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The Modern Woman, part 2

June 21, 2007

There were so many interesting comments on my last entry that my response to them has ballooned past a reasonable comment length, so I’m bouncing the discussion into a new post. But if you haven’t yet read the post that precedes this one and its attendant comments, you might want to do that before jumping in here.

Freshhell, I’m going to start with you because I think we’ve kind of danced around the specificity of the gender roles until now. In the book as a whole, the dogmatic adherence to “traditional” gender roles is never even questioned. The issue is always with women’s working away from the home. The possibility of some kind of alternative arrangement of household and work duties such as the one you, peppypilotgirl, suggest, is never broached. (And while we’re talking gender roles, I am also fascinated by what I can only assume to be an exclamation point of horror after “men were happy to step into the breach, as decorators!” Is this statement shocking because it is assumed that men skills in that area and would mess the job up? Because it is un-masculine (where women painting a house is feminine?) and by the way, is your husband gay? (speaking of which, you should see what these two have to say about lesbians…)

Nor, for that matter, do the authors of Modern Woman admit to the possibility of letting the household go to hell (and if unpolished furniture is an example of letting one’s household go to hell, then I’m guilty as charged). The state of one’s home was a metaphor for the state of the family and even the state of the country. If the house was clean and shining and the food was homemade and nourishing and on the table as scheduled, then all was right with the world.

The lack of consideration of alternate gender roles is, as readersguide notes, what makes this text so shocking today. And yet, given the era from which it is drawn, it is also unsurprising. Behind the anxiety about women is anxiety about the family after so many families were separated or divided during the war. But clearly it is possible to prioritize family without replicating “traditional” gender roles (and I keep using the scare quotes because the tradition only dates to the rise of the middle class following the industrial revolution) – those of us who are the power-tool users of our families can attest to that. But after the war, there was an attempt to return to normalcy, which was some kind of nostalgic figment of a collective imagination, the same figment that gave us Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed. This nostalgia when combined with the anxiety about home and family had detrimental affects on women’s options in the long term Look, for example, at how Nancy Drew’s character changes over time – if you can get a hold of the original versions of the earlier novels, the ones that didn’t tame Nancy’s independence.

Readersguide, I, like you, am fascinated in tales of domestic pursuits. It’s the voyeur in me. It’s hard not to compare the 1947 call for a return to homemade homes to the current trends of Do-it-yourselfing, of Martha Stewart, of knitting circles (and the blogs about them), of crafters and scrapbookers. In both cases, there seems to be some weird link of the homemade to the commercial. But as freshhell points out, homemade is satisfying, and maybe that’s why it perpetuates even when it doesn’t have to. Like peppypilotgirl, I am also a stay-at-home mom, although I rarely define myself in that way. And like freshhell, I, too, take a certain amount of pride in the bread I bake (well, when it’s not 95 degrees out) and the healthy food I put on my family’s table – and yes, it’s usually me. But that’s partly out of practicality and partly because I really like doing it. But household work is becoming almost professionalized. I’m thinking of things like Cheryl Mendelsohn’s Home Comforts, a house care Bible that is a marvel of obsessive thinking. It can turn anyone into that character in Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia strip, The Woman Who Always Does Everything More Beautifully Than You. Maybe professionalization isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s more like artistry. But it’s something that allows us to raise what once were considered menial tasks to a level that allows us to take pride in our work. Perhaps this is the current age’s response to anxiety of terrorism and environmental decline and maybe even the physical separation between many of our relationships due to the intervention of assorted electronic devices. Focus on the home addresses the basic human needs to be safe, comfortable and fed.

And peppy, a special thanks to you for giving me the image of my furniture singing paeons of praise. But the question is: What are they singing? I’m pretty sure my sofa’s working on an aria from Tosca. But what of my purple mid-century Swedish modern armchairs?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2007 11:29 pm

    Wait! I haven’t even read this yet, but I’m coming to what I think is the crux of the matter for me. I think we have the power to decide what’s important.To my mother-in-law, housekeeping was not important, although that’s what she spend her whole life doing. Her husbamd’s work, as a physicist, was important in all the ways that hers was not — his was intellectual, not physical. He made lasting contributions to science. She washed the dishes one night and they were dirty again the next. But to me, and, i suspect, to lots of people of my generation, her work was as important as his. She fed and raised three boys. She will die; they will die; none of it is lasting, and all of it is vital. We don’t have to accept your MDs word that polishing is less important than ivnebting, but that we have to do it anyway. We can polish if we want, or not polish if we don’t want to. Our husbands can polish if they want. Polishing isn’t a sex-linked job, but somehow all the ephemeral jobs that go into keeping life possible and livable and civilized Are important and to be valued. We can decide to be brain surgeons or housewives. In fact, we will probably have to be both, which is not easy. But the list of what’s important and what’s not is a way different list than itwas 50 years ago, and that’s a good thing.

  2. freshhell permalink
    June 22, 2007 7:48 am

    Yes, I agree with readersguide. Really, I could go on and on about this subject if given enough time. But, yes, the post WWII mentality longed for – and (re)created – a time that never really existed. It was a fantasy of how life should be; a fantasy that was made real to a degree. But I don’t think anyone was really happy. But maybe happiness is part of the fantasy. How many women, throughout time, were really happy? Marriages were created to form a unit, to make children, to be a legitimate something in society. Only recently have they been formed solely based on “love”. It’s interesting that it IS the women with terminal degrees and “professions” who write these books (I have a small collection of them) about how we’re supposed to act, how we’re supposed to find fulfillment, when their very being seems to belie this. I think our era is one of evolution, lots of growing pains as we come to terms with a very strange past and recreate life and our relationships, shared work, in new ways. Really, we might actually be striving for something that existed a long, long time ago. But women didn’t always record their lives for us. Boy, that’s a lot of disjointed thoughts!

  3. June 22, 2007 10:50 am

    Ahhhhhhh, yes: If a woman is able to give her furniture a beautiful shine, it’s because a man somewhere has enabled her to do it. Thanks, Johnson & Johnson! Anyway, your armchairs are belting out “Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out?” by ABBA. I can hear them from here, and damn, they can harmonize! XO Violet

  4. June 22, 2007 11:21 am

    I’ve only discovered your blog today, although you commented on mine some time ago…thanks for the comment, and the link (although I am not the person you mentioned, I don’t think).

    I loved this article on gender roles. It’s amazing that we’re still battling over where the woman “belongs” in the twenty-first century. And I have to say that although I am childless, I could never write anything like what the female MD collaborated on in your example. If women haven’t invented as many household cleaning products as men, it’s likely because they were barred from studying “male” subjects like chemistry in college until far too recently. Seriously! I hate the implication of “I invented the furniture polish so that you could stay home and polish the furniture.” No thanks!

    Also, I don’t like the implication that women have a place. I wish we could look past gender and realize that every individual has a place, but that they’re all different. If all women found fulfillment at home, would there be feminists? (or working moms?) There are so many happy career women and happy moms (and happy, super-busy people like you who somehow do both-quite impressive) that it seems silly to say that women are meant to be doing one or the other.

    And if men are so willing to take over the chores that we, the weaker sex, cannot handle, well, I’ve got a stack of dishes that could use a scrub. And some vacuuming…

  5. harri3tspy permalink*
    June 22, 2007 1:25 pm

    Readersguide and freshhell, your comment shifts this from a discussion about cultural priorities to one about individual agency, which is exactly what the book does not do. It’s that very issue that makes me so fascinated by the female MD’s life. How can she write such things given her own experience? What was her home life like? But it is important to recognize the difference between cultural pressures and individual abilitiies, I think. Although there are some potential similarities between post WWII America and post 9/11 America, there are many differences. Many women today are in a better position to decide what’s important (I’m leaving out the whole question of class here, which is another kettle of fish altogether). Although I hate to put words in Mr. Spy’s mouth, I will anyway. Were he here, he might argue that the pressures on men to be masculine are just as intense. He feels that his presence at preschools and playgrounds can make him feel like people consider him a potential pedophile. I’d argue with him, accept my own observations suggest that he’s right. In AJ’s former preschool, no one would bat an eyelash at an unfamiliar mother dropping off a child. But if a child’s father brought him, people were quizzing him about his right to be there all the way down the hall. So maybe we should also be looking at the male side of the equation.

    Robinkathleen, thanks so much for weighing in and that’s an excellent point about the furniture polish. The idea of women having a place was largely defined during the industrial revolution, when work and home life became more thoroughly separated. The concept seems less scary to me in that time period just because they were trying to account for a radical shift in social life and to make sure the family unit was preserved and venerated as a way of retaining a cultural moral compass. In the 1940s, though, to return to such an idea after many women had figured out a way to combine work with family, seems hostile at best, at least looking at it from a 21st century point of view. And the whole vision for women was completely different. Compare, for example, Frances Willard’s 1897 book Occupations for Women (readable online here) with Modern Woman: The Lost Sex and you can see just what a big step back was taken.

    It’s not just about women’s place, though, but about the value of her work. Prior to the industrial revolution, when home and workplace were one for most people, women’s work was valued as part of the family business and the business of family. It looks to me like the devaluation of women’s work in the home started happening in the post WWII era (although I’m no expert on this, so if someone has information otherwise, I’d love to hear it). In order to get women back in the home, women were told that their children and husbands were suffering, that men could do the work better, that it was more important for men to work to be masculine. Eventually they were told they just weren’t good enough. Not everyone accepted this, but many did. The postwar period is called by scholars of women’s history, “the doldrums,” because it was a retreat from feminist activity that had been going on for a century or more.

    It should be obvious that in addition to ideas of women’s self-conception, I’m interested in the whole cultural picture — what happened when and why. Because relics of this kind of thinking are still around in self-help books and women’s magazines. And women are still largely invisible in history books. I think we may be able to learn something from all this and that maybe we should be looking back for inspiration to the 1890s-1930s, the period when women began testing the limits of public and private sphere divisions along gender lines. This seems to be the conclusion you have thought about too, freshhell.

    And last but certainly not least, Violet, that is EXACTLY what my chairs are singing. How did you do it? And you didn’t even know that before they were purple, their original vintage 1956 attire was the epitome of disco — turquoise mohair shot with silver thread (sadly that upholstery was too motheaten to save. And also, I was the only one who actually liked it)

  6. freshhell permalink
    June 22, 2007 1:58 pm

    Mr Spy is right. I wish there were men teachers in Dusty’s school. I wish the men teachers weren’t just math teachers/coaches. I wish more men taught at the preschool level. But who but us women would accept such a lousy paycheck? Why are only women the ones who work with children? We’re not all hard wired with a maternal “instinct” and that “instinct” does equal the ability to teach. Both men’s and women’s roles are shifting, merging, flipping and yet….we aren’t, as a culture, completely comfortable with that. My husband stays home with Red twice a week. He does “women’s work” around the house. This is a very interesting time to live in. Perhaps our grandchildren will have figured things out, changed some very basic laws that aide us in doing what needs to be done regardless of gender and will look back at our angst and think, “Jeez – I can’t believe there was this war about women’s roles!” At least I hope so. It just shouldn’t be this hard to do this. The books that tell us what our roles should be show us not only how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go….to accomplish whatever is the most reasonable solution.

  7. crankygirl permalink
    June 22, 2007 2:23 pm

    I’m sorry that I was too swamped at work to participate in the great discussion. Now I’m going to go home and have a long nap.

    My brain is so tired today.

  8. June 22, 2007 6:47 pm

    I am not an expert in this field by any means, but I do think that between to 50 s and now there’s been a huge shift in all kinds of things — history now can include daily life, and not just the dates of wars, for instance. It would be interesting to look at the whole history of domestic stuff, actually — Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, wrote about domestic management. It might be interesting to look at the whole sweep of it —

  9. harri3tspy permalink*
    June 23, 2007 8:59 am

    Readersguide, you are certainly right. One of the big discussions in women’s history is about just what is going on in this doldrums period. Feminist activity as we had known it in earlier eras seems to virtually disappear. But there is actually stuff going on. It’s just different. I certainly agree that history can and should include daily life, although when talking about broad societal trends, it helps to take into account events that were broadly experienced. Ideally, history shoudl be a combination of the broad and the individual. It’s only through the coexistence of both that you can hope to gain some meaningful understanding. If ypu’re interested in historiography, there’s a big trend towards microhistories at the moment — the close observation of the small, which is then unpacked to explain the large. It’s an interesting way to work and I’ve written about it before over at diaryland. I would like to see a sweeping history of domestic stuff. I feel like I’ve heard about one, but I can’t seem to locate it. And I seem to recall it wasn’t as serious as I had hoped. I know about Catherine Beecher’s manuals, but I’m not familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s. I do find them fascinating.

  10. harri3tspy permalink*
    June 23, 2007 9:30 am

    Errata: I see now that one of the manuals I have is co-written by Catherine and Harriet. How could I have forgotten that? Also here is a book about the history of domestic manuals, a published dissertation. This is not what I was thinking of, which was some kind of trade book. I haven’t yet read this one, but will probably order it when I get around to it.

  11. June 24, 2007 8:38 pm

    ROTFL – I was thinking something in sprechstimme; but it must be the ABBA!

    I would just add that I think Mr. Spy would be right. I know, for example, that my husband feels a great deal of (self-imposed) pressure to “provide” and equates that with masculinity somehow. But that would be taking this discussion into another realm altogether.

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