Gender roles have played an important part in society, from ancient times to the present. Since the beginning of written history, different gender roles have already been practiced and followed to, depending upon the context of each society where they belong to. For instance, the ancient Romans have followed gender roles even within a republican framework of government, with men dominating public affairs, and women generally confined to the household. There may be times where women may have played an important part in the public sphere, but this fact is more than an exception rather than the rule.
In the case of China, the Confucian Classics also called for specific gender roles, and have even prescribed a gender hierarchy, with the males on top, and the eldest son even having a higher place than his mother. However, it is also true that gender roles are changing through time, especially in modern societies, wherein women are increasingly taking roles traditionally taken by males, such as being soldiers, workers, or even statesmen; and such transitions may have been pushed by major economic and socio-cultural developments.
In this case, this paper would try to locate such shifting gender roles in relation with one major developmental change: the need of a developing economy. With the development of the economy, wherein there is a drastic increase in job opportunities, what would be the reaction of women? Would they take up new employment opportunities, or would just limit themselves to traditional gender roles? What would be the reaction of society in general? These questions would be answered according to Chapter 7 of the book “Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence” entitled Away from Home: the Working Girls of Lowell.
The factory system in England is one of the main characteristics of the Industrial Revolution, and has even induced unprecedented productivity and efficiency in making textiles; however, it is also true that the factory system was initially feared by Americans, who are opposed to the evils of the factory system such as slums and harsh working conditions (Wheeler et. al. 145). However, New England merchant Cabot Lowell still continued to build a textile mill, building a “power loom, patented it, raised money, formed a company, and built a textile factory” (Wheeler et. al. 45). In this case, he also took advantage of the fact that the only available labor in the area would be women, and even developed the “Lowell system” to accommodate women workers (Wheeler et. al. 145). This situation is not isolated, but was due to an overall phenomenon being experienced by the young American nation at that time: modernization (Wheeler et. al. 145). This process induced a great increase in factories and other industries, the development of communication and transportation, and the growth of trade and commerce, among other things (Wheeler et. al. 146).
In addition, it also induced a rise in demand for jobs to fill up growing industrial needs, to where the male labor force would not suffice. In this case, women actually eagerly took this opportunity, and made themselves employed, transcending traditional gender roles (wherein factory jobs are traditionally held by males). One of the main factors that pushed women to work in textile mills where the “large surplus” of women (mostly farmer’s daughters) in the New England area, given that farms are becoming smaller and smaller, land exhaustion was prevalent, and male farmers are already going out west (Wheeler et. l. 146). However, given that women are already largely participating in factory labor (Wheeler et. al. 147), how would society react to this? One major belief that have contributed to the conflict in changing gender roles in a modernizing economy is the belief in “republican motherhood,” wherein women must take on the important republican duty of raising their children and take on domestic responsibilities for the success of the nation (Wheeler et. al. 146). In this case, this belief has made some people oppose changing gender roles.
According to Wheeler, “In periods of rapid change, such as industrialization, people often try to cling to absolute beliefs and even create stereotypes that implicitly punish those who do not conform” (147). In addition, it was also widely believed that “True women possessed four virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. These characteristics, it was thought, were not so much learned as they were biologically natural, simply an inherent part of being born female” (Wheeler et. al. 147).
However, the great economic necessity of modernization and industrialization has also resulted to mixed effects by the people with “They [factories] had to attract large numbers of workers, especially young women from New England farms, to their mills. Lowell, Massachusetts (the “City of Spindles”), and the Lowell mills became a kind of model, an experiment that received a good deal of attention in both Europe and America” (Wheeler et. al. 149). In addition, the women who where involved in factories also published a good deal of material that deals with their “self improvement in society” (Wheeler et. l. 149). However, despite such publications, there where still significant oppositions by the people to these changing gender roles at that time, with the issue of women having “slave labor” in factories (Wheeler et. al. 151-153), and the issue of the corruption of the morality of women in such factories (Wheeler et. al. 153-155). In addition, there where also the issue of “slave wagons,” wherein girls are even forced to be sent to factories (Wheeler et. al. 157).