Earlier Women of the Twentieth Century Essay
Earlier Women of the Twentieth Century
The essay is based on the examination of discourses concerning the establishment of women and analysis of shifting patterns of child care within households in the opening decades of the early twentieth century, this study argues that although household divisions of labour by gender and age existed in early modern era, a more rigid female specialization in certain types of domestic work in housekeeping and child-rearing as opposed to childbearing and expected participation in more varied forms of productive labour developed during the modern era, especially for young married women.
Beginning with the middle-class concern, women started loosing their morals towards family and children. It was due to the changing attitude of women that children that once were considered dependents and consumers became income earners and productive workers in their households. A number of recent studies of colonial Spanish and Portuguese America, for instance, have demonstrated that European notions of family honour and sexual morality were adapted in specific ways to the American colonies.
Commoners in early modern Spain who testified before the Inquisition resisted the idea that it was sinful to have consensual sexual relations with prostitutes or non-virgin single women. This attitude was probably common in Portugal as well. Resistance to the church’s moral prescriptions grew considerably in the Americas, where European men frequently considered it their right to take Indian or African women, and equated their status with that of single women, regardless of their virginity, previous marriage, or the terms of their consent. (Caulfield, 2000, p. 5)
In contrast, for elite families in Brazil and throughout Spanish and Portuguese America marriage alliances were crucial political and economic strategies up to the nineteenth century and even later in some areas. (Caulfield, 2000, p. 6) Parents chose children’s, especially daughters’, marriage partners with care. Legitimate birth and ‘purity of blood’ which came to mean the absence of African and Indian heritage was essential elements of status, and hence family honour, although ‘stains’ could often be washed away with money. Tremendous value was placed on the sexual chastity of privileged colonial women, who were generally considered white.
Elite women’s seclusion not only marked them as morally superior to common women in the eyes of their peers but, also ensured the endogamy of their class and race. Scholars disagree about how to interpret this social reality, for both the colonial period and later. Some point to the high numbers of consensual unions, illegitimate children, and female-headed households to argue that the popular classes developed a set of alternative moral values in which patriarchal notions of family, women’s subordination, and the moral ideals of marriage and women’s chastity were relatively unimportant.
An existence passed almost entirely within the confines of the domestic sphere, as was the case for the majority of the women interviewed, favours the recollection of events and deeds associated with that area of activity. So it is not surprising that they supplied often very precise details about daily life, more than their husbands would have been able to do, right down to the price of groceries and their husbands’ wages during the early years of their marriage. (Caulfield, 2000, p. 56) This “family memory” does not, however, operate according to the same dates or points of reference as does official history.
On many occasions during the course of the interviews, the framework of events was reconstructed around the years when children were born, a close relative died or a move took place. The women were questioned more about how they had lived rather than what they had witnessed of the events which took place around them, an approach which, in theory, minimizes the risk of mistakes or oversights. We ought not, however, overlook the fact that respondents generally attempt to preserve the image they have of themselves or of the group to which they belong.
This image refers to a socially and sexually oriented construction, but one whose elements may change according to the historical period. Even if these variations alter what was taboo into what is now acceptable, behaviours that were deemed deviant in previous years-premarital pregnancy, for example-can be more difficult to ascertain. Despite present-day tolerance of behaviour of this kind, the person being questioned knows that she transgressed the norm that was in force at the time and may still feel so embarrassed that she seeks to disguise the
fact, even if it means lying about the date of her marriage or the year her first child was born. According to Uno (1999) “Rather than a deliberate and conscious lie, experience reveals that omissions and evasive responses are the means used to avoid an embarrassing question that has revived painful memories”. (Uno, 1999, p. 74) Whether conscious or not, these “oversights” and “mistakes” are as significant as the memory of an event and ought to be submitted to analysis when they can be identified.
Even if parents were generally content to exercise a discreet and indirect surveillance over the unmarried couple, they rarely found themselves alone with one another, so important was it to preserve the young woman’s virginity, whether or not she was of age. This concern would even grow with industrialization and the appearance of new places for young people to meet away from traditional family settings, since it became more difficult to exercise control over the young. On dates, the parents made sure that the couple was accompanied by a brother, a sister, other adults, or, if necessary, their friends.
The revolution in traditions and norms took place in 1930 when domestic labour was in the context of the depression. This involved a sample of women who were already married at the beginning of that decade. The most catastrophic year according to the economic indicators, 1933, was used as a reference point. The reason was nothing other than the emergence of classes in the era, which were the resultant of lack of opportunities. The probability that women who married much after this date would have felt the effects of the Depression on their domestic labour was indeed less great.
Nevertheless, in order to be able to establish comparisons, it was necessary to find women who had spent the early years of their marriages before the depression or whose husbands had been working during the first months of the marriage. The influence of the Depression and of unemployment was felt largely in urban areas and it was the men of the working class, especially unskilled labourers, and tradesmen who were primarily affected. These factors thus determined the selection of respondents who had to have lived in a working-class district of Montreal in the years between 1929 and 1939.
The residence qualification, while it may seem rather vague, permitted us to enlist women who, because of their partners’ occupations, had shared the living conditions of the working class without necessarily presuming their own class affiliations. It was the factory workers who changed their occupation least often though the majority of them worked for more than one employer. They worked longer than the other women in the sample; it is among this group that is found the four women who worked for more than ten years before marriage.
On the other hand, domestic work, generally detested because of its servile character and because of the extremely long hours which it entailed, is where we observe the greatest mobility, as only one informant worked exclusively as a domestic and she did so for a rather short period of time (one year). Domestics’ wages were extremely low, between one and five dollars a week, but according to one informant, “What our parents counted was the food. You understand, if you have two working, that’s two less to feed”. (Baillargeon & Klein, 1999, p.
57) Most of the time, domestic work represented a transitional occupation between the home and the factory, or the office or shop. These jobs, factory worker, saleswoman or clerk, generally involved a noticeable increase in salary, but what was more appreciated were the working conditions, particularly regular hours and the possibility of contact with other working women. “It was clean, and we weren’t bored. It wasn’t like in the private homes, where the day was never over. The hell with private homes! We were happy enough-we had our evenings free”. (Baillargeon & Klein, 1999, p. 96)
In this connection, it must be stressed that it was not simply the household tasks or the conditions inherent in this kind of work that put them off, but also, and most particularly, the context in which they arose. Beyond the isolation, the arbitrary employers, the long hours, and the array of tasks demanded of them, what they detested above all else was the idea of being ‘in service to’ someone else, of playing the subordinate’s role in a highly personalized relationship. One major way that early modern women constructed selves, was through social networks, often women’s networks.
These women fashioned their identities in relation to salons, convents, family circles, epistolary communities, and social religious groups devoted to particular reading or singing practices. For example, a trend towards devotional intimacy in France travelled through women’s letter writing, and psalm singing in churches established connections across gender and class barriers. (Adele & Mikesell, 2003, p. 36) Conclusion Recent trends in women’s studies and feminist theory have influenced the conceptual framework and methodology of the facts explored about the early twentieth century women.
While historians have traditionally explored continuities and discontinuities in ideas, institutions, and practices, postmodernism has given new dimension to the exploration of opposition or rupture not only in the facts, events, and ideas being studied, but also in the conceptual frameworks scholars analyse the changes that took place between 1900 and 1945. For some years, however, women’s history and the history of the family have underscored the importance of the domestic sphere and of the work which women do in it in order to understand the totality of historical reality.
The work undertaken in these fields has provided evidence of the connections which exist between the family and the world of work and of the central role played in this dynamic by women. References/ Bibliography Adele Seeff & Mikesell Margaret, (2003) Culture and Change: Attending to Early Modern Women: University of Delaware Press: Newark, DE. Baillargeon Denyse & Klein YvonneMaking, (1999) Do: Women, Family, and Home in Montreal during the Great Depression: Wilfrid Laurier University Press: Waterloo, Ont. Caulfield Sueann, (2000) In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation i