Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0
This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.
I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name.
This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.
That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.
The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment.
But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it.
This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.
The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.
If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.
The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.
According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.
But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.
One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.
Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.
This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.
This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity.
To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.
Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana.
The idea behind the cartoon is that big business controlled government during the Gilded Age. In this cartoon, big business is represented by “the robber barons”, the name given to railroad company tycoons (and the businesses that made them possible, such as steel), pictured as bloated bags of money lording over the tiny mice of the senate.
“‘I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.’” (Twain and Dudley Warner, location 2837)
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post taking a personal look at the era which I chose to place my Waxwood Series. This post is a sort of prequel to that.
I love this opening quote from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873, as it personifies one of the main philosophies of that era – it was all about faking it until you made it. Indeed, the Gilded Age wasn’t so much about how much success or wealth you had as how well you made everyone think you had.
There is some dispute as to what timeframe constitutes the Gilded Age. Many historians and scholars agree the era began in the 1870’s (with the publication of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book). But as to its end, that’s up for debate. Some consider the mid-1890’s the end of the era while others push its end all the way to 1900. Bcause the new century brought about the Progressive Era and its backlash ideals of the Gilded Age, I prefer to consider the era as ending at the turn of the century.
Ironically, the title of Twain and Dudley Warner’s book wasn’t intended as a label (just as no one intended to put labels on our more modern eras, such as the Lost Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials). Since both writers were well-known humorists, the title their book is a tongue-in-cheek dig against the social and political events of the second half of the 19th century. But, like many humorists, their dig turned out to be wildly accurate. Twain and Dudley Warner observed what was going on around them and used it as fodder for their fiction, as many writers do. They had a keen eye toward not only toward the staggering opulence and excess of this period but also its more parasitic cousins, greed, graft, and corruption.
When Twain and Dudley Warner published their book in 1873, America had just gone through a rather heavy recession that ended in the Panic of 1873. Americans intended to bounce back, financially and politically, with full force, showing that the United States could compete with any other global power. The problem was that, in politics and finance, many used ingenious but dirty methods to do it. Well known was the political corruption of the Grant administration and the graft and crime prevalent in “Boss” Tweed’s administration in New York City, for example. If you’ve been reading my books, you know I am largely a San Francisco/Bay Area writer and San Francisco didn’t exactly escape these more devious characteristics in the Gilded Age. Many of the well-known San Francisco millionaires were made in the city during this time, such as “the Big Four” railroad barons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins. In addition there flourished of one of the most infamously sin-laden spots in America at that time, the Barbary Coast.
This painting represents the kind of gaudy glitter and extravagance common among the very rich during the Gilded Age, especially when they entertained.
All this wheeling and dealing created a new class of wealth. Novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about “old money” families who were forced to make way for the nouveau riche. Interestingly, San Francisco was both similar and different in this respect. Gertrude Atherton’s book The Sisters-in-Law https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Law-Gertrude-Franklin-Atherton-ebook/dp/B0082SWSW0/, which I’ve mentioned on my blog before, gives an interesting snapshot of Bay Area aristocrats during this time and at the turn of the century who held on to strict codes of society (such as snubbing any woman who wanted to build her own business) but accepted more readily the nouveau riche because the youth of the west made old money families more scarce than they were in the east.
The rich in America considered it their privilege to flaunt their wealth with lavish homes and summer homes, balls and social events, and an outrageously expensive lifestyle that most could only gape at. The very rich became very extravagant, sometimes ridiculously so, displaying their money and social power even in the face of the growing poverty and working class resentments that would explode into violence and social change herding America in the Progressive Era.
The Gilded Age, then, became notorious for gaudy, show-offish displays of the socially privileged. Shady dealings made millionaires out of people of humble origins who were eager to get into society and, in fact, one might argue the opulence of the age prompted this widespread corruption as making money became “the thing”. A notorious example of this sort of personage is Simon Rosedale in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Rosedale is rather aggressive, seedy character whose rags-to-riches rise to fame made him an unavoidable parasite in the New York social circle in which the protagonist Lily Bart moves.
The more I write of the Waxwood Series, the more the realities of the Gilded Age come into conflict with who the characters are. This happens with Vivian, the unofficial protagonist of the series. She begins as a Gilded Age debutante of a wealthy San Francisco family (whose wealth was actually made well before the age) and gradually realizes the expectations put on her by her social status and the separate spheres conflict with her psychological reality and her journey through the last years of the century bring her to a different place in the world. Similarly, in my work-in-progress, Tales of Actaeon, Jake, Vivian’s younger brother, comes of age in a skewed and chaotic era when the meaning of masculinity was transitioning from the Victorian gentleman of honor, responsibility, and hard work to a more Teddy Roosevelt ideal of aggression, sportsmanship, and ambition.
To read more about The Specter and order your copy, check out this link.
To learn more about the Waxwood Series, click here.
And if you’d like to get your hands on a short story that is all about Vivian’s revelations as a debutante during her coming out ball, plus other great, interesting historical information, sign up for my newsletter here.
Twain, Mark and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Project Gutenberg, 2006 (original publication date: 1873). Kindle digital file.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.
In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres.
I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.
To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.
What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.
What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies.
In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?
The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.
The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future.
The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms:
“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949).
However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:
“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949).
It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.
Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.
One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.
Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.
To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.
And if you like mysteries, you can read up on my upcoming Progressive Era historical mystery series here.
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Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.