Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Chapter Four Mothers of Consumption: Kenneth Hayes Miller's Matronly Shopper

Chapter Four
Mothers of Consumption:
Kenneth Hayes Miller's Matronly Shopper

The degree in which a cultural form embodies the aspirations of men to present their common humanity is one index of its value.

A woman's virtue and excellence as a housewife do not in these days depend upon her skill in spinning and weaving. An entirely different task presents itself, more difficult and more complex, requiring an infinitely wider range of ability, and for those very reasons more interesting and inspiring.
Ladies Home Journal, 1928, on the woman shopper

In the early 1920s Kenneth Hayes Miller began to paint full-figured shoppers in contemporary dress. Like Dorothy Bromley, who soon after codified the revised new woman, a contemporary viewer of a Miller shopper would have classified this placid figure for what she was not—at one extreme, the youthful, swinging jazz-age flapper and, at the other, the grim, outmoded, and un-feminine feminist. Instead, Miller produced paintings whose pictorial strategies articulate middle-class society's conception of a newer and supposedly liberated model of post-franchise womanhood. His image, fully consonant with a consumption-based, family-oriented, heterosexual ideal, occasionally reveals the constraining ideologies of consumer culture and an awareness of feminist claims. More specifically, his matron can be linked to the ideal of the professionalized homemaker advanced by businessmen, advertisers, and home economists who helped promote the conservative ideology of the back-to-the-home movement in the 1920s. Miller's own intellectual experiences and values had much in common with those of pre- and postwar philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists whose views shaped traditional



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Shopper , 1928. Oil on canvas, 41" × 33". Collection of Whitney
Museum of American Art.


attitudes about women's roles. Such patterns of thinking, conscious or not, informed his image of the matronly shopper.

Miller's archetype in a painting called Shopper (1928; Fig. 4.1) is both old style and new style, modern and traditional. Like her counterpart in a 1928 Sears Roebuck catalog (Fig. 4.2), the shopper wears the latest in moderate-priced fashion— a dress with a straight silhouette, softly bloused and belted at the hips, a cloche, and a choker of big beads. But Miller's shopper appears too dumpy and round for these slender fashions—unlike the sleek Vogue model nonchalantly seated behind the wheel of her automobile, a symbol of both American progress and her own new-found liberation (Fig. 4.3). At odds with the fashionable media images from the 1920s, the shopper's figure type harks back to the plump, though frequently corseted, earlier generation of matronly women.

Behind the full-bodied shopper—her proportions are echoed formally in the rounded hats and the columnar backdrop of the Fourteenth Street store window display—stand a long line of classical goddesses and Renaissance beauties. Neither the conventions of advertising nor the increasing cultural preference for a slender athletic female body dictated Miller's choice of body type and pose. Instead, in his desire to keep "art" in a privileged position, he adhered to conventions of earlier art, fashioning a monumental figure type that never gained widespread visual currency or popular cultural acceptance but nonetheless embodied deeply felt and frequently voiced ideals of womanhood. For the Shopper , Miller borrowed the Venus pudica , or modest Venus pose, from Hellenistic examples like the Medici and Capitoline Venuses (Fig. 4.4) but then occupied the shopper's hands with an umbrella and her purchases. A work like Titian's Woman with a Fur provided an intermediate prototype, perhaps more direct given the similarity of the necklace and capped sleeves in both works (c. 1536; Fig. 4.5).[1] Finally, the full-bodied figure type of Miller's shopper is like Renoir's later bather images, which became very popular in American art circles at this time. These sources were among Miller's favorites, especially in the 1920s. By connecting his up-to-date woman with idealized goddesses, whose pose and proportions suggested enduring models of nurture, beauty, and fertility, Miller transformed the shopper into a goddess of commerce, a Venus of Fourteenth Street.

Miller orchestrated the picture of the shopper to make her an image of classical stability and repose. Placed close to the picture plane, she dominates the scene with her bulk. Her columnar stance—arms held close to her rounded body—partakes of the architectonic qualities of the massive supports behind her. Her own roundness and that of every object, from the cloche hats to her sloped shoulders, expresses softness and womanliness. Even painting techniques stabilize the image: Miller carefully outlined and differentiated all the shapes that make up the design. Brushwork remains controlled, and in the more fluid passages surface elaboration is subordinated to the creation of weight.



"New York—Paris." Page from a 1928
Sears Roebuck catalog from Everyday
Fashions of the Twenties As Pictured
in Sears and Other Catalogs
, ed.
Stella Blum (New York: Dover
Publications, 1981), p. 122.


Cover of Vogue  magazine, March
16, 1929.


Medici Venus, early third century B.C.,
Roman copy. Uffizzi Gallery, Florence.


Titian, Woman with a Fur , c. 1536.
Oil. Staatsgalerie, Vienna.


This and other shopper images show additional signs that traditional and modern womanhood co-exist. The demure, self-protective pose of the modest Venus only partially masks the shopper's sexuality, signaled by her swelling figure, coy glance, and umbrella-as-phallus held between her legs. In images like Leaving the Bank (Fig. 4.6) the phallic bank columns that frame and tower above the shopper symbolize male power and allude to the absent male viewer in the scene or beyond the frame. The men for whom the matronly shopper consumes—either to make herself more beautiful or in her role as homemaker—rarely appear in Miller's works.

The Miller shopper appeared as a modern goddess of commerce in other situations as well. In The Fitting Room (Fig. 3.14) the women on the left recall the three Graces while the central woman, dressed in gold, takes a pose that is both generally classical (when compared to that of a Venus by Ingres, for example) and contemporary. Viewers of Miller's painting in the 1930s might well have recognized the Jean Harlow publicity pose and its overt display of a potent and, as some contemporaries would have argued, liberated sexual self (Fig. 4.7). In Sidewalk Merchant or In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 2.1; Plate 1), the three Graces re-enact the first beauty contest, the Judgment of Paris. Here, however, the Fourteenth Street hawker awards the prize; instead of a golden apple, he proffers packaged goods to a woman who has packaged herself like a beautiful commodity with the fashions and cosmetics of consumer culture; she is a visual display for the (male) viewer's gaze.

Miller placed his old-style new-style woman into settings whose formal designs not only enhance her womanliness but also function visually to stabilize or contain her sometimes powerful presence. In Woman with an Umbrella (Fig. 4.8) Miller again orchestrated curves and countercurves to exaggerate the woman's roundness and femininity. Placed close to the picture plane, filling the space with her substantial presence, she is framed by the curving columns, the open umbrella, the rounded cloche, and the enveloping fox (a favorite device that in several other works looks disturbingly alive). In The Fitting Room (Fig. 3.14) flat pilaster-like mirror frames anchor the women vertically while furs bind them together.

Whereas Miller's women in public settings appear up-to-date, if somewhat contained or controlled by the trappings of modern commerce, the full range of modern womanhood in his works suggests that in the private sphere the shopper fulfills the traditional, though updated, obligations of wife- and motherhood. Together his images enact the domestic ideals of the revised new woman. In Mother and Child (1927; Fig. 4.9), for example, although the mother sports bobbed hair and wears a robe in a style widely advertised in clothing catalogs and middle-class fashion magazines of 1926, Miller's use of a prototypical Renaissance model, like Bellini's Madonna degli Alberetti (1487; Fig. 4.10), imparts a sacred and special quality to modern motherhood that defenders of women's more "natural" wife-mother roles began to reassert in the late 1920s. Similarly, since Miller's images of nude women,



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Leaving the Bank , 1924.
Oil on canvas, 3o" × 25". Collection Gilbert and
Editha Carpenter.


Jean Harlow publicity photograph
for the movie Dinner at Eight .

modeled after Renaissance Venuses, late Renoir bathers, or odalisques, are shown in middle-class domestic settings, the rituals of self-beautification or modes of sexual address resonate with contemporary discourses on intimate male-female relations. In Odalisque (1926; Fig. 4.11), for example, a nude reclines on her living room couch. Her seductive glance at the (implicit) male viewer coupled with the contemporary domestic interior suggests the more passionate and intimate sexual demands of new women in companionate relations.

In other images of the late 1920s Miller explores the world of female friendship, continuing to show the coexistence of old-style and new-style woman by chronicling female interaction as it shifts from private, homosocial to public, heterosocial



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Woman with an Umbrella , 1928. Oil on canvas, 30" × 25".
Nebraska Art Association, Nelle Cochrane Woods Memorial Collection, Sheldon
Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Mother and Child ,
1927. Present location unknown.


Giovanni Bellini, Madonna degli
, 1487. Oil. Accademia, Venice.


Kenneth Hayes Miller, Odalisque , 1926. Oil. Present location unknown.



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Women Greeting , 1928. Present location unknown.


Giotto, The Visitation , 1305. Fresco. The Arena
Chapel, Padua.



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Casual Meeting , 1928. Oil on canvas, 20" × 24". Collection of
John P. Axelrod, Boston.

spaces. In Women Greeting (1928; Fig. 4.12) Miller stages a display of physical affection between two women in old-fashioned dress who meet indoors in a domestic setting. These ample matrons are clearly nurturing figures. Closely approximating the Renaissance prototype, exemplified by Giotto's fourteenth-century Visitation in the Arena Chapel in Padua (Fig. 4.13), the woman on the left encircles her companion's shoulder with her left arm and touches her breast with her right hand while her companion returns the embrace.

In Casual Meeting , also painted in 1928 (Fig. 4.14), two fashionably dressed women meet on a city street. They neither touch nor make eye contact with each other. Instead, the figure on the left glances down the street while the other meets the viewer's gaze. Between them in the distance is a male pedestrian. Distracted, perhaps, by the public world of commerce and male-female interaction, they project cool sophistication rather than sentimentality in their exchange.



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Finishing Touches , 1926. Oil, 18 3/4" × 33 1/2". Collection of
Jean and Sam Sapin.

In another up-to-date image, Finishing Touches (1926; Fig. 4.15), two women participate fully in the public pleasures permitted the modern new woman. Wearing fashionable hats over their short hair, they end their meal with coffee, a cigarette, an illicit glass of wine, and cosmetic repair, preparing themselves for the public and masculine gaze of the street. For all the seeming modernity of the women in Casual Meeting and Finishing Touches , their appearance is still shaped by Renaissance prototypes. Similar images of women painted by Miller's contemporary (and former student) Guy Pène du Bois show a greater reliance on modernist simplifications of form than on old master conventions.[2] As a result, the look of the women in Americans in Paris (1927; Fig. 4.16) more closely approximates that of the sleek prototype in Vogue magazine.[3] In his pictures du Bois, unlike Miller, accentuated angles; sharp, stridently colored shapes; and harsh lighting effects. Consequently,



Guy Pine du Bois,  Americans in Paris , 1927. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4" × 36 3/8".

Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

du Bois's women have a contemporary look; Miller's matrons, even in their modern guise, appear old-fashioned.

Miller's archetypal shopper in flapper costume (Fig. 4.1) contrasts strikingly with the most widespread image of early 1920s womanhood: the flapper immortalized by the illustrator John Held.[4] Held's flapper was young, savvy, and independent and reflected some of the postwar woman's new self-sufficiency. Described in Ladies Home Journal as a "sprightly and knowing miss in her teens"[5] and by F. Scott Fitzgerald as "lovely, and expensive, and about nineteen,"[6] the flapper comfortably sported daring clothes and engaged in pastimes that undermined all previous notions of genteel womanhood (Fig. 4.17). Following the advice of Madison Avenue advertisers, the flapper ate less and smoked more to obtain the boyish silhouette demanded by clinging fashions. In pursuit of pleasure she danced the Charleston, the shimmy, and the blackbottom until dawn and by day indulged herself with new mass-produced beauty aids and fashions. The real mark of her liberation (aside from her job, if she had one) was the unrepressed expression of her sexuality— kissing and petting on unchaperoned dates in the automobiles that aided and abetted her newfound freedom. The flapper and her rebellious image were nurtured in the 1920s by affluence and the attendant consumption of new products, by pro-



John Held, dancing flapper from  McClure's  cover,
August 1927.

hibition, by Freudian psychology, by advertising, and by the movies.[7] For those who saw the 1920s as a decade of woman's liberation following enfranchisement, the flapper was a potent symbol of women's independence.[8]

The young woman in Miller's Party Dress (1928; Fig. 4.18) resembles the flapper: she is slimmer than Miller's usual model and wears the latest skimpy dress; her short hair is closely cut and marcelled in a new permanent wave. But she, like some of her plumper shopping counterparts, appears self-conscious and uncomfortable in her costume. She sits primly, eyes modestly lowered, contained by her chair, and she clutches a boutonniere. Apart from her dress, she bears little resemblance to the brazen Held flapper (Fig. 4.17), whose freedom is manifested in her flinging gestures, jutting chin, and jagged hemline. Assertive angles define her independent "don't touch" affect, whereas soft curves express the vulnerability of Miller's reflective girl.

Miller's image resonates with a larger meaning when compared with a sentimentalized 1927 advertisement for Oneida Silver (1927; Fig. 4.19) that draws on a more romantic style of illustration. A young woman holds the hand of the man to whom she is presumably engaged (and in whose home she will use her new



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Party Dress , 1928. Oil on canvas. Collection of Barry and Rita



Magazine advertisement for Oneida Ltd., 1927, from Carol
Wald,  Myth America: Picturing Women, 1865-1945  (New
York: Pantheon Books, 1975), p. 123.

silver).[9] He rouses her from her reverie to fulfill her dream of husband, protector, and provider. She in turn will be homemaker, mother, household manager, and expert consumer—like the woman in Miller's painting, whose title, Party Dress , describes the commodity by which she has made herself elegant and contemporary. But in this dress whose daring cut symbolizes freedom from constraint is a young woman tied by pose and demeanor to a romanticized vision of womanhood that considers her independence only temporary. This is an image of waiting and attendance for the man who will give her identity, status, and the opportunity to fill an expected role.[10]

Much of Miller's 1920s imagery is a counterpoint to the representation of the flapper. The combination of old master prototypes with modern fashion reveals a tension between an older female ideal of nurture, companionability, and stabilizing docility and the newer image of self-centeredness, vitality, independence, and sexuality. Miller's matronly (or, in the case of Party Dress , proto-matronly) type follows the comforting day-to-day rituals of contemporary domestic life. Her adoption of the modern costume—the outward sign of equality and liberation—without its accompanying behavior suggests that conventional stereotypes of femininity remain in force. Furthermore, such a superficial accommodation to appearances grounded in a deeper preservation of traditional patterns suggests what recent historians have demonstrated to be the represented flapper's preferred destiny in life. As the his-


torian Alice Shrock has shown, in theater and film scenarios, and in the fiction published in mass-circulation magazines in the 1920s the flapper rarely remained independent. In the typical scenario, she rose from the middle class to a life of luxury. But eventually she became disillusioned with her freedom, recognized her need to serve a man, and "subsumed her wit and intelligence to help him."[11]

Thus Miller's late-1920s image, only marginally new style, was in its traditionalism both a visual antidote to the flapper of the early 1920s and an acknowledgement of her destiny as a homemaker. In this respect the image is consonant with that of the more decorous and mature revised new woman as writers like Dorothy Bromley and Lillian Symes defined her at the end of the twenties.

The flapper of the immediate postwar years was not just a Madison Avenue fabrication but a woman who by means of the flapper identity contributed substantially to the "revolution in manners and morals."[12] At the beginning of the decade she caused extreme consternation among her elders. Many religious leaders and social critics predicted society's downfall in light of such flagrant abuses of female modesty and moral respectability. ."[13] Others saw the flapper as a welcome sign of freedom.[14] Though newsworthy and a sign of liberation in her own day, the flapper was a short-lived phenomenon, historians like Lois Banner have argued, limited to the middle- and upper-middle-class population. By mid-decade, much of the furor over her appearance and sexual behavior had subsided.[15] Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd in their study of Middletown observed that with the dissemination of the flapper image in popular periodicals, many of her practices and fashions were adopted by women of all ages, classes, shapes, and sizes.[16] It became possible to copy the look of the flapper without adopting her daring behavior.

In reconsidering the substance and impact of the flapper and the guarded acceptance of the new working woman, historians have also reassessed woman's liberation in the 1920s. The historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in his 1931 study Only Yesterday that the ballot "consolidated woman's position as man's equal."[17] But such was not the case. The revolution in manners and morals and the flapper phenomenon had as their darker side the reversal of feminist gains and the weakening of feminist intentions. The franchise failed to consolidate a point of view as women continued to vote like their husbands and fathers. After some initial legislative gains, women were brought up short by a series of legislative failures—chief among them, the failure to pass the first draft of an Equal Rights Amendment. Though women entered college in increasing numbers, their enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment declined. And even though their numbers swelled the work force, women were consistently found in the lowest levels of business and industry. As old-guard suffragists retired, younger women failed to take up the slack.[18] In a booming postwar economy with a new "sense" of equality from the vote and in an intellectual climate whose somewhat superficial understanding of Freud made it unfashionable to be repressed, the young new woman focused on


her personal liberation from Victorian social conventions rather than on effecting change by political means. Even though social feminists kept feminism alive in the 1920s, they tended to subordinate radical feminist desires for equal rights to social reforms stressing women's separate nature.[19] For the flapper, who became a popular sign of liberation, feminism was a matter of individual satisfaction at the physical and emotional level, not a collective quest for economic and political equality. Liberation was frequently limited to the imitation of male ways, like smoking and drinking. The flapper's expression of her sexuality could turn against her as her body became another commodity on display in a burgeoning consumer culture. Finally, polls taken in the 1920s showed that though some young women wanted to work for a time, most still longed for husband, home, and children.[20]

In his matronly shopper Miller constructs one version of the revised new woman: he shows women in contemporary dress participating in urban society, signifying one kind of equality and liberation in the 1920s. But because his images are rooted in a tradition of strong, nurturing female types, he portrays a woman who also guards her traditional role as a stabilizing force at home and in society[21] —exactly the woman to reassure the sociologists and businessmen who expressed concern about diminished family stability and individual autonomy resulting from rapid social and economic change in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of them promoted a new kind of household organization in which homemaking and consumption became bureaucratized activities.[22]

The experts who discussed social change, the family, and women's roles during this period focused on the unsettling shift from a rural, production-oriented economy to an urban, consumption-oriented economy.[23] Home functions like food preparation, housecleaning, care of the sick, childbirth, clothing production, and some home-centered leisure activities were taken over by hospitals, childcare centers, camps, and mass culture. Most commentators felt that technological advance, household inventions, and mass production were instrumental in simplifying home management.[24] With urbanization, smaller families moved to smaller quarters. According to Lawrence K. Frank, a woman operating under such radically altered conditions found that her prestige "as a competent housekeeper and mother of a family [had] diminished with the simpler function of the household and the decrease in number of children."[25] The home and family were no longer the "focus of human endeavor and interest," and women's "befogged condition" reflected the general helplessness of the individual in industrial and consumer society.[26]

Although the pattern of marriage, children, homeownership, and community life continued among middle Americans, some commentators saw drastic alterations in its social and economic underpinnings. Beginning in the early 1920s, when a spokeswoman for the American Home Economics Association proclaimed that it was time for a back-to-the-home movement, home economists, sociologists, psychologists, and business spokespersons tried to "elevate the homemaker's task to the dignity



F. A. Leyendecker, "A Modern Witch."
Illustration for Life magazine cover,
October 1, 1923.

of a profession." They redefined homemaking to take into account new social, economic, and psychological changes that had altered women's lives.[27] The overt aims of this back-to-the-home movement were to restabilize the family and to reaffirm marriage in ways that recognized the new woman's post-franchise equality. The covert ideology reinforced woman's containment in the domestic arena but made the public activity of consumption central to the domestic role.[28] This new conception of womanhood, combining modernity with enduring values, became the basis of Miller's matronly shopper.

Writers, whether proponents of the back-to-the-home movement or advocates of renewed family stability, found ways to reactivate the joys of domestic life and modernize the homemaker. Recognizing that the new woman had often worked before marriage and had developed high expectations of the marital relationship, many sought to centralize household activities. Some image makers suggested that household drudgery was challenging, fantastic, or even sexual, as a blissfully smiling kitchen witch astride a soaring vacuum cleaner makes clear (Fig. 4.20). These spokespersons addressed a majority audience, for while 10 million working women received considerable press as new women, 22.5 million remained at home.[29] They aligned themselves, furthermore, with an already well established movement for domestic science and home economics. Since the first decade of the twentieth century, conservative women, many of them anti-suffragists, had joined forces with


scientific experts, clergymen, and politicians to preserve the sanctity of the home. Recognizing the diminished physical labor involved in home production, they restructured housework around tasks that could be performed daily instead of weekly or monthly and thereby gave languishing women new energy and a renewed sense of their "true" vocation. Essentially, domestic science, or home economics, was one of many new areas of scientific expertise in the Progressive Era, and 20 percent of all schools by 1916 offered courses in it. Between 1906 and 1917 enrollment in college home economics programs jumped from 2o3 to 17,778. The federal government established the Bureau of Home Economics in 1923, signaling to many of the women's groups supporting home economics its recognition of women's issues beyond the franchise. Many women used the new science to claim professional employment as home economists, to redefine their unpaid work in the home, and to refashion the domestic sphere through the new ideology of consumption.[30] Even with this rapid growth, some commentators continued to fault women's education for failing to prepare women for their true vocation; they saw women's extra-domestic pursuits as diversions.

While the average girl today as always is looking forward to marriage and family life as her goal, yet she is not fitting herself seriously for this as a life work, but is turning to office, factory, school teaching, social work and other professions as a means of earning her living. . .. Neither parents nor educators are in the main preparing girls today for the performance of their economic functions within the home.[31]

In the 1920s, to counter what they saw as a dangerous rising trend toward "female bachelorhood,"[32] those who supported the values of the back-to-the-home movement undertook several tasks: first, to make more work for the homemaker whose burden had, theoretically, been lightened by inventions and changes in the marketplace;[33] second, to make the work itself more interesting and important; third, to redefine the role and status of middle-class women who through work or extra-domestic activities had realized new capabilities and developed increased expectations of themselves. Even if these women were persuaded to redirect themselves from political to personal goals, feminism and the perceived achievement of woman's equality continued to redefine women's homemaking roles. So did the heterosexual revolution—with its more sexually intimate marital ideal on the one hand and its condemnation of female-centered relations as sexually deviant on the other. Altered relations between the sexes and new styles of marriage and interpersonal relationships appeared as a response to Freudian psychology, contributing to changed marital dynamics.[34] All these social changes fueled arguments for the pro-fessionalization of housework.

Dr. Amey Watson's essay "The Reorganization of Household Work" is a model of its kind, reflecting the arguments made by businessmen and like-minded social


scientists who linked efficient home management to the profits of business. In their economic role women would stabilize the family, a major concern of social scientists in the interwar decades: efficient consumption would rationalize home economy, thereby increasing family happiness. Like many writers, Watson borrowed the rhetoric and organizational strategies of those preoccupied with scientific expertise and business management.[35]

Watson asserted that the "function of management in the home is the heaviest and most important responsibility." Although anyone could take on the task, Watson assumed that women did it by nature: the woman is home manager because "she is qualified for the job, chooses to do the work and is willing to train herself while on the job" (italics mine). According to Watson, the efficient homemaker must make daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal inventories for repairs, alterations, supplies; must oversee both the planning of meals—"for health, economy and contentment"—and the "thrifty and intelligent use of supplies, materials, equipment, time, and strength."[36] She included charts of the minimum essentials for operating a household (Fig. 4.21) and stressed the complexity of the work. "Even the skill to be a good cook takes more training and experience than is usually admitted," she wrote.[37] Despite the difficulty of organizing the work and orchestrating harmony among different personalities, sound management would result in "a feeling of satisfaction and craftsmanship . . . on the part of both workers and management."[38] The term craftsmanship made the housewife a skilled rather than an unskilled laborer and thereby elevated her status.

Household work was thus made more difficult and more intellectually challenging. Nowhere is the scrubbing of floors mentioned; nor are crying children.[39] Nowhere is the inadequacy of a single income—however soundly managed—considered, particularly for working-class mothers. That Watson assumed a middle-class readership is clear in her continual references to the management of domestic help.[40] In fact, women spent relatively little time on home management or scientific childcare (2 1/2 to 5 1/2 hours per week); most of their work was mundane: cooking, sewing, and cleaning. Food preparation alone occupied about 22 hours per week.[41]

If some tracts professionalized the homemaker, another growing body of literature revealed the gap between managerial myth and household drudgery. In 1926 Dr. Abraham Myerson wrote The Nervous Housewife , chronicling the anxiety and loneliness of housewives confronted by the monotony of housework that efficiency experts had encouraged them to standardize. Myerson argued that housework in an industrial society was glorified because it carried an emotional burden unjustified by the menial nature of the work. "In its aims and purposes housekeeping is the highest of professions; in its methods and techniques it ranks among the lowest of occupations."[42] Carol Kennicott, the main character in Sinclair Lewis's 1920 novel Main Street , was torn between conforming to Gopher Prairie's model of the housewife and pursuing her own needs for independence and creativity. The drudgery of



"Minimum Essentials in Operating a Household," from Amey E. Watson, "The
Reorganization of Household Work,"  Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Soctal Science
 160 (March 1932), p. 172.



William Gropper, "A Woman's Place Is in the Home,"
New Masses  7 (April 1932), p. 20.

housework and women's status were made clear in cartoons like William Gropper's in the April 1932 issue of the New Masses entitled "A Woman's Place Is in the Home" (Fig. 4.22).

To make homemaking attractive, business leaders called the housewife a "home executive" or a "domestic engineer" or made her a member of the household board of directors—an equal business partner with her spouse.[43] Dr. Benjamin Andrews echoed the sentiments of those who felt that social change and the franchise had liberated American women when he wrote that "two adults form a partnership with equal responsibilities, make equal contributions to its support, and draw out equal returns not only in the daily physical services of food, clothing and shelter but as well in the broadening of experience and all the satisfactions of life" (italics mine).[44]


These writers sidestepped the fundamental inequality of a woman's economic dependence on her spouse, stressing instead her managerial role and her ability to be self-supporting within the home. As they co-opted the language of feminism, and its specific claims to equality, they undermined those claims. As early as 1910, Andrews had even suggested that women were still producers in the home:

To woman has fallen the task of directing how the wealth brought into the house shall be used .... If commodities can be so arranged and grouped for consumption as to make them yield more pleasure than if they are consumed in a haphazard way, then the one who secured the result performs just as distinctly an economic function as the one whom we call technically a producer.[45]

All these analyses equated the effective economic management of the household with family stability and family happiness, by far the most important goals. Perceiving that the family was threatened by major social changes—one of the most significant being women's extra-domestic activities—conservative and liberal thinkers alike struggled to make household responsibilities seem important by connecting them to popular business values and by professionalizing the homemaker. William Baldwin wrote The Shopping Book to show the helplessness of the woman consumer confronted by rationalized businesses and comprehensive advertising campaigns. But he too made the family America's number one institution, and even as he recognized her frustrations, he assigned the shopper an extraordinary level of power and responsibility. Baldwin provides a timely backdrop for the images of matronly shoppers:

Running homes is the greatest single business in America, towering above steel production, transportation, the motor industry, and other familiar yardsticks of power and size .... The shopper is paramount. On the one hand she controls the comfort and attractiveness of the home—the standard of living as it is actually applied; in the other hand she holds the destiny of great industries.[46]

Miller's first women on the street were painted in 1920, shortly before he moved his studio to Fourteenth Street. He identified them as Fifth Avenue shoppers and called the pictures his fashion series;[47] during this period the famous avenue held pride of place as New York's boulevard of fashion, proclaiming "throughout its whole length the joys of material life in their most alluring forms."[48] With these early images, Miller created an elegant bourgeois type. In Passing (1920; Fig. 4.23) shows chic young matrons in fragile dresses and high-style furs, rendered in the high-key palette and fluid painting style of Renoir's late works. With rose-tinted, creamy complexions and chiseled features recalling the profiles of Greek goddesses, they are more refined than some of the later matrons. The independent woman of Leaving the Bank (Fig. 4.6) purposefully adjusts her glove after withdrawing money



Kenneth Hayes Miller, In Passing , or The Shoppers , 1920. Oil on canvas,
24" × 20 1/4". The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

to fulfill her role as a consumer. The powerful classical columns that frame and support her also link her to the American financial success and self-confidence of the mid-1920s: they are the male architectural symbols of her financial security and status. In the early 1920s the cool self-confidence of Miller's figures suggests the public persona of women who had just gained the right to vote. A Milleresque woman appeared frequently in popular illustrations; one on the cover of Leslie's



"The Mystery of 1920,"  Leslie's Illustrated Weekly
, September 11, 1920, cover illustration.

magazine is poised outside a voting booth (Fig. 4.24). Enfranchisement (which Miller supported) may have been one reason for the artist's growing fascination with painting the new and well-to-do urban woman. These early images emerged in a climate of postwar enthusiasm for her new role, as yet unknown.

Major changes in Miller's own surroundings and in the immediate political environment by the late twenties would have only a mild impact on his matronly type. For five years, since moving to his Fourteenth Street studios in 1923, Miller had watched the multiplication of stores for bargain hunters and had heard the increasingly vociferous critique of capitalism as an exploiter of working-class men and women like those who shopped and worked in the district. Speeches by the neighborhood's radicals and unemployment rallies in the first months of the Depression culminated in the large-scale demonstration on March 6, 1930, which the police broke up, causing numerous injuries. With the crash and the Depression, artists and writers were drawn to neighborhood organizations like the John Reed Club, and many began to engage social issues by depicting factories, struggling workers, and breadlines. Miller never involved himself in political meetings or demonstra-



Kenneth Hayes Miller, Glove Counter , c. 1937- Present location unknown.

tions, nor did he portray social realist subjects. Because he interacted regularly with his students, a number of whom participated in John Reed Club exhibitions or submitted drawings and cartoons to the New Masses , however, he would have been familiar with the debates on art and politics.[49]

Miller's only response to concerns expressed by artists and social critics preoccupied with the common man was to broaden the socio-economic base of his matrons. His shopper became humbler, plumper, and more awkward in appearance. In Afternoon on the Avenue (Fig. 3.10) the shopper, her child beside her, emerges from Klein's rather than a Fifth Avenue store. Instead of a fur, she wears an ill-fitting coat of unnameable fabric, the kind of second-hand garb one uptown journalist associated with the poor Fourteenth Street bargain hunter.[50] In The Bargain Counter (Fig. 3.13), in marked contrast with Glove Counter (an uptown department store painted c. 1937; Fig. 4.25), Miller's shopper patiently endures a



Reginald Marsh, photograph of Fourteenth Street and Broadway, c.
1938-39. Museum of the City of New York.

crush of shoppers, trying to assess the value of merchandise, which in that year would have been unlabeled. Like women in the photographs of Fourteenth Street taken in the 1930s by Berenice Abbott or Reginald Marsh (Fig. 4.26), these women are less than sleek. Many, like the mother in Waiting for the Bus or the foreground figures in Bargain Counter , have coarse, homely features. Through subtle modifications in the fashions, locale, and facial appearance of the basic matronly type and in his decision to depict ordinary women—perhaps wives of men feeling the pinch of economic hard times—Miller constructed for the socially concerned viewer a "common woman" to go with the "common man."

But it remained a superficial accommodation at best, one that was not present in all the pictures.[51] Many of the women look contented. They attend to children while they shop and happily assent to both mothering and consumption as part of their role in home management. In Department Store Shoppers (1930; Fig. 4.27 and Plate 2), Miller's matron is a professional homemaker, working side by side with an "expert" saleswoman to make purchases that will contribute to familial well-being. The shopper in Woman with Packages (1934; Fig. 4.28) emerges from a store, arms laden with packages. Her capacious form suggests her ability to consume. Her efficiency and her oneness with her role as consumer are conveyed in the rhyming of simplified shapes that define her and her purchases. The rectangular



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Department Store Shoppers , 1930. Oil on canvas, 24" × 17 1/8".
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Woman with Packages , or  Contemporary Scene , 1934. Oil on
masonite, 34" × 28". Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina at


package repeats the shape of her purse, the curved package the shape of her fur collar. Miller never used models when he painted. He developed instead a standard female type, like a mass-produced product. The woman's head and hat are echoed in those of the mannequin to her right. She imitates and consumes what is displayed. And she shares the values implicit in those activities with the community of like-minded, similarly dressed women behind her. Her upward-turned face, like that of a baroque saint in ecstasy, glows with the joy of successful consumption. She is the contemporary Madonna of shopping, the pastime some recent historians have argued became a substitute for traditional religion.[52]

Both Isabel Bishop and Edward Laning adopted Miller's matronly shopper type for their panoramas of Union Square and Fourteenth Street, making her the image of progress tempered by continuity and tradition. In Bishop's Dante and Virgil in Union Square and in Laning's Fourteenth Street (Figs. 2.2 and 2.3) she appears with family and friends, an energetic participant in commerce playing a traditional, if updated, role. Her community is all-white and middle-class. No one is old or unemployed, though Bishop and Laning painted these images in the worst years of the Depression, and no one protests the inequities of capitalism, even though writers and artists described such protest as a noteworthy part of Fourteenth Street neighborhood life.[53]

Even where "protest" occurs, as in Laning's Street Orator (Fig. 3.33), the matronly shopper suggests stable patterns of community life. This image depicts a familiar ritual rather than a heated protest and reaffirms the value of free speech in a democratic society. Thus the matronly shopper in the foreground neither protects her child from "subversive" street politics nor fears a clash between crowd and police.[54] Instead she begins to turn back toward her child, who grasps her arm, demanding her attention—a common motif in Laning's early work in less topical images like Fourteenth Street (Fig. 2.3). In Street Orator , the shopper's gaze seems to linger for a moment on the shoeshine signboard, as she is caught between her two primary duties—childcare and consumption. Reaffirming popular and contemporary historical assessments of post-franchise womanhood that in turn reinforce the back-to-the-home ideology, she rejects political involvement in favor of womanly responsibilities, leaving political activism to men, who make up the bulk of the crowd.[55]

A comparison of Miller's shoppers with those in William Glackens's Shoppers (1907; Fig. 4.29), one of the few American iconographic precedents on this theme, helps to define the social class of Miller's women. In Glackens's image elegant women are looking at equally elegant goods. At the end of the nineteenth century, social critics like Thorstein Veblen understood shopping for the upper-class woman as a compensation for her boredom, a way to pass the time. Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class described shopping as a symbol of the husband's economic success; the American woman was permitted, even required, to "consume largely and con-



William Glackens, The Shoppers , 1907. Oil on canvas, 60" × 60".
The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia.

spicuously—vicariously for her husband or other natural guardian. She is exempted or debarred from vulgarly useful employment—in order to perform leisure vicariously for the good repute of her natural (pecuniary) guardian."[56]

Glackens celebrated the genteel, well-to-do woman shopping for handcrafted clothing. Miller glorified a new ritual in urban industrial society as average matrons were caught up in shopping for mass-produced ready-to-wear items. By the 1920s consumption had become democratic. And in the new ideology of consumption, Miller's matronly shopper was a professional, an equal partner with her husband, theoretically, in bettering home and family.

In relation to Miller's shopper in the dual contexts of a bargain shopping district and a twentieth-century culture of consumption the designation "middle-class" requires clarification. Because Miller never used live models in painting, because he generalized his women from both contemporary ideals and old master models, and because he subtly modified the body, facial type, and costume of the women he painted, the class identity of his shoppers remains indeterminate. Moreover, in the consumer culture of the twenties and thirties middle-classness—especially when attached to ideals of personal achievement, marriage, and family—meant the channeling of desires to build a community that would continue to serve capitalism. Miller's matrons, shopping for bargains in a working-class district, could be read as members of an assimilating working class, consuming their way into the middle-classness or Americanness that was said to confer legitimacy on their lives.[57]


Given the ambiguity of class in Miller's works, I would refine the distinction to one of condition rather than specific class position: his Fourteenth Street shopper was an average lower- to middle-class woman but not a downtrodden one. Her image affirmed the values of a democratic and capitalist society, and her occupation suggested that society's central institution, the family, would endure at all socioeconomic levels with women at the managerial helm. With the Depression, this image implied that financial stability would re-emerge, consumption would continue, and society would prosper. Such attitudes are embodied in an idealized model of substantial and nurturing womanhood taken from earlier artistic sources. The choice of an old master model itself places value on continuity and tradition over radical cultural change. The image dovetailed with the ideology of the back-to-the-home movement, revealing pictorially how American society and artistic culture accommodated shifts in economic and social patterns while adhering to and perpetuating cherished values.

Miller's paintings of stable full-bodied matrons signified democratic prosperity and familial well-being and thereby endorsed the capitalist status quo. The leftist critic John Kwiat, in his review of the 1933 John Reed Club exhibition The Social Viewpoint in Art, argued a similar point—that the mere presence of certain urban types did not guarantee a social (meaning social realist or socially committed) viewpoint, and such images remained remote from the needs of the class-conscious worker. Kwiat claimed that the depiction of American life by painters like Miller and the Regionalists was a chauvinistic response on the part of critics and painters to superior French modernism: "The Club should not have invited in the name of an imaginary united front the prominent painters who could submit only tame picturesque views of cowboys, crapshooters and fat shoppers issuing from department stores." The "fat shoppers" were Miller's, in an unnamed and undocumented painting, the only one Miller ever submitted to a John Reed Club exhibition.[58]

A number of New Masses cartoons from the mid-1920s—some of the most notable by Miller students—came much closer to the socially committed viewpoint advocated by critics like Kwiat. Artists often exaggerated the shopper's girth to symbolize the greedy capitalist, well-off and well fed at the expense of others. Adolph Dehn (a friend and former student of Miller's) drew an idle shopper and called her unemployed to suggest a status given her by her husband's ill-gained wealth (Fig. 4.30). Peggy Bacon, a social satirist, contrasted the bulky capitalist's self-satisfied pose with the saleswoman's tiny frame in "The Little Jumper Dress" (Fig. 4.31).

Miller's uncritical stance is also clarified by a comparison of his works with those of other contemporary painters critical of capitalism. The Mexican muralist and revolutionary artist José Clemente Orozco, for example, painted shoppers in Fourteenth Street (1928-29; Fig. 4.32),[59] showing them as suffering victims. Unattractive angular figures are compressed between towering skyscrapers. In profile or facing forward, these women, with mask-like faces and shadowed eyes, move through the



Adolph Dehn, "Unemployed," New Masses
 (May 1926), p. 5.


Peggy Bacon, "The Little Jumper
Dress," New Masses  1 (July 1926), p.


José Clemente Orozco,  Fourteenth Street , 1928-29.
Present location unknown.


dense crowd like automatons, with no sense of one another's presence. Lloyd Goodrich suggested the prescience of Orozco's image:

With a skyscraper and a few figures . . . he creates images that convey the feeling of New York more intensely than most painters with a thousand and one details. If the sombreness and sense of brooding tragedy in these pictures seem a little out of place in our optimistic atmosphere we can only reflect that perhaps he sees things of which we are not yet aware.[60]

That Orozco's image of urban women is far more oppressive and pessimistic than Miller's not only reaffirms the uncritical nature of Miller's art, but suggests that his matron is a reassuring image in troubled times. For those who argued in the early 1930s that economic recovery would occur only with continued buying, a woman consuming effectively was performing a patriotic duty. On Fourteenth Street, beginning in January 1933, Hearn's department store regularly advertised that a percentage of its daily receipts would be contributed to various agencies to help the poor. Through this program, staffed by volunteers, supported by celebrities who made guest appearances, and praised by Mrs. Roosevelt, Hearn's contributed to the Red Cross and the Emergency Unemployment Relief committee, to name only two. Such public-spirited relief activity encouraged increased consumption, and Hearn's began to pull out of an early Depression sales slump.[61]

Hearn's was not alone in linking consumption to civic duty. Samuel Klein, head of Fourteenth Street's most successful bargain emporium, appealed to American women to help stop the extraordinary growth in sweatshops that had occurred since the onset of the Depression. Explaining that increased demands for cheap, low-quality merchandise had encouraged fly-by-night firms whose workers labored long hours for poor wages, he proclaimed that women "desirous of doing something tangible to save thousands of workers from intolerable conditions . . . should make known their views." Klein, himself guilty of exploiting the labor force, argued further that responsible manufacturers should be encouraged "not only because of their public-spirited stand, but because they are actually featuring goods that will afford the most satisfaction to the ultimate consumer."[62] Klein's and Hearn's pleas placed responsibility for effective and now "moral" consumption squarely on the shoulders of American women.[63]

The ideology that emphasized woman's domestic and consuming roles received indirect expression in contemporary criticism of Miller's work. Though journalists for mainstream newspapers mocked what they perceived to be the dowdy appearance of actual Fourteenth Street shoppers,[64] one art critic, recognizing both the working-class locale of Miller's matron and her multiple tasks of domestic management, praised her as the "blousy and bulbous 'ideal' of the Five and Ten . . . in all the changing phases of a crowded day."[65] Other male art critics, implicitly or explicitly, praised the woman who did not conform to aristocratic ideals of youthful beauty. For example, Miller's friend Lloyd Goodrich likened her "bold voluptuous


coarseness of feature" to that of a Roman matron rather than an "obviously pretty" Venus. Like many intellectuals seeking to understand and document the nobility of the average citizen in the 1930s,[66] Goodrich called her strong and vital. A "mature" and "robust" woman of the people, she was the female version of the common man who would pull the nation through its worst times.[67] Walter Gutman commented more directly on her stability and endurance and highlighted her motherly and "wifely" responsibilities by describing her as "maternal and companionable."[68] As early as 1924 Paul Rosenfeld had recognized in the Miller matron a familiar figure whose down-to-earth quality he paired with her sexuality in characterizing her as a "lusty" creature not unlike our "everyday selves."[69] For the male viewer in the Depression Miller constructed a strong, physically comforting, and capable helpmate rather than a conventionally beautiful companion.

Other critics commented unfavorably on the Miller type. One, reviewing Miller's 1929 exhibit at the Rehn Gallery, lambasted Miller's recent nudes (unlike his "once solid and sculptural" nudes) as "ingenious concoctions of rubber, unpleasant in color and texture, filled with gas. They are blown up almost to the bursting point and it is perhaps unfortunate that the little more needed for the explosion was not added."[70] Such criticism of Miller's monumental figures suggests that even if they were perceived as placid, they still took up too much space. These remarks also reflect the growing popularity of the slimmer body type common to film stars and female athletes, the two most widely celebrated exemplars of female beauty in the late 1920s and early 1930s.[71] Male viewers, conditioned by the newer ideal, may have found the Miller type increasingly less attractive, artistic precedents notwithstanding.

Miller's stated artistic goals were largely formal and contained few clues about his feelings toward the shopper or, for that matter, American women. But we can extrapolate his attitudes toward women from his views on American society and politics; from his intellectual pursuits, which fed the ideas in his paintings; and from his own life as he took advantage of the new woman's sexual liberation. These sources in the aggregate confirm that for him the matronly shopper was an affirmative icon of prosperity and family stability—a figure accommodating social and political change only superficially.

Miller was a patriot. He loved his country, accepted its values, and respected its political system: "I'm one of this nation, heart and soul, and I have an infinite desire to add a crumb to its treasure. I believe in my native land, my feeling for it is strong and deep-rooted."[72] When the artist Louis Lozowick asked Miller to endorse the Communist candidates William Foster and John Ford in 1932, Miller declined:

Please do not add my name to your list as proposed in your invitation to me. I consider it would be a misfortune indeed, both as artist and as man, to be a member of a small minority antagonistic to the genius of our nation, a party which is not very tolerantly regarded by the great majority of all classes.[73]


Miller's celebration of the modern American shopper reflects his belief in mainstream national traditions and majority beliefs rather than in dramatic social or political change. In rejecting Lozowick's solicitation in such vehement terms, Miller affirmed his faith in democratic values, majority rule, and the status quo. Such ideals are embodied in his matronly shopper.

Miller's views toward women were shaped not only by his patriotism, but also by his reading and experience throughout the teens. Several of the works Miller read epitomized the ideology and conservatism of the back-to-the-home movement. One was the popular book Love and Marriage by the Swedish feminist Ellen Key, which Miller and his second wife, Helen, read in 1912, shortly after it was published in an English translation.[74] In this book and her other works—The Renaissance of Motherhood, The Century of the Child, Love and Ethics , and The Morality of Women and Other Essays —all discussed widely in the early teens—Key espoused controversial ideas about motherhood and women's sexuality.[75]

In Love and Marriage and Love and Ethics , Key proposed what seemed a radical system of "erotic ethics" to an American audience steeped in the genteel tradition.[76] Believing that puritan Christianity had no meaning for modern society, she deplored its failure to reconcile the demands of spirit and body and advocated greater personal freedom in the expression of sexuality, especially for women.[77] She also argued that love without marriage was moral and marriage without love, immoral; the institution of marriage itself should be revised, with divorce allowing for the "changing demands of love."[78] Although she believed that unconditional fidelity was virtually impossible, given the need for individual growth and the changes occurring in every other area of life, she never advocated free love. Instead, she urged temperance and restraint for the sake of love itself.[79]

Because she dared to question traditional attitudes toward marital fidelity and female chastity, Key was branded a radical, particularly by Americans. Yet by her own and other writers' assessments, her views on the social roles of women were highly traditional, her vision of motherhood decidedly "reactionary."[80] She believed fervently in the distinctiveness rather than the equality of the sexes and thus supported the nineteenth-century belief in separate spheres. Motherhood was woman's natural sphere, and her dependence on man was natural rather than social.[81] Key deplored the New Woman's desire for financial and personal independence through work and said that women should learn a trade only in case they did not become mothers. Observing that among women there would always be a number of "unmotherly . . . sexless, but useful working ants" who devoted themselves to careers, she saw women's quest for freedom as a "sick yearning to be 'freed' from the most essential attribute of her sex."[82] Rather than recommend improved working conditions for women, Key simply claimed that women's factory, clerical, or teaching jobs were so monotonous that they could never "bring greater freedom and happiness than the broad usefulness in a home, where woman is sovereign— yea under the inspiration of motherhood, creator—in her sphere and where she is


working for her own dear ones."[83] As a concession to the New Woman's need for financial independence (not to mention the increasing financial need among families), Key proposed that mothers receive a government stipend for child rearing, a proposal that American audiences, fearful of any government intervention in individual families, wholeheartedly rejected.[84]

Key's ideas about motherhood reflected an ongoing conflict in the feminist movement that solidified in the 1920s into a polarity between those who supported protective legislation (woman's difference) and those who campaigned for the E.R.A. (woman's equality). Miller would have come to understand these positions by reading Key and by conversing with his young wife Helen who was moderately active in the suffragist movement.[85] Key represented the views of "female" feminists, Charlotte Perkins Gilman those of "human" feminists; both women's views were debated in several publications during the early teens.[86] Where Key believed in the fuller development of woman's sexual identity and her sacrifice of self to motherhood, Gilman argued that she should improve her human capacities, those commonly held by all men and women but previously ignored because of woman's all-consuming preoccupation with her separate womanly activities. By concentrating on their humanity over their womanliness, Gilman believed, women could participate more fully with men in improving society.

Gilman advocated a social rather than an individual motherhood, calling for benefits like communal kitchens for working mothers and professional childcare. Although Gilman supported Key's view that childcare was crucial to a better society, she felt that children would be best educated by both their mothers and specialists in childcare. Where Gilman longed for equality between the sexes in a fully humanized society, Key believed, according to one Current Opinion author, that women would find power over men through a "consecration and exaltation of motherhood which amounts to . . . a maternalization of life."[87]

In her opposition to what she called amaternal feminism, Key found the declining birthrate and the obliteration of sexual difference particularly appalling. To define the special role of twentieth-century mothers, she adopted Nietzsche's concept of motherhood, which placed a high value on individual development and was based on the evolutionary assumption that mothers were vital in improving the race. According to Key, Nietzsche

emphasized not only the significance of motherliness in a physical sense, but also in a sense hitherto barely perceived, of consciously recreating the race [Key's italics]. He knew that the race instincts first of all must be developed in the direction of sexual selection so as to promote the growth of superior inborn traits. He knew also that women needed to be educated to a perfected motherliness, that they, instead of bungling this work as they are apt to do today, may come to practice the profession of motherhood as a great and difficult art.[88]


Key's observations here about the difficulty of the "profession" of motherhood and elsewhere about the erosion of family and the race resulting from woman's desire for equality, independence, and a working life outside the home anticipate the arguments of the back-to-the-home movement a decade later, when conservative pundits linked American social progress and woman's liberation to an ideal of the professionalized homemaker.

In the early years of the twentieth century a belief in women's special sex-related skills (Key's position) rather than a wholesale acceptance of their equality and independence (Gilman's position) helped women gain the franchise. To counteract a rising anti-suffragist movement, suffragist leaders borrowed from the separate spheres position the argument that women, as spiritual models and domestic experts, would bring a whole new moral tone to American life and politics. Thus woman's difference from man rather than her equality made her worthy of the vote.[89]

By the 1920s when Miller began to portray his matronly shopper, the New Woman's working life, her new freedom in society (symbolized by less restrictive fashions and behavioral codes), and her new political life had gained some acceptance, but an ideology of separate spheres, with its corollary maternal feminism, had gained the day, persisting in the back-to-the-home movement and continuing to be promoted by mainstream "social" feminists. So thoroughly did this traditional position permeate American culture that Charlotte Perkins Gilman, once the spokeswoman for women's individuality and equality with men, modified her views. Appalled, like many suffragists of her generation, by the hedonistic excesses of the flapper, she wrote in 1923, "Wifehood and motherhood are the normal status of women, and whatever is right in women's new position must not militate against these essentials."[90]

Miller would have been drawn to Key's arguments for both personal and intellectual reasons. Over the years, in modified form, they influenced his conduct as well as his image of womanhood. In 1912 Key's ideas on the amorality of marriage without love would have justified Miller's 1911 divorce from his first wife, Irma Ferry (ostensibly for infrequent sex), and his immediate remarriage to his young art student Helen Pendleton, with whom he had had a romantic and emotional, if not physical, attachment for at least one and one-half years prior to the divorce.[91] Key's ideas about the need for a freer expression of one's unconscious and natural sexual desires would have prepared Miller for his deep emotional and intellectual exploration of Freud's theories of sexuality and the unconscious beginning in 1915 and continuing well into the 1930s.[92]

Miller told his students that he wanted to put Freudian "things" into his paintings.[93] In many of his images of matronly shoppers, Freudian currents move just beneath the surface. Some of Miller's images seem to take on the culture's ambivalence about the expression versus the repression of sexuality as it played out in



Kenneth Hayes Miller,  Little Coat and Fur Shop , 1931. Oil on canvas, 43" × 31".
Collection of Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University.


the flapper phenomenon. The chilly idealization derived from old master sources masks the sensuousness of full-figured women nearly bursting forth from too-snug garments. In Little Coat and Fur Shop (1931; Fig. 4.33), the woman poses provocatively, her body swelling to fill her suit. Her genital area is framed by the open coat and overlaid by two highlighted and sharply protruding diagonal folds. These elements meet the formal and aesthetic needs of the composition, but given Miller's desire to include Freudian overtones, their further implications cannot be ignored. Moreover, the professionalized homemaker was presumably a modern woman, sexually and emotionally liberated; Miller's barely covert references to her sexuality, like the umbrella as phallus (Fig. 4.1), acknowledge the cultural construction of her sexuality according to the heterosexual ideals of a revised new womanhood in the 1920s.

Apart from the effects of Freud and Key on Miller's marital and extra-marital practices and the ideals behind the matronly shopper, Ellen Key's arguments from Nietzsche about the need for "good" mothers to promote superior traits would also have struck a responsive chord in Miller, who was raised with similar ideas in the utopian community in Oneida, New York.[94] Members of the Oneida community believed in human perfectibility through sexual selection and acknowledged female sexual pleasure.[95] Though Miller eventually shared traditional marriage- and family-oriented ideals that his family acknowledged by abandoning the Oneida practice (studio liaisons notwithstanding), he continued to espouse the idea of human perfectibility through natural selection.

Throughout the teens Miller continued to be fascinated with works that supported this evolutionist position.[96] One of the studies he praised, Madison Grant's Passing of the Great Race of 1916, argued that heredity influenced men's actions more than either environment or social conditioning. Grant used this theory to demonstrate the natural superiority of the Nordic race, which formed the basic American colonial stock. He argued that the unrestricted emigration from what he considered the racially inferior areas of southern and eastern Europe would destroy our national heritage. He concluded with a passage that spoke his distrust of egalitarian principles and universal suffrage.

We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America "an asylum for the oppressed" are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all "distinctions of race, creed or color," the type of native American of colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian in the Age of Pericles and the Viking of the Days of Rollo.[97]


The racist thinking in Grant's work worried Progressive Era thinkers and social workers struggling to improve urban immigrant life. Many upper-middle-class Americans, however, rationalized his attitudes by arguing that the "purity" of American values, morals, and social and political systems could remain in force only if the Anglo-Saxon stock, which provided the true "spirit of Americanism," were perpetuated.[98] Extreme though it may have been, Grant's thinking reflected the growing anxiety in the conservative native-born circles to which Miller belonged that the massive influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and Mediterranean countries would bring about unwanted cultural and political change.[99] This thinking also fueled the xenophobia underlying the Red scare and Palmer raids of the early 1920s and promoted the chauvinism behind the practices of debunking and cultural stereotyping throughout the decade.[100]

Given Miller's upbringing and continued association with the Oneida sect and his intellectual preoccupations throughout the teens and 1920s, his receptivity to the ideas discussed above is hardly surprising. Key's elitist and reactionary ideas on exclusive motherhood, Freud's theories of sexuality, and Grant's racial theories appealed to Miller as to like-minded native-born middle-class intellectuals in these years, his brief flirtation with socialism aside (see pp. 45-47).[101] Such nationalistic thinking passed into the ideology of the back-to-the-home movement of the 1920s, the immediate historical context for the matronly shopper. The active, well-educated, and conscientious middle-class mothers to whom the arguments were addressed would keep American society stable and prosperous by helping to keep it purely "American."[102]

Although the Fourteenth Street milieu was anything but purely American in its demographics, Miller avoided virtually all individualization or ethnicity. Unlike his students Laning and Bishop, who showed the shopper in a crowd, Miller made only superficial accommodations to the Depression decade's preoccupation with the common people (themselves often recent immigrants) by varying details of costume, facial feature, and girth. Miller's matron was more often fair than dark-skinned, with light brown or Titian red hair, her eyes invariably light blue, green, or hazel.[103] Such obvious references to homogenized Nordic beauty and avoidance of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean ethnicity of Fourteenth Street suggest that Miller's idealized Anglo-Saxon mother would assure not only family and economic stability but also the continuity of her race.

The generalization of the Fourteenth Street shopper can be read as an avoidance of reference to class and ethnicity in an era devoted to celebrating the equality of the average American. In the context of consumer culture it can also be read as the quest for a purchased ideal of middle-classness. Such an interpretation is equally appropriate to Laning's and Bishop's mural-like images of Fourteenth Street crowds, painted in the early 1930s. In Miller's work, this idealization also becomes an assertion of America's need to retain and perpetuate the values many conser-


vatives argued would see the country through hard times far better than increasing the number of government programs to assist the poor. Given Miller's age, a social and intellectual background that fostered individualism and elitism, and what some of his friends termed his zealously patriotic, even reactionary, politics,[104] this conservative interpretation of the early 1930s matronly shopper is as valid as the one that posits Miller's broadening of the social base of the image to adapt it to Depression era conditions and a viewing audience that became more class conscious in the early 1930s.

Miller and his students Laning and Bishop idealized the matronly shopper and glossed over features of a dingy working-class shopping environment. In the heart of the Depression, they focused on the successes of Fourteenth Street's commercialism, made the shopper into an average American woman, and placed her in settings that spoke about the promise and beauty of urban America. Her image thus participated in that affirmative and optimistic outlook that helped the middle class continue in hard times.

The image of the shopper also perpetuated a historical stereotype of a patient, enduring woman, whose dress and activity as a shopper seemed to acknowledge substantial changes in women's lifestyles—many resulting from consumer culture. Although fashion, self-conscious pose, and public settings signaled modernity, sexual liberation, and political emancipation, the matronly bearing of Miller's old master figures also embodied the conservative ideology of the back-to-the-home movement. Within this powerful ideology, rhetorical claims to equality and professionalism did little to alter women's roles. Even their public status as consumers remained essentially domestic. This traditional ideology served business, which needed a homemaker/shopper ally to keep the economy running, both before and after the crash. It also met a need for family and community stability to counteract the social fragmentation of modern society and the economic chaos of the Depression. The matronly shopper—sturdy and reassuring—satisfied a widely held, if obliquely articulated, need for stability and in so doing fulfilled her socially expected role.


Chapter Four Mothers of Consumption: Kenneth Hayes Miller's Matronly Shopper

Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.