One of my character flaws as a hobby genealogists is my desire to learn everything I can about certain eras in history and the people who lived during them. I’m fascinated by the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, 16th century English royalty, Colonial America, flappers of the 1920s, and anything from the 1950s and early 60s. Especially food and Pyrex.
Fortunately, for me, there is a plethora of media – TV shows specifically – available to satisfy this craving. My new found love is the Astronaut Wives Club … a show about military wives turned celebrity nearly overnight as America followed and fell in love with the Mercury Seven men and missions.
My mom was 6 years old when Alan Shepard became the first American to be hurled into space, which is, perhaps, where some of my fascination originates.
Of course, the first thing I noticed on the show was the food … all the funky mid-century food that the women carried to each other’s homes on mission day. Then I became fascinated with the women themselves. I read about Mercury Seven in school … in the 1980s sometime … but never knew that LIFE Magazine had followed, exclusively, the private lives of the astronauts and their families. These are the bits of pop culture that school never teaches us, and the bits of history that become the most fascinating. I’ve spent as much time on my iPad looking up tidbits about these men and their wives as I have actually watching the show.
Each of the women has a distinct personality, some have their own challenges, but one resonates with me in a way I hadn’t expected.
Rene Carpenter, then wife of Astronaut Scott Carpenter.
She first caught my attention when she wore a white sheath dress with red flowers to the “pastel dress” photo taken of the wives in front of a rocket. She stands out. In the show, she pleads ignorant of the pastel dress requirement. I bet, if you asked her today why she wore that dress, she would have a different answer. Be noticed. Be remembered.
Early on in the show, the characters were taking root, and focus shifted to Louise Shepard then to Betty Grissom, Annie Glenn, and finally to Rene as the 4th wife to watch her husband go into space. It was that episode where I began paying more attention to Rene and started researching her life. The show portrays her as a woman standing her ground, adamant about telling her own story … and writing her own story to be published in LIFE Magazine on June 1, 1962. She had dreams beyond that of astronaut wife and mother of four. She aspired to be a writer, columnist more precisely, and took measures to make that dream come true.
After the first episode, I told my mom that I wouldn’t have survived as a wife in that era. I couldn’t be the perfect wife who stayed home to care for children, have dinner on the table promptly at 5:10pm, and live for her husband’s career … as many women were expected to do … and did. That’s why Rene Carpenter resonates so profusely. She understood that these women had more to offer than role of wife and some, Rene included, went on to offer more later in their lives.
What I’m most intrigued about is the notion that a married 30-something mom in that era would decide to pursue her dream and refuse to be knocked back by anyone. It seems somewhat out of character for women of that generation. Rene Carpenter was 37 when her first column, A Woman Still, was published. She wrote from the heart, with wit, and with honesty.
I recently read that Rene isn’t overly fascinated with the show. I supposed if you lived it, you might not be. It would be hard to watch what is likely a lot of fiction for the sake of entertainment built around truth. I’ve read as many of Rene Carpenter’s columns as I can find and, nearly 50 years later, her words strike me in the head and heart. She has made me reflect on family and community and my role within each, as well as who I am personally and professionally … and who I want to become. I find it refreshing to learn about a woman … through her own words … who made a leap into a new career and life in 1966 all because she had a dream to be a writer.
All in all, fiction or truth, these are my kind of women. They drink before 5:00pm, smoke cigarettes while playing cards on Tuesday afternoon, support their husbands, love their children, and find strength in each other.