The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same–Notes from the 1873 Women’s Congress (Takeout for the People!)

So before I could sit down and write the aforementioned goddamned essay, I needed a poignant quotation about male and female roles and a topic. I had hoped the quotation would generate the topic, but I didn’t want anything political or comic, so I turned–as I so often turn–to literature. I ended up finding this sort of horrifying blurb about women from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, and that put me on the direction of women’s education:

The whole education of women ought to relate to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to make herself loved and honored by them, to raise them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, to make their lives agreeable and sweet-these are the duties of women at all times, and they ought to be taught from childhood.

It was not so much what it said that was so horrifying; it’s old news that people think that that. What was so horrifying was that it came from Rousseau. Now, philosophy is like my kryptonite, so the very little I know about Rousseau comes from a 10th grade world cultures class in 1989 (you can do the math) and the television show Lost. The character of Rousseau, who is awesome and has gorgeous hair, personifies the purity of nature or something, but I didn’t think it would be so sexist especially because she is such a bad ass.

But that’s a dangerous tangent to follow–I am purposely not blogging Lost. Long story short, an essay inspired by that Rousseau quotation quickly became unwieldy; I had a maximum of 1,000 words to work with. I looked up some more cheerful stuff, thinking a suffragette would have said or written something that I liked. Did they ever!

The real point of my story begins, then, in 1873 at the First Woman’s Congress for the Association of the Advancement of Women. It was a big event, with all the woman’s suffrage movement headliners, like Elizabeth Cady Stantion and Susan B. Anthony. The proceedings in their apparent entirety are available for free at Google Books, and they make for some interesting reading. What’s nice about Google Books is that you can search for key words within the texts; I was looking in Google Books for passages about women’s education and this book came right up. You can even download it as a PDF. There are a lot of interesting books from the 19th Century on there; you should browse around, especially if you have a Kindle or something and a convenient way to read them.

I haven’t read the whole book yet, although I’ve read several selections in various literature classes. I skipped to the good parts first: “The Co-Education of the Sexes” by Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It starts on page 39. Long story short, she doesn’t see what the big deal is about 1) giving women higher education and 2) letting them attend the same schools as men. My favorite part of the essay/speech is on page 50; Stanton is describing one opposing argument for the purposes of disassembling it later.

But another grave objection to co education is that attachments would be formed and engagements and marriages grow out of them and that thus the thoughts of both sexes would be drawn from their legitimate studies. Another class of objectors assert that the higher education of women would open to them so many new and pleasant fields for thought and action that marriage would be indefinitely postponed or ignored altogether.

What I absolutely love about this point of view–LOVE about it–is that THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAS HAPPENED! They worried about what would happen if women were to go to college (Your mom goes to college!), and presumably think that the distractions of sex and the delay of marriage would be a bad thing.

What’s amazing is that 125 years later, there are reasonable people who still make this point (although no one in the United States would ever dream of barring women from college–even the Fundie universities accept women and have elevated homemaking to the bachelor’s level). Even more amazing is that all over Europe and Japan, and almost in the United States, fertility rates are down. Way, way down. Like below replacement level down, and it’s totally because women are too busy in school to have babies. There is as close to a direct correlation as possible between a group’s fertility rates and the education levels of its women. (I discussed this a little bit in my review of The Baby Bust, edited by Frank Harris.) Education empowers women and gives them the knowledge to control their fertility, true, but mostly it keeps them out of marriage and uses up a lot of good breeding years. Women with jobs also get married for very different reasons than women without them, and all those girls who would have formally become wives for food and housing don’t have to anymore. Whether or not you consider declining fertility rates is a good or bad thing will have to be a debate conducted on your own blog, thank you very much, but there are lots of government leaders in lots of places wringing their hands about the situation right now.

I’m sure that the naysayers of co-ed women’s higher education in the post-Civil War era had different reasons to worry about what would happen with a bunch of spinsters in the marketplace (versus what to do with socialized programs for old people and not enough young people in the work force), but everything they feared has come to pass. I am so impressed sometimes with how smart people are. Talk about prescience! Plus you see all that crazy Gone Wild crap on TV and in books like I Am Charlotte Simmons about the college party scenes and the dumbing down of education and the relative worthlessness of a four-year degree, and you have to admit that boys and girls with legitimate studies be distracting each other. Hell, some places have co-ed bathrooms now, which is a frakkin travesty. I feel like I graduated from college just in time, even though I’m sure I still would have been boring and stuck up and not at parties no matter what years I attended.

The other passage from the First Woman’s Congress selections caught my eye entirely by accident. It’s from “Enlightened Motherhood” by a Mrs. Corbin. She starts with some somber statistics about infant mortality rates, which were very, very high in the era before childhood vaccines and clean water supplies. She’s making the stock argument that higher education will make women better mothers (suggesting obliquely that the lack of education is responsible for child death), as will city-wide plumbing and sewer programs. Then comes this wonderful gem on page 29:

As it is, women cannot be good housekeepers and good mothers also. It is a physical impossibility.

A physical impossibility, folks. Impossibility. So, Gentle Reader cum Houseguest, next time you are over at my house discreetly scanning the dust on the piano and the yogurt smudges beneath the kitchen table and the tiny fruit flies hovering over the tomato seedlings on the window sill, remember that no amount of higher education can teach me to countermand the laws of physics.

Mrs. Corbin acknowledges, however, that the task of bringing electric lighting and clean water to every household is a tremendous undertaking, and an inefficient solution to the dangerous and deadly problem of having kitchens in our homes, in the same buildings that helpless, innocent babies sleep in. So she presents another idea:

First, then, the successful solution of the problem of carrying light and water to all our homes, and carrying heat, by means of steam pipes, to all the houses in one square or block, are pregnant hints of the principles upon which the amelioration of domestic life is to progress. It is more convenient and more economical that one central establishment should do one kind of work for many homes than that each home should have its own isolated and expensive machinery.

Second, the experience of the inhabitants of large European cities proves conclusively that the cooking of food in a restaurant, and the conveying of it to the home warm and fragrant, is not an impossibility. The system as there elaborated is by no means perfect, but the idea is proved to be practicable.

Being a good wife and housekeeper? Impossible. Takeout for the people? Not just possible, but absolutely essential for the true liberation of women.

Takeout, folks. It will save the world.

And don’t think Mrs. Corbin was some radical nutcase with crazy ideas about housewife entitlement, either. In 1900, the Ladies Home Journal published a list of predictions for the year 2000 written by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. #17  assumes that women, like your mom, would go to college (higher ed for women FTW!), but #23 is the one I am most interested in:

Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons. The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed. Such wholesale cookery will be done in electric laboratories rather than in kitchens. These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like. All such utensils will be washed in chemicals fatal to disease microbes. Having one’s own cook and purchasing one’s own food will be an extravagance.

Here we go with the takeout again! In this version, you just send the dirty dishes back through a pneumatic tube like at Costco. Who cares about flying cars? Where’s my pneumatic tube? And a nice little shout-out to germ theory, too. Thank you, Mr. Watkins, for looking out for all us wives and mothers out there. A meat saw has no place in a house with small children.

Because I’m sure you still care, I’ll tell you that I ended up going with an excerpt of some lyrics from a 1925 song called “Masculine Women, Feminine Men” by Monaco/Leslie and not writing the goddamned essay about women’s education at all. Funny how things work that way, isn’t it?

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  • Patience  On March 15, 2009 at 6:30 am

    Fun clip – Chaplin and jazz, great combination!


  • […] from the women’s rights congress that earned itself a big old blog post last month: “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.” I was making fun of poor Mrs. Corbin for calling for take out dinners for everyone and […]

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