As I worked on my book on 19th century domestic life in New York City, I was constantly reminded how lucky I was to have been born in the 20th century!
The Women’s March reminded me again. I couldn’t help but think not of how far we had to go, but of how far we have come
Gender Equity? There was no such thing during the mid to late 19th century. The “doctrine of the spheres” was accepted by virtually everyone—men and women alike. Women’s place was in the private sphere of the home and men’s in the public arena. Women were expected to be conciliatory to their husbands, long-suffering if necessary. Divorce was a disgrace—and rare.
Equal pay for equal work? No possibility of equal pay because there was no equal work. A woman who did not have the prospect of inherited wealth needed to find a husband who would support her, and the sooner the better. Lacking such support, there were few possibilities of supporting herself. She could work at sewing in a garment factory or as a domestic — jobs men did not do.
Reproductive rights? Forget about it. No effective means of birth control was available. Women had on average four to seven children, though they were not always able to raise them to maturity since there were no antibiotics— not even an understanding of what caused disease. Childhood death was commonplace.
In 1848, the fight for women’s rights began in earnest with the Seneca Falls convention where Ellizabeth Cady Stanton outlined her grievances, among them the fact that women could not vote! Many years later, in 1913, women marched to demand that right, and since then there have been other women’s marches, most notably those in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
But cultural norms change slowly. It was seven long years after the suffragettes marched before women achieved the right to vote, and the effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment eventually proved unsuccessful. The suffragettes and the supporters of ERA were serious and focused, and there is no doubt that these women’s marches moved the needle forward. (Some day I will write about the condition of women in the 1950s when I was a young mother. We were certainly better off than our 19th century sisters, but we still had a long way to go.)
Today, we are no longer expected to be domestic, submissive, pious, or pure, as the nineteenth century “cult of domesticity” demanded. And it’s a good thing we can speak our minds freely. But looking at the recent Women’s March, I think sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
Wearing pink pussy hats that reference women’s genitals is probably not the best way to show seriousness of purpose. Hats with animal ears are cute on babies, but look ridiculous on grown women. In fact they just reinforce the stereotype of women as childish and silly. And I find it particularly ironic that women were “sticking to their knitting” in order to fashion a symbol of power. And then there is that “pink is for girls” thing. Weren’t we supposed to get over that? Or so I was told when I considered buying a blue blanket for my baby grandson.
Actually there was obviously no specific purpose to this march, no desire for any particular outcome. It was just a diffuse aggregation of gripes about every conceivable outrage that could be perpetrated against women, and a warning that nobody better try to perpetrate them.
As such it provided a protected venue for lots and lots of women to express their outrage and unhappiness and most particularly their hatred of Donald Trump and their extreme disappointment over the defeat of their sister candidate for president of the United States.
They could scream whatever they wanted as loudly as they wanted—and many did. Some, in fact, seemed to have lost all semblance of self control. Is there anyone, really, who does not consider that berserk rant of Ashley Judd unhinged? And what about the crude and extreme vulgarity of some of the costumes and signs? I am surely not the only one who found it off-putting.
In the end, will this Women’s March move the needle forward? Will women achieve more respect as a result? Will it change atttitudes in a positive direction? What do you think?