Friday, December 2, 2016

The American Woman Today-- What do You Think?

We recently inherited a 1960 set of Encyclopedias from my in-laws. It has been fascinating to skim through these books and get a snap shot of what the world was like during that time and what people were thinking about.  Many things haven't changed (like an elephant is still an elephant, right?) but there were other entries that were obviously dated. For example, there were several pages under "fallout shelter" about how to create your own shelter in your home with detailed instructions about what to do in case of a nuclear attack! It was also very interesting to read though the entry on "family" in this Encyclopedia. Here is the first paragraph, 
"Family is the oldest human institution. In many ways it is the most important. It is society's most basic unit. Entire civilizations have survived or disappeared depending on whether family life was strong or weak. Families have existed since earliest times and will undoubtedly exist as long as man lives on earth. 
Families make up the basis of every society because they serve three vital human needs found everywhere. First, the family is the means for producing children and continuing the human race. Second, the family provides for protection and early training of infants. Human infants are perhaps the most helpless of all living creatures... Third, the family sets up a division of labor so that each member contributes something.... 
...Marriage is the beginning of family life. When a man and a woman marry, they make a legal contract to live together as husband and wife. They also accept the legal responsibility to support and care for any children they may have. 
... Most people belong to two families during their lives, the first as children and the second as parents. We are born in to the first family and we establish the second one."

It seems almost incredible in our day in age to think that this was published as the DEFINITION of what a family is. I feel like this definition says so plainly and concisely the truth (and what I was trying to explain in my Cultivating a Heart Open to Life series). It a little sad that today many people are choosing to live in ways that are in incompatible with the perpetuation of human life and, as the definition, stated that is often what makes or breaks an entire society.

Another interesting aspect of these Encyclopedias is that they came with three "year books", one for 1968, 1969, and 1970. There was one article in the 1969 Year Book that interested me particularly. It was entitled The American Woman Today written by the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. It is a fascinating glimpse into what was perceived as the problems, challenges, and opportunities facing American women in the 1960's. There were a few parts that I thought were really interesting. For example she wrote about why, even though American women are often "the envy of women throughout the world", they are not the happiest women in the world.  She wrote:

"The American woman herself, however, presents a curious echo of what the world thinks of her. "I ought to be perfectly happy. I have a devoted husband, a lovely home, many friends, three delightful children, and yet..." The sentence usually ends in self-criticism of one sort or another. "Why am I not happy? What is wrong with me? I know there ought to be something I could do about it,"
During other periods in history, when society was more socially stratified, a woman did not have to measure herself in every respect against all other women. The peasant girl did not judge herself by the way the princess lived, no matter how much she might daydream... Only very occasionally, and only for the imaginative, did a woman spend her life in wishing she had everything she had ever heard about or dreamed of. 
But in contrast to the times gone by, the United States today is an open society. In addition to the cherished belief that any boy can be President-- and in the dreadful fact, any kind of boy may be-- runs the myth that every girl can be a complete success as a woman, a marvel of beauty and skill and efficiency.
... Against such measures of status, no woman- no matter how fortunate or beautiful or loved, no matter how well-read or trusted by her children, or adored by her husband-- can ever vote herself a complete success or completely happy. She may have a life she would not exchange for any other, but there is still so much she could be, do and have. She turns the sense of all she has back upon herself and in her search for success demands more of herself is she is self-conscious and aware; for herself if she is less sophisticated."
If comparing ourselves to ideal portrayed in media was a problem in 1960 I think women in 2016 have it even worse! Social media exacerbates this tendency because we see people post "real life" pictures and we invariably compare it out our real life-- which is normally not as pretty, put together or exciting. Yet the images we see on the Internet do not capture the complexity of the person's life-- all their struggles, strengths, problems and triumphs. You don't know that it took her an hour (and several tantrums) to get that cute picture of her toddler, that her marriage is suffering, that she is struggling with depression, that she doesn't feel as good about herself as she pretends, that the reason she has nice things is because she is in debt, or that behind the backdrop she has a messy kitchen. We expect so much of ourselves based on unrealistic expectations,  many of which we create ourselves!

In her article Mead also mentioned that some of the biggest changes that came for American women happened during the Industrial Revolution, when families no longer worked together and women's work became more isolated. This isolation just increased when the servants or other female relatives who use to share the household work we replaced by machines. This change not only shifted women's role in the home from one as producer (making the clothing and food her family needed) to become almost totally a consumer-- no longer contributing materially to her family's needs. Also, with these machines came the expectation that they would now "free" women of household work that (because it is service based) was seen as degrading. It became expected that a woman should support herself financially and "contribute" to society through working outside of the home, because the home was increasingly seen as oppressive. Yet, another consequence of this was that women were no longer dependent on each other. They did not need each other like they did when they  shared the burden of production, and thus women (though more engaged in public life) felt increasingly isolated and alone.  Mead wrote,

"Probably no other aspect of the lives of American women is so isolating as the lack of ability to cooperate closely, within the same four walls, with other women."
Another consequences of this trend towards industrialization and personal independence was that  women who at the turn of the  century were involved in large numbers in community and service organizations (like the temperance, unions, poverty reduction, etc...) no longer had time for such "unpaid" endeavors. Mead wrote,

"The women who formed the backbone of the women's organizations in the first quarter of the century, when the style was set, still had servants and were thus free to give their time and thought to volunteer work. Their granddaughters, on the other hand, are doing their own housework and with more and more frequency are employed outside the home, or continuing their education in hope of later employment."

While reading this I realized that if the Mormon women in Nauvoo were in a position to petition Joseph Smith to start a "Relief Society", one in which they could use their time and resources to help the needy, shows that they had reached a certain level of wealth and prosperity. These women, because they had servants and enough help themselves, were not burdened with the task of providing for themselves or overwhelmed with the responsibilities of housekeeping and children. It made me wonder if perhaps the reason that sometimes our Relief Societies struggle today is because modern women are burdened down with housework, children and the additional expectation of providing for themselves and their families.

Honestly, there are many times I have dreamed how wonderful it would be to have another woman, like the age-old unmarried aunt or sister, living with me to help with the huge task of running a family and a household. A dishwasher and a washing machine are nice but they can't babysit the kids while you go to a city meeting, take something to your sick neighbor, talk to you when you are feeling lonely, or give you a realistic expectation of what constitutes success. I think women need women in a really important way. It makes me wonder how we can get back some of the sisterhood that our foremothers had? Are we doing a good enough job for each other? Or do we need to find more ways to breach the isolation of our independent modern lives?

The last point that Mead makes is that the birth control pill also brought (and was bringing) huge changes for American women. Not only because it was beginning to dramatically reduce the size of families, but because of the  expectation that it brought with it. The birth control pill claims to have "liberated" women from the life-producing aspect of their bodies. With that liberation came the expectation that women could at last be just like men and take responsibility for themselves. If they got pregnant it was their "fault" and they were expected to take total responsibility for it. As Mead wrote,

"The last vestiges of any sort of protectiveness toward women are being swept aside, even as four-letter words infiltrate the most respectable publications, girls wear pants as well as skirts, and men no longer give up a seat, even to a pregnant woman." 

In some respects this lack of protectiveness has been good, because it has opened up opportunities for women in which they excel. Yet, the problem is that the expectation that women should be free from the confines of their biology still persists, but it is not any more true now then it has ever been. It is impossible to completely separate women from their life giving potential and from their responsibility to care and rear children. It is an innate part of our biology and our genetic and spiritual make up. I think that many of the conflicts that women face (like increasing rates of single mothers and the prevalence of abortion) is evidence of this struggle between the expectation of liberation and the reality of being unable to change a woman's fundamental biological nature... though people still try.

I feel like I could ramble on forever about this type of stuff, but I don't have time to do that (because of my biological responsibility to my offspring who are hungry for lunch). But I would love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think about the points Margaret Mead brought up?  Agree? Disagree?

Does what she  say still apply to the American Woman today?



  1. I want to say this in the nicest possible way, because I do respect and look forward to a lot of your posts, but this one didn't uplift or strengthen me. I found some of mead's comments interesting such as machines replaced people but some of the assumptions from derived from her suppositions don't make sense. Basically we see that the modern woman's dilemma is simply that we no longer are skilled in something and have no way to learn effectively (by example) how do live a skilled life especially outside of the workplace. As a woman who's mother worked outside of the home, whose grandmothers' both worked outside of the home, having a skill is where self esteem is fostered and developed. I worked as soon as I was legally able to and found much worth and joy in it. As I have been a stay at home mom with 2 young children, I had a crisis. No way to show my worth because like mead suggests, we now have to be lonely unsupported consumers. That we can't see the joy in caring for the home and children because we don't have help, kids aren't allowed to play alone outside, the ideals are so high of childhood bliss that I only fail. Even living near family, I don't feel supported and feel buried in the impossible tasks of doing everything without help because to paraphrase the movie saving Mr banks, the idea because we have all these machines now that a woman doesn't need help. Why should Mrs banks need a nanny? She had to be active outside the home right? No, just as p.l. Travers said she is a mother, isn't that enough? So basically, whatever the home situation, we need help. We all need help. We all need help in giving help.

    As to the problem of modern relief society, it is that we simply don't know how to serve. We don't know how to care for the sick, help each other, talk, sew, knit bandages, visit,give aid... Because of the we think everything has to be so big, perfect, that we have to do everything and since we don't know how to do it perfectly we don't do it at all. Because we don't simply accept anymore that we all just need help. That in this hyper connected/disconnected world, we still need each other. And we need a little less judgment from our sisters because we are different and experienced different things so we may think differently on certain hard life topics. I am valid in needing help and needing to give help. And you are in the same. Perhaps birth control and abortion don't need to get in the way of that.

    1. Very good points! You are so right, I don't think the questions is so much working outside the home or not, it is that women still need help. Maybe more of it than they had before, but we are expected (and expect of ourselves) to do it on our own. I also liked your point about women not having the skills to be producers or to be productive at home. We have lost many of the skills that women used to do (knitting, canning, making lace, cooking, weaving, etc...) that made them important to a society and the family. There is a really good book you might like call Radical Homemakers, where she talks about how taking back the role of "producer" is the next important step for men and women because the more we depend on corporations to create our lives for us the more freedom we loose. It is really interesting... you might like it :)

      A friend once pointed out to me that some of the most important skills to learn in life is how to physically take care of ourselves that our basic needs are how to grown and cook food, how to build a shelter, how to create warmth and energy, and how to clothe ourselves. How many of us would be able to do those for ourselves? If our modern world shut down would we all be totally unequipped to take care of ourselves... which is kind a scary thought!

    2. Also, it occured to me that maybe our RS now is fulfilling that sisterhood role. Back in the days the RS was much much more serviced based, they ran hospitals, delivered babies and trained nurses, they grew grain, and processed food, they did many of the things that now people get paid to do. Since the governement and private buisneess has taken over many of these service oriented things the focus of the RS is really on connecting women and families together. TO give us that sisterhood that comes from serving. But I think there are far less way to really serve in our modern world because people expect to (and do) get paid for most of the work that use to be purely service... which I'm not saying is bad... just interesting.

  2. Look up the conference talk called,Mother's who Know. Oct 2007. society's message to women is very different, but in the eternal scheme of things, the things that are important and true will never change. I re-read that talk often to help remind me of who I want to be. It is important also to remember that there are seasons in life and that some of what I think I want now will be more readily available and appropriate to pursue for me in future seasons of life. I recently read a comment from some male author who near the end of his life said I wish I had written one less book and played with my children more. So yes, while I currently look at other womens, blogs,careers, clean houses, and craft projects, and fell like I should do more, I will wait for my seasons to change and say, "Quite down cobwebs and dust go to sleep, I am rocking my baby and babies don't keep."

    1. You are right, the basic things don't really change. I think the thing that I thought most interesting about Mead's article is that (in a time when all these changes were new) she wasn't totally optimistic about them. She seemed (surprisingly) a big pessimistic... like there were good things and bad things with the changes. Whereas today I think we just take it for granted that all the changes for women have been good ones... which might not be entirely true. Maybe we have gained some things at the expense of others?

  3. I really enjoyed this. Between my career in homemaking, church calling, involvement at my childrens' school and other things, I am fully aware that I'm not receiving monetary compensation for any of it. Women for decades have clamored that we don't need any more unpaid work, and society quietly fell apart as a result of the billions of small things that women ceased to do because they began working outside the home by the droves.
    And I look forward to what the Millennium will teach us about the righteous interdependence of men and women in family life and home production since there probably won't be food corporations or the apparel industry stepping in to do what people have done for themselves for thousands of years.
    I think what President Kimball said has only grown more relevant today: "Women, come home to your husbands...come home to your children, born and unborn!"

    1. It is interesting to think of right? That we have had generations growing up that don't know how to take care of their basic needs, things that used to be taught by mothers and grandmothers.

  4. I love your article, some great insights but I have to disagree with your comments about all women `needing other women`. I can't imagine being happy living with another woman in close quarters, sharing a kitchen for instance. Maybe this is because I grew up in a household with seven brothers... We are all different and despite having six children I would not appreciate sharing my home responsibilities with anyone other than my husband and children; I love being around my three daughter's but I think another woman would get in my way!!! Probably just me!

    1. Mead mentioned that! She said,

      "Freedom to work has meant that any woman without a husband to support her is expected to work; father's and brothers and sons no longer feel it is their duty to support daughters and sisters and mothers. Spare female relatives-- extra hands to hold the baby, built in sitters, someone to stay home and wait for the delivery man, someone to share the long hours of nursing a sick child-- have thus disappeared from the home. TOday's American girl has been reared in a home in which there were only two adults of the opposite sex. She leaves that home as soon after puberty as she can get away, for marriage or college. For the most part she is unprepared, for reasons having to do with her own upbrining and independence to share her home with another woman. In consequence husbands are taking over many responsibilities once performed by female realtives or servants..."

      It is interesting to think that we have learned independence in our family life, just like past generations learned inter-dependence. We don't know how to do it! And I wonder if we find living together harder in today's world that people have in the past. But I am with you... as much as I would like extra hands... it is nice to be independent too. Maybe there is a happy balance someplace :)

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    3. One of the greatest joys I have had as a woman was having the opportunity to share my kitchen adn home with two of my daughters (both married with children) at two different times for about a year. It was wonderful to be the extra set of hands for grandchildren. I was able to help and serve in easy natural ways because I was there in the evenings. (And I have been a full time working outside the home as well mom since my youngest was 9 months old - out of necessity and continue to be). I also think I got a glimpse of seeing my daughters - mother and take care of her household in their own unique ways as we worked together.

      We work so hard to help our children be independent, sons and daughters. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could channel some of that instinctual woman power to work hard at developing interdependence in our families and communities as well? This is a challenge, to recognize the need for interdependence in the world we live in now that we helped create.

  5. I enjoyed reading this article. I agree that it would be so nice to have another women to help out, or to live in a commune/tribe type enviromemt where everyone helps each other and interacts on a daily basis. I think that wards/relief society are partially supposed to fill this role but I agree that in modern day it doesn't seem to be quite the same.

  6. Very interesting thoughts. I agree that getting back to basics and owning some of the skills taken from us may be the key to finding fulfillment. In my experience, taking back the responsibility to educate my children has been both incredibly challenging and deeply fulfilling. I feel like I've experienced a wonderful interdependence of women as I have joined with other moms in homeschooling together. We each take a morning to teach what we are passionate about i.e. Monday: Music, Tuesday: Shakespeare, Wednesday:Nature Study, Thursday: History etc. Then in the afternoons one other mother and her children join with me and my children to do the basics: reading, writing and math. Not only do I get help in educating my kids, I also get time to be inspired by these other women and to build true friendships based on common beliefs and goals. It has been life changing for me. I feel like everyday I get invaluable perspective and encouragement. The feelings of loneliness I experienced in the past have all but disappeared. Maybe this has been a glimpse of how women helped one another in the past?

  7. Heather, I just found this blog and it is wonderful! I wanted to agree with one particular part of this post. The media today shows all the wonderful amazing things people are doing and we tend to fall into the trap of thinking that if we can't serve like that then our service isn't worth anything. If we can't write like so and so then we have nothing worthwhile to say. We judge ourselves harshly in these ways and others, and the world is the sadder for it. I have the scripture "By small and simple things great things are brought to pass" posted in my home to help me to remember that it is doing the little things and doing them consistently that counts. I tell my children 90% of life is showing up. It doesn't have to be big; it doesn't have to be perfect; it doesn't have to be monumental or world shaking. Not doing something perfectly is not failing; it is learning and growing which is exactly what we are here to do. I am recommitting to follow that small prompting; to take the time to write; to reach out and help even if it is inconvenient; to show up; to do my best; to not judge myself too harshly and become through doing.