How Could They Even Think That???

manners for men and womenLast week, a couple of my friends shared an article on Facebook that has been making the rounds. It’s a series of extremely sexist ads from earlier in the 20th century. By 21st century standards, they’re incredibly misogynistic and damning. I mean, the best you can buy for your wife for Christmas is household appliances? You are actually suggesting that she should cry to get what she wants?

My initial scornful reaction quickly took a backseat to a whole different thought, though. One of the things that is debated over and over with those of us who write historical novels is the fact that you can’t interpret the actions and morals of any given era of history using nothing but modern sensibilities and viewpoints. In days gone by, people actually thought differently about things, hard as it is for us to grasp. Stuff that make modern women in particular rage wouldn’t have been a concern to women of, say, the 19th century or earlier.

The feminine ideal in the 19th century, for example, was vastly different from what women are taught to aspire to now. Not just superficially, either. Here in the 21st century we can look back at women in the 19th century and be appalled about their lack of legal rights (which 21st century pop-culture has exaggerated, btw), their inability to inherit or vote, and the appearance that they were the property of their husbands. Yes, those inequalities lit up a section of the female population, pushing them on to pass reforms and change the standard of living for women. For just as many or more women, though, what we in the 21st century see as egregious violations of human rights were non-issues.

I know, I know. I hear your heart and soul rebelling at the concept. I hear the sputtering and the whole “How can you possibly say that women were happy living like that?” But guess what? Many of them were! We can’t translate our 21st century ideals onto 19th century women across the board when their ideals were so different than our own. That’s not to say that 19th or early 20th century women laughed in the face of spousal abuse or smiled prettily at cruel treatment by some. The point is that for the vast majority of boring, uneventful, contented lives and relationships, what we balk at was what they strived to achieve.

Sewing Manual 1949I loved one of the comments that a woman posted on Facebook in response to these sewing manual instructions from 1949. The commenter noted that her mother and her friends followed this advice to the T and were proud to do it. They were proud of their lives as homemakers and delighted in achieving all of those things we are outraged by now. The commenter also noticed that her mother and her friends didn’t have a divorce among them and had happy marriages of 50+ years. Different attitudes, different times.

I just want to note one other thing about the shift in attitudes, ideals, and social standards that took place around the 1920s. It wasn’t just attitudes about how women should behave. I am always struck when I read advice books from the 19th century about how men should behave, both in their lives and business and with women. It was a very different kind of chivalry that produced a very different kind of man. In fact, when I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, the point was made that our modern preference for outgoing, aggressive, loud, macho men is a 20th century invention, and that in the 19th century, men were praised more for prudence, careful thought, and for not being overly outwardly aggressive or loud. How things have changed!

Anyhow, all this got me to thinking. We look back at women of the 19th and early 20th century with more censure than we should and with indignation about how they could put up with that kind of behavior. I wonder what those women would think about the lifestyles and ideals that women of the 21st century cling to.

Number one, I think 19th century women would be shocked and appalled at the way women in the 21st century dress. They would take one look at our fashion and shudder at how skimpy, revealing, and ugly it has become. I think they would see it as cheap and unfeminine, considering that clothing in the 19th century was tailored rather than off-the-rack and accentuated the feminine form (have you seen what a corset does to a woman’s shape?) rather than uncovering it.

victorian women riverI also think that 19th century woman would shudder at how many expectations are thrust on women of the 21st century without any sort of reassurances or reciprocations. You mean 21st century women are expected to work outside the home, supporting their families—if they even have one—and to maintain a household at the same time? Remember, the recession we just went through was hardest on men, and there are now a large number of households where the woman brings home the bacon while the men are still searching for jobs. I think a 19th century woman would find it horrible that so many women don’t have a husband to take care of them.

I especially think that 19th and early 20th century women would be outraged by sexual expectations. Women are expected to be sexually active outside of marriage? With no guarantee that a man would support the children that might come out of those kinds of activities? And women are okay with this? Where is the security in life? Where is the connection and the caring?

Now, do you find yourself getting angry over these assumptions I’m making about how 19th century women would see us? Are you ready to fight and argue that it is ridiculous to assume they would view our lives like that and, in fact, it was their 19th and early 20th century lives that had it all wrong? Well, that’s the point. You may be offended if the women of the past looked with utter distain on the values that we hold dear today, just as I believe they would be offended to see their great-great-granddaughters holding them in such contempt for the ideals they believed in.

Times have changed and attitudes have changed with them, but it is absolutely wrong of us to scorn what were genuinely the things that women who came before us wanted. Their lives were not ours and they were not suited to our ideals. So next time you see one of these memes or articles pop up that makes fun of how women were seen in a different time, stop to consider it from the viewpoint of that moment in history before denigrating generations who lived happily well before you were even born.


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6 thoughts on “How Could They Even Think That???

  1. Excellent thoughts. We do tend to project our values onto people who simply didn’t share them, and I think you’re right that they’d be appalled at the way we live today. I can’t imagine trying to stuff myself into the mold promoted by that sewing machine ad, but I’m sure many women were happy with it. I am thankful that I could choose to be that way today if I wanted to, but I’m also free to sit here in my jammies and write if that’s what I feel called to do (and I do… well, usually I get dressed first). That’s the real reason I’m happy to be living today rather than back then. Though we balk at the idea of being FORCED into those roles, many people do still fill the “happy housewife” role if it suits them.

    I do still find the idea that women should Lysol their lady-bits to smell sanitary for their husbands appalling, though. I know, different times, but the idea that women’s bits are somehow unhealthy if they’re natural is still all too common today, and it makes me sad. And it was dangerous… :/

    I don’t envy writers of historical fiction who have to balance accuracy with not making modern readers throw their hands up in frustration. I admire you for tackling it, and for doing your research so well. 🙂

  2. Great article! I’ve often thought about this, too, especially since my former doctoral studies focused on gender and power in the medieval period. Even then I realized that talking about lives in terms of gender and power was probably more of a 20th c construct than something thought about and debated in the times periods about which I love to read. I also agree with you that people from other time periods might look upon ours and our standards with equal horror that we look upon theirs. Great food for thought!

  3. Interesting thoughts, Merry! Another point to consider is whether advertisements, advice manuals, and any other kind of prescriptive or intentionally manipulative communications are actual portraits of what people think and feel. There are tens of thousands of pounds of books and articles going back as far as paper lasts–from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–in which both women and men very powerfully protest the fact that a married woman had no right to own property, including her own pay and her inheritance; that legally, she and her children WERE property (the husband’s); that they weren’t citizens; that women were paid so little for the same work as men–the gap was far worse than today–that unmarried working women literally supplemented their starvation wages by prostitution; that if they were raped or otherwise betrayed and got pregnant, they were utterly shunned; etcetera! What I mean to get at is that our pictures of the past really depend on where we look, as well as on a healthy dose of understanding that people at all times are highly varied and complex. It’s hard to find a 19th century issue of many magazines that doesn’t contain some argument about women’s proper place, proper education, and so on. It was all hotly contested, more so than now. And there have always been many exceptions to any rule. If we lived in 2250 and looked at 2014 guides to manners, and at current TV ads, and assumed that they accurately reflected 2014 behavior, we’d end up with some pretty comical “historical” novels! 🙂 Hope that adds further interest and food for thought to the post.

    • P. S. It’s all so very interesting. We are affected by ads and advice manuals, for sure, too–there is always some version of “the ideal woman” that influences us all deeply!

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  5. I completely agree with your assessments, Merry. Just in my own lifetime I have seen the varying attitudes about women, and frankly some of it scares me.

    For example, I was a teen heading to college during the early 80s when a woman having a career was SO important that it was an embarrassment to admit you might also want to be married and have kids somewhere in there. And if a girl chose to forego the career and be a stay-at-home mom? Egads! Slap some sense into her! She is ruining it for the entire female sex!!!

    Do I regret becoming an RN? No, I do not. I love my career and considered it a calling. And I did get married a couple years after college and start a family. Still, if my attitude hadn’t been so set, I might have worked less and spent a bit more time as a mom. Just saying!

    Women have come a long way and much of it is good to be sure. But there is nothing wrong at all with being a wife, mother, and homemaker. I believe women in the far past, for the most part, accepted this and were happy in their roles.

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