Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Redeeming "Women's Studies"

By Mary C. Tillotson

A couple weekends ago, my husband and I saw the local college's performance of The Three Musketeers. The actors and set designers and costume-makers and everyone did a fine job, especially considering the limited resources, but I was disappointed with the play itself. The playwright had added a character: D'Artangan's little sister Sabine, who I think was supposed to represent a "women can be strong, too" theme, but was really an enthusiastic but annoying tag-along little sister who mostly got in the way. The three inseparables and D'Artangan are constantly irritated with her, and the play ends with her running off with them to battle some kind of evil, but she doesn't even have a sword. It cheapened the whole job of the musketeers.

At the beginning of the play, D'Artangan sets off for Paris, hoping to become a musketeer, and their father sends Sabine with him -- she's off to Paris to study. As soon as their father is out of sight, she rips off her skirt to reveal pants, then announces her intention to skip school and do something more exciting (I can't remember what) in Paris. Throughout the play she makes comments like "Life isn't very fun for a woman in 17th century France."

It was jarring, and I wanted to protest, but I don't know much about women in 17th century France. In fact, I don't know much about women in most of history. I hear two conflicting narratives: (1) that women were oppressed by men until the 20th century when we finally started breaking free of the patriarchy (from suffrage to birth control), and (2) that the oppression of women is an overblown historical myth, and things weren't near as bad as modern feminist pretend. I have sympathies with both understandings of history.

Image by W. Guy Finley
Pioneer and medieval women spent a lot of time sewing and cooking, sure, but that can't have been so much more boring than the plowing and animal-feeding the men were doing. Those same women spent a lot of time pregnant (earlier marriages, no modern means to postpone/avoid pregnancy, etc.), which was probably about as risky as fixing the roof or going to war, and probably seen as a good thing if for no other reason than that more kids meant more hands to help run the farm.

This division of labor seems more sensible than sexist: if you're breastfeeding, you should be where the babies are, and if you're pregnant, you should do less heavy lifting. So it makes sense that the never-pregnant men would do the heavier work and the frequently-pregnant women would do the lighter -- but equally demanding and equally important -- work. In the days before Hot Pockets and Ann Taylor, someone had to cook and sew or the family wouldn't be fed and clothed. (And I bet their clothes fit!)

But on the other hand, my faith backs up the argument that men throughout history have oppressed women. The Bible is pretty clear that, because of original sin, men lord their power over women. Catholics (and probably some other Christians, but I'm not as familiar with their theology) see this more as a consequence than a curse; this explains but does not justify oppression of women. Because evil was introduced into the world, it's harder for us to see each other as human beings worthy of respect and love -- if it's harder, we're less likely to do it, but we're still culpable when we don't. Men and women have an equal capacity for evil, but men are generally bigger, stronger, and more aggressive and are in a better position to do the oppressing. We can point to cultures where women are denied education, or trafficked, or even today's rape culture on college campuses as examples.

Mulan and similar stories start with the assumption that men are doing all the important work, and if women want to make anything of their lives, they need to step into men's roles. (Were the women really just twiddling their thumbs the whole time?) Stories of St. Joan of Arc are often told this way, neglecting the spiritual and moral influence she had on the French army: requiring all the soldiers to go to confession and Mass, driving the prostitutes away at swordpoint.

In more traditional fairy tales, women are often trophies awarded in marriage to men they've never/hardly met (but are romantically heroic, for whatever that's worth). They embody a feminine ideal of virtue and beauty, but their marriages are more about duty than a loving relationship.

I wonder about the cultures those stories came from. How did they see women? How did they see women's work? How did they see how men and women relate to each other? How did they see marriage and family life? How did they see rape (as a violation of women's dignity? as women's fault? as not a big deal?)?

And then: what can we learn from that?

Men and women are different, complementary, and equal in value, dignity, and humanity. The family, done right, exhibits this beautifully -- a "community of love," as Pope John Paul II called it. "It is only through the duality of the 'masculine' and the 'feminine' that the 'human' finds full realization," he wrote in his 1995 letter to women.

But complementarity is a delicate balance, and it's easy to fall into either denying our equality or denying our differences. Humanity seems inclined to judge worth by a masculine standard -- men and women are different, so women are inferior; or, women aren't inferior, so they must be just like men. I'm interested in how this plays out in different cultures -- especially in light of what modern science has told us about the similarities and differences in men's and women's brain structure and chemistry.

Image via Wikipedia
Other than re-reading Caddie Woodlawn, I'm not sure where to start. Women's studies programs are often deeply suspicious of family life and motherhood, and people supportive of family life and motherhood usually scoff at the mere idea of "women's studies" as an academic discipline. So I can read the history of women with an anti-family agenda, or not read the history of women at all.

I think a deeper understanding of womanhood is important, especially now as our society is undecided and unsettled about the role of women. Surveying how women have lived in various societies can help us understand what's likely (or unlikely) to work, and what womanly contributions are important but often unacknowledged -- like preserving culture and heritage (and I want to know what difference this makes). We can understand better who we are, and what we can contribute to the society we live in.

Anyone have reading recommendations?

Here are some of mine:

Caddie Woodlawn, a young adult novel by Carol Ryrie Brink. Caddie is a pioneer girl living in Wisconsin; she's been running outside with her brothers for years, because the move to Wisconsin almost killed her and her dad thought a more active childhood would make her stronger. She always feels a little out of place: she's not really a boy, but she doesn't quite fit in with the girls, either. She has to navigate the transition from tomboyhood to womanhood, and the climactic conversation she has with her Pa sometimes makes me cry (touching/beautiful, not oppressive).

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, who tells of her life as a slave in the antebellum South and she's pretty frank about how horrific slavery was -- especially for women. She doesn't describe her sexual abuse in any kind of 50-shades-of-gray pornographic detail, but she is pretty clear about what went on. She conceived two children outside of marriage on purpose, to spite her abusive "owner," and she loves her children intensely. It's emotionally complicated: she prayed for one of her newborns to die, to avoid slavery, then when he got sick, she prayed just as hard for him not to die. She desperately wants her children to be free and risks her life several times (and spends seven years in an attic too small to sit up in) to secure their freedom.

By Pope John Paul II/Karol Wojtyla: Letter to Women, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women), and Love and Responsibility. The first two are letters, so can be read in an afternoon; Love and Responsibility is a book of philosophy that I still haven't finished. Some of his major themes: men and women are complementary, "human" finds its fulfillment in the masculine and feminine, and we can only find ourselves through a "sincere gift of self" (and what that means for marriage).

Dear readers: Thoughts? Recommendations?


  1. I enjoy reading primary sources that help me understand the daily life of historical women as well as their beliefs and mindset. For example, there are a lot of Civil War-era women's diaries that have been published by small presses. I've enjoyed reading To Raise Myself a Little: The Diaries and Letters of Jennie, a Georgia Teacher by Amelia Akehurst Lines (a Northern woman who taught school in the South) and A Diary from Dixie by Mary Chesnut (wealthy Southern woman: complete contrast to the previous diary).

    1. I agree about primary sources -- "Incidents," which I mentioned, was written by a former slave, had eye-opening views of motherhood and religion that I didn't learn in school. Thanks for the titles -- I'll have to check those out!

  2. Such a good post! I love Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbs, which chronicles the lives of three women (grandmother, daughter, granddaughter/narrator) in North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century.

    1. Thanks, Julie! I'll have to check that one out, too.


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