autonomy and misogyny

My Patient Husband and I somehow discussed the “typical” 50s-era home with the hard-working husband, the dutiful housewife, the clean and sparkling children. We’re failing on two of those three counts.

I said something about him being the lord of his castle, and he replied that those times never really existed, “Except in some men’s fantasies.”

What followed was a rather geeky but enlightening conversation that would have had my friend Sharon screaming, “Don’t listen, kids! Normal people don’t talk that way!” (I mean, again. She said that to me once before.) The main thrust of the conversation — and I forget now whose point was whose — was that men shifted from viewing marriage as a partnership and into a hierarchical structure the more they themselves were shifted into a hierarchical structure.

In native societies, the women don’t stay home cleaning and raising the kids. Usually what happens is the children are raised in a group with a few allo-mothers (older women or dedicated child-rearers) taking care of the kids, while the women cultivate crops and the men hunt. In other words, the women are working just as hard as the men. If you take a look at the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, you’ll find Ma is right out there beside Pa, harvesting turnips and planting and so on.

Her job is much more vital to survival than remaining home and looking pretty. In fact, it’s understood that without her contributions, the family wouldn’t survive. He never puts her down.

If the women are caring for the homefront, and the men are bringing in the externals required to help the home survive, then the natural order of things would appear to be that the women are the managers who send the men out for specific tasks. Right? Of course, the Bible stands that on its head and puts the men at the forefront. (Catholicism doesn’t — according to Holly Pierot, Catholicism talks about a man’s authority and his wife’s counterauthority. But that’s a huge discussion.)

My Patient Husband concluded that as men moved into industrialized factory settings, where they were inculcated into a hierarchy, the men carried that into their homes. Plus, he says, if you compare Pa Ingalls to that guy from the Honeymooners, Pa has an awful lot of autonomy. He can plant whatever he wants. He can uproot the homestead and find another place to live. He can run his farm as he pleases. He can say to Ma, “I’m going to head out to Indian territory to find a job. You sell the farm and follow me out on the train in a month.”

And therefore, able to exert control over his own life, Pa Ingalls sees no need to exert control over Ma. Instead he trusts her to work with him toward their shared goal of sustaining the family.

Feminism rises up against the control coming from men who feel they have no control over their own lives. Maybe there’s a different kind of feminism around the corner. Maybe true feminism would mean freeing up everyone so they could control the things that matter, rather than trying to control the people they love.


  1. cricketB

    I get the impression from House on the Prairie (book 2) that Ma would have preferred to stay put. Laura says it’s Pa who wants to move now that the woods are getting crowded. Ma is equal in terms of work done and respect for that work, but Pa decided to move. Later, he was the one who chose where to look for work.

    Nice point about man’s work environment affecting how he expects the house to be run.

    Housework is invisible. No one outside the family knows how often she washes the sheets or cooks a proper meal. If the family runs out of money, they look at the visible male income, not the invisible mis-management of the home. Likewise, if they do well financially, it’s because the man brings in more money, not that the wife manages it well.

    There’s also the concept of raises. In many of those 50’s episodes, the man asks for a raise because the family needs more money. Back in Laura’s day, if they needed more money they worked and saved harder. These days, to make more we need to make our work more valuable or show that the competition pays more. Telling the boss you need more money because your family is expensive to run doesn’t work.

    I’m waiting for the day the insurance companies work together. Life insurance says a stay-home parent of young kids is worth $35k / year. Disability insurance says that doesn’t count as insurable income.

    1. philangelus

      Actually, I read in a business book that when women ask for a raise, they ask on the grounds that their family needs more money. When men ask fora raise, they ask on the grounds that the services they’re providing the company are worth more than they’re being paid.

      Pa may have been the one pushing the decision to pick up stakes and move, but in the actual daily narrative of the book, you find Ma has complete autonomy over the home and the financial decisions that affect it, whereas in the typical 50s sitcom family house,the man would have to give his approval for financial expenditures for things that were for the home, such as drapes and fabric for the children’s clothing.

      1. cricketB

        That makes sense. The excuse they used for paying women less was that they didn’t have to support a family.

        The 50s sitcom method didn’t make sense, so I ignored it. The women I knew were better at the drudgery of bookkeeping than the men. No one could tell a girl with my marks and the bank account I built that women weren’t good at math and saving.

        Re-reading the bit about visible/invisible. These days living within your means is becoming more important to status than income. It’s a move in the right direction.

  2. whiskers

    You have it exactly right from an historical standpoint. And I wholeheartedly believe that the way to fix the inequity in the world is to make sure that everyone has the ability to choose for themselves and their own family a fair and fulfilling division of labor. Also, we need to teach our little boys to respect women, and our little girls to respect themselves, but that’s a topic for a different time…

  3. Ken Rolph

    The 1950s, for advanced Western nations, was a time of recovery from war. There were many men who had come to manhood without having a normal occupation and family life. During the 1940s women had occupied many of the home industries for lack of men. So the 1950s had a sense of men coming home and taking up their appropriate position in a time of peace.

    Most of my uncles were engineers and worked in small businesses. As I recall the 1950s, most of the bookkeeping was done by the wives. They also did lots of delivery, contact with clients, office work. My own mother could operate drills, lathes and shapers. I remember as a preschooler being let loose to play in the engineering works. Instead of blocks I had offcuts of steel and aluminium.

    Overtime was a rare event then. People were not so buried under work. We did all our own weddings and parties. Stuff you see now on TV, like Idol, approximate the shows ordinary people put on in town and church halls. There was a wide social life between the government and the nuclear family, where women often reigned. Many things happened in people’s homes. Today there are whole groups of people who only sleep in their homes.

    There were hard-working women and dutiful men. I remember men who worked in boring or strenuous jobs so they could provide for their families. There were limits for both genders.

    I recall some second cousins who were killed in a car accident. The family got together and decided who would bring up their children. All the families chipped in to make sure they were taken care of. No one ever thought of asking permission of any authorities to do this. Families took care of themselves and each other.

    There were many things that people did that they can probably no longer do. Maybe even illegal. But I don’t recall that any gender totally dominated the other in all spheres of life. People got along within the limits of their lives. Now that our lives contain everything and have no limits, it is impossible to understand backwards to how it was.

    I’m stll trying to assemble an answer to the question, “Grandpa, when you were a boy what was your favourite website?”

  4. Maria

    Wow, that’s a really interesting way of seeing things. I’ve never heard it described that way, but I think you’re onto something in this post.

  5. Jen

    Not normal to have those kinds of conversations? Really? ;D

    1. philangelus

      I think after a certain degree of geekitude, it kind of becomes normal. 🙂 But I’ve seen too many people’s eyes glaze over when I start a discussion like this to think it really is.