In Praise of Domesticity

The telephone rang at the Hayden household, deep in suburbia. It was a special consultant to the President for cultural affairs inviting Phyllis McGinley Hayden to the White House Festival of Arts.  Two thoughts crossed her mind, neither being the honor of being invited to the White House. She had to juggle her schedule to fit in an honorary degree at St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York. Her second thought was “Oh, I don’t like this!  I like to live quietly and peacefully.”

Phyllis could not hide from her fame.  Times Three, a collection of her poems, sold 80,000 copies in hard cover alone.  In 1964, the University of Notre Dame conferred upon her the Laetare Medal, awarded annually to an outstanding American Roman Catholic. In making the presentation, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the university described her as “the most highly respected contemporary writer of light verse.”  Three years earlier, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetic efforts.  Among her many honors are the Catholic Book Club’s Campion award (1967) and the Catholic Institute of the Press Award (1960).  She was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1955.

At the White House Festival, she was asked to recite one of her own poems.  She chose Diversity, praising God for the variousness of his creation, which includes the following stanza:

Praise what conforms and what is odd,

Remembering, if the weather worsens

Along the way, that even God

Is said to be three separate Persons.

Then upright or upon the knee,

 Praise Him that by His Courtesy,

For all our prejudice and pains,

Diverse His Creature still remains.

Phyllis McGinley was born to be a poet.  As far back as she could remember, her muse was coaxing her to spin thoughts in words.  At the tender age of six she produced a quatrain that showed promise, if not prowess:  “Sometimes in the evening / When the sky is blue and pink, / I love to lie in the hammock / and think and think and think.”  “From then on,” she remarked, “it never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be a poet.”

Fearing that she could not make a living writing poetry, she took a job teaching English at a junior high school in New Rochelle, NY.  Her principal was not enamored with her poetic extra-curricula activities and conveyed to her his concern that they might interfere with her classroom commitments.  She responded appropriately:  she quit.  In retrospect, it was the right thing to do.

She responded to domesticity as if it were poetry.  The first of her two daughters was born in 1939.  “I have never felt so divine in my life as the time before she was born.  I was so full of euphoria, I was practically immune from all human illnesses.”  Her second daughter arrived two years later.

Phyllis McGinley was achieving something she was not supposed to achieve in the eyes of secular feminists.  She was happy at home with her husband and daughters.  Betty Friedan had written The Feminine Mystique in which she characterized the household state as nothing less than “dangerous.”  “It is not an exaggeration,” she wrote, “to call the stagnating state of millions of American house wives a sickness.”  Adding to the negative appraisal of domesticity was Simone de Beauvoir, who, in The Second Sex, said that submitting to housework betrays “a kind of madness bordering on perversion.”

Undeterred, housewife McGinley penned Six Pence in Her Shoe which remained on the best-seller list for 26 weeks.  Total sales soon exceeded 100,000.  “I feel sorry for this younger generation,” she wrote.  “They’ve been told that they’re not contributing to the world if they relax into their normal ocean of domesticity.”  In one of her poems, she captured the dissatisfaction of secular feminism:  “Snugly upon the equal heights / Enthroned at last where she belongs, / She takes no pleasure in her Rights / who so enjoyed her “Wrongs.”

If her poetry was critical, it was always laced with humor.  And she did not fear where angels fear to tread.  “For the female of the species may be deadlier than the male / but she can make a cup of coffee without reducing the entire kitchen to shambles.”  “And when lovely woman stoops to folly, / She does not invariably come in at four A. M., / Singing ‘Sweet Adeline’.” 

It’d be unjust to identify the poetic efforts of Phyllis McGinley Hayden as “light verse.”  They are light in the sense that they are easily understood by the untutored reader.  But lying under the surface are meanings that are far reaching.  They remind readers of the beauty and mystery of life that is so often ignored.  They explain to the reader that what at first glance might seem ordinary, is truly, when you look at it properly, quite extraordinary.  W. H. Auden agrees that McGinley’s poetry is more than “light:”  “You could equally call it light verse or marvelous poetry.  There is a certain way of writing which one calls light, but underneath it can carry a great depth of emotion.”

Phyllis McGinley Hayden passed away in 1978 at the age of 72. Before her passing, the June 18, 1965 issue of Time featured Phyllis McGinley on the cover.  Written above is her bio reduced to eight words:  “I rise to defend the quite possible She.”  The “She” was the authentic woman who combined authentic success with domestic tranquility.  She did not try to be anything but herself, and this is the kind of success we should all seek to emulate.

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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