Valuing “women’s work”


Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “This Day in June is released TODAY!!!“, which explored the reasons people tend to downplay and dismiss their creative instincts. (To state the obvious, my post also announced the release of my new book.) Several people posted comments, which was great – when no one comments, I’m left wondering, Is anybody out there? Is my post like the socks in the dryer, lost in the world of cyberspace, never to be seen?). But one comment struck a chord in me. The commenter, in a nutshell, said this:

When I was 13 my mother and aunt taught me how to do embroidery (more like stitching and cross-stitching). . . . [E]ver since then I’ve grown a passion for embroidery and I always look for clothes with embroidery because I’m fascinated with it. . . . I never told anyone about it because I was afraid people would criticize me for doing something that seems “boring” or “not for my age” (emphasis mine). 

Ever since she posted this, I’ve been thinking: Is this just about hiding our creativity in order to protect our fragile egos? Or is there something more to this? The possibility of “something more” has been rolling around in my brain ever since – but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Now, fast-forward: The other night, I had a parent meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten. Her school is hosting a fundraising auction in a couple of weeks, and, per tradition, each class creates a gift to be auctioned at the event. Our class gift is a collection of puppets, and the parents’ job at the meeting was to sew them. I was thrilled, frankly, because I LOVE to sew. Most of the parents, however, did not seem thrilled – in fact, several looked panicked, and at least one looked as if she’d try to bolt for the door when no one was looking.

It was at that moment, in that parent meeting, that I had my “a-ha!” moment, realizing what the “something more” was. Most public schools don’t teach sewing anymore – or cooking, or anything related to “home economics.” And why not? Because they’re “frivolous.” It’s traditional women’s work – and modern women just don’t do that sort of thing. That viewpoint – that modern, liberated women just shouldn’t have to learn those skills – is dangerous, in my opinion, and downright sexist, because it equates “feminine” with “bad.” I think the person who posted the comment feared criticism not only for being creative, but for being too feminine.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. I was a first-generation Title IX kid, and in early adulthood I strongly identified with the third-wave feminist movement. Largely because of Title IX (and other feminist achievements), I had a broad-based public school education. I played sports. I went to college, and then to graduate school. In contrast, my grandmother, who in 1925 was privileged enough to attend college, was allowed to major in one of two things: teacher education or home economics. When you compare the options available to women today, we’ve obviously come a long way, baby.

Before the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, home economics was a mainstay in schools for girls – but not for boys (NEVER for boys!). When I was in the seventh grade in 1983, home economics was still a requirement – but because of Title IX, everyone was required to take these classes. Girls took wood shop, drafting, and computer classes (remember the TRS-80?) alongside the boys, and boys took sewing and cooking classes with the girls. This was equality, liberal-feminist style.

But somewhere along the way, home economics started to disappear. Some schools did away with it altogether, reacting to the sexist ways home economics had been presented in the past. (Read “How to Be a Good Wife,” an excerpt from a 1954 home economics textbook, and you’ll see what I mean.) Others replaced “home economics” with the less fluffy-and-feminine term “Family and Consumer Science.” (Calling something a “science” places it squarely in the “not-feminine” arena.) Courses in “interior design” or “apparel design” replaced the homely sewing classes; courses in nutrition, with a strong emphasis on chemistry, replaced the more humble cooking classes. Home economics was for housewives; “Family and Consumer Science” was for scholars and aspiring professionals. There’s even a sizable body of academic literature in Family and Consumer Science, with journal article titles like, “Establishing a research base for the expanded food and nutrition education program.” The bottom line was this: Either home economics disappeared entirely from schools, or it morphed into something more slick and professionalized – into the “not-feminine.”

Sewing is not bad. Cooking is not bad. Learning how to clean your house, iron your shirts, develop a household budget, sew a button, create embroidered designs – none of these are bad things. But in a society that loves to categorize things into boxes, all of these activities go in the feminine box.  If we’re banishing the feminine, and telling girls (and boys) that these feminine pursuits are frivolous, unimportant, and unnecessary, we’re contributing to a very dangerous cultural climate. Think about this: We live in a culture where:

  • Women are more likely than men to be victims of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence;
  • Lesbians who identify as femme commonly experience in-group discrimination, or femme-phobia;
  • Men who are effeminate (whether they’re gay or not) are more likely than their more masculine counterparts to have been bullied in school, and are at a higher risk of being the victim of a hate crime;
  • Transgender women are at a staggering risk of being physically assaulted or murdered (particularly transgender women of color, according to statistics from the Transgender Violence Tracking Portal);
  • Transgender women, largely because of their feminine presentation, continue to experience various forms of oppression, largely at the hands of radical feminists (a group often referred to as TERFs).

What’s the common denominator that’s under fire? The feminine. Garden-variety sexism, reaching its evil tentacles into various queer communities  – and elsewhere. Anytime we denigrate the feminine – even if it’s something as inocuous as home economics – we begin the slippery slope to a far more dangerous form of oppression.

If we truly valued the feminine, men could cry without feeling like their man-card was about to be revoked. Same-sex attracted women could adorn themselves however they want without being told they’re “straight-acting.” Transgender women could live with a reasonable degree of safety. Imagine the possibilities.

All this from a comment about embroidery.

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3 Comments

Filed under anti-gay bullying, culture, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, intersectionality, racism, sexism, transgender, transphobia, violence

3 responses to “Valuing “women’s work”

  1. Lorri Doig

    I agree, and as men (if my sons-in-law are typical) have taken on different roles in family life, we all need some sort of home ec. and industrial arts background. Maybe those classes need to be reintroduced and required of everyone. My dad taught me to cook — mom was a terrible cook — and made sure I knew how to change a tire and check the oil. Looking back, I think my parents were pioneers in raising their children without overly worrying about gender identity.

  2. Although I had classes in sewing and cooking in school, my mom taught me how to cook, sew, and other home-ec type things. In addition, I helped (unwillingly, at the time) my mom and dad do a lot of home maintenance tasks, and I absorbed a lot of knowledge that way. Their gender roles were pretty traditional, but I ended up being well-rounded (being a Title IX kid of the 1970s probably helped too). I agree with you – male or female, all of us benefit from having this skill set.

  3. This reminds me a bit of when I was a kid and had an interest in martial arts. My brother got to take karate classes and I had to take ballet.

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