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!

Depressing and Riveting Emergencies

During the 1930s and 1940s, two different emergencies drastically altered women’s roles in the United States.  The first emergency, The Great Depression, urged women out of the workforce and into the home (despite the number of employed women rising).  The second emergency, World War II, spent four years pushing women into the workforce to fill the void left by male soldiers.

The Great Depression was an economic emergency that effectively ended the flapper culture of the 1920s (I missed a decade due to Sandy, sorry!).  Whereas in the ’20s, both men and women experienced a loosening of sexual mores and personal liberation, the stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into a tight fiscal crisis.  People of both genders lost jobs.  And the message to women, in general, directed them to stay at home so that men could have a better chance at getting a job.  Men, as the breadwinners, needed their jobs to support their families, but women who worked for “pin money” ought to leave the salaries for men (of course, the “pin money” worker was a largely inaccurate stereotype).  The working woman was not respected by society at large because she was taking the labor that belonged to men.

Let my Daddy work!

 

Of course, women who worked during the Great Depression were not likely to be after economic independence and purchasing power.  They, like men who worked, were supporting their families, and women entered the work force at twice the rate of men.  Women did a wide variety of work throughout the Depression, including hosting boarders who could no longer afford to live on their own.  Women’s wages increased to 63% of men’s wages, even though the number of women in the workforce grew (usually the two were inversely related).  Due to the segregation of labor that had already existed, many women were able to stay in the workforce because men did not want to do “women’s work.”  So even though public opinion was against women workers, the Great Depression actually spurred more women into the workforce.

Famous migrant mother photo by Dorothea Lange

The only way to really break the Great Depression was to get involved in a World War.  And women, Uncle Sam needed you to fill the positions left vacant by young soldiers.  Check out this propaganda video scripted by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by Katharine Hepburn:

The natural skills of the homemaker, like sewing, can translate easily to industrial work, and since the lives of men depend on it, women are necessary for the war effort.  I particularly enjoyed the part about parachute production about five minutes into the video above; of course women are better at making a silk parachute!  They have those nimble lady-fingers, after all!

Sarcasm aside, the campaign to get women working during WWII used fierce amounts of propaganda.  If you weren’t working, as a woman, then you were not doing your patriotic duty. The labor of women became essential in making sure that the men overseas were well-equipped and protected.  This new breed of working women was championed by Rosie the Riveter.

Traditional Rosie poster

Another Rosie design

For a few short years, being a working woman was at the top of public opinion.  However, as soon as the war ended, women were expected to pack up and go home.  Those jobs that women had adopted naturally belonged to men.  Propaganda ads began telling women to quit their jobs and return home, when just a few years before, they had been urging women into the workforce.  Women were fired by droves in order to make way for male workers.  Rosie the Riveter and her sisters at work were pushed into memory.

Both of these two emergencies show one consistent theme.  When men leave the workplace, either through economic downturn or wartime soldiering, women quickly fill the gap.  But when men return to the work force, women are once again pushed out.

“Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum

Earlier this month, I had the amazing opportunity to travel with my professor Bethany Johnson to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend The Connecticut Forum’s panel discussion titled The State of Women 2012.  Wow.  What a trip.  Here’s a couple of clips to get you started:

Clip #1 features Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem talking about the question “Can women have it all?”

Clip #2 features Ashley Judd and Michelle Bernard discussing why it is important to talk about women.

Clip #3 features Gloria Steinem and Connie Schultz talking about team sports and women’s bodies.

As you can see, the four panelists at the Connecticut Forum (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) have a lot of brilliant things to say about women.  There are a couple more clips from the conference on Youtube — check them out.

Getting to this conference was an experience itself.  Prof. Johnson found out about it in mid September, and I had to decide within the next few days if I could go.  Three questions: how much did it cost, how would I get there, how would I get home?  Thankfully, Prof. Johnson arranged for the cost of my ticket to be covered, and I managed to find a ride with a friend halfway there, where I met up with Prof. Johnson and she drove the rest of the way.    I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at my friend’s house in Woodbridge.  The whole weekend was fantastic.

But this trip to the CT Forum was the decided highlight of the weekend.  I’m (un)lucky enough to have no experience with Gloria Steinem’s work, and I made the choice to do no googling before the event.  I knew her name and not much more.  I wanted to be surprised/impressed/untainted.  I wanted some first hand experience before reading the Wikipedia article about her.  I still haven’t read the Wikipedia page, but I do know what I am reading over summer this year, and it will include a lot of Gloria Steinem.  (By the way, I think it is heinous that women in my generation don’t know who Gloria Steinem is, myself included.)

So, still knowing minimal about Steinem, I am seriously and thoroughly impressed/awed by her at the CT Forum.  How to describe her?  Words that came to mind during the event included grace, beautiful, wisdom, magical.  I have met very few people as astute or as knowledgeable as Gloria Steinem on the stage.  She was more impressive than Bill Clinton when I saw him four years ago speaking in support of Obama at Penn State, and President Clinton has a reputation for being a fantastic speech-maker (which he is).  Gloria Steinem ruled the night.

But let’s not cut the other panelists short; they were all fantastic.  Michelle Bernard, the sometimes-conservative and the only panelist of an ethnic minority, was loud and boisterous, thoroughly engaging.  She was hilarious, as was Connie Schultz.  Schultz dominated the personal anecdote, telling stories about teasing Rush Limbaugh, naming cabbage patch dolls “Gloria Steinem” and getting phone calls from reporters asking how she knew her husband.  Ashley Judd added a beautiful layer of poise and dignity, referring to “the candidate of my choice” and “the god of my understanding,” instead of openly endorsing a politician or religion (this level and type of tact impressed me).

Even if the topic of the panel had been something completely different, something that I am only marginally interested in (like the zombie apocalypse panel I attended last November at Philcon), I would have had a good time at the Connecticut Forum.  Luckily for me, the topic was the state of women, which is something that (as a woman) I am highly interested in.  But being at the panel felt like a breath of fresh air to me.  Don’t get me wrong — I love attending a Christian college.  The socio-political atmosphere and student religious culture, however, make it ridiculously difficult for me to express myself as a woman and as a feminist.  NOTE:  This isn’t on the college.  This is on the student culture.  For the most part, I think that Nyack College is fairly decent in its acceptance and support of female professionals and women in academia (for the most part).  I’ve talked about it with some professors and the Dean of Students.  Nyack is a great place to work (it even won an award for it or something).  But student culture is pretty darn oppressive.  This is a “ring-by-spring,” MRS degree institution, and although Liberty University is over ten times the size of Nyack College, Nyack’s student culture is very similar to that depicted by Kevin Roose in The Unlikely Disciple.  So you can imagine that being an outspoken liberal feminist is difficult on this campus.  Being at the Connecticut Forum was like a validating breath of fresh air.  There are people in the world who think like me?  There are people in the world who see the ways that women are being mistreated in our society?  I’m not alone?

One of the things that I remember the panelists talking about is the attitude that feminism isn’t needed anymore when it most definitely is.  Women’s rights, I have been (accurately) told, are really human rights.  And that’s the attitude that I’m coming up against pretty regularly.  It makes me think of the 1920s.  Suffrage finally happens, but the women’s movement shrinks.  When NAWSA becomes the League of Women Voters after the 19th amendment, is membership goes down to 10% of what it had been.  The next generation of women stopped caring or something.  Feminism lulled.  It lulled again in the 1980s.  It’s lulling again now.  It’s uncool to be a feminist.

More than anything, The State of Women 2012 panel felt like an inauguration.  I felt like I was taking on the mantle of great women who have come before me, like I was becoming a part of something bigger and greater than myself.  I felt like I was being inducted into the proud ranks of a beautiful and ancient society structured on the principle that all people deserve fair treatment as people, regardless of sex, race, sexuality, economic class, et. al.  The whole event had the flavor of a ceremony or rite of passage.  It was wonderful, and I am so glad to have gone.

Iron Jawed Angels’ Missing Details

WARNING:  Here be spoilers and a reference list at the end!

HBO’s 2004 TV movie Iron Jawed Angels follows the life of Alice Paul in the last eight years of the American campaign for women’s suffrage.  Although the sequence of events in Iron Jawed Angels is largely accurate thanks to the aid of Vanderbilt University’s Marjorie Spruill, it still contains some glaring gaps and inaccuracies (Owens 2004).  In the film, for example, Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as antipathetic but indifferent.  However, Wilson was far from indifferent on the topic of suffrage; he was staunchly against it and only caved to political pressure from the American Women’s Party.  Alice Paul, portrayed by Hilary Swank, is charged with a level of sex appeal that seems to come from Hollywood rather than history.  And the film’s treatment of race is almost nonexistent.

Woodrow Wilson in the film is much more sympathetic than the real Wilson was.  In the early stages of the picket, Wilson did tip his hat to the picketers as portrayed in the film.  He even once invited the picketers into the White House on a cold day.  However, either he or his administration played a much larger role in containing the women’s movement.  Wilson and his administration have been linked to several different abuses of power, including the false arrests depicted in the film, political censorship of the press and using the Secret Service to maintain surveillance on suffragist sympathizers (Graham 1983).

The real suffragists

Woodrow Wilson said that.

The Wilson administration worked to keep news of the mob riots against picketers out of print.  The riots, which were consistently on the front page of national newspapers, created huge amounts of negative press for the presidency and the Democratic party.  The president’s administration and possibly the president himself contacted newspapers and news organizations including the Associated Press, encouraging the press to leave the riots uncovered.  Realizing that the sudden disappearance of picket news would cause more harm than good, papers were instructed to keep coverage as sparse as possible and no further front than the fourth page.  Iron Jawed Angels shows the difficulty that Paul had securing space in newspapers for editorials, but the attempts at censorship by the Wilson administration are never mentioned (Graham 1983).

The surveillance of Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York and Wilson supporter, was one of the Wilson administration’s largest abuses of executive power.  Malone began to show support for the suffrage movement, and he was placed under surveillance for over a month.  This same Malone resigned from his position and charged to the president that the first wave of arrests were the result of careful planning on the part of the DC District Commissioner.  Within twenty-four hours of Malone’s meeting with the president, Wilson pardoned the prisoners (Graham 1983).  This first wave of arrests and the work of Dudley Malone is skipped in Iron Jawed Angels.

Alice Paul. In a hat.

Along with Wilson’s surreptitious actions, racial tensions are nearly ignored throughout Iron Jawed Angels.  At the start of the film, Alice Paul organizes a parade in DC for women’s suffrage.  During the organizational stage of the parade, we see an African American woman come to Paul’s headquarters and challenge Paul’s decision to segregate the parade based on race.  Paul explains that the decision was a concession to the Southern states, who would only march if the parade was segregated.  The woman informs Paul that she will march with her peers or not at all.  At the parade, the woman joins from the audience toward the front of the parade, causing Paul to smile.  In this exchange, the issue of race is glossed over and the African American woman is never named.  However, the character is Ida B. Wells—a famous suffragist and human rights activist (Roberson 2004).  The altercation between Wells and Paul happened, but the treatment of it in the film lacks the weight and merit it deserves because Wells is not named, nor is her work referenced.  In this moment, Iron Jawed Angels fails to illuminate the race dynamic present in the suffrage movement.

Hilary Swank as Alice Paul. In a hat.

Iron Jawed Angels does a brilliant job of connecting the suffragists with modern women.  However, the penalty for this is a character development flaw in Alice Paul.  Alice Paul was a Hicksite Quaker (Alice Paul Biography 2012).  Paul, as portrayed by Swank, constantly goes against Quaker traditions, though the film twice brings up Paul’s Quaker religion.  Paul’s outfits in the film contradict acceptable Quaker attire.  In one scene of intercut footage, Paul learns to dance and masturbates in a bath tub.  Though Hicksite Quakers were more liberal than Orthodox Quakers, it is unlikely that Alice Paul would have done either of these things out of religious convictions.  The Hicksite Quaker lifestyle is well-portrayed in Paul’s stay at home after the death of Inez Milholland, but for the majority of the film, Paul’s character does not stay consistent with her Quaker convictions.

Despite these larger inaccuracies and some minor flaws, Iron Jawed Angels is a strong film that sticks close to history.  Iron Jawed Angels has the opportunity to expose more people to the often ignored fight for universal suffrage in the United States, and thus can be a great tool for the advancement of women’s history.  The film must be taken with a grain of salt, but overall this portrayal of Alice Paul’s work is worthwhile and powerful.

 

References

Alice Paul Institute. “Alice Paul Biography.” Accessed October 3, 2012. http://alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm.

Graham, Sally H. “Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 665-679.

Owens, Ann Marie D. “Vanderbilt women’s history professor consultant for HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels.” Vanderbilt News (2004).

Roberson, Amaya N. “Iron Jawed Angels.” Off Our Backs 34, no. 3/4 (2004): 62-63.

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.