February 14, 2007

More Women's history

Where was I? Oh, right, the "cult of domesticity."

That construct, as I noted, belied a complicated reality. Middle class and upper class women participating in an ideal, all the while using lower class women to actually do the domestic work. That isn't the end of the 19th century disconnect. Starting in 1860, every successive census shows more women working in wage labor jobs. By 1920, women make up somewhere around 20% of the work force. Long before Rosie the Riveter, women were entering the work force, and increasingly married and older. Women also are increasingly asserting their own autonomy: seeking divorce in higher numbers, choosing to never marry, and even seeking abortions--yep, well before Roe. One study has abortions in the 1920s at a level of one for every 4 or 5 live births. Let's just call that significant.

Mixed in with this is also a facade of sexuality. Those women who embodied the "cult of domesticity" were also expected to embody a certain sexual purity. The "purity movement," as we call it, expected those women to be on a pedestal where sexuality was only for procreation and was not embraced. Literally. Those women were not supposed to enjoy sex and might not be strong enough for it. Women were divided, in essence, between the sexual (whore) and the asexual (Madonna).

How does this relate to the 1950s and Tony's Cindarella Valentine? I think I can connect them. That "cult of domesticity" with all its baggage, I would argue, persisted as our idea of womanhood. The 1950s, in fact, far from being a normative period, was an aberation. All the trends I discussed above were headed the other direction until the 1950s. Those aberations, captured in 1950s television (and not even accurately), solidified in American minds as the model of womanhood. Nevermind that suburban womanhood also included the invention and explosion of tranquilizer use. That ideal of Ozzie and Harriet stuck in American minds.

Flash forward 50 years, and you have a world where women have access and rights unheard of in the past. Women make more than their predecessors; participate in jobs their mothers would not; and are running for President. But all is not clear. All we have to do is witness the coverage of the late Anna Nicole Smith to see the difficulties we have with femininity and sexuality.

Those Valentine cards, and the increasing sexualization of Cindarella speak to that struggle. Do we want women on the pedestal or in charge? Are they sexual or non-sexual beings? In a world where women might rule the free world (assuming Bush leaves anything to rule) or cure cancer, how do we relegate women only to Republican Motherhood?


P M Prescott said...

It's worse than that. Today's world defeminizes women. If they must compete in the work world they have to become imitation men. Be objective not subjective, tough and heartless. It runs against their very nature -- which is to nurture. What the women of today lack is not the "Ozzie and Harriet" lifestyle, or the "Father Knows Best" lifestyle, but a "Hazel".
Women today are saying that when they get home they need a wife to help them relax and destress. All the modern conveniences made the middle class think they no longer needed domestic help so it all got dumped on working Moms.

Wasp Jerky said...

Wow. Just wow.

Streak said...

WJ, what is the "wow" for?

Tony said...

I guess when you throw in consumerism and that most families cannot make it on one income alone, you get some pretty odd situations. How are these things negotiated?

Most men are still hooked on these ideas of feminism, the "bring me my slippers" mindset, and then compound it with errant biblical teaching on what femininity looks like, and well, the scene just gets more odd.

Should women "submit" to their husbands, Ephesians 5:22? What does that really mean? Most men are content to let their wives take care of the home but when a big decision needs to be made, hubby is in charge, even if his wife is more savvy in some areas, say, home finances. Hence, we have this masculinity movement, which I grind my teeth over.

I think the masculinity/femininity constructs are cultural, even regional, and can be grossly and falsely misapplied. Should there be one "standard" that all women should follow? It seems some Southern Baptists would see it that way.

Streak said...

Well, one of the things that makes it even more complicated, I think, is that in the age of mass media, we struggle to find authenticity in how we act in those roles. In other words, we are always--and I fear that this is common for most of us--mimicking some notion of what "men are supposed to be."

I will admit, Tony, that I have no idea what a biblical teaching is on gender roles. So much of the biblical worldview seems to me locked in older worldviews. The language of Kings, and Lords and servants is feudal--yet we live in a completely different world. Or, even more distant, the language of the Bible reflects an ancient middle eastern culture that is light years away from us. How do we negotiate that? On gender, the Bible seems to reflect a cultural patriarchy that informed how men and women interacted in the ancient world. But how do we translate that to a world where, like her or not, a woman could be President next election?

I agree with you that these gender roles are cultural constructs. Absolutely. And it puzzles me how persistent the assumption is that those constructs are universal. That Baptist lurker who found both of us noted in his blog that the true Biblical view of woman was to put them on a pedestal. Really. As a straight man who loves to shop for shoes, cooks for fun (not just on the grill) and practices yoga, those constructs are simply not useful.

Streak said...

PM, are we sure that women are better at nurturing than men? Or is that a cultural assumption. As I recall, Puritans didn't necessarily trust women with the raising of the kids because not only were women considered physically and mentally inferior, but also morally.

Tony said...

Honestly, most gender typing in the name of biblical argument comes from eisegesis, not exegesis. Most arguments fall on "created order," that Adam was created, then Eve. It is really easy to cram modern notions of gender and sexuality back into the Bible.

Truthfully? Girls probably did just as much in the fields, in the home, and apprenticeships as boys.

We see clear cut distinctions in the OT; that the priesthood was male, the court of women at the temple, yet there were also prophetesses. Of course we do not live there, and those constructs are not useful in determining gender roles.

Yet neither are a lot of the more modern ones either. I find myself holding doors open for men as I do women. Why? Common courtesy, not because I owe the woman that just walked ahead of me some kind of added respect because of her gender.

Out here in VA, most older ladies worked out in the tobacco fields just like the men. Yet they also were expected to take care of the kids, do laundry, cook, and all of the other domestic duties. They only went to 8th grade, because it was all they had.

That construct has not served us well, because it has become as pm noted above...you find almost androgyny in that both work, both take care of the kids, both cook, both wear slacks.

Which I find dress humorous as well. I pointed you to that Reuters release where the fashion designer pointedly told Hillary Clinton to wear skirts and "ditch" the slacks. What is that about?

In biblical times women and men dressed similarly; yet today I see a lot of grand-standing that women should wear dresses and skirts. It makes them more feminine.

My pov is modesty; plain and simple. As long as it does not draw attention to yourself, then I have no problem with my girls wearing it.

Well, I have started to ramble.

I still though, have a hard time connecting this with the child's busty Cinderella valentine. Maybe I need to think on these things more. I see it pretty much as just overt sexualizing.

Streak said...

Hah. Had to look "eisegesis" up. Good word.

Isn't the modern construct of "equality" a pretty good place to start? I agree with you about courtesy--I open doors for people, not just women. And sometimes women open doors for me. I like that.

Wasp Jerky said...

I was wowing at PM's stereotypical assumptions about women being more nurturing.

Streak said...

PM, know that we love your involvement here. What do you think about those assumptions? How do we place those notions in the modern context with stay-at-home Dads, etc.?

Tony said...

Or dads that homeschool?

Cold In Laramie said...

Streak, I know i am weighing in a little late here, but .... good comment about the Puritans and child rearing. PM's comments are problematic, at least to me, is that he veers toward suggesting that women are BIOLOGICALLY predisposed to nurture. As you point out, it is cultural assumptions. Moreover, aren't the lines between domestic and public more fluid than our perceptions of the past? In other words, in the 19th century many women entered the public sphere and the capitalist marketplace as either wage workers or contributing household manufactures.

Streak said...

Tony, absolutely. BTW, does this discussion of women's history help?

Good comments, CIL. As usual.

Tony said...


Indeed--I appreciate the time and thought you put into this. Once again, we agree more than we disagree.

Either you are becoming more conservative or I'm becoming more liberal... ;)

Streak said...

tony, that is funny. Though, I had a conversation recently with a liberal friend and joked that I was not nearly as liberal as some of my family and friends thought. She looked at me and said, "no, you really aren't." :)

I guess it all depends on what those labels mean, as you and I have discussed.