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!

Voting Image: Did we judge our candidates on their date-ability?

Last month, President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term in the White House.  Why?  Because more women vote than men, and a majority of women voted for Obama.  Why did women lean Democratic in this past election?  I don’t have all of those answers, as each vote is an individual act of preference, but in general, the Republican party this past election cycle has portrayed itself as particularly antagonistic toward women.  However, according to some evolutionary psychology nonsense, Mitt Romney should have won the women’s vote.

In a Yahoo! News article from Election Day, Liz Goodwin identifies three myths about women voters.  The third myth, “women vote like they date,” references the idea that women are going to vote for a president that would make a more attractive mate, thus Romney should be the logical choice.  He is the epitome of the white male provider, with five sons and wealth and a beautiful wife.  He has privilege, he has power, and he comes from the dominant racial group.  Women should be attracted to Romney and his image, therefore they should vote for him.

Mittens and his brood

Mittens and his brood

 

In light of my previous post about The Beauty Myth, this attitude shows the impact of Beauty Myth culture on men in the United States.  The myth goes that women vote like they date, and they date based on image.  The image that Romney presented — successful both financially and reproductively — should have been enough to sway women voters away from Obama.

Of course, women don’t actually vote based on how they would date, and how they would date doesn’t necessarily infer that they would choose Mitt Romney.  The women’s vote went to Obama.  But could image still be at play in this vote?  Here’s a photo of both of them:

mittensandbarack

Is one man more attractive than the other?  Can we make such a judgment?  Barack Obama is taller than Mitt Romney, but conversely, Mitt Romney has more hair.  Did Barack Obama’s image as a father of daughters supercede that of Romney as a father of sons?  Either way, I think this is open to interpretation.  Did Mitt Romney lose the 2012 election because of his image?  Did Barack Obama win because of his?  Are their images more appealing to one sex than to another?  These questions always makes me think about Fahrenheit 451, in which the characters discuss the candidates entirely based on their looks and appearance.  That book ends in war.

So what do you think about the images presented by these two men and the election?

 

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.

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.

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.