AMERICAN WOMEN IN REVIEW
By: J. Marlando
[The earliest name of theUnited States…wasVirginia!]
In 1620, with the arrival of the Pilgrims, the American woman began her journey into modern times. Still connected to the concepts of the European Middle Ages, her plight cannot be realistically romanticized as it is in many history books. She was under the stern stiff-necked rule of pious male domination. In most instances, her value was based solely on her ability to bear sons and to toil. English common law maintained the rule that a husband and wife were one…and that he was the one!
While there has always been exceptions for women of position and wealth the average woman had almost always lived a life of drudgery: In classicalGreece, which saw the so-called inception of democracy, she was virtually without rights. In Roman times, she was given a lot more respect, but remained subordinated as a second-rate citizen. The American woman of earlier times was not treated much better.
In the 17th century Europe, women were thought of as chattel or property and were, more often than not, less valuable to their husbands than were their cows. Infanticide of girl children, while outlawed by the 1600’s, was a widespread practice in Europe, just as it had been in ancient Greece and Rome. This value system came to America with those migrating to the new land.
While it can be said that women quickly gained more importance on American soil, it was not because a greater respect for her equality evolved, it was because women were fewer in numbers, and sons were needed for the progression of the colonies.
Things would virtually remain unchanged until the middle 1800s, although in private life, wives were slowly gaining greater influence within family structure. It would nevertheless not be until Victorianism was ingrained in the American culture that women would gain a new dignity and respect for themselves. Yet, the Victorian woman’s role was clearly defined and moral rectitude was required. The duty of the wife was to be the moral guardian of her husband and children, and to create a frugal and temperate environment for them. Husbands were to be faithful (controlling their animal drives) and to have self-discipline in other areas of their lives.
The upper class Victorian wife was pampered but was nevertheless dominated by her husband. The lower class and poor woman was physically dominated and routinely became a battered mother, with more children than the family could afford. She was also often a laborer, with very young girls slaving in local factories and laundries, for up to 17 hours a day. But for the rich and poor alike, Victorian morality, with its age-old double standard, was the rule. A man, for example, who had premarital sex, was considered a chip off the old block. A woman, on the other hand, was taught that sex and sin was synonymous from the time she was a small girl. If she did, guilt and shame were sure to follow. Premarital sex or pregnancy out of wedlock resulted in being ostracized by church, friends, neighbors, and often parents, brothers and sisters as well. While in ancient times and cultures ethics condoned the stoning of brides who could not prove their virgin status, Victorian morality gave the unchaste female a metaphorical stoning. In regard to this, it is not farfetched to say that the promiscuous Victorian woman might just as well have been dead in the sense that she quickly became an outcast.
In order to ensure woman’s purity, strict rules were constructed. Below see a set of rules posted by *the Massachusetts School Board for female teachers around the turn of the century:
Do not get married.
Do not leave town at any time without permission from the school board.
Do not keep company with men.
Be home between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.
Do not loiter in downtown ice cream stores.
Do not smoke.
Do not get into a carriage with any man except your father or brother.
Do not dress in bright colors.
Do not dye your hair.
Do not wear any dress more than two inches from the ankle.
Source: Howard Zinn—A people’s history of theUnited States.
This state of male dictatorship could not endure, however. Despite women’s domination, in 1920 the nineteenth Amendment was ratified. After a seventy-year plus battle, the right to vote became the most single powerful agent for women inAmericaand marked the first identifiable, “women’s” issue to rise in American politics: Prohibition.
Although there had been men who had attempted prohibition as early as 1733, alcohol and its effects remained a major issue for American woman since Puritan-Power faded. The most notorious person calling for temperance was a radical by the name of Carrie Nation. She was known for parading into saloons and taking an ax to them. Her followers were made up of men as well as women, but she never realized her dreamed. Women simply did not have enough power or influence in society at that time. When women got to vote, however, prohibition soon followed.
Before entering the 1920s, which saw the very roots of positive change for women, it seems important to examine briefly how and why women became subordinated by men in the first place:
Civilization is grounded in warfare, a natural pecking order occurred relative to the ability to protect the tribe and to accumulate wealth. Thus, the warrior most capable of protecting the clan became chief or king, followed by other warriors, women, girls and finally the aged and debilitated. This system persisted throughout thousands of years, under all sorts of ideologies, entered in the guises of all kinds of traditions. Despite advances in every aspect of civilization, women remained being viewed as belonging to the lower half of the species. (There is serious belief, however, that in very ancient times the Supreme Being was not at all the father god but instead the mother goddess; that this belief in the goddess persisted until it was discovered how male participation contributed to pregnancy and life giving. Starting at that juncture the goddess slowly gave way to the powerful warrior gods. This is too complex to cover here but is offered merely as food for thought).
The question is how did American women finally emerge as objects of love and admiration? This did not begin with the “gentlemen” of the sophisticated East but rather by the frontiersmen and settlers of theGreat Plainsand mountains of the early American West. It was the rugged, male individualist of the rough and rugged new frontiers who developed a new and romantic view of women.
It was in fact on the American frontier that it became cowardly for a male to strike a female, and unmanly to treat her with anything less than respect. In fact, it was the toughest, roughest, and most individualistic, gun-slinging part ofAmerica’s frontier—Wyoming—that was first to give women the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold her own property if married and to be paid, if she held a job, the same wage that a man would be paid.
One major reason for these changes was the absence of women out west, and the intrinsic acknowledgment of the harshness of the environment. In addition, men out west began to realize that women were the other half of everything that was his. Indeed, the American woman on the Overland Trailworked and fought alongside the males and faced the hardships with the same spirit and tenacities. Men of the west recognized women as their partner and he loved her for it along with their daughters too. West of the Mississippi, European influences and thinking were left by the wayside and what would respectfully become the American Woman evolved.
By 1919, the American woman had made great strides in terms of gaining their own respect, admiration, and equality, but she was still subject to male influence in the conduct of her public life and, for that matter, her private life as well. Nevertheless this would change dramatically for many women during the 1920s. For one thing women had formed the National Federation of Business and Professional women’s club and, during this time a woman by the name of Lois Weber Mead had become Hollywood’s highest paid film director, Margaret Mead had published her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, which argued against so-called cultural determinism and sexual repression all of which started a fresh dialogue between men and women about women’s role in society.
For most society, however, “mom and apple pie” remained the beloved image of an American woman, personified by the lovely, warm and gentle lady by the name of Betty Crocker. Betty was a loving homemaker, wife and mother, who was never too busy to treat her family to home-baked goodies; she was, as some say, a domestic goddess. She was also a myth of course, a creation of Marjorie Husted who worked as the head of the Home Service department of what would later become General Mills.
Hard on the heels of this home-making icon, however, was a new movement. In the twenties, hems drifted above the knee, hair was bobbed, makeup was applied liberally, and the “flapper” was born. TheCharleston, the most daring dance civilized society had ever seen, flaunted sexuality in four-four time. (Notably, theCharlestonwas far more daring for its time than rock ‘n roll became during the 1950s) but the major event of the 20s was the advent of the diaphragm.
One quickly assumes that what the new contraceptive did was to free women to be as promiscuous as they desired and to shed the Victorian values which kept them prim and proper. This occurred for a great many women but this is not the important historic point. Prior to this time, women were virtually incapable of determining when they wanted children and when they did not. In fact, a woman was subject to her husband’s amorous whims or drunken desires. Large families were the rule back then, even though most husbands did not have the earning power to support them. Nevertheless, women’s marital obligations included sex on demand. If such sex resulted in pregnancy, there was nothing a woman could do. With the use of a diaphragm, however, women could control the number and timing of pregnancies safely for the first time in history… and without her husband’s knowledge! Therefore, if a husband wanted children with his wife, he had to make life pleasant for her outside the bedroom. Because of a simple innovation, women took charge of their own bodies and lives.
During this time, the American woman (as did most European women) came out of her historic shell, discovered pride in her femininity, and quickly developed a higher sense of self-esteem than she had in nearly every other culture. And, from changing fashions to changing politics, while bootleggers made the decade explosive, it was, in my opinion, the American woman who put the roar in the roaring twenties.
The 1930s were hard, desperate years for most people. Five thousand U.S.banks closed, hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs, and homelessness and hunger spread like a plague across the nation. Then the Dust Bowl followed and thousands of tenant farmers were evicted from their homes. Our country’s poorest and least educated headed to Californiain caravans of old trucks and cars hoping to find work. Behind them, the farm owners had lost their need for calloused hands and strong backs as the old farming system was buried, quite literally, by the new contraption called the tractor.
As happens when people face collective hard times, sexism (and racism) loses importance. Hungry bellies and fear belong equally to men and women, and because of this, family ties become the cornerstone of hope and comfort. During those harsh years of the 30s, family unity across the nation were holding together with a common bond that declared, “If we ain’t got nothin’ else, we’ve got each other.”
At around this time, Eleanor Roosevelt was becoming the most powerful and positive feminine voice in the world and bringing even greater esteem to the American woman. She was the first First Lady to make her opinions public, to advocate her own causes, and to represent her husband to both foreign and domestic powers. (It matters not whether we are Republican or Democrat, or even if recent media has diminished the character of her private life, Eleanor Roosevelt remains one of the most brilliant and effective human beings in world history).
By the end of the 1930s, people were recovering from the depression and hope was on the horizon but then…war.
Over 300,000 women joined the armed forces, but because nearly all the able-bodied men were called to duty, women who stayed on the home front were suddenly filling jobs that only a few months before were open only to men. Rosie the Riveter, wearing slacks and carrying lunch pails became symbolic of these women. Women excelled in the work force, and many made their ways up the corporate ladders and into high executive positions. By 1944, the approximately 8 million women of industry were, among other accomplishments producing 120,000 new airplanes a year.
At the end of World War II, when Johnny came marching home, he was confronted with a different woman than the one he left behind. He had, in effect, left a male-dependent girl-next-door and came home to a self-assured and self-reliant female demanding a partnership in her home and community.
While some women stayed in the work force, most, like their men, were anxious to return to a “normal” lifestyle. After all, the war had cost over 38 million lives worldwide, and the American way of life had been in jeopardy for five years. People wanted the comfort of home life, the security of front porch communicating and the simple pleasure of kids playing in the yard. Still, the rules had changed. For virtually the first time, husbands and wives were deciding together how much money would be spent and for what, how many children they would have and when. And, marital sex was becoming a positive experience for wives because Victorian ideas were slowly being eradicated by the teachings of Freud and a new view of human sexuality had unfolded.
In addition, many women were making their marks in all kinds of careers. They were in medicine, law, journalism, politics, and all areas of business and corporate life. Even in view of all the changes, men were not quite ready to release or share their rule over society. In the American male consciousness, the “little lady” still belonged at home.
As the 1950s rolled in, God, home and country were in the hearts of young and old alike. And the 50s were truly the golden years forAmerica. Banks were keeping money in circulation, unemployment was down, prices were fair, and products, by and large, were still being made to last. There were exceptions of course, but people in general were happy, hopeful, and content. There was only one “fly” in this soothing ointment.
By 1953, a depressive cloud gathered over the lives of people. It was the fear of nuclear war. Soon every suitable government building posted a sign that read FALLOUT SHELTER. In every news broadcast, the Cold War was among the lead stories. Hate and fear of communists was the major theme of social engineering and a kind of collective neurosis became the norm for American mental life and for the mental life for most of the rest of the world for that matter. If a person hasn’t lived through those times, this might be difficult to comprehend. All one needs to imagine, however, is to believe that at any given moment the entire world might be destroyed by the radical decision of some crazy government. This fear was constantly reinforced by the press, and some people went as far as to build bomb shelters in their own backyards.
When one considers the affect on the public in general, one must not forget or overlook the little girls and boys at the time who especially were born between the years of 1943 and 1950. These children would be raised unlike any other children in history. In schools, they had drills instructing them in what to do in case of a nuclear attack. At home, they heard their parents and other adults speaking urgency about the possibility of world destruction. A great many of these very children would later be at the very core of the youth movement of the 1960s becoming flower children and hippies. They were destined to change the concept of women (and thus for men)…forever.
For one thing, the Cuban Missile Crises began on October 15, 1962. President Kennedy had ordered the Soviets to dismantle their missile sites inCuba, and set up naval blockades to ensure compliance.
For thirteen breathless days, the world remained on the verge of disaster; the world remained on the brink of total destruction. Then, on October 28, it was over. RadioMoscowannounced that the arms inCubawould be returned to their homeport. The world responded with a sigh of relief. As for the youngsters of those times, however, a new worldview would emerge. For all the thousands of years of history people had always believed in the unforeseen future. The realization that the world could be destroyed by man at any given time, cast especially youth, into living in the foreseeable future. Thus the “now generation” came into being.
There was something else, while it was hoped most virtually by people everywhere that the Second World War would be the end of war itself. Not a decade had gone by before a shooting war was in full force inKorea. Then, in the early 1960s the Vietnam War was escalated. And, as a result, the generation that had grown up in the shadow of destruction was being asked to fight for vague and questionable causes in a strange land. In protest young people flooded into theHaight-Ashburydistrict of San Francisco. Quite suddenly “flower children” clad in pseudo-gypsy attire and wearing flowers in their hair, seemed to be everywhere across the nation. They were rejecting the establishment andAmerica’s age-old conventions and…hypocrisies. And while the movement was corrupted by drugs and diluted by the absurdity of calling out for utopian politics, these flower children were destined to be intrinsic in creating dramatic world changes. Notably, American women were at the helm!
Only to name a few of those changes, for the first time in history, males were being told that it was okay for them not be heroic or tough or to fulfill the image of “Johnwaynism.” It was okay in fact for males to demonstrate their “softer” emotions—it was those kids—called hippies—who declared that males and females were different but equal and so young men began wearing their hair long, for one thing as a signal that they were receptive to their feminine natures or, in the least, their passivity. There evolved a certain unisexual consciousness among the youth and slogans evolved such as Make Love Not War and If It Feels Good, Do it…and, at long last, females took absolute control over their sexuality. For the first time since ancient times, they became sexually aggressive. The youth had at long last deconstructed Victorianism and freed themselves from the absurdities of its morals and mores. Nevertheless, many adults accused the hippy youth of simply believing that the world owed them and having the desire to enjoy lives of self-gratification.
This view of the 60s youth was unfounded, however. The desire for immediate gratification and so the advent of the “now generation” was born from a combined unconscious and conscious view that their bright tomorrows might never arrive. Remember, these were the very kids who were born and raised in a world that remained on the brink of nuclear holocaust so the unforeseeable future held no meaning.
By the end of the 1960s, however, the flower child/hippy movement was fading away and at the ending of the Vietnam War, it disappeared completely. In fact, many of the so-called devoted hippies returned to the ranks of the very establishment they had spent years protesting. But they had made tremendous impact on the workings of American life. For the first time in history, men were wearing bright colors, even earrings and necklaces—as said, male long hair had become fashionable. Without doubt it was young women who had granted permission for males to shed the dictates of society’s notions of what a “real” man should be and finally to be able to express their humanism and so their emotionalism. Young men, in general, gladly let loose of their historic burden of living up to the old male myths and legends of bravado and being knights in shining armor or…if you will, pretending to be heroic.
The new male became so vast in numbers that for a time fashion sought to be unisexual. Even older men were wearing silk shirts with flowery designs that, in “bygone days” would have been called sissy and condemned as inappropriate male attire. But in truth,America, as had most of the world became feminized in the collective unconscious. This was a new reality because thousands of years the world had been dominated by unyielding “masculinity.” Nevertheless, in that single decade, the cultural psyche had connected with its feminine unconscious. And so, if there was ever truly a war of the sexes the American woman clearly had won it by 1970.
In 1963, the feminist Betty Friedan had written The Feminine Mystique, refuting the notion that a woman’s place was in the home. By 1970, three million copies in hardback and paperback had been sold. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act prohibited sex discrimination in employment. In 1966, the National Organization for Women held its first meeting. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American congresswoman. In 1971, Ms. Magazine was founded and women were encouraged to enter all arenas of the work force. The American woman was suddenly cop to carpenter, top executive, to entrepreneur and she had taken her place as an equal partner in the running of the world.
Two innovations also played an enormous part in society’s recognition of equality for women. The first was the entrance of the computer. For all of history, male brawn was king; societies in wartime and peacetime depended on it. The computer made brawn (traditionally a masculine virtue) secondary to brain (in which females were equal. For only one example, a female behind a computerized machine can dig more ditches, straighter, faster and better than a dozen men with picks and shovels. In the long run, even the warrior/hunter has been deemed all but obsolete by modernism. Today a woman is ever as capable of running the war machine as men.
The second innovation was “the pill.” This absolutely freed women to explore and express their own sexuality as freely as men had always been able to do. This new found control produced what was called The Sexual Revolution. In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown, author of the explosively popular Sex and the Single Girl, became the editor of Cosmopolitan, which went from a failing family publication to the modern’s women guide to sex, work and just about everything else. By the 1970s, single bars were forming across the country and the “one night stand” quickly became the expectation for a fun night out. Countless young women and some older women as well were flaunting their newly found sexual freedom and sexual aggressiveness became an expression of social equality. In many instances, women were now picking up men. Sex began dominating the film industry, and love stories on television stopped just short of offering explicit sex. Sex therapy was popularized, cohabitation in some circles eulogized, and life in the fast lane was glorified. The older generation was shocked and confused by it all, what was the world coming to?
The divorce rate reached an all-time high in 1980. Family life was, it seemed, falling apart and the one-parent child appeared in sad and outrageous numbers. Then something odd occurred: Almost overnight, the Urban Cowboy emerged. Quite suddenly, country music, country clothing and yes, even country values had made their way back into American culture. Men and women from every walk of life (and from coast to coast) were symbolizing the importance of the movement by wearing cowboy hats and boots; doctors, judges, car salesmen to beauticians were all in western wear.
The question is why?
There was a motion picture titled, “Urban Cowboy,” but this was only the spark that lit the fire. The historian recognizes that there was an underlying desire to return to at least many of the old ways and…values. There was a desire to rekindle family life regaining some of the moral structure that had been dismissed even shunned over the past twenty years. In a poetic sense, men and women just wanted to go home and to have a resurgence of a least a touch of what was once affectionately described as, home sweet home.
There is yet another observation to me made about Urban-cowboy-ism, however. The collective consciousness of Americans somehow realized that the old days were finally giving way to modernism and Urban-cowboy-ism was a national (unconscious) way of saying goodbye to the romantic and traditional past; to what I term, NormanRockwellian times. Technology was quickly becoming the new reality while many of our beliefs about god, home and country were being diluted or, in the least, changed. Indeed, our beliefs about each other as male and female have changed. Most certainly, it is no longer “a man’s world” but a world of partnerships between men and women. A new age had actually arrived!
There have of course always been exceptional women in the world—women like Condoleezza Rice, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton, but today as we enter further into the new millennium all over the globe—save a few backward societies—have gained their place as intrinsic to the workings, safe keeping and progression of our world. This newly found freedom and if you will, this universal recognition of female equality began with the brave heart and determination of the American woman and this has been my attempt to tell her story.