So first you should review this article by Suzanne Venker titled “The War On Men” prior to reading this opinion piece.
Welcome back. So allow me to say that, despite my personal feelings about the outlook of this article, from a historical perspective I find the viewpoint incredibly annoying and shallow. Ms. Venker draws her opinions from the “revolutionary change” in gender roles from the 1970s to the modern era, arguing that there is a subculture of men who won’t marry women in today’s United States because “women don’t act like women.” In particular her argument that women should surrender to their femininity and allow men to fill their gender programmed roles as providers and women should fill their gender programmed roles as…I’m not sure what the ideal here is supposed to be, nurturers, masters of home and hearth, breeding engines? Why I find this historically annoying is because the idea of “femininity” is not only a social construct but it is a flexible social construct that is highly dependent upon society and culture. Even within the history of the United States the idea of the proper role of women has shifted over the decades, making it for me highly challenging for any author to assign a value to proper “femininity” and the role women should feel comfortable filling in society.
The above image is of “flappers” in the 1920s, a period normally associated with massive changes in the role of women in society. Women in the 1920s, to be attractive, were expected to be socially outgoing, able to be witty and charming in public settings, better educated and also more sexually frank. Popular culture encouraged young women to be suggestive in their sexual frankness, outgoing, but also still encouraged some chastity as a value before marriage. (Although not as much as prior decades had demanded of the middle classes.) To some that image above at the time was considered a defining mark of being feminine. To others in the 1920s it represented the collapse of traditional female values and femininity. But if you want to see an example of the definition of femininity shifting in society that is more directly evident, you have to look back further to the 1880s and the 1890s.
The above image is off mill girls, women in the 1880s and 1890s who worked in mills producing cheap fabric as part of the United States industrial explosion in the mid to late 19th century. These women were not “building a home” or “hunting for a provider” – these roles were reserved in society for middle class and upper class women, women with “breeding and education.” Working class girls who did not have solid marriage prospects were expected to leave home, travel to mill towns, and seek employment producing fabric and thread. This movement of single women into working class districts also sparked a massive shift in sexual mores and gender roles among the working class young single women in these mill towns, causing a social backlash of worry in American society as women began to have casual relationships, shack up with single young men, and have an active and “risky” social life centered upon public merriment, drinking, and courting.
Which for the 1880s and 1890s middle and upper classes seemed scandalous, these women were not acting properly feminine, they were acting like men, but the key issue was the fact they were getting frisky with their social lives. The fact they were working outside of the domestic sphere to earn money was seen as virtuous at the time, far better than being shiftless women seeking a living through prostitution or through the shrinking sphere of domestic labor in more prosperous homes.
Heck take the image above, the standard secretary from the 1960s, the classic image of a “feminine role” in the office workplace, a role later attacked in the 1970s as a dead-end career point for women in the growing administratively dominated service economy of the United States. But that role had only become a “woman’s career” path after men abandoned it to women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the same case for nursing, today seen as a “feminine” career path up through the early 1900s nursing was seen as a male profession. What was masculine became feminine and other career paths have also shifted back and forth throughout the history of the United States.
It holds true for traditional “feminine” roles in the home as well – for example did you know that all the furniture in Mount Vernon was ordered, and planned, by George Washington? How about Monticello, all the furnishings in Thomas Jefferson’s home were either designed by Jefferson himself or ordered by him directly. That pattern repeats throughout the mid-18th century – because decorating the home was seen as the sole domain of the masculine side of the marriage, a good man in the Enlightenment Era took a direct controlling hand in how their home was decorated and laid out. It was a reflection of the man’s taste, manners, and breeding in how their home looked. It wasn’t until the Victorian Era and shifts in the gender roles of the two that suddenly women gained a magical biological ability to better decorate homes.
Which all of course focuses on the definition of “feminine” from solely one limited geographic region and a limited historic time period, roughly the 18th century to the 21st century and within the nation-state known as the United States. If you cast the historic net any broader geographically or temporally you will find the definition of feminine shifting wildly. For example in the Middle Ages in Europe one outlook on what it meant to be feminine was defined by biological “heat” – the idea was that men had greater “heat” than women and therefore were more efficiently able to digest food and biologically function. It was felt by some scholars in this period that was why women were more pear shaped then men, food had to go lower in feminine bodies than masculine bodies to be properly digested. So for that period proper feminine roles were more dominated by an…unusual perception of anatomy and human physiology than anything else. (Women were also seen in this period as being the more emotional, weaker, and lusty of the two sexes, the first two probably don’t surprise you but the last might – men were expected to serve as moral guardians and resist the continual sexual demands of women who couldn’t control their unabated lust for sexual congress. Apparently in a quest for masculine “heat.”)
Now that view above comes from one particular Medieval source, Secrets of Women, other views on what it meant to be feminine in the Middle Ages varied. For many areas it seemed the core focused on being a good steward of the home but even what that meant varied – no longer such much knowing proper fashion and tending to just cooking and child-rearing but also industrial crafts – spinning, raising poultry and livestock, preserving foods, and the healing arts to name a few “feminine virtues” of the period.
Bottom line – whenever someone starts to talk about traditional gender roles and individuals having issues with changes in gender positions and spheres in society, take it with a huge grain of salt, as those roles are by no means mostly shaped by biology and DNA. They are mostly shaped by society, culture, and the historical period in which one lived.
Sources: Middle Ages and gender “heat”, Middle Ages and Medicine, review of a history of secretarial work in the United States
Disclaimer: I am not a historian who has specialized in gender, women’s studies, or the history of women, however I have had the great pleasure of reading extensively on the subject and taking formal courses on it during both my undergraduate and graduate educational careers. This is a massive field that requires a literal lifetime of study to even begin to grasp.