Fizzy Jill and I (and a bunch of others) are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Each Monday, we’ll be posting our thoughts on that week’s chapter. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. This week, we read Chapter 6: The Intimately Oppressed.
This chapter is about the oppression of women in early America, where women were forbidden to own property, vote, earn money, or have a career. Many were treated no better than servants, and abuse (both sexual and otherwise) was rampant. Basically, women were treated as the property of men. When their status increased, it was merely to rule over the “woman’s sphere” (i.e., domestic affairs). When they were booted out of this sphere to work in factories, they basically became the property of the factory (and often any wages went directly to their husband or father). (It was interesting to learn about the origin of the term spinster—which originally meant young girls who were needed to work the spinning machines in factories.)
Despite all the bleakness and condescension toward women, there were still women who rebelled against the system and fought for their rights, including Anne Hutchinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth. Another thing that impressed me was that many women—while fighting for their own rights—also worked tirelessly against slavery.
Of the many quotes shared in this chapter, one that resonated the most with me was the “radical” statement that Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell read aloud at their wedding:
While we acknowledge our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife…we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority….
This was one of the more interesting chapters so far—mostly because I was able to connect it better to my own life. Imagining a time when I could not own property, keep my own wages, vote, get an education, or pursue a career of my own choosing gave me a better appreciation for the freedom I have today.
At this point in time, I am in the “traditional” woman’s sphere (raising a child and keeping a home). At times, I feel almost ashamed of this choice. When I fill out a form and write “homemaker” in the occupation area, I sometimes feel a twinge of embarrassment. It almost feels like a betrayal of all the women who came before me—women who fought so hard to be released from this sphere.
Yet I must remind myself that I was able to choose this path of my own free will—after receiving a college education and working in the professional world. I was also able to choose my husband, and my name is on the deed for our home. I’m not taking a step backwards but rather exercising my right to pursue the life that best fits my needs and desires. It is this freedom that I must cherish. I shall be grateful and proud that I can CHOOSE to be a homemaker but am not FORCED or LIMITED to being one. There is a huge difference, and this chapter reminded me of that.