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Martha Comes to Harvard

Harvard On My Mind

By Meredith B. Osborn

Why did Martha Stewart come to Harvard? At the dinner honoring her Wednesday night I polled the audience, trying to come up with an answer.

Some women simply liked her style. "She's so imaginative, so creative," said one attendee. Others cited her enormous success as a businesswoman and entrepeneur. But when it came time to give the thank-you speech, a middle-aged professor spoke excitedly about the colors of Martha Stewart paint she uses in her homes. Yes, homes, plural. Apparently Martha buys homes like I try on shoes (her words, not mine).

The professor, notably, spoke about her guilt at not being the kind of homemaker that her mother was when she was a little girl, and how Martha has helped raise the standard back up to those "good old days" of her childhood.

Hearing these reactions to Martha and not being a Martha-phile myself, I was confused. Was Martha supposed to come and teach us Cliffies how to make house? Or was she there to show us how, as successful career women, we can make millions?

In some ways, it seemed that Martha wasn't there for undergraduates at all. Her guilt trips and perfectionism don't work as well on girls brought up by working mothers, as most of our generation was.

Then I realized, Martha is really about nostalgia. Like Restoration Hardware, Martha offers us the opportunity to buy a little upper-crust of American culture.

Luckily, Martha Stewart isn't purely about nostalgia for Sally Homemaker of the '50s. Note her corps of gardeners and army of staffers, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is selling nostalgia for the decadent '20s, or perhaps the Gilded Age of innocence. The miracle is, unlike the J. Peterson catalogue, Martha sells it for the price of a mass-produced appliance. She flawlessly melds nostalgia for the do-it-yourself mom of the Cold War--who single-handedly built and stocked a bomb shelter with attractive canned goods--with nostalgia for the Great Gatsby mansions of an earlier era where elaborate parties and swirls of ribbon and beads decorated everything from hats and dresses to cakes and ballrooms.

Martha's brilliant because she says you can buy opulence at Kmart, thus allowing your sensible '50s wallet to purchase the decadence of the roaring '20s. And, at that price, who wouldn't?

It is not particularly troubling that modern consumers want to recreate a world with more leisure and more decadence at a price the modern middle class can afford. But the idea that homemaking is only for women, is. On the Charlie Rose Talk Show Martha said of her mission, "I was serving a desire--not only mine, but every homemaker's desire, to elevate that job of homemaker."

But where is the man who buys the begonias? The husband who helps create the sumptuous dinner party? Martha herself admits that her passion for gardening came from her father. So why are her products marketed so exclusively to women?

The real reason Martha came to Harvard is to show women that you can have it all, and cheap too. But by concealing her large staff who work behind the scenes, Martha also conceals that fact that you can't have it all alone. Now, as ever, women need men's help to create the perfect (one of Martha's favorite words) house and home.

Martha came to Harvard to teach us a strategy for success. But in the future, if the Ann Radcliffe Trust really wants to help women out, they should bring in a house-husband for a change.

I'll tell you the truth: I'm sick and tired of older women telling me that I'm going to have to make tough choices, that I can't be Martha the homemaker and Martha the entrepreneur simultaneously. Well, Martha isn't really a homemaker and I don't like crafts. But furthermore, I want to know why the Ann Radcliffe Trust isn't sitting men down and asking them to think about what it means to be superman, how they're going to balance being both dad and executive.

Women at Harvard spend too much time going to "Family and Career" panels--someone please tell me why this is always a staple of the Women's Leadership Conference?--while men spend their time preparing for recruiting. Trust me, they're not talking about familial responsibilities in the final clubs. Women don't need speakers to tell them how to be successful businesswomen: Men need lessons on how to be successful husbands and fathers.

Martha's time is up. It's time to take the conversation elsewhere.

Meredith B. Osborn '02 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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