The St. Louis Park author of the novel “Dreamhouse” hopes readers of her book will realize the efforts women have made in the past to create change.
Judy McConnell, 83, has written two nonfiction books about her own life, but this is the first time she has used some of her own experiences as the inspiration for a novel. The book follows the story of a mother with a young family in Deephaven who, at a church meeting, meets like-minded women who evaluate family values and women’s issues.
“The independent-minded young wife, struggling to fit into her role as wife and mother, is drawn to join the erupting protest movements for individual rights of wives and mothers,” states a description of the book.
McConnell said, “The part of it that is most real and most accurate, historically speaking, is the part of the upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in which this story takes place. This is when there was more or less a revolution throughout the county.”
The American civil rights movement helped lead to a women’s rights movement in an era that included anti-war protests and cultural phenomena like Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, McConnell said.
“The story of this novel was how these social changes affected this family – this normal, ideal, nuclear family with the husband and wife and two-and-a-half children and a dog,” McConnell said.
In a statement about the book, she said, “In some ways, the story parallels my life. I lived in that house in Deephaven.”
Some of the activism described in the book comes directly from McConnell’s own experiences. In her own life, as in the character’s story, McConnell joined a group that decided to take on a men’s club in Minneapolis that required women to come in a back door.
“Not only did they not let us in, but they were very nasty about it,” McConnell recalled. “‘Who do you think you are?’ It caused all of us to revisit our own lives, to review our own lives really carefully to see what we really wanted and how much change we were willing to make to our lives in order to be true to our values, which were changing all the time.”
Despite the experience at the club, the group subsequently staged a protest in front of a well-known department store in downtown Minneapolis that refused to grant women credit cards in their own names rather than in their husbands’ names.
“Eventually as part of the approach, the store did capitulate and agreed to grant women a credit card in their own name so they could develop credit and have financial credit for themselves,” McConnell said. “That actually did happen in real life.”
Capturing such recollections as part of a novel provides freedom when dealing with personal issues, she said.
“It gives you a chance to make a better story,” McConnell said. “It’s not just you. It’s not just ordinary persons’ lives. You can dramatize it.”
McConnell, who grew up Golden Valley’s Tyrol Hills area, recalled the 1950s as “very conventional.”
“Women stayed home; they didn’t work,” McConnell said. “Children were allowed to run around the neighborhood because there was a woman in every house. The doors weren’t locked. There was no divorce back then. It was a scandal if you got divorced.”
A double standard existed for relationships, she said.
“Girls were supposed to behave; boys were expected to take what they could get,” McConnell said. “They took care of the salary and the women took care of the house. ... And these movements were in a way protesting some of those things.”
McConnell went to work in her own life, as a secondary school teacher and, after receiving a master’s degree, as a training specialist.
“I worked my entire 20s in New York, and that was what I wanted to do – to be in the workforce,” she said.
After her children reached school age, she rejoined the workforce.
Her novel depicts the impact of the women’s movement in Minnesota.
The main character, who moved to Minnesota from New York with her husband, thinks, “Something’s happening out there. There’s a fervor, an energy I’ve never seen sweeping the country as we move into the 1970s, and here in Minnesota we’re part of it.”
In reality, women began running for seats in the Minnesota legislature and took lobbying positions, McConnell said.
Statistics capture the changes that developed over the decades in Minnesota and beyond. Nationally, fewer than 34 percent of women 16 years of age or older worked outside the home in 1950, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2014, that rate had risen to 57 percent.
Minnesota women had the highest labor force participation rate in the nation in 2000, with 66 percent of women 16 years or older in the labor force, according to a state legislative report. Although a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said the rate in Minnesota declined from its peak, the report indicates that Minnesota continues to have one of the strongest labor force participation rates for women in the country.
“I think women have made great progress,” McConnell said. “There’s no question. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. Not to be trite, but there’s still so much to be done.”
She pointed out that the Equal Rights Amendment never became a part of the U.S. Constitution after Congress approved it in 1972. Only 35 of the 38 states necessary for ratification approved the proposed amendment, which would have stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Many young people, including McConnell’s granddaughters, do not know what women went through in the late 1960s and 1970s, she said.
“They don’t know how extreme we became in order to make change,” McConnell said. “We really went pretty deep, and we changed a lot of our thinking, a lot of our values and a lot of our behavior.”
People are beginning to have an interest in feminism again, she added.
“I think the book might be of special interest to young people who might relate because they’re aware feminism is kind of coming back with the #MeToo movement,” McConnell said. “I think seniors will like this story because it will take them back.”
The book is pertinent to current events, she indicated.
“It could become a second wave with the #MeToo movement and women emerging to talk about how they’ve been sexually harassed and with the passage of the (Equal Rights Amendment) coming up for grabs again,” said McConnell, who noted she is part of a grassroots effort to revive the amendment.
She will provide a reading of “Dreamhouse” and discuss the book and her writing process 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Walker Library, 2880 Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis.
She has appearances scheduled 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Common Good Books, 38 Snelling Ave. in St. Paul, and 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, at Subtext Bookstore, 6 W. Fifth St. in St. Paul. She will appear at the Rosemount Writers Festival 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at 14375 S. Robert Trail in Rosemount.
She published her first book, “A Penny a Kiss: Memoir of a Minnesota Girl in the Forties and Fifties,” in 2014. Her second book, “My Youth in Manhattan: Memoir of a Midwestern Girl in the 1950s and 1960s,” came out in 2016.
To purchase books or learn more about the author, visit agreatbook.net.