Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

Dear Women, Please Vote This Year

Last night, I attended a panel discussion on campus featuring four prominent professors and moderated by the provost on a few of the important issues in this year’s election (healthcare, the economy, morality in leadership).  The discussion itself was fun, and it was interesting to see gender and race divides so clearly (the two white male professors in almost constant opposition to the two minority female professors), but the overwhelming consensus between them was the importance of a voting decision.  Dr. Carol Awasu from Nyack College’s social work program encouraged audience members to vote.  If you are a woman, if you are a minority, if you don’t own property, she reminded the audience, you did not always have the right to vote, and so you should vote.  Vote, because people have died to secure the right for you.

Especially in this election, which is the most gender-divided election in recent history, everyone who is able to vote should be voting.  We owe it to our predecessors — to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to Susan B. Anthony, to Alice Paul — to vote.  I almost don’t care who you vote for, so long as you vote (of course, I want people to vote my way, but I’d rather a fair exercise of free will than a bunch of people voting against conscience).

Susan B. Anthony

I think that’s what those wonderful suffragists would want to see: a fair exercise of free will.  That’s what they were after in pursuing equal suffrage.  As for how they would vote if they were alive today — I feel like my fair guess would be for Obama, and here’s why:

1) Party Allegiance would be inverted, and thus they would vote on principles as opposed to party.  After the Civil War, women’s suffrage split into two different camps, one aligning itself with the liberal Republicans and the other working to garner support from the more conservative Democrats.  Lucy Stone stuck with the Republican party, and those who followed suit worked to tie female suffrage with freedman (those who had until recently been slaves) suffrage, but when that move proved to be unsuccessful, they willingly took a back-burner position to freedman suffrage.  Now that women have the vote, a Republican suffragist from the mid-nineteenth century would likely choose to vote for Obama because of his egalitarian appeal and his insistence that female policymakers are necessary for appropriate lawmaking.  Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, frustrated by the sexism in the Republican party, broke off from their abolitionist roots and pursued a women’s rights platform through the Democratic party.  The Democrats, for the most part, were uninterested, but Stanton and Anthony persisted in their hunt for political equality in more than just the vote.  Fair pay, property ownership and child custody were also a part of their branch of the suffrage movement.  Stanton and Anthony would be drawn to Obama because of the Democratic Platform’s position on women.  All of these women would also be horrified by comments about rape that have come out of the Republican party during this election cycle (I’m looking at you, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock).  Don’t worry, women; Obama doesn’t understand their comments, either.

Lucy Stone

2) The restriction of voting rights that this election cycle has seen are abhorrent and being repudiated by the Democratic party.  In case you’ve missed it, several state governments have either successfully or unsuccessfully been implementing new voter registration laws that require voters to have excessive and unnecessary amounts of identification in order to vote.  My home state of Pennsylvania is also guilty in this; I chose to register here in New York instead.  If Alice Paul were alive today, you can bet that she would be vocally opposing this from all sides, and as such, she would align herself with today’s Democratic party.  Voting rights are an important part of the Democratic position, and the legislators who are creating the new voter id laws have largely been Republican.  Think I’m inflating things?  Check out this surprisingly astute Sarah Silverman video on voter id laws (my apologies for the profanity, if you find profanity an issue):

3) Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Republicans voted almost unanimously against it.  Look at the vote results from the Senate on the 2009 act.  Of the 61 senators that voted in favor of Lily Ledbetter, only two of them were Republicans; however, of the 36 senators that voted against it, all of them were Republicans.  On top of that, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not support the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009 and he would not have signed it.  Would Romney overturn it if he reaches office?  He says not, but early suffragists Anthony and Stanton would still be casting their vote with Obama because of this law.  Though Anthony’s faction of suffrage did grow toward favoring the white middle class, she made a few concerted efforts to mobilize working class women to demand suffrage and fair pay.  Toward the beginning of the film Iron Jawed Angels, the characters of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns advertise for suffrage amongst working class women, recruiting Ruza Wenclawska.  Wenclawska, a Polish immigrant who changed her name to Rose Winslow, began working as a mill girl at age eleven.  She would be voting for Obama.

Ruza Wenclawska, aka Rose Winslow

Ultimately, I think these women would encourage anyone on the fence about voting for either candidate to vote, no matter what.  But they would probably be voting for Barack Obama.

Goodbye, Nineteenth Century!

Much like what happens in real life, time moves forward in the realm of studying history.  This post, I lamentably must begin, is my last post that will happen partially in the 19th century.  I would like to say farewell to the century that was least represented in my high school education and highly emphasized now in my college one.  And I’d like to do this farewell by chatting about Jane Addams and depressingly racist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Jane Addams is special because we actually talked about her in my high school US History class (the class that began with the civil war and ended in the beginning of Vietnam, where we talked about approximately three women and did not cover the 19th amendment).  Born in 1860, Addams graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881 and spent the next eight years avoiding marriage and missing academia.  She began studying medicine, but her own health declined to the point where she couldn’t keep up the course work.  When she was 27, she went on a tour of Europe with her friend (and possible lover?) Ellen Starr.  As a part of this tour, they visited Tonybee Hall in London —  a groundbreaking new settlement house.  In 1889, the pair leased a building in Chicago, and Hull House was born.  Hull House provided low-income people with access to community programs like child care, a public kitchen and boarding rooms for young women.  Addams, ideologically a feminist, publicly opposed entrance into the first World War and was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life and career as a social worker.  She died in 1935.  For more info about Jane Addams, click here.

Jane Addams

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on so many levels, was one of the most brilliant feminist thinkers of her day.  Most often remembered in literature classes as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman wrote a prolific amount of fiction and feminist theory.  Gilman, like Addams, was born in 1860 and died in 1935.  However, Gilman’s upbringing, due to an absentee father, was much more spuradic than Addams’, leading Gilman to question the ideology of separate spheres.  She would go on to critique it harshly.  Gilman (who was related to Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe through her deadbeat dad) bounced from home to home of different relatives and realized that if her mother had been able to secure financial and political autonomy, then her life would not be so chaotic.  She thus saw separate spheres and the duty of women as childbearers as an issue to be corrected.  Gilman temporarily lost her mind in relation to the rest cure and Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, and for the rest of her life, she considered herself to be feeble-minded and a pinch hysterical.  After she became well again, she left her husband and began a career speaking against the dangers of social differences based on sex.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s work as a feminist thinker and women’s rights activist was built off of the idea that civilizations are evolving (the civilization discourse) and that some civilizations are more advanced than others.  “Some” meaning Anglo-Saxon society, and “others” meaning racial minorities.  By relegating half of the race (the women) to work that was not good for advancing civilization, the white race was stunting itself.  As the most advanced race, the white community needed to be utilizing its female half towards racial advancement.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman built her feminism on the foundation of sanctioned racism (racism, by the way, is not cool).  Gilman even believed that African American people ought to be required to serve in military labor camps until they reached a higher level of social evolution.  We tend to sweep Gilman’s racism under the rug so that her work as a feminist can be glorified, but we really ought to take a look at her racist theories too.  For more information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, click here.

Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties

About a week and a half ago, I discovered something wonderful at the Nyack Public Library’s annual book sale: Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties more or less prevalent in Conduct and Speech (UNMUTILATED and with the Additional Matter. The Only Authorised & Complete Edition).

My copy is roughly four inches square, 96 pages long

Don’t is a marvelous book.  It’s a 1998 facsimile reproduction of an actual manners book first printed in the early 1880’s.  This being the British edition, it comes with the Englishman’s introduction, which concludes that “as a guide to the usages of polite society, the educated English reader will learn nothing from its pages, but, reading between the lines, he will be much amused and astonished.”  I can’t help but feel like the educated English reader must have felt, because this book describes a society so very different from my own.  Take, for example, these following “Don’ts”

  • Don’t reject bits of bone, or other substances, by spitting them back into the plate.  Quietly eject them upon your fork, holding it to your lips, and then place them on the plate.  Fruit-stones may be removed by the fingers. (p. 18-19, in “At Table”)
  • Don’t wear apparel with decided colors or pronounced patterns.  Don’t — we address here the male reader — wear anything that is pretty.  What have men to do with pretty things?  Select quiet colors and unobtrusive patterns, and adopt no style of cutting that belittles the figure.  It is right enough that men’s apparel should be becoming, that it should be graceful, and that it should lend dignity to the figure; but it should never be ornamental, capricious, or pretty. (p. 29, in “In Dress and Personal Habits” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t expectorate.  Men in good health do not need to expectorate; with them continual expectoration is simply the result of habit.  Men with bronchial or lung diseases are compelled to expectorate, but no one should discharge matter of the kind in public places except into vessels provided to receive it.  Spitting upon the floor anywhere is inexcusable.  One should not even spit upon the sidewalk, but go to the gutter for the purpose.  One must not spit into the fire-place nor upon the carpet, and hence the English rule is for him to spit in his handkerchief — but this is not a pleasant alternative.  On some occasions no other may offer (p. 33, in “In Dress and Personal Habits”)
  • Don’t, if you are asked to play or sing, refuse unless you really intend not to perform.  To refuse, simply in order to lead your hostess on to repeated importunities, is an intolerable exhibition of vanity and caprice. (p. 42, in “In the Drawing Room”)
  • Don’t expectorate on the sidewalk.  Go to the curb-stone and discharge the saliva into the gutter.  Men who eject great streams of tobacco-juice on the sidewalk, or on the floors of public vehicles, ought to be driven out of civilized society. (p. 52, in “In Public”)
  • Don’t say female for woman.  A sow is a female; a mare is a female.  The female sex of the human kind is entitled to some distinctive term. (p. 66 in “In Speech” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t use wrong adjectives.  There is perhaps no adjective so misused as elegant.  Don’t say “an elegant morning,” or an “elegant piece of beef,” or “an elegant scene,” or “an elegant picture.”  This word has been so vulgarized by misuse that it is better not to use it at all. (p. 67, in “In Speech” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t conduct correspondence on postal-cards. A brief business message on a postal-card is not out of the way, but a private communication on an open card is almost insulting to your correspondent.  It is questionable whether a note on a postal-card is entitled to the courtesy of a response. (p. 80, in “In General”)
  • Don’t forget that no face can be lovely when exposed to the full glare of the sun.  A bonnet should be so constructed as to cast the features partially in shade, for the delicate half-shadows that play in the eyes and come and go on the cheek give to woman’s beauty one of its greatest charms.  When fashion thrusts the bonnet on the back of the head, defy it; when it orders the bonnet to be perched on the nose, refuse to be a victim of its tyranny. (p. 90 in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)
  • Don’t wear diamonds in the morning, or to any extent except upon dress occasions.  Don’t wear too many trinkets of any kind. (p. 91, in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)
  • Don’t doubt the compiler’s admiration for woman.  Very few, indeed, are the social shortcomings of women compared with those of men, but the few injunctions here set down may not be unprofitable, and are given with entire respect and good-will. (p. 96 in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)

So, with those rules now clearly explained, I can begin my life in high society, so long as it is neither elegant nor bedecked in diamonds before noon.

At the halfway point in the semester, and still in the borderland decades of the turn of the century, finding Don’t made me stop and consider everything I’ve learned up to this point in Women in American History.  And importantly, how it effects my life today.  Most noticeably, some of my friends would point out my inability to keep from yelling while reading some of my textbooks (“Whaaat??? No way was that happening.  No way.  You have to read this).  Because I’m a Christian (yay for evangelical protestantism!) living in contemporary New York state (and sometimes PA), I’m seeing questions of women in the church through the roles established in the Jacksonian period as opposed to the early church.  In fact, I’m taking a class this semester called Male and Female in Biblical Perspective, and it is a wonderful class, but because I am learning women’s history, I can see the fallacy of so many of the writers that we read for the theology course.  I can see that the theological debate has become using Biblical text to either defend or debunk Jacksonian/Victorian gender role assignments — not Biblical manhood and womanhood.  I’m also seeing a lot more in how advertising is exploitative (and not just of women!).  Advertising uses sexual gratification to enforce traditional gender roles and to enforce racial hierarchy.

One thing that I didn’t expect to happen as I learned about women’s history was the social backlash on this conservative campus.  I have considered myself a feminist for years, but now that I am actively pursuing an education in women’s studies (a program which does not exist at Nyack College, yet I am minoring in it unofficially) and have learned some tools to help me understand women in our current society, I’ve been getting a little bit heckled.  It’s calmed down in the past couple of weeks, but I’ve been accused of being a man-hater, labeled a “raging feminist” (a term that I, personally, hate), and had my sexual orientation questioned.  My question for Nyack College:  Women’s studies and gender studies programs are nothing new.  They have existed for decades.  Why, then, is pursuing this education deemed socially and sexually deviant in our allegedly Christian culture?  In my opinion, as both a Christian and a feminist, the church should be at the forefront of women’s equality.  Aren’t our souls supposed to burn out against injustice?  Why, then, do we sit around complaining about women speaking in church when there is forced child prostitution in the world?  Women’s rights are human rights, and that’s what Jesus was all about when he was hanging out in Galilee.

As absurd as some of the rules in Don’t may seem 130 years later, our society’s vision of gender role divisions hasn’t changed much, especially within the Protestant church.  My question for you, readers (and for myself), is how do we re-invision the church to build a more humane and just society that empowers both women and men to reach their full potential and complete human beings?  How can we use the message of the Bible (which, when all is considered through cultural lenses and translations faults and the Law of Consistent Witness, is highly empowering toward women and, dare I say it? feminist in nature) to break down the long-reaching grasp of the Victorian Cult of True Womanhood on American (and even global) society?

I’d like to modernize the Don’t book for 2012/2013.  But among such “don’ts” as Don’t write private messages on someone’s public Facebook wall, or Don’t stick chewing gum on the underside of tables and desks, I’d like my final admonition to be something like: Don’t doubt the sincere importance for valuing one another’s humanity, regardless of societal divides like race and gender.  Those are social constructs, not law, and we ought to be better than that (you silly people).

If Only Thieving Ladies Knew About Cheap Amusements

Last week, I posted about pre-1950s consumerism and the advent of shopping.  This was, I’m sure, a fun post for all involved, so I’m writing a follow-up, and we’re going to talk about class.

I learned about turn of the century consumer culture from these two books: When Ladies Go A-Thieving and Cheap Amusements.  Both books explore the leisure activities of urban women in the late 19th and early 20th century, however, they attack the topic from two different viewpoints, that of the middle class housewife and that of the working class woman.

When pre-made material goods became more and more prominent in the household, middle class women spent less and less time working to create things within the home.  Thus, shopping for these items became their job.  Shopping centers and department stores tailored themselves toward these female consumers — in an overwhelming way.  Brightly-colored advertisements and products crowded the cramped aisles and display tables.  Salespeople constantly accosted shoppers, encouraging them to try this or to buy that.  The atmosphere became one of hyperactivity designed to help shoppers lose control of their ability to discern a want from a need.  Maybe they even had an elephant in the store.

A Female Shoplifter!

Of course, this environment created a new wealth of social problems, namely shoplifting, and When Ladies Go A-Thieving tells this story.  Stealing and shoplifting were not new things, but for the upper and middle class housewife, they were.  Women would, in between a series of regular purchases, lift random items.  Perhaps a perfume bottle, perhaps clothing, perhaps an umbrella — anything small enough to be hidden was fair game.  Instead of convicting these women of theft, all too often they got away without any charges or charges that were dropped so quickly they must have been on fire.  Store managers valued the repeat business of the women enough to let little items go, and the threat of a woman losing her respectability left managers much more lenient with these shoplifters.  Especially since enough of them had the money to pay for their light-fingered grabs, this type of criminal deviance was medicalized, and kleptomania was born.

Kleptomania became the chief defense for thieving ladies, and its causes were much like those of hysteria (another “female mental health problem”).  Women in stores were constitutionally unable to withstand the pressure of advertising, thus they would temporarily lose their sanity and steal.  But kleptomania was a distinctly middle and upper class disease.  Working class women were too busy being awesome to bother with shoplifting.

In Cheap Amusements, the world of the working girl in New York City expands from the 27-hours-a-day sweatshop work that we generally tend to envision into a fast-paced and vibrant world of fun activities stuffed into the evening hours of the day.  The styles and consumer pushing that middle class women stole, working class women put on layaway.  They spent most of their time working, but in the time that was free, many working women began exploring different ways of having fun.

A popular choice was going out to Coney Island or Central park, which could be done with the whole family.  Or women might go out on dates with young men.  They might go dancing or to the movies with their friends.  Fashion in these settings was important.  Some working class women would stave off hunger by going out with men frequently, thus they could save their money for clothing.  Food was less important than fashion.  This was more difficult for women who were still living with their parents, because they were expected to give their pay envelopes to the family.

People in a dance hall! Having fun!

Of course, within the world of the working class woman, there were both natively born women and immigrants.  The working class held many different ethnic groups, and some of these groups deviated from the working class norm.  Irish immigrants (whose women were much more likely to be employed than their men) gravitated to the domestic work so often rejected by other working women.  Italian families kept their daughters under close watch; they were often not allowed to be out at night or to go out of the home by themselves.  Arranged marriages happened regularly among Italians and other groups still rooted firmly in the “old country.”

Community events like weddings or dances gave young women and men the chance to interact socially.  Dancing in particular became a hugely popular form of socializing for the working class.  As the decades surrounding the turn of the century progressed, dances became closer in contact and more risque.

Middle and upper class women labeled these working class dancers as loose and sexually promiscuous.  But perhaps if they had been able to join them and release some of their shopping tensions, they wouldn’t have lifted so many trivial things from the stores.

Consumerism — Not Just For The 1950s

Last week I mentioned The Story of Stuff in my post about slave labor and fair trade initiatives.  I’d like to draw us back to that video for a bit and talk about planned obselescence and perceived obselescence.  In the first Story of Stuff video, Annie Leonard explains the structure of consumerism and how it was used post WWII to finish reviving the economy.

That golden arrow is called the Golden Arrow of Consumption.  That’s us.

The concept is simple enough.  Create a consumer product (say, a mop).  Advertise that everyone who has hard flooring should own a mop.  Then either design your mop so that it stops working after a time, or create a newer and better product (a swiffer mop) before the original mop dies out.  Now people who merely mop their floors aren’t good enough; they must convert to a swiffer.  The falling-apart mop is planned obselescence (designed so that it will stop working eventually, but only after you have enough faith in the product to purchase a new one) and the swiffer replacement is perceived obselescence (the consumer perceives a change in status quo, and thus to maintain appearances will purchase the new item despite the old item’s continued effectiveness).  Think this is crazy?  How many times have you upgraded your phone in the past four years?

Anyway, Annie Leonard’s video series does a great job at exposing the structured failings of the consumer world, but there is this feeling that consumerism began in the 1950s.  Perhaps that’s when the government decided to give it a hand, but consumerism (and both planned and perceived obselescence) matured in the late 19th century.

It all started with factory production.  As working class people moved into cities, they took jobs in factories (I’ll focus on the textile industry here).  As the textile industry boomed, “ready-made” clothing came into stores.  Men and women now had the option of purchasing clothing instead of making it.  Stores expanded to huge conglomerates rife with brightly colored advertisements pronouncing the importance of consumer goods.  The clothes you wore (whether you made them or bought them), the furniture you owned, the wallpaper you used, your wax fruit — everything within the home was a mark of social status, and the more consumer goods you had, the more status you had.  For example, a working class woman who owned a mink was at the top of her social world, but a middle class woman who owned a mink also had to own the appropriate outfit to wear with said mink plus a variety of other ensembles, and the right amount of tasteful art to decorate her home.

Now that clothing could come ready-made, women and men were instructed by advertising that they must own multiple outfits, not just one or two.  A lady needed an outfit for the morning, an outfit for going to the store, an outfit for social visits, an outfit for riding a bicycle, an oufit for flying to the moon.  Of course, she also needed the shoes and gloves to match.  Men were also victims of the multiple-ensemble craze, but the major thrust of this trend was thrown upon women.  Since women who had traditionally made clothing were now spared from that particular toil, it became a woman’s duty to shop for herself and her family.  Thus, advertisers geared their marketing techniques toward women.  Whereas it used to be considered motherly to make clothing for your children, you were now old-fashioned and uncaring if you didn’t purchase children’s clothing ready-made.  And of course, your child will grow.  Dress fashions began to shift seasonally, and anything old was considered poor taste and bad breeding.  Nineteenth century markets were experts on perceived obselescence.

Consumerism then, as we know it today, does not really have its roots in the 1950s governmental monkeying with planned obselescence.  It began in the late 19th century with perceived obselescence.

Cultish True Women (and everybody else)

The early nineteenth century came with the True Woman, and she had a cult.  True Womanhood was the epitome of female success: complete devotion to keeping house, child rearing and deference to a husband’s will.  A True Woman was apolitical, soft and demure.  By no means was she a public figure, she never worked a paying job, she would not be seen at the theatre.  She was religious, moral, not intellectual.  A True Woman stayed in the home (even during parades).

Given these distinguishers, most nineteenth century women were not True Women.  Black women were not True Women.  Native American women were not True Women.  Working women, whether they were mill girls or teachers or thespians, were not True Women.  Single women were not True Women.  Widows were not True Women.  Only the upper middle class housewife could fully succeed in True Womanhood, so why did so many other women who could never fit the bill buy into this definition of womanhood?

Class distinctions and race distinctions sharply divided Jacksonian America, and the upper middle class became the ideal towards which all lower classes strove.  However, instead of the class gap shrinking, it widened with the early stages of industrialism.  And as the class gap widened, the sex gap widened as well.  This was the era of the “separate sphere” — when men and women lived almost completely separate lives.  The male sphere was in the public: church, professions, politics.  The female sphere was in the home.  A good woman, a true woman stuck to her sphere.

True Womanhood was a craze that spread like wildfire, eaten up by the masses and propagated by publications like Godey’s Lady’s Book.  The widely popular magazine edited by Sarah Hale lectured women on the importance of the home and fashion.  Sarah Hale, a widow and working woman who reached national fame with Godey’s Lady’s Book, throughout her career expressed a desire to be a proper housewife but was unable to do so because of her five children and deceased husband.  Sarah Hale, she made herself clear, was the exception to the rule.

Sarah Hale wore black every day of her life after her husband died, wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and campaigned for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday.

To say Godey’s Lady’s Book was popular would be an understatement.  Sarah Hale was the Helen Gurley Brown of her day, and Godey’s Lady’s Book was the Cosmopolitan.  In 1860, the publication reached 160,000 subscribers.  The magazine, complete with full color fashion plates and directions on how to make wax fruit, instructed women on how to be women.

The employed woman bought Godey’s Lady’s Book, as did the upper middle class housewife.  The book became a cultural normalizer for separate spheres.  For the upper middle class woman, the book was practical advice on how to run her home.  For the lower class mill girl, the book showed glimpses of a glamorous life of ease that was unattainable and yet desired.

If True Womanhood was the desired life of the masses, then their actual lives were much different.  Lower class women worked, and they worked for wages that were considerably lower than their male counterparts.  Jobs available to women included exhausting factory work, exhausting teaching careers, exhausting domestic work, and the ever frowned-upon actress.  Acting allowed for greater independence and a higher likelihood to a fair wage, but carried with it the social stigma of loose sexuality.  Factory work, a relatively new profession, quickly became dominated by women (in 1828, nine out of ten textile workers in New England were female).

GLB employed bunches of women (who worked from home) to color in the fashion plates.

Lower class women pursued factory jobs because they needed the money; they were hired so that men would not be wasted on such trivial work.  Most working women were single, and their jobs were considered temporary situations until marriage, so naturally some mill girls found the independence of working delightful.  However, the cheap labor of women became even cheaper as factories decreased pay and increased hours.  Working women like Mary Paul, who started working at the Lowell mills in Massachusetts when she was sixteen, saw the devolution of working conditions first hand.  At the start of her career, she gladly promoted her workplace to other women, but within a few years she complained of being overworked and underpayed.

Of course, the mill girls all read Godey’s Lady’s Book.