Thursday, 29 April 2010

A new kind of man

By the middle of the 21st century a new kind of man was born.

Like the stay-at-home dads of previous decades, he was a househusband. But unlike them he did not persuade himself that he was an equal partner who would, given the opportunity, return to the world of work. The new kind of househusband took it for granted that his place was in the home, cleaning and cooking and raising children. Surrounded by highly qualified, breadwinning women, he simply did not believe that he was their equal or that he could succeed in the jobs they performed so competently. They were so confident, smart, ambitious, full of initiative and power. So he was grateful that his wife or girlfriend was prepared to provide for him, and that his own responsibilities were modest.

A collapse of confidence in his own abilities and judgement meant that he was mostly glad to accept female authority. His doctor was a woman, the Prime Minister was a woman, his plumber was a woman, his car mechanic was a woman, his child’s headteacher was a woman, and the spouse who bought the dresses that filled his wardrobe was a woman1.

In most households, the traditional roles had by the mid-21st century been completely reversed. The social norm was not sexual equality, but female supremacy. Empowered by her control of the family income, the woman openly considered herself the head of the household. She would make all the major decisions — and have the last word on all the minor ones too — and expected her husband to do as she said.

The New Man believed in marriage — only it was him who would wear the beautiful white dress and swear to “honour and obey”. He raised his sons in his own image, showing them how to dress prettily, perform housework, and obey female authority. His daughters he treated more indulgently, for they were destined to rule the world.

Of course, the New Man’s way of life was not accepted by all men, or even all women. It offended those who wished for sexual equality. Men’s rights groups began to spring up, holding demos or performing stunts while dressed as Superman.

Yet men had not fallen under women’s thumb because of the innate characteristics of either sex but because they were the victims of an immense sea change of history that overwhelmed those who wished, like Canute, to roll them back.

1 Within heterosexual relationships anyway.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Redefining women

The new power relationship between women and men opened an intense debate about their respective identities.

Women’s trajectory was clear. As they had acquired greater independence and power, they had left femininity behind. The symbolism of power had been well established by men, and women adopted it as their own as they advanced: its most potent sign being the trouser suit.

Woman putting on tieThere was no question of a working, breadwinning woman wearing such fripperies as high heels, dangly ear-rings, tight skirts and the other inconvenient and time-consuming humiliations that had been used to prettify and trivialise them over the centuries. Why should a modern woman try to sexually entice men by shaving off her body hair and wearing makeup, jewellery, false nails and elaborate hairstyles? Women controlled money and power: if anyone needed to do some enticing, it was men. Trousers became the clothing of choice for women, and the panoply of frilly, lacy, uncomfortable lingerie was consigned to the dustbin in favour of sensible, practical underwear. The refusal to countenance ‘emasculate’ clothes and behaviour was most intense among the young. The new generation of girls had a very strong sense of female pride and a conviction in their superiority — the last thing they would tolerate was being put in a skirt.

This was not just in matters of dress. Women were drinking more, talking more loudly, being more aggressive, taking up more sports, scorning the opposite sex, and generally shifting into some of the less positive behaviours that characterised power. In short, women had, without particularly planning it, taken on the behaviours of masculinity.

WomenWomen who continued to wear dresses were looked upon with disapproval by their peers. This intensified as the century progressed until women eventually abandoned altogether makeup, dresses, tights, stockings, lingerie, heels and all the rest.

As for men, women’s rise had some uncomfortable — for some, terrifying — implications.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Enter the househusband

As a result of women’s move into the workplace, millions of men were made redundant. This was exacerbated by the long recession that began in 2008, which hit men much harder than women. And once the recession was finally over, it was overwhelmingly the ambitious women created in the universities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries who commandeered the new jobs.

A real factor that accelerated the process even further was a certain “jobs for the girls” mentality among the women who were now making the decisions in boardrooms and personnel departments. Women tended to give preference to female candidates over male ones, to an extent irrespective of merit. This was partly down to the ubiquitous pro-female messages throughout society that lauded females as models of excellence; it was almost taken for granted that a woman would do a particular task better than a man. It was also partly out of gender solidarity: a sense that this was women’s great historical opportunity and they should stand together.

“I’m in charge of this department now — you’re fired, squirt!”

Redundant, demoted, out of fashion, less competitive than women and having to appeal to a mostly female audience for poor status jobs, men found the jobs market increasingly difficult. Millions simply gave up. With women dominating the workplace, someone had to look after the home and the children, and this role increasingly fell to the male.

For the first time in history, most men were stuck at home while women worked. The tables had been turned. Women were the breadwinners, men the homemakers.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The rise of women #3

The result of women's educational superiority was inevitable. With surprising speed, women cast aside their traditional role of housewife and swept through the professions.

Highly qualified, ambitious and outrageously confident, they took over past male bastions such as politics, medicine, the military, the sciences.

Companies noticed that women were more professional, reliable and effective than men, and given a choice between female and male applicants always chose the female. Once the artificial constraints imposed upon women by sexism were removed, men simply could not compete with them either in school or the workplace.

Women became dominant in:

the boardroom...

the practical trades...

justice and law...


the military...

...and all the highest status professions.

Whatever the task, they were likely to do it more thoroughly, more competently, and more efficiently than men. This was truly the age of women.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The rise of women #2

In the 1970s there was a lot of concern about how girls were doing in education. They were encouraged to take on traditionally male subjects, to improve their self-esteem, to be aware of the women’s movement which was removing fetters on girls’ progress. Programmes aimed at promoting girls’ achievement, coinciding with other social changes, helped girls not only to do better but to soar.

Education was to be one of the principal motors of female success. In 2009, research found that 49% of women opted for higher education, compared to 37% of men. And 64% of women achieved passes compared to 59% of men.

Girls rapidly caught up with boys and then surpassed them in every subject, including to degree level. Not only were more girls than boys go to university, but they got better grades and were much less likely to drop out.

A great deal of anxious discussion followed, often centred on differences between the male and female brains. But the real reason was simple enough: boys didn’t think it was cool to study hard. The more girls were pushed to succeed and the harder they worked, the more hard work became a ‘girlish’ and uncool activity. Male-dominated society remained determined to keep clear blue water between the sexes, and boys responded by messing around in class and scoffing at academic achievement. All this achieved was to push them further and further into a dead-end.

The consequences for society were radical. Women made up a greater and greater proportion of graduates and began to outstrip men in the workforce, aiming higher and earning more than their partners. They were helped by the disappearance of traditional ways of working. In a technological world, physical labour was becoming less and less important, which opened up the workplace to women. Rigid hours and other demarcations were falling away, but this suited women who had always led more flexible lives.

By 2040, the statistics had shifted even more in women’s favour: 68% of women went into higher education compared to 29% of men. Women outnumbered and outperformed men on every course. Even technology, mathematics and sciences had become female bastions. Their superiority was so complete that people began to discuss whether girls were innately better at maths and science than boys, or even more intelligent in general.

Girls and science
The sciences quickly became female-dominated.

The 2009 women graduates could expect to earn less than men regardless of their qualifications, but by 2040 this had been swept away with women being paid on average a third more than men for doing the same job.

The goal of the women’s movement had been clear: equal rights for women. The Suffragettes and feminists had believed it was wrong for one sex to dominate public and working life while the other was consigned to domesticity and dependence. But the process they started had thrown up a remarkable new twist.


Monday, 19 April 2010

The rise of women #1

It must have been inconceivable to the Victorians that their prettified, domesticated, obedient “little women” could one day become the dominant power on the planet and force men into submission.

Yet it was towards the end of the Victorian era that women’s role slowly began to change. Through the charitable missions, the expansion of domestic labour and the opening of the medical professions, above all nursing, women began to redefine their place in society. They slowly won new legal rights, especially within marriage.

Wary of their privileges, men tended to resist these changes. Their pay and social status depended in part upon keeping women subordinate relative to themselves. Women performed a vast amount of labour in a man’s home for zero pay. There was resistance from women, too, partly because they were wary of change, but also because they recognised that their importance to the domestic sphere gave them a kind of stability and status, albeit a second-rate one.

At the dawn of the 20th century, very few women were employed in highly-skilled or well-paid work. When they did break through, life was made very difficult for them. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to get a medical qualification in the UK, found that few people would become her patients because, as a woman, she was not trusted as much as a man. In 1900, 1,740,000 women worked as domestic servants — and only two as architects.

suffragetteSuffragette, c. 1910

But over the century the women’s movement made great advances towards the goal of female equality. Its first great achievement in the UK was to win women’s suffrage and the right to stand for Parliament in 1918. Later legislation acted against sexual discrimination and harrassment.

At the beginning of the 21st century, women still faced disadvantage and were under-represented in senior positions in all fields. However, a combination of social change and women’s own activism had sown the seeds for a remarkable rise that took them to equality, and then beyond.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Women’s clothes in the 19th century

Women’s clothes have probably always differed from men’s, but never were they more distantly removed from male fashions than in the 19th century.

Women’s clothes were not flamboyant, impractical and non-bifurcated because of anything inherent in women themselves. For example, men have won skirt-like garments such as the sarong or kilt in many societies. No — women’s clothes reflected their separation from the sphere of work and politics. Tight corsets made it hard for women to breathe, and huge, cumbersome skirts impeded women’s legs, restraining women from being physically active. With their wreaths of drapery and lace finishes, women resembled just one more of the furnishings of a man’s home.

Winterhalter’s gorgeous painting of 1855, Empress EugĂ©nie and Her Ladies in Waiting, perfectly conveys the lavish femininity of the well-heeled Victorian lady.

At the upper end of the social scale, the message was two-fold: see how rich my husband is, that I can afford such extravagant clothes! And see how he provides for me — I can dress impractically, because I don’t have to work!

corsetThe two primary examples of how women were oppressed and humiliated by their clothes are the corset and the crinoline. As everyday fashion, the corset was worn from the fifteenth century until the Edwardian period, and is basically a mould designed to force the woman’s body into the shape that men thought aesthetically pleasing. Seeing a slim waist as a standard for beauty encouraged the practice of tightlacing, the attempt to cruelly force the body into a wasp waist. The crinoline was fashionable between 1856 and 1878, and freed women from wearing many heavy layers of petticoats. But it was a cumbersome garment, mocked in many cartoons. When a woman sat down, the cage could ride up, and it was so wide that there was a real danger of catching fire when standing next to an unguarded grate.

The corset and crinoline were however just two aspects of a woman’s costume. Only after successive layers of stockings, garters, drawers, corset, crinoline or bustle, camisole, petticoats, dress, gloves, bonnet, reticule and fan would a Victorian lady finally consider herself dressed.

crinoline cartoon
Arabella Maria: "Only to think, Julia dear, that our mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!"
Both: "Ha ha ha ha!"

Today we often tend to think of 19th century women’s fashions as stiff, buttoned-up and sexually repressive, designed to hide the least trace of ankle. To an extent this is true, but at the same time they were exaggeratedly sexual. Innovations such as the corset and crinoline served to tuck in the waist and emphasise the female breasts and hips. Fluttering ribbons and lace and flounces tantalised the eye, and tactile materials like taffeta and silk made touching women’s clothes a sensual pleasure. Ballgowns were often cut very low to expose the shoulders and the top of the cleavage. A woman’s clothes helped to turn her into an enticing, passive object: in R. J. Cruikshank’s words, “hidden in the mysteries of petticoats”.

Women’s clothes had a clear social purpose: to turn women into prettified, constrained creatures who could not even get out of a carriage without a man’s support. When women finally overturned male rule and were themselves dominant, they would not forget what men had taught them about the power of clothing.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Women in the 19th century

It is instructive to take a look at how women were treated before their remarkable self-emancipation.

There is a glaring contrast between the belief in progress characteristic of the Victorian era and its treatment of women. As we have already mentioned, the roots of this were not biological or psychological but material: the male control of society’s resources.

In the 19th century the first duty of a woman was to submit to male authority. When she married, she swore to obey her husband, who became the owner of her property and income and commanded custody of their children. A woman could not vote, nor could she conclude a contract without her husband’s agreement. Although she might receive a certain education, she was not considered intellectually suited to study at the highest level: not only was she barred from entering university, but any pretensions to achievements in physics and other sciences were roundly scorned by her male contemporaries. For what reason would a woman go to university, when her role in life was to be the attractive and obedient ornament of a male? A woman’s place was in the home, diligently anxious for the comfort of her family.

This was the era when the sexes were seen as properly belonging to two spheres: the woman to home and hearth, the man to business, politics and wider society. The epitomy of this was the royal couple. With her many children and committed husband, Victoria was an icon of female domesticity and marital stability. For the Victorian male, the home was seen as a comfortable retreat from the grubbiness and noise of the world of work and politics. Countless publications (most famously Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management of 1861) gave women instructions on how to be a good housewife and fulfil their duty of creating a warm haven for their husbands and children.

In this stifled world, motherhood was not just a biological function, but a symbolic destiny for womankind. Vast clouds of sanctimony attempted to equate the capacity for giving birth with the sole responsibility for child-raising, and tried to persuade women that their main emotional fulfilment could be found in supporting their families. Marriage and motherhood were to be a woman’s highest achievement.

Of course, there were huge double standards everywhere. Maintaining a home involved a huge amount of work, and even middle-class women did not usually have enough servants to exempt them from the labour involved: fetching water, washing and ironing clothes by hand, preparing food, mending clothes and bed-linen and so on and on. The ideal of motherhood was betrayed by the dreadful conditions in which most children were actually raised, amidst poor sanitation and overcrowding. Perhaps worst of all, while women were supposedly put on a pedestal and seen as ‘pure’, childlike beings — it was not appropriate for them to enjoy sex — in reality they were often forced into prostitution to make ends meet, the logical extension of a society in which women were dependent upon male incomes.

In short, women were to be treated as saints, but saints whose legal rights were little better than children’s.1

1 One small point of progress however was that it was not legal, as in some cultures, for a husband to kill his wife!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The oppression of women

For thousands of years, women were oppressed, suffering social and legal inequality and subject to the whims of their husbands and fathers. This went on for so long that most people, men and women, began to take it for granted that women were innately inferior to men: they were less mentally and physically able than men, and therefore fit only for a second-class role in society.

The reality was that women’s second-class status was based not in biology, but in social conditions. It was not, as men claimed for so long, because women were inferior in strength, intelligence, courage, and so on. Nor was it, as some feminists later claimed, because men had an innate urge to dominate women.

For the great majority of human history, the sexes were pretty much equal. Under Stone Age conditions, there could be no exploitation of one sex by another, because everyone lived at the level of subsistence. It was only with the rise of agriculture and the resulting explosion of social wealth that women began to lose status relative to men. This was because the areas of growth that laid the foundations of the first civilisations — the herding of animals and the ploughing of land — were both male-controlled. This gave men a huge advantage over women in terms of wealth and relative power. In short, they were the beneficiaries of a historical process.

Women were increasingly chained to the home, burdened with childcare, and were sometimes literally the property of men.

Of course, there were always powerful women, figures who would later be acclaimed by people keen to redress the imbalances of traditional history. There were women who inherited power through dynastic succession such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great. There were women who won prominence for their deeds, such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. But the reality of life for most women across the world was one of hard work and disadvantage, and little of what they said or did was recorded.

In the next post we will look at what this meant for women in the 19th century.