Surprise! Women Are Working. Who Knew?

Working Women ChartBreadwinner Moms? Who knew?  The Pew Social and Demographic Trends research finds 40.4% of American families have both adults working.  Predictably, the American Family Association decries the trend observing that women are “designed to serve their husbands.”  This, in addition to:

“Lou Dobbs on the May 29 edition of his Fox Business show Lou Dobbs Tonight hosted a panel of all men — Fox contributors Juan Williams, Erick Erickson, and Doug Schoen — to discuss the study. On this panel, Erickson reacted to Pew’s research by comparing the relationship between men and women to the relationship between male and female animals, concluding that men losing their dominant role in the family is “tearing us apart.” [MMFA]

Really? Now where was all this concern for “family values” when enslaved women were hoeing fields in the American south?

“Of course, the burdens, physical as well as psychological, that came with childbearing were enormous for enslaved women. Expected to put the needs of the master and his family before her own children, the slave mother on a large plantation returned to the fields soon after giving birth, leaving her child to be raised by others. On a smaller farm, the slave’s mothering responsibilities were simply added on top of her usual duties. For the love of their children, slave mothers often chose to stay in bondage, while their male counterparts attempted escape. The female slave was, moreover, faced with the prospect of being forced into sexual relationships for the purposes of reproduction. Perhaps more harrowing, she might be witness to her daughters suffering the same fate.” [PBS]

Oh, but that was so long ago — we should all “get over it?”  Times were different.  They certainly were.  However, while white women were considered too delicate to be exposed to “man talk,” and indeed too fragile to mention body parts, the Black woman was supposed to face a day’s grueling work in the field and then attend to her responsibilities as a house wife.  If this is the ‘traditional’ perspective on marriage and family life, then it was certainly highly selective.

Or, where were the cries of alarm for the American Family when by 1900 Black women and immigrant women dominated the numbers of those In Service.  The mistress of the house could breeze through the living quarters issuing  orders, demand that beds be made to perfection, that food be served on time, that fires be lit or laid up, that washing be completed, ironing and sewing be finished, and by the way they’d like hot water packed upstairs for bathing… that would be at 8.34 pounds per gallon.  For a Victorian era child’s large bath tub that would mean filling a container with a capacity of about  6,032 cubic inches — half full would equal 3,016 cubic inches at 231 cubic inches per gallon.

The attitude which supported the abuse of enslaved women could as easily justify the misuse of servants.  Fragile, ethereal, white women must be protected — Black women, immigrant women were beasts of burden.

Harriet Stanton Blatch’s speech to a convention in Washington, D.C. in 1898 summed up the problem for women in the workplace:

“We have never been “supported” by men; for if all men labored hard every hour of the twenty-four, they could not do all the work of the world. A few worthless women there are, but even they are not so much supported by the men of their family as by the overwork of the “sweated” women at the other end of the social ladder. From creation’s dawn. our sex has done its full share of the world’s work; sometimes we have been paid for it, but oftener not.”

A few years later (1911) women — mostly immigrant women from Germany, Hungary, Russia, and Italy — were the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New  York.  It was the most deadly factory fire in memory, and launched workplace safety standards in this country.  The wage scale didn’t match the sacrifice:

“But you see hours didn’t change. The hours remained, no matter how much you got. The operators, their average wage, as I recall – because two of my sisters worked there – they averaged around six, seven dollars a week. If you were very fast – because they worked piece work – if you were very fast and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or anything, you could make around ten dollars a week. But most of them, as I remember – and I do remember them very well – they averaged about seven dollars a week. Now the collars are the skilled men in the trade. Twelve dollars was the maximum. ” [GMU edu]

It’s 2013, and women are still paid on average 75% of what their male counterparts are earning.   Working women are “tearing us apart?”  Who tore apart the families of those Africans placed in bondage? Who expected those Black and immigrant women to work full time cooking meals, doing housework, tending to children, and doing the scullery work — and then return at night to repeat the process in their own homes?  Who turned immigrant apartments in tenement buildings into piece work factories for various industrial sectors?  Who expected the girls at the shirtwaist factory to place their lives in peril for seven dollars a week?

If the “dominant role” for men is predicated on his performance as Master of His Domain (while his privileged wife orders the servants around) then this is indeed a thin bollard on which to moor social values.

If the “dominant role” for men is grounded upon differentiating between women of color, or working women, from  his view of his own spouse as the “nest builder,” then the class-ist, racist, perspective is entirely too visible.

 

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