August 27, 2002
Mixed Feelings About Empowering Women

A brief note from Bo Cowgill's blog:

THE OTHER FEMINISM: If you are a feminist, then studying the underappreciated role of women in history is a good thing. And most likely, anything positive about the notion of women-as-homemakers is regarded as a bad thing, right?

So how do you respond to two female scholars combine the two themes -- the underappreciated historical role of women as mothers? The title of their seminar is "Motherhood and the Nation-State in Western Societies." Do you cheer or hiss?

That reminded me of an even more spectacular example of mixed feelings. I was once present when a professor, a serious but not fanatical feminist, first read the blurb for a book arguing that women were surprisingly numerous and influential in the top ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, particularly considering the status of women in the South at that time. I'll never forgot the look on her face, and her inability to decide whether that might possibly be at least partly a good thing. (I think the book was entitled Women of the Klan, and such a book does exist, but I may be wrong.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 27, 2002 11:22 PM

I had an entry on this subject recently. The author of the comic strip "Non-Sequitur" this past Sunday had one of his characters take the traditional (late-Sixties/Seventies-style) feminist position of disparagement of the housewife/homemaker "role." My main problem was that the sentiments he put in the mouth of his 1900-era heroine were anachronistic, but I also am of the opinion that the fashion to treat the role of housewife (and mother) as a diminishment and a confinement, or just plain insignificant, is a phenomenon of our modern era. Back in the old days few women could afford to be bored housewives who longed for a nine-to-five job; their work was as hard and necessary as any man's, based on the structure of the family. (I am focusing on the Western European and North American version of this, as that is the part of the world I know most about.)

Of course, there is the danger that other people with other agendas will use any favorable treatment of the housewife/mother role to trumpet the Failure of Feminism -- "See, they admit they were wrong and woman's highest calling really _is_ to be a wife and mother!" Some people thought that was what I meant; I didn't. I'd just like people to remember that Betty Friedan's book focused on a very small subset of women -- white, upper-middle class married college graduates (or at least women who had some college) in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Their problems were in some ways unique to their situation instead of being universal to all women.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on August 28, 2002 11:15 PM

You're setting up a straw man - er, woman.

Feminist scholars have always been interested in the totality of women's history and recognized than in times when it was much harder for women to be influential in the public sphere, they were often very influential in the private sphere.

Feminists have not denigrated traditional women's roles per se, just argued that everyone should have choices based on their individual situation, not on gender stereotypes which don't fit a great many people.

One of Friedan's points was precisely that since technology had rendered full-time housework obsolete, many women found themselves with time on their hands but no expectation to put it to good use.

If you read what feminists actually write, instead of right-wing stereotypes about feminists, most of your confusion would disappear.

Posted by: Yehudit on September 2, 2002 02:53 PM

Just who is supposed to be confused and setting up straw person arguments, me or Andrea Harris? Please clarify.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on September 2, 2002 10:30 PM