W2.07 Modern Women
Hi. Welcome back. The period of the 1910s and the 1920s features an enormous debate all over the world about women, and about what it meant to be a modern woman. Let's talk some about that. And let's, first of all, think a little bit about why this debate is happening at this particular time. So you start, first of all, with debate about women's rights. Default position is, of course, that in the 1800s, all over the world, almost all women were still in traditional roles. Almost all people lived in rural lives, agricultural settlements, hunter-gatherer communities. And in those communities, for generations, all kinds of roles been assigned. They vary a lot. And you can an argument that, in some ways, women's roles were as important as the menï¿½s, or more important; it can vary from place to place. But there can be very little argument about the fact that in a legal, formal sense, when these traditional societies interacted with formal public systems of law, the role of the women was often subordinate, subordinate, for instance, in rights to own property and rights to be treated equally if there was a court case of some kind. So, often these traditional roles of subordination took very concrete forms. Take, for example, the case of China. In China, after a period in which women had had very large roles in society, in the Song Dynasty between, say, the years about 900 and 1100, women began binding and compressing the size of their feet. What had been a peculiar fashion convention of the 11th or 12th century, becomes by the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries a ritualized and mandatory custom for all upper-class women, or women who aspired to be upper-class women. Literally from childhood, crushing their feet to fit in tiny little shoes. Three, four inches long. Here's a photograph that shows you a Chinese woman in 1900. Very typical, with bound feet and traditional shoes. This is actually a very graceful way of showing what had been done to her feet to make them fit in these, three or four inch long little pointy shoes. The effect of Chinese women, millions and millions of them crushing their feet in these ways, would of course be that physically, they were just not equal to men. They could not walk normally. In the most literal way, they could not keep up with men. In fact, one of the great causes of Western missionaries in China in the late 1800s was to do everything they could to eliminate the custom of foot binding. And by the early 1900s, the elimination of foot binding became a cause for Chinese liberals as well. So you have women in their traditional roles. And in the late 1800s, there is a large and escalating fight for women to get equal political rights. One of the questions we always want to keep asking ourselves not just why, but why then? Why not in the 1700s? Why not in the 1600s? What's going on in the late 1800s that might make arguments about political rights for women more influential than they had been in the past? Let's think about that for a moment. Hm, well one factor that we could, we said that liberal ideas were reaching a zenith of popular acceptance, especially in Europe and the United States, by the 1860s. Connected very much to that was the anti-slavery movement. If former slaves will be given equal political rights, made citizens, given the right to vote, shouldn't women be considered at least as equal as former slaves? In fact, you'll note that in the late 1800s a lot of the same people who were very active in anti-slavery movements were also very active in trying to get political rights for women. Although the advocates of political rights for women were accused of wanting to overthrow traditional society, mainly their focus was on equal political rights. They weren't trying to more or less overthrow the roles of women, though some radicals might. In general though, they just thought that women, staying in their traditional roles, should at least be allowed to have equal political rights just as a matter of principle. Here's an example of a political poster from suffragettes in England in the 1910s. Of course, the man who has the vote is sailing along, the woman is rowing hard because she's handicapped. Of course, not having the vote. United States in 1913. Women are going to march for suffrage. Or even in Japan in the 1920s. Japanese women picking up the liberal ideals that animate a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, with people voting, also begin asking for a right to vote. But it wasn't just a matter of principle. Women also wanted the right to vote to protect themselves. That's a very interesting point. Why would women feel a particular need to protect themselves that's more salient in the late 1800s or early 1900s than earlier? And just think about it. Like what's changing in society? There are a couple of things that are changing. One is, for instance, big cities. Urbanization for the first time in human history. And what was happening in those big cities is the construction of saloons. Think about it. If your husband was on the farm, it wasn't as easy for him to run off and get drunk with a hundred other men. Or if he got drunk, he was doing it on the farm. Men going to the saloons, the way liquor is destroying their husbands and therefore wrecking their families, is a huge theme of what women are agitating about in the late 1800s, and one reason they need to get the right to vote is to begin enacting laws that ban or restrict the sale of alcohol. Here's one cartoon by an opponent. This one in Hawaii. Water cure back then was a synonym for torture, for what we would nowadays call waterboarding, and here's this woman you can see the pejorative depiction of her, that's torturing this poor brewer. On the hose it says W-C-T-U: that stands for Womenï¿½s Christian Temperance Union. Over here, in the background, the Anti-Saloon League. But it wasn't just temperance that women were worried about. Women also needed the vote to protect their working conditions. Another big feature, late 1800s, early 1900s, women are in the workplace. In those cities, women are working in factories, in sweatshops as seamstresses. A notorious case, in New York in 1911, was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Hundreds of women, working in horrific conditions, find themselves caught in a building that catches on fire. Hundreds die. Many of them leaping to their deaths. Women need the vote, they argued, so that they can pass laws to protect other women from industrial abuse. If the cutting-edge issue of the 1910s in the relationship of women to society is political rights, what I want to look at now are the origins of modern feminism. Most scholars of modern feminism would place its origins, especially in Britain and America, around the 1910s and the 1920s. What's going on? Now, in addition to political rights, women are talking more and more about emancipation. A broader kind of freedom. What does emancipation mean? Well, actually that's an argument that's still going on today. Ask yourself what you think emancipation might mean to a woman of 1920. For her, it might just mean emancipation from being locked into traditional roles. Now it's not just about formal civil rights, now it is about the social place of women. Women are finding themselves in the workplace; they're working in factories; they're working in office; they're avant-garde magazine editors in New York City. They're doing all kinds of things. They want to imagine a different kind of independent lifestyle for themselves. Also, emancipation from traditional sexual roles; a key element of this sort of emancipation is actually the right to control whether they get pregnant and give birth to children. If you were to look into: Well, when does modern birth control or organizations like Planned Parenthood have their start? You'd be looking at exactly this period of time. You'd be looking, for example, at people like Margaret Sanger, the founder of modern birth control in the United States. One of the most influential figures for the spread of birth control worldwide. She was put on trial in the 1910s even for talking about the subject of birth Control, as if that was something that was obscene. But notice, this issue put out by the American Birth Control League, a forerunner of Planned Parenthood. This magazine is from 1919. Notice the argument, dedicated to voluntary motherhood. The cover sketch, there's a nurse. The woman is saying must she always plead in vain. You are a nurse, can't you tell me? For the children's sake, help me. In other words, can't the nurse give this woman advice on how she can become a voluntary mother. How shall we change the law? That's one kind of emancipation, but another form of emancipation, if you will, is equal opportunity, including equal opportunity in the workplace. Equal opportunity to enter the professions. These are also increasingly pressing issues for the agenda of modern feminism. Not just political rights. In the 1910s, 20s, 30s, and beyond. The conditions of society have changed. Women are finding themselves in new places. They're now trying to adjust the whole social expectation of women to match. The characteristic popular understanding of this in the 1920s is typified by the image of the modern girl. We here in America might think of the modern girl just in this image of the American flapper. Here, for example, is an American film actress in 1926. But this is not just about America; these modern girls are showing up all over the world. They're showing up in Germany, in iconic images like this one. They're showing up in Japan, in this image in a beer advertisement. They're showing up in China, where modern girls insist for example, at the most literal level, they will no longer bind and crush their feet; they will be able to walk like ordinary people; they will wear western cosmetics; they'll fashion their hair along Western styles. But they'll adapt western styles in traditional Chinese ways. You see the dresses they're wearing are a fusion of Western and Eastern style, to form the image of the Shanghai girls on the cover of this recent best-selling novel. How's this happening? In a way, it's useful to think about transmission belts of modern styles, of modern culture. Sure, movies, things like that. Magazines. But all over the world there are particular cities that are kind of bridge points between East and West, places in which these styles are communicated, developed. So for instance, if you were to go to Asia, places like Tokyo, like Shanghai, like Saigon, in French Indochina, the city now called Ho Chi Minh City. Or, Djakarta, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. In all of these places East met West, the most modern Western conveniences, consumer goods, cosmetics, styles, advertising is meeting these local cultures, and you are seeing the results of some of these fusions. But one of them is that women in all these places are trying out a modern, independent style which then becomes a lightning rod for public controversy about what it all means. You'll notice how a lot of these modern girls are very much about the consumerism, perfumes, cars, cigarettes, fashions. There's also an aspect of defining the modern girl that's precisely a reaction to that consumerism. Take for instance this image from the new Soviet Union. That's also modern girl, but she wouldn't be a modern girl... she'd be a modern worker. You see? Their argument was that communism was also about the liberation of women, that women were joining alongside with men as workers in the factory. So, you see, this modern woman is being careful not to wear Western cosmetics. Not to wear brand name Western clothes. She's emphasizing her modern identity, not only as a worker, but as a fellow comrade. So far, we've talked about political turmoil, communism versus anti-communism, an age of uncertainty, changing roles between men and women. Now, next time let's just sort of take stock and look around the world of 1930. See you then.