Think of the quintessential "American woman." What image comes to mind? If you picture June Cleaver, Claire Huxtable or Marge Simpson, you may be shocked. A new book, A Day in the Life of the American Woman -- How We See Ourselves, suggests that today's American woman spans the spectrum from a double-amputee soldier who fought in Iraq to a surgeon -- to bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent.
Photo Credit: Karen Ballard/Bulfinch Press
Published by Bullfinch Press, the book was co-authored by Sharon Wohlmuth and Carol Saline, who created the best-selling Mothers & Daughters and Sisters, and Dawn Sheggeby from the A Day in the Life series. Vincent is spotlighted in one of six full-length features.
The premise of the book is simple: 50 women photographers follow 50 American women around for one day to document their lives. The result is anything but simple or predictable. Those featured in the book include an art student, a coroner, a preacher, a cattle rancher, a butcher and the musician who's been called the Queen of Bluegrass Music.
"I was dumbfounded," said Vincent, who learned that photographer Karen Ballard turned down the opportunity to spend the day with Laura Bush or Hilary Clinton for the chance to shadow Vincent. "She's from Louisville, Ky., and had seen us perform at the International Bluegrass Music Awards. So that was really neat to know."
However, Vincent wasn't totally prepared for what the project entailed.
"We're up here, tired and in our pajamas, and she starts snapping pictures," explained the six-time IBMA female vocalist of the year and one of very few celebrities featured in the book. "That was the first time that reality set in."
The project ran from midnight until midnight, which meant photographer Ballard climbed aboard the tour bus about the time Vincent and band, the Rage, were getting ready for bed.
"People are always asking the guys, 'What does she wear on the Martha White bus?' It's like, of course, you tell them I'm wearing beautiful lingerie, right? Not the reality of flannel pajamas." But despite Vincent's very vocal reservations, Ballard remained unmoved. "She said, 'Nope, I'm shooting you for the next 24 hours. That was the deal.' So, I said, 'OK, but you're not going in the shower."
However, there is a photo of Vincent, in a towel with one leg balanced on the vanity, shaving.
"It's one thing to be in front of a camera when you're outside the bus," she said. "But to have someone literally [shooting] everything that you do -- with this camera three inches from my face, right down to curling my hair -- it was kind of hard for me to go ahead and conduct business. But, finally, by the end of the day, it's like, "OK, you've got me shaving my legs. You've got me shaving my armpits, for goodness sake, so what does it matter by then?"
The book is a balance of unflinchingly candid photographs and sensitively written essays about how these women navigate, as the authors describe, "their sometimes rocky and often joyful journey." One such story describes the influence Vincent's father had on her career when he stuck a mandolin in her hands at the ripe old age of 8. "Here's G, B and D," he said, showing her the chords. "You're gonna play this for two hours every Saturday night from now on."
Vincent's own recollection of her first public performance was singing on the local portion of the Jerry Lewis telethon at the age of 5. "I think it must have been 4 in the morning," she said. "We had to drive through Iowa and [during the drive] I decided I wanted to sing 'The Bicycle Song.'" Whatever her convictions were in the car, her enthusiasm waned upon pulling up to the television station. "It was moments before we were going to be live on TV, and I decided I wasn't singing," she said. "So, my dad took me in a room, and let's just say that he convinced me I was going to sing. The next thing I know, I'm on live TV. I can still see myself in the monitor and the tears are streaming down my face, but I'm singing."
Asked how she feels now about this fatherly display of tough love, Vincent just chuckles and then reflects seriously: "He prepared me for what I do today. I think I realized that the most the day I stood on the stage of the Opry during the CMA awards with Dolly Parton and [pop singer] Norah Jones. You couldn't plan that. ... But, I thought to myself, 'I may just collapse on the floor!'" Just as on the telethon years before, when the crucial moment arrived, Vincent came through -- minus the tears. "As I stood up there, I was so at ease, I wasn't nervous at all," she said. "My dad prepared me for this, because there's no replacement for experience."
One telling theme throughout the book is the very non-traditional way today's women handle traditional responsibilities. Many are single moms. They juggle careers, childcare, long hours and long commutes.
Vincent's own grueling tour schedule includes 300 days on the road and three-hour autograph sessions before and after her live performances. While she took her two daughters on the bus with her in the beginning, once they entered school, her manager-husband, Herb Sandker, decided to stay home so she could continue touring. "What an incredible man," she said. "He allows me to travel on a bus with five guys. That's a very strong and trusting man."
Of course, he does do things a little differently. Once, when running late and unable to get a comb through their first grader's hair, he dealt with the situation in what Vincent describes as a "functional guy" way.
"He put her in the bathtub, grabs a whole handful of hair and took the scissors and just cut off her hair!" she said. "These beautiful long ringlets! I came home and said 'Wow, that's way better, Dad. No tangles.'"
Not all of the images in the book portray women in non-conventional careers or situations. A Day in the Life of the American Woman features a stay-at-home mom, a daycare worker and a group of middle-aged ladies in red hats. The point is that today's American woman cannot even be defined by words like "traditional" or "non-traditional" anymore. Vincent said, "I'm thankful that women have the opportunity to do all of these things."
A Day in the Life of the American Woman is, as the authors put it, "a testimony to the energy, ingenuity, determination, bravery and tenderness that make us a unique breed." While all of the women featured in the book are attractive, they are not the eight supermodels that perpetually grace the covers of magazines. They are sometimes overweight, sometimes over 40 -- or even 50 or 60 -- and they are very, very real.
Perhaps the definitive phrase is the subtitle of the book: How We See Ourselves. How we see ourselves is not through the lens of someone else's hopelessly narrow and limiting idea of female perfection. How we see ourselves is much more beautiful than that. As is Vincent.