“Women usually didn’t have important jobs in the old days…”

This is another one of those cartoon-version-of-the-old-days statements. Students have written that women had no rights in the old days, that women were downtrodden by their husbands in the old days, that women never worked outside the home in the old days, that women were denied education in the old days…you name it, women couldn’t or didn’t do it.

That’s not to say that the “old days” were a feminist’s dream come true; but surely even the most sweeping generalizer has to acknowledge such living legends as the Amazons, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Katherine the Great of Russia, Marie Curie, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale, not to mention any number of writers, teachers, social activists, and artists, in western and eastern culture. My annual “‘the exception proves the rule’ doesn’t mean ‘if there’s an exception that means the rule is true’—proves in this adage means tests!” lecture surely must fall on some ears that aren’t deaf.

But this student, a young woman herself by the way, didn’t stop with the generalization; she explained it, making it much worse:

“Women usually didn’t have important jobs in the old days—they usually cooked and cleaned and did everything to please their husband.”

So, in her mind, cooking and cleaning aren’t important jobs. Someday when she’s as busy as most of us are, and far from her mother’s (or her mother’s servants’) care, she may realize just how important cooking and cleaning are, and how quickly chaos descends if no one does those jobs.

My favorite generalization in this whole assertion is the “did everything to please their husband” one. Set aside the number disagreement that suggests polygamy, and focus on the “everything to please.” Hmmm. The possibilities there are endless, depending on the husband. We now have laws to address some of the kinkier or more abusive demands he might make, but the “everything” that remains legal is also a pretty wide field. Would it please a husband to have his wife earn a Ph.D.?—some husbands, most definitely; others, not so much! Or to have his wife greet him at the door wearing nothing but an apron and a smile (which, I kid you not, was suggested in a women’s magazine I read in the ‘sixties)?

I also wonder about the women who had no husbands, to please or not to please as the case may be. What in the world did they do “in the old days”? Well, in my student’s cartoon past, evidently there were no such women. Maybe they were living in the same non-cartoon as Cleo and Liz and Clara…and my maternal grandmother, who worked as my grandfather’s bookkeeper/receptionist (for a salary) in his fire-apparatus business, and whom my grandfather generally did as much to please as she did to please him. That was in the twentieth century, yes; but they were married in 1914, which I’m sure would qualify, for my student, as the “olden days.” (I don’t want to leave out my paternal grandmother, who came to this country as a 14-year-old governess and then later worked in several factories during her marriage to my carpenter-grandfather, another “olden-days” couple.)

Beware the easy generalization. Beware the simplistic past. Think.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

4 responses to ““Women usually didn’t have important jobs in the old days…”

  • Anonymous

    Well this why the women of today have really changed for the worst of all since now they really think they’re all that with their very high salaries that they’re making these days, and in the old days they were struggling just to make ends meat like the men were as well. But unfortunately most of these women now are so very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, greedy, picky, narcissists, and so many money hungry as well. Now the women of today will just want the very best of all and will never settle for less since most of these women are just very sad and pathetic altogether now to begin with. And it is these type of women that have really destroyed the dating scene altogether today as well for us good men looking for a relationship today since these women will just want men with money. And most of the women nowadays are just real users and losers since they will just take advantage of men with money to get the nice expensive gifts that they want. And this is the real reason why most of the women in the old days really did put these very pathetic women today to real shame since they were the very complete opposite of what these women are now.

    • RAB

      Anonymous, this blog is actually about writing (English grammar, spelling, and usage), not a place to vent social resentments.I think you’ve come to the wrong place.

  • solberg73

    Odd… I read Anon’s comment as a clever satire; the intent being to knit together un-based cliches as a writing challenge.
    I’d say he deserves an ‘important job’ for his efforts. Trying to think of one at present….

    • RAB

      I’m afraid I villainously deleted the enthusiastically sexist reply HE got, and his ditto reply to the reply. Felt virtuous enough in having left the first one in. I do love your interpretation, though! Certainly the spelling (“meat”) and obsessive repetition of “today” must have been ironically intended…. ;-}

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