Saturday, June 8, 2013

Louisa May Alcott Lied to Me and Other Matters of Feminist History

Recently the governor of Mississippi opined that the reason our schools have declined is because "mothers started working" instead of staying home.  He is very, very wrong on many levels, but let's just tackle one for the moment:  Mothers have always worked, and I don't just mean at being mothers.  The idea that there was ever some kind of golden age when all mothers spent their time frolicking with their children and making home-made play clay is a collective delusion, one created almost entirely by literature, movies, and television.

The last time the majority of women worked exclusively inside the home was before the Industrial Revolution, over two hundred years ago.  At that time, the majority of men also worked at farmers, merchants and craftsmen who lived above their shops, etc.  Women were generally full participants in whatever their family was doing to bring in money....during the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, back through the medieval period into antiquity.  In hunter-gatherer societies, women generally bring in the bulk of food, while men are in charge of securing high-quality protein (eg, hunting).  Men and women usually have different traditional skills in terms of providing material needs for survival (making clothes and tools, etc) but everyone contributes essential items.  There is no reason to believe that our remotest ancestors were any different. 

The Industrial Revolution meant more work outside the home, for men and women, but it was the relative independence that women (especially young women) gained from cash wages that freaked everyone out.  The Victorian cult of womanhood/motherhood and the notion of the "angel in the house" (against which Virginia Woolf railed so eloquently) was a reaction to all that, verging on propaganda.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the majority of women worked for seamstresses, laundresses, factory workers, and servants.  At the very apex of the Victorian ideal of the home reigned over by a gentle, nurturing, ever-present and self-sacrificing mother, it was more myth than fact.

The "angel in the house" of the Victorian era was also an artifact of the new social mobility and class aspirations.  It was in some ways the first big re-shaping of cultural mores to come out of the middle class...and like many similar cultural attitudes since, it tended to erase everyone else's reality in the process.  Upper class women didn't work, but they didn't mind their own children either...they had governesses for that.  Upper class men had business interests, but generally not a daily job.  Both men and women lolled about hunting inedible animals and inventing complicated sports such as polo and dinner parties.  Working class people, on the other hand, and women, fathers and mothers, often long hours under brutal conditions.  Children, too, as soon as they could.  Children too young to go to the mill or coal mine were looked after by elderly relatives or a neighbor, or in some cases left to shift for themselves. Mothers with infants did stay home...but generally took in washing, sewing, or some other kind of piece work in order to make ends meet.  Since laundry in the days before the invention of the washing machine was also brutally hard work, as was hand sewing, one can not imagine that "staying home" for these women meant any time to play with their children during their brief babyhood, or do anything much more than try to keep those children alive.

The model of the husband who earned a living while his wife stayed home and attended exclusively to the domestic sphere was and is uniquely much so that it is a marker of middle-class status, especially on the lower end of the income scale.  This is the origin of the notion that it isn't quite "nice" for a woman...especially a married work.  Lower class women worked; upper class women didn't have to...and so middle-class women didn't work either, if they could help it.  For those without independent wealth, someone had to bring in money, but one half of the married couple staying home and living like the leisured class was the biggest and most emphatic statement a family could make that they were "doing well."  This class aspirational aspect still has cultural relevance, as for many African-American women whose mothers and grandmothers worked the luxury of staying home with their children is a sign they have moved up in the world.  This holds true for other women from working-class backgrounds as well...but again, this is not a return to some kind of golden era of the past, but a new phenomenon.

The biggest changes to this state of affairs wrought by the first wave of the feminist movement in the 19th century were first to allow women to own property and legally keep their own wages rather than turn it all over to their husbands, and second to open up education and the professions to women, rather than solely low-wage traditionally feminine jobs.  The biggest change created by the second wave in the 1960s and 70s was that women started demanding to be paid the same as men for the same work. This did motivate more middle-class women to enter the work force, but they were merely joining the vast numbers of working class women who were already there.

Yet if you read nineteenth century novels, or watch 1950s TV shows, you'd think that all women stayed home and baked cookies and dispensed warm, diplomatic wisdom to their children all day. That is because both of those art forms were created by and for the middle class and...even more importantly...they are fantasies.

Take Little Women, for example.  It was one of my favorite books as a child, and my early ambitions to be a writer were probably heavily influenced by the travails and triumphs of Jo March.  Though I also have to say that when I caught scarlet fever at seven, that book also helped convince me that I was going to die any minute.  But who can resist the charming family life and noble struggles against adversity of the Marches?  Or Marmee, who talks like a Transcendentalist while doing sentimental  sewing projects?

Among their trials is that the Marches are poor.  The author tells us so; the March girls complain about it (providing much fodder for funny incidents and earnest moral struggle); their family and friends say so, either diplomatically or rudely in the case of Aunt March.

Let us examine that.  The Marches' poverty is one in which:
  • They can't afford new silk dresses or kid gloves during war-time to wear to parties.
  • They don't have a big enough house for a grand piano, and don't own one even though the youngest daughter loves to play.
  • They sometimes have to economize on necessities (again during war-time) and often go without small luxuries such that they are a major (but ultimately affordable) treat.
  • Jo and Amy (after Jo proves to be terrible at it) working as a lady's companion for their elderly aunt is essentially a covert means for said aunt to give the family money without offending them. Jo taking up writing trashy novels to earn money is something she is ultimately ashamed of and gives up, rather than a godsend source of much-needed cash.  Marmee never even contemplates working.
  • They only have one servant, a cook.  
In other words, the Marches aren't poor at all; they only appear so in comparison to their very rich neighbors and extended family.  They are what we'd consider middle class, or at worst lower middle class; able to afford the basics of life and bit extra.  The only actually poor people in the story...the German and Irish immigrants consigned to the periphery...are mostly treated with pity or contempt. The working woman in their midst, the cook, is portrayed with sentimental condescension.

The travails of genteel poverty and triumph in the form of good marriage (read: to someone who has more money than you) or inheritance is also the plot of several Jane Austen novels and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  Don't get me wrong; I love me some Bronte and Austen.  But they (both, like Alcott, literary working women from precarious but educated backgrounds) were writing to please a middle-class audience for whom the heroines had to be virtuous and familiar and also for whom a happy ending meant marriage and material comfort.  Nobody should mistake any of that for a meticulous depiction of reality.  This particular type of fairy tale, and the related genre of mid-20th-century sitcoms revolving around the daily scrapes of a lovable suburban nuclear family, represent how people wished to live rather than how they actually did.  That isn't to say that nobody ever lived that way at all; only that they were always in the minority rather than the universal rule they are presumed to be.  Those stories, however pleasing to some, are not our true past.

It isn't my family's past, either.  My mother did stay home with me when I was small...but she went back to work the minute I entered kindergarten.  Both of my grandmothers worked at least part of their lives, though they were born in 1888 and 1905 respectively; my paternal grandmother was a school-teacher until she married (at twenty-four, rather late for the era) and then was a cotton farmer's wife; my maternal grandmother worked in a garment factory and had a florist business. In any case, I was raised to think of this as so normal as to not even require comment, with the sole exception of my mother's recounting of her own mother's reaction to busybodies asking why she was "spending all that money to send Joyce to school, when she won't do anything but get married."  My grandmother's response was pragmatic and telling:  "She may never have to work a day in her life, but if she does she's going to be able to get a good job."  It's also worth noting that my mother was a sixteen year old valedictorian of her high school, and went on to graduate from the University of Georgia at nineteen.  I, a product of her working mother upbringing, was a National Merit Scholar and attended the Georgia Governor's Honors program, went on to college and then to graduate school.  I now teach at the University of Georgia.  My siblings, all suffering from similar neglect, seem to be doing all right despite the fact that our mother worked part of their childhoods as well.  It's some kind of miracle, I tell you.

Fantasies are all right, though some (like June Cleaver vacuuming in her heels, or broody Mr. Rochester's tragic past including a secret wife he shuts up in the attic even when she is lucid) don't bear too close an examination.  They are not, however, an explanation for anything in reality.  They are certainly not a good basis for policy.

1 comment:

  1. *standing ovation* Well said that woman. I also adore Little Women to this day, but even at a young age I thought they were whinging about being 'poor' when they appeared to be rather comfortable! I have had a year of enforced stay at home mum time (my youngest is 7)recently, and I sorely missed being someone in the workplace, and hated being dependent upon my husband. No one seemed to need me particularly, I hate housework anyway (the big jobs being done by machines)and I am not a 'lady what lunches'. Nightmare.