According to historian Graeme Davison ‘the suburb has a claim to being one of the most successful and least loved inventions of the modern era’. As a potential oral history project I would like to use book clubs as a vehicle to explore suburbia and more specifically the lives of women in suburbia. There is a proliferation of book clubs in the suburbs and the overwhelming majority of people who join these clubs are women. I would either look at women from different generations who belonged to clubs to gain insight into how suburbia has changed for women or I could look at one club and explore the individual life of each woman in the club. The dynamics of these clubs and even the books that the members chose to read can show us things about women’s relationships with each other and popular culture.
This is clearly a large project and if I were to look at only one club then the information I would get would depend greatly on just which club I looked at. Nevertheless, I think it would be interesting to examine such an ordinary experience of being a member of a book club and use it to look at the history of women in suburbia. I would especially like to find out if, and how, gender roles have changed in suburbia. To make the project fit the constraints of the course I could look at one woman’s life and examine suburbia through her experiences, attitudes and memories.
The summer before I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I distinctly remember walking around a dig site during our field school excavation and thinking. “I wish we could just ask them what this structure was for—it’d be so interesting to know for certain.” It was the ‘for certain’ that got me. Later in a medieval history class I had the same questions: “If only I could ask them what it was really like to live in the fourteenth century.” Obviously, without a time machine such questions are now impossible to ask.
I’ve found myself (and heard others) asking similar questions about periods in time much closer to the present. My younger brother once asked me “I wonder what it was like to be a fighter pilot during the Second World War” in response to my question about a project he was working on. These are exactly the type of questions that oral history can help us answer. It can help us to preserve others’ lived experiences and extend their voices into the future. It can provide a window to help us understand what life was really like for people as historic events were taking place and how those events impacted their lives personally.
It is in this vein of preservation as well as my own interest in gender roles that I have selected the topic for my interview: women’s roles and how they shifted during and after the Second World War. I would like to interview a woman who lived through the war. I intend to pursue the interview as her life story while paying particular attention to how the war impacted her ideas about gender roles as well as shifts in those roles over time.