necessity of marriage for survival. Nowadays, in society and in novels, the woman must rescue herself without depending on a knight in shining armor. Often, the heroine must fight the forces of evil with martial arts rather than with a marital ring.
What is missing in the heroine’s skill set is the influence of the mother. Traditionally, mothers are missing or ineffective in novels, especially in romance novels. Without a mother to guide her, the heroine easily gets lost. Look what happens with Scarlett O’Hara when her mother dies…civil war. While the romance novel is ultimately about the marriage market, a sub-genre in romance novels provides maternal influence for an unprotected heroine. Quilting novels often relegate the role of the heroine’s maternal protector to the support of her society of women friends who bond around a quilting table.
Does it seem strange that, within the voluminous and ever-shifting genre of the romance novel, the heroine often resorts to her needle to restore order to her universe? After all, the definition of romance includes the basic concept of a happy ending with the restoration of order to chaos. Thus, where the rescuing knight’s lance suggests a brutal dismemberment of society, the feminine quilting needle becomes a healing instrument, piecing together a tattered world stitch by stitch.
Whereas the earlier romance centered on orphaned, impoverished young woman with no marketable skills seeking a dependable, fatherly mate, a modern heroine must be included into a group and educated to be a profitable member of society. Thus, in novels, the local quilting society members see themselves as mentors/mothers bestowing wisdom and experience to the young women.
Women’s friendship through the quilting bee is a social phenomenon which is well documented in cultural and quilting history. Thus, the quilting bee provides the novelist with the variation of this romance convention of a “cute/hostile meet.” A natural wariness of the newcomer to a society may appear as hostility at first. When the newcomer learns quilting, the hostility turns into one woman’s need and other women’s responses.
The hostility convention turns the women of the quilting group into teachers whose purpose is to incorporate the newcomer into the town culture by instructing her in the social bonds. “Quilting bees likewise created women’s communities in their use of oral rather than written words to initiate young women into courtship and marriage. The domestic ritual of the bee helps us appreciate the importance of both the quilts and the stories tied to them.” (Macheski 16)
The author’s use of the introduction of a new person into the quilting group also serves as a convention of introducing a new viewpoint or vantage point to judge the entire society. Such persons act as pieces of the quilt bringing new patterns and colors to the main overall design. Sandra Dallas’s The Persian Pickle Club has Rita, a young married investigative reporter being the new person whom the town’s women are reluctant to accept, until Rita finds herself swept into the quilting bee society. There she flourishes under the leadership of the women, she helps to solve a murder mystery, and she leaves the group well prepared for her life as a writer and wife to her husband in a new town.
So also, in her novel Touching Stars, Emilie Richards has her heroine Gayle face a hostile meeting with her ex-husband who wants to reestablish his relationship with his three sons, after “deserting” them to be a foreign correspondent and leaving his wife to manage the household and the children for years. Seeking financial stability for her bed-and-breakfast inn, Gayle invites a series of local crafters for a summer entertainment for her guests.
Her quilting group devises a star motif which echoes the name of her bed-and-breakfast “Daughter of the Stars” the Native American name for the nearby Shenandoah River. As the character Gayle says that “stars have been a favorite of quilters through the centuries” (44) and a four-star quilt already hangs in her entryway. The quilt top in the novel is the Touching Stars pattern, which resonates the reestablishing of Gayle’s family as a “touching” one.
Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” takes place in the deep South during the Civil Rights movement, when an African heritage becomes a symbol of a righteous cause and values. The mother uses quilts and the act of quilting itself to protect her younger disabled daughter from her older worldly daughter Dee. Dee, having renamed herself with an African-based name Wangero, wants the hand-stitched quilts her mother had made to hang on the walls of her new home, as proof of her African ancestry. Her younger sister Maggie, she claims, is “backward enough to put them to everyday use.” Dee complains that Maggie will wear out the hand-made quilts within five years. Her mother replies, “She can always makes some more…Maggie knows how to quilt.” That statement alone crystallizes the problem of the false and true values and heritage.
Cinderella, after all, had a godmother to guide her and a talking ash tree planted on top of her mother’s grave. She had magic mice and birds and many forms of other mothers to guide her toward wisdom…and the prince and his castle. So maybe, we just don’t realize fully just how maternal wisdom comes to us but never doubt that it is there guiding us even as they occasionally “needle” us.