“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.

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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

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