The “Magic” Labor of Hawthorne’s Country Cousin

Representations of women’s relationship to work and labor often reflect the social landscape of their time. I’ve been reflecting lately on the work Phoebe does in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables.  

The House of Seven Gables (1940)

In The House of Seven Gables, a story of a family haunted by the sins of their past, Hepzibah Pyncheon starts a small shop out of the titular house. However, Hepzibah’s shop is an outright failure because she feels participating in a market economy betrays the noblesse oblige that comes with the Pyncheon name. She gives her stock away for free, ashamed to ask for money. But the shop flourishes after Phoebe Pyncheon, a cousin from the country, arrives. Phoebe has the gift of “practical arrangement,” a “natural magic” that allows her to not only see the potential in something, but effortlessly bring it out! She makes the shop profitable and the dreary house sparkle with life. But anyone who has worked in retail or cleaned a house knows these things are never effortless; they might only look that way if you aren’t paying attention. 

Hawthorne’s assumption that certain people are simply more well suited to certain occupations has a dangerous legacy in the United States. To take a few examples, this assumption is the reason women and people of color encounter more obstacles to finding a registered apprenticeship in the skilled trades and also why men who find careers in “traditionally” female fields, like nursing, experience harassment for doing “women’s work.” In the United States, there is a moral hierarchy of labor. Generally speaking, careers associated with white men will be viewed more favorably than the jobs stereotypically associated with women or people of color.

This week at the Labor Center, we are hosting the kickoff event for the Iowa Women in Trades Network. The group is meant to combat precisely the kinds of assumptions that Hawthorne’s creation of Phoebe rely on. Women who join will meet or become mentors to help others learn the “tricks of the trade” and overcome the unique obstacles female tradespeople encounter. The support and fellowship fostered in groups like this give women the tools they need to find success in trades. Even though assumptions like Hawthorne’s still exist, groups like this go a long way toward combating their legacy.