Thursday, October 15, 2009

Women In History: Not Just Sunshine and Roses (And Birth Control)

Major props to Eric Hobsbawn for actually deeming it fit to mention that women were actually involved in the history of humanity. Most male (and even female) historians tend to forget that.

Hobsbawn does a pretty good job talking about women, although his discussion about the increasing rights and freedoms of women in a global context lends a somewhat limited way of analyzing the real "women's history of the world."

For example, he mentions how women's work usually took place in the household (p196), but he doesn't really attempt to dig into the details of how women really worked in the household. In the history of mankind, a woman's "household work" never ceased. While men's work was usually contained within daylight hours (farming), women (even women who worked in the fields too) often worked long hours into the night, cleaning, preparing, preserving and storing food, sewing and knitting clothes, tending to the fire, heating water for baths, cleaning the house, caring for the children, etc.

Men, on the other hand, worked in the fields. Hobsbawn calls this "breadwinning." While men certainly "won" the "bread," by planting and harvesting the grain, women chopped up the grain, ground it, milled it, mixed it, milled it, kneaded the dough, prepared the oven, tended the coals, and baked the bread. But yes, men were the breadwinners.

I'm still not hatin' on Hobsbawn too much. The mere fact that he devoted a full chapter to women is wonderful, five steps above the historian norm. But it's still a relatively male-centric discussion.

Hobsbawn talks about the great strides women were making in the 1800s, which they were. He did, however, neglect some unfortunate, terrifying, brutal side effects of these strides:

Yes, the often-unmentioned witch-hunts. The more power women gained in the Western World, the more scared the men-in-power got of women. In particular, they were scared of single, independent women, which was pretty much every the scariest thing possible in the mind of the average insecure-male-politician-making-sexist-laws to overcompensate-for-the-fact-that-women-don't-find-him-attractive (is there a word in German for that?).

History books like to gloss over the witch-hunt phenomenon in the same way American history books like to gloss over the fact that this country was built on the back of slaughtered redskins. I remember in elementary school and high school they garnered a brief mention but only in the context of "weird shit happened in Puritan 1700s-1800s America like witch-hunts, no one knows why, people were just dumber back then"*

*not actual phrasing

But I think it's maybe worth mentioning that the rise in persecuting and killing independent single women such as spinsters and widows by accusing them of "witches" over the course of history has a very direct positive correlation with the rise in women gaining equality, independence and power in a men's world.

But I guess it's allowed for Hobsbawn not to mention these things, since he is merely talking about global trends and modernization, not the persecution of women during globalization and every other time. It was a tiny bit sexist of him to spend so much time writing about the apparently most worrisome aspect of the first proto-feminist movement, which was that women stopped having men's babies. But I forgave him for that because of the following passage:

"If emancipation meant emergence from the private and often separate sphere of the family, household and personal relations to which women had so long been confined, could they, how could they, retain those parts of their femininity which were not simply roles imposed on them by males in a world designed for males? In other words, how could women compete as women in a public sphere formed by and in terms suited to a differently designed sex?" (217)

Wow. I have not in my life read a better, more clear and succinct description of the precise problem facing women in the workforce (both professional and blue-collar) both in the late-19th century and today.

And it's pretty much impossible. As a professional woman you can take the Hillary "kinda manly but intelligent-as-hell" Clinton approach or you can take the Sarah "I may be kinda dumb but damn do I look good in wire-rimmed glasses, a well-combed updo and a suitjacket" Palin approach, either way you're going to get relentlessly mocked. You can earn 75 cents for every dollar a man with your exact schooling, competence, and experience will make. And you're still going to be expected to put on makeup and wear high heels and have shiny, well-styled hair at the office every day and come home to cook dinner and have babies. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawn, for drawing our attention to this.

-katie dempsey


  1. Some excellent points, as always. I hope you get more replies next time!

  2. I suppose internet-fame is fickle, even in self-contained environments!