lessons on living for millennials, moms and more
By MAURA THOMAS
WHAT YOU KNOW:
On July 16, 2004, Martha Stewart stepped out of a Lower Manhattan courtroom charged with a five-month sentence at a low-security prison. She and her former stockbroker, Peter E. Bacanovic, had been accused over two years prior of conspiring to hide reasons behind a stock sale of ImClone Systems. An assistant testified in court that Stewart had sold nearly 4,000 stocks of her own after receiving word that the company’s top executive was making a hefty profit selling shares himself. The media mogul’s image was from this day altered — could we ever again trust the lifestyle queen again?
For most Millennials, Martha Stewart has a kind of domestic omnipotence; her name permeated childhood households as a collective reference point, an incomparable icon (the Hillary Clinton of DIY?). Across the country The Martha Stewart Cookbook garnished bookshelves, while reruns of The Martha Stewart Show were left playing on the kitchen television. With each pie baked, with each homemade bunting cut and each Christmas garland painstaking woven, a new creation was born into the collective consciousness of the Martha Stewart world; that is, a world where following a set of highly detailed steps can yield a well-crafted result for anyone with an adequate store of time and patience. And, even if you and your mom weren’t fanatics (like me and mine), Stewart’s name still induced a halo of organizational vibes and creative energy. Personally, I would return home every December to leaf through several well-worn copies of Martha Stewart Living in search of one more cookie recipe or holiday place card idea (my excuse to exploit the hot glue gun, but whatever).
WHAT YOU (PROBABLY) DIDN’T KNOW:
What did Stewart’s rise to prominence look like, considering her level of cultural permeation? After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history at Barnard, Stewart became a stockbroker on Wall Street. She then went on to develop a catering business in Westport, Connecticut in 1972. Her work first won her recognition among friends, and soon grew into an ideal springboard for growth. Through relentlessly weaving her self-image and the face of her business, Stewart climbed an ever-higher reaching ladder of success. She has since built a media empire, the eponymous Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, with her own business smarts and dedication to a seamless aesthetic. A quick search on YouTube will send back dozens of her Lifetime specials, one of which introduces her first “Good Thing” — the simple ideas which form the backbone of Martha methodology. Currently, she maintains two magazines, Martha Stewart Living and Martha Stewart Weddings and, as of October 2014, she has published 83 books. The Martha Stewart Show, which featured cooking and crafting with celebrity guests ranging from Snoop Dogg to Robin Williams, combined with other regular appearances on TV and in public, won her an ever-increasing circle of friends, recognition and power.
Stewart also continues to adapt in the face of a changing business and technological environment, and to appease her increasingly twenty-something demographic (really!), Stewart recently launched American Made, an annual conference and competition in New York for young entrepreneurs and crafters. The conference is replete with lectures, craft sales and receptions. The whole thing is made to feel like an organizational dream. The new generation of Etsy crafters, vintage clothing entrepreneurs and microbrewers is looking for a model of career success, and they are finding it in the woman posing on the covers of their mothers’ old magazines. Martha Stewart is now 73, and she sits atop an increasingly youthful multi-million dollar enterprise.
WHAT MARTHA CAN TEACH US:
Why should you care about a woman who crafts, cooks and manages her own media company, while still retiring by night to her Bedford, New York farm to spend a few moments with her two French bulldogs, Francesca and Sharkey? Of course, this life sounds fantastic, albeit exhausting. The real answer, though, is more complex and more fascinating by an apparent paradox. By monopolizing things like crafts, cooking and lifestyle solutions, Martha has ignored, and perhaps brought some focus to, the cultural stigmas surrounding women’s gender roles as homemakers, first as a traditional cultural standard, and second as the embodiment of the ensuing counter-belief that said “strong” women should dissociate from traditional practices in order to be taken seriously. When women believed and were taught that being successful meant being successful like men, and pursuing “male” careers like finance and business, Martha demonstrated that to be successful as a woman was just to be successful — in whatever way she damn well pleased.
When Stewart walked out of federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia on March 4, 2003, was she different? She emerged in a grey and blue crocheted poncho, with her hair its typical shoulder-length blonde. Camera crews documented her return from the prison back to her farmhouse. In general, though, the press was good press — I’ll call the aftermath “the poncho effect.” Immediately after her release, Lion Brand Yarn, the county’s biggest yarn company, received hundreds of emails asking for a pattern for the garment, which, as it turned out, was crocheted by one of Martha’s fellow inmates. She featured the garment on The Martha Stewart Show not long after, and began selling her own version (proceeds to charity) online. Basically, the poncho is now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A business and press opportunity was born from the ashes of scandal — per typical Martha fashion.
Martha is quick to treat her time behind prison walls lightly. To me, it is completely mystifying that the recovery of not only her company, but also (and more importantly) her own credibility, could have come so quickly after her release. When asked about what comforts she missed while in prison, she told CNN, “All of us asked the guards everyday for a cappuccino … just as a joke … They had their cups of coffee and stuff, and so I get here and I have a spot for a cappuccino machine, but it didn’t work! So, I didn’t have any cappuccino.” For Stewart, normalizing prison is easy! The Martha golden medium is the middle ground between accessibility and awe, and she knows better than ever how to achieve it. Omnimedia’s shares even shot up when she was hidden away in Alderson. The throne was not only awaiting her return, it was being kept warm.
The world Stewart has built is self-sustaining. Marketing its way into our hearts and minds, it seems the solution to any and all of our pesky problems is answered in print, video or online. Her name reigns supreme — and she knows it. So let’s all brush up on our table etiquette, review best composting practices, sew our own handbags and try to be a little more like Martha Stewart.