Dirt and Divisions Among Women
A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry
—Annie Get Your Gun, 1946
When the musical comedy heroine Annie Oakley heard Frank Butler sing “The Girl That I Marry,” she became desperate at the distance between his image of an ideal mate and her evident unsuitability: she was a sharpshooter wearing buckskin and boots, rather than satins and laces. Annie and Frank finally united, but the message was clear. If a woman wanted matrimony, she had better learn to clothe herself in the paraphernalia of femininity. The woman about to embark on keeping house had better look and smell as if she never saw a dirty dish or dirty floor, much less scrubbed one.
As we saw in Chapter Two, the housewife who was unable to disguise the labor involved in housework and whisk away dirt from her own appearance as well as from the house risked offending a husband’s delicate sentiments—his ideal of angelic womanhood. Successful housekeeping kept intact an image of pure women residing in pristine homes as well as making homes pleasant. Making housework look like something other than work was a job requirement; making accomplishment appear effortless, a measure of proficiency.
To succeed in this role, the model wife needed another woman to do the hard and dirty physical labor. She needed a woman different from herself, one whose work and very identity confirmed the housewife’s daintiness and perfection.
The equation between the “good” housewife and the “good” (doll-like) woman is the core of the theoretical insights I hope to develop. Historians have often noted the cultural distinctions between “good” women and “bad” women based on sexual standards of purity and licentiousness, and the issue of sexual propriety continues to simmer in feminist scholarship.1 The home has been reified as the setting for good women, virtuous wives and mothers. Its work has been haloed with maternal imagery. Yet the work carried on in the home is unconsciously identified with dirt and decay, which threaten to taint the character of the woman who does it. A wife’s association with physical dirt contaminates her character in much the same way as her association with illicit sex. In the Western unconscious of the past two centuries, indeed, dirt and sex live in close association, and women who clean up things associated with bodies find themselves mysteriously deemed sexual and powerful regardless of their actual social status.
The theory that underlies this book is that sex, dirt, housework, and badness in women are linked in Western unconsciousnesses and that white middle-class women sought to transcend these associations by demonstrating their sexual purity and their pristine domesticity. To achieve this image, MCHs created and passed on a vision of being white, middle-class, and female that required an exquisite home setting for its fulfillment. They sought not only material well-being, though that was certainly one advantage, but mental comfort, the comfort of being a good woman. Their ease required not only service but contrast with a woman who represented the bad in woman, a woman who does housework and also embodies physical and emotional qualities that distinguish her from the housewife. Through creating a proper home and through contrast with a servant, the MCH found her identity as a good woman. It was this desire to differentiate herself and to sustain a compelling, though limited, image of womanhood that led white middle-class women to devalue housework, to deny their connection with it, and to act in ways that maintained other groups of women in domestic service and related occupations.
These concepts of moral and sexual purity have rarely been linked with a wife’s housework. One explanation may be that housework has historically been regarded as refined in relation to the “lower” and harsher grades of discomfort and drudgery. Working-class women, whose alternatives were factory regimen and sweated labor or care of a little cottage supported by a workingman’s salary, dreamed of securing a reliable husband. Even in plantation slavery the woman field hand was regarded as a rougher creature than the house slave, who also felt relatively inferior to the mistress. (The images of wifely comforts at home have always had a reverse side—of the servant as sexual prey for men of the house, which I shall discuss momentarily.) Housework, then, was seen as easy and pleasant work compared to other jobs open to women.
But the working-class image of keeping a comfortable little house was not adequate for middle-class women whose husbands worked at professional, mental, clean jobs. For this woman, beginning in the nineteenth century, her efforts to be a worthy partner for her husband, to be pure and genteel, required not soiling her hands. She had to have a servant to do the heaviest labor and to free her time for other, more pleasant tasks of the bourgeois home.
In brief, then, I think that white middle-class women sought to avoid housework for the same reasons they avoided flamboyant behavior; both were connected with bad women and inferior morality. When MCHs could no longer avoid doing housework, as happened progressively during the period covered by this book, they needed to exert even greater control over their own suspect bodies and to escape the home. This is an unusual assertion, and I believe that connections developed between sex, dirt, housework, and women in the nineteenth century, and that they are related to the dirt aversion evident in housework design between 1920 and 1945. Changes taking place during this period threatened white middle-class women with loss of their servants and, consequently, their detachment from manual labor and their feeling of distinctiveness from other women.
In our culture, we tend to believe that attitudes toward dirt and hygiene result from the logical unfolding of precise scientific knowledge about cleanliness and health. One might assume that the high national consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and sugar would dispel such confidence in human rationality. We remain firmly committed, nonetheless, to the belief that our customs are based on enlightened, progressively improving knowledge and that practices different from ours are backward and superstitious.
On the contrary, the concept of “dirty,” like other emotionally significant abstractions with which it is connected—sex, birth, nourishment, death—has a history inextricably linked with changes in family life, in cultural representations of bodies and regulation of sex, and in organization of work. Dirt is not a scientific fact but a principal means to arrange cultures, a point that has been made most effectively by anthropologist Mary Douglas.2 Historians are just beginning to study Americans’ changing standards of dirt, an essential complement to understanding housewives’ sanitary standards.3
Other historical studies about images of socially despised groups provide useful insights, however, when viewed through Douglas’s purity–taboo bifocals. “Dirtiness” appears always in a constellation of the suspect qualities that, along with sexuality, immorality, laziness, and ignorance, justify social rankings of race, class, and gender. The “slut,” initially a shorthand for “slattern” or kitchen maid, captures all these personifications in a way unimaginable in a male persona.
Numerous studies suggest that, beginning at least in the late eighteenth century the designation dirty was regularly applied to women, to working-class men and women, and to women and men seen as racially different from the dominant group. Winthrop D. Jordan’s fine study of the development of black slavery and racism in the United States, White Over Black, demonstrates the unconscious equations between dirt, black skin, sensuality, and physical strength held by dominant white men. Though white plantation owners feared black men’s anger and fantasized about their sexual prowess, their most vivid fantasies focused on black women, the temptresses who threatened white men’s reason and self-control.4
Though there are many explanations for how humans divide up the world into dirty and clean, pure and taboo, the ones I find most informative about Western culture of the past two centuries come from the greatest student of the nineteenth-century Western mind, Sigmund Freud, and analysts who have followed him. Freud linked fears of dirt with infantile experiences of a pleasurable body that had to be regulated to conform to adult demands. Infants took as natural and enjoyed their various body fluids and excrement and had to internalize their parents’ perceptions that these portions of the self and the uncontrolled body they represented were “dirty” and “bad.” As they showed interest in their physically pleasurable genitals, they also found that these displays were forbidden by parents and came to distrust their sensuality and sexual impulses. But they never lost the infantile memory of pleasure, and they carried into adult lives hostility to, and fascination with, those things linked unconsciously in the mind: feces, money, gift, baby, and penis, according to Freud.5 In this view, the Victorian man’s ambivalent obsession with money, “filthy lucre,” becomes understandable as a passion for, and reaction against, infantile pleasure in filth. For women, Freud believed that maternity allowed a purifying physical release of tension.
Freud’s analysis of the mistrust of the body may not be universally true, but it certainly described the psyche of his world, the bourgeois world of nineteenth-century Europe. To be shaped into civilized beings capable of reason and planning, which became preeminently valuable qualities in the capitalist and imperialist expansionism of the nineteenth century, humans had to repress or sublimate psychological pressures to pursue physical desire.6 But neither Freud nor subsequent analysts worried about the effects on women’s minds of injunctions to self-discipline that were not acted out within the cash nexus of the marketplace.
Freud’s understanding of sexual repression was also limited by his view of physical impulses as innate drives necessarily stymied by civilization’s standards and by his focus on the father. For Freud, the male child incorporated his “lessons” about physical restraint only in the Oedipal phase, when, turning his phallic desires toward the mother, he faced the threat of castration by the father. Accepting the father’s superiority and the promise that he would someday be allowed a woman just like his mother, the male child incorporated his father’s rule (and that of all the fathers embedded in law) and accepted the restraints of civilization. He gained a superego–conscience. Women, however, already without a penis and “castrated,” had an incomplete incorporation of society’s laws, internalized a less firm superego, and tempted men away from the work of building and refining “civilization.”7 Certainly women did not have access to any of the socially approved forms of sublimation for men: scientific research, exploration, commercial and industrial development, scholarship. Only religion and motherhood offered compensations, and these were not so engrossing as those available to men.
Late twentieth-century feminist accounts grounded in one of Freudianism’s successors, object-relations psychology, have focused on the importance of the mother in the infant’s mental life. This approach has clarified the connection between women’s natural and social role as mothers and their association with dirt and sex in the West during the past two centuries. Unlike Freud, who thought women were associated with sex because of their psychic inadequacies, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jane Flax, and Nancy Chodorow have laid out a compelling picture of infantile mental life that shows how the infant learns to connect mother and body in the unconscious. Though this account has been told in the works of these and other authors, it is still so unfamiliar and alien to our antipsychoanalytic society that I repeat the developmental story that helps explain men’s and women’s fear of women and mental associations of the female with the polluted and unclean.8
Infants in our society experience mothers and the other women who are caretaking substitutes as both nurturing and withholding nurturance, sometimes against the infant’s often compelling desires and at the age when the infant is completely dependent on adults for survival. The mother or surrogate lives on in adult minds as the creature always connected in infant experience with food, warmth, tending the body, and giving it comfort. Mothers cuddle and respond to the child’s demands, but they also abandon it to respond to the demands of other children and adults. Faced with a creature (almost always female) who is both necessary and infuriating, powerful and terrifying, the child splits beloved and sensually adored and offending mother in two, loving the “good” mother and those aspects unconsciously connected with goodness and hating the “bad” mother and those things unconsciously equated with badness.
According to the object-relations theory, however, crucial links between one’s sense of self and the female come in a pre-Oedipal phase when the child is learning to be a separate and individuated being, to control its body and to do so in relations with beloved objects, the awkward psychoanalytic term for persons who elicit emotional–psychic attachments. In this phase, the tasks of devlopment are to learn to accept and to reconcile both autonomy and nurturance—to be, in the simplest terms, both separate–individuated and attached to others. The fear is that if one is too independent and autonomous, one will not be connected with a loving and nurturant other. And if one is too loved, nurtured, and connected to someone else, one will lack independent and autonomous action. Moreover, the child carries out the process of separation–individuation in relation to the infant caretaker, the woman felt as both good and bad, who in the infant’s fantasy may both nurture and obliterate.
Little boys and girls resolve this stage somewhat differently. Boys learn fairly easily that they can be separate from the mother, indeed, that they are supposed to be different from her. But they also learn that nurturance comes from women and that they do not carry the capacity inside themselves. With fear of abandonment and fear of being overwhelmed by the mother, boys split their responses to women, who may offer nurturance and comfort, but only if they lack power that will threaten male autonomy. Despising, or constraining, the creatures on whom one’s physical and psychic satisfactions depend becomes a protection against loss of self.
For girls, separating from the nurturant mother is more difficult because they are told by cultural messages that they are like her. Little girls are less encouraged by mothers to be autonomous and have a harder time separating psychologically from the mother and the overwhelming as well as reassuring aspects of her nurturance. As a consequence, girls remain less certain of their capacities for autonomous action, more afraid that independent activity will result in an obliteration of nurturance and of self. They also, however, incorporate the mother into their identities and experience themselves as repositories of female power, which is both good and bad, nurturant and destructive.
What feminist analysts have added to Freud, then, is the recognition that infantile physical feelings about body and dirt, sex and punishment, pervade feelings about independence and caring. Experiencing sex and dirt recalls unconscious infant joys that were banished by superego constraints on pleasure; they also resonate with being nurtured and fearing that the nurturer will destroy toddlers’ efforts at independence.
No wonder, then, that individual children solve the problem of anger at the mother or intense desire for her by splitting female images. They deny their anger and love and her power and instead depict her as all-loving and radiantly beneficent. They also carry the unconscious fears, however, that she has aroused responses so great that they feel as if they might obliterate her through the hostility of anger or the merging of passion and that the powerful mother will reciprocate; thus the result of the child’s strong feelings is fear of obliteration by the mother. In households in which a mother nurtures and tends to her own children, the child may act on one or the other of these feelings and holds them in tension. In much of the middle class for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, it was possible to split feelings and to project them onto two distinct women—mother and servant.
In Western culture of the past two centuries, with servants often acting as mother substitutes to children of the middle class, the split between adored good, nonthreatening mother and bad women who could be despised because of their class and race was overlaid onto other social relations that defined goodness and badness for women. Even when children adored the nurturant mother surrogate, they learned early that she was not the good mother and to shift their allegiances.9
Images of good and bad women, then, have such salience because they are linked in the Western unconscious with feelings about mothers and our infant bodies and selves. For men, these splits may cause confusion in dealing with women and pain as they seek to recover the original nurturance that was lost to them when they lost the infant connection with the mother. It helps to explain the fear and hostility to women as eliciting feelings of internal anarchy and potentially overwhelming power. But men have been able to escape these self-doubts and fears through control of households, businesses, government, and military enterprises in which they sublimate aggressive energies and gain connection with sensual pleasure through association with bad women and nurturance through socially regulated sex in marriage with good, safe women.
Women, however, had to sublimate and repress physical impulses and guilt without being able to control institutions. For women, also, the physical self always made persistent and shaming demands. Women inhabited less easily regulated bodies than men, bodies that it seemed less possible to deny and to transcend. Women from the age of about fifteen to about fifty reliably appeared unclean in menstruation. In the centuries before indoor bathrooms and manufactured tampons and douches, it must often have been difficult for women to disguise this periodic “uncleanness,” which evidently aroused fear and disgust in men. Psychoanalyst Clara Thompson reported that some female patients in the 1940s felt menstruation a sign of incompetence because it was a body product that, unlike feces and urine, could not be controlled by a sphincter and, therefore, represented a moral failure. Other women felt unclean because of genital odors. One woman feared marriage “because she would not be able to keep her body clean at every moment in the presence of her husband.”10
More than white middle-class men, who could project sensuality onto women, dark-skinned people, and workers, middle-class women find the sensual in themselves and in other women. Dominant men split feelings about good and bad women and project them onto different groups of women. Women, however, experience these split feelings within themselves.11
This division of self has occurred in a society that has split the images of offending and valued women and projected them onto other salient social divisions of class and race. The badness of women of darker skins and lower incomes has functioned on many levels to sustain the material and psychic comfort of good women and the men who are their fathers, husbands, and sons. Working-class women and women of color have been the repositories for images of sexuality and moral inferiority; they have been depicted as legitimate sexual outlets for men, as loose women who also are so powerless that they pose no threat to men’s authority and autonomy; their presence enabled good women to be missionaries for social purity, and they performed the labor that enabled good women to appear dainty and clean. These social and cultural divisions and their long history have expanded the mental associations we carry about good and bad women.
For women more than men, this division offered a precarious confidence. Men could never become so polluted as women, and there was no danger, no matter how degraded they became, that they would become female. For women, however, confidence in self-image depended upon differentiation from other women, who confirmed the good woman’s elevation from dirt and shame. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the existence of sharp class and race divisions guaranteed a labor force to serve the good woman and also constant signals in sexual and social behavior that the angelic wife of a middle-class household was unique among women.
Numerous historians of Victorian America and England have examined men’s dual images of women—Madonna/Magdalen, virgin/whore, angel/devil—and some have linked them explicitly with class and race divisions. Men sought sexual outlet with women who posed no social or political threat and simultaneously denied the sexual prowess of their female peers and partners—the “respectable” white women who became their wives.12 In England, where class constituted the primary social division, the likeliest candidates for the sexual pleasures of well-to-do men were “domestic servants, girls from the working or lower classes, and prostitutes of varying degrees of expensiveness.”13 In the United States, black slavery provided white masters easy access to women perceived as sexually enticing and nurturant. In sex with them, white men found full dominion over the desired and dominating “mother” and appeasement of their fear of her power. Though their wives also had the basic sensual impulses found in all women, they, men believed, had become good through sheltered ignorance and must be kept that way.14
Taking sexual pleasure with impoverished women and slaves freed middle-class men from doubts about the purity of their wives and from fears of proper women’s innate, though restrained, sensuality. In a century in which men felt a terror of the sexuality represented by the female,15 they used religion, medicine, and marriage to contain and control female power and usually sought sexual expression with powerless women.16
Wives came to represent other sensual pleasures, those of a comfortable house filled with lavish furnishings, ample food, and pleasing garments. Domesticity “offered subtle erotic inducements” to the development of bourgeois feelings. Material comfort measured success, but it also gratified infantile longings for physical pleasure split from sexual shame.17
Why men accepted the split between good and bad women, sex with inferiors and comfort with their wives, is not difficult to comprehend. Why their female peers accepted the contraints of “goodness” is less obvious. Nevertheless, these women rapidly adopted the new sexual standards and wrapped themselves in their angelic imagery. Perhaps semiconsciously, women welcomed an ethic of “passionlessness” as a defense against husbands’ sexual demands and ensuing pregnancies and men’s general depreciation of female morality. Certainly, the ethic provided a new justification for women’s influence: moral superiority grounded in chaste sexuality.18
Women gained a step in the climb to attain full humanity grounded in reason and mental effort. Accepting sexual restraint enabled women to appear more like men, who embodied the standard of human achievement.19 It freed them from fears of their own unruly demands. And in societies increasingly fractured along race and class lines, it guaranteed respect and material comfort to some women that were denied to many other women. No wonder that the woman of elevated class, race, and family chose to develop those impulses that accorded with images of good women rather than impulses that led to self-judgments and social consequences of bad women. All classes of women sought respectability, but slave women had little power to fend off white men’s sexual demands, and working-class women had low wages to augment, most easily by selling sexual favors.
The proper environment for the sexually chaste woman was the marital household, the home that became a staple of popular imagery and aspiration. Like feelings about women, however, those about the home were split into good and bad components, which were the domains of different women. In domestic work, images of sexuality and dirt joined with the reality of housework to create emotionally powerful images.
Links between housework and psyche depend on the home as the center for intimate and sensual existence. Housework took care of those things that society found most unappealing, embarrassing, and tainted: the visible needs and evidences of fallible bodies. Housewives, or their domestic alter egos, prepared the food to sustain bodies (transforming other living things into dead forms for people to ingest) and cleaned up the detritus left from meals: boiling babies’ diapers, toilet-training children, removing bed pans for the sick, clearing away evidence of human excrement. They washed clothes and bedclothes soiled by sweat, odors, hair, and dead skin thrown off by bodies. And they straightened up and ordered the objects in homes and removed all intrusions—soot, sand, mud, polluted air, dust, grease, body odors—that were disapproved.
The nineteenth century witnessed important changes in the standards for these tasks, their organization in homes, and who performed them. First, middle-rank families could afford servants to take the heaviest physical labor off the housewife; one of the most basic effects of bourgeois life was that wives enjoyed comforts as much as husbands. Second, and perhaps related, the cleaning standards set for these servants were noticeably raised, and sites of household work were clearly divided from spaces for living. American house plan books designated numerous specialized rooms, dividing public spaces from private, adult spaces from children’s, women’s from men’s, and keeping “the service aspects of the house hidden from the eyes of visitors.”20 In England, “Victorian architectural writers [were] obsessed with the fear of cooking smells pervading the halls or living-rooms in any way and [went] to elaborate ends to prevent this intrusion.”21 Third, the work of women was much more clearly divided along race and class lines, with the darker-skinned and poorer cleaning up the physical detritus of the lighter-skinned and better off.22 Western Europe’s imperial experiences produced racial hierarchies similar to those in the United States. Settlers, colonial administrators, and military families had black servants and servants in quantity, and the images of that life were brought home to Europe.
The United States received the ethos of female fragility from Europe, especially England, and added its own unique system of gender differentiation developed in the institution of black slavery. In Europe, peasant girls became servants to the urban bourgeoisie. In America, Irish immigrant “Bridgets” continued the pattern of rural women doing housework for urban ones and were often stigmatized in racial terms as slovenly, licentious, and dark.23 The dominant image of the servant, however, was fixed as a black slave woman whose purpose in life was to serve white ladies (regardless of the actual shade of skin, which was much more varied than indicated by this neat dichotomy).24 In Britain and the American Northeast, the contours of class were visible in the clothing, manners, and carriage that distinguished the mistress from her maid; in the American South, skin hue intensified the sense of physical difference. Ladies looked like, or were perceived as, delicate, pure creatures, almost too pure to be sullied by the exigencies of living. Servants looked like, or were perceived as, physically strong, linked to animals by their power and by their labor. At the simplest, ladies were clean and servants were dirty.
The division between whose body was clean and tended accordingly, and whose body became relatively unclean in the process, was more firmly drawn in the nineteenth century than previously. The capacity to be clean and sweet-smelling became a visible sign of the mental and moral capacities believed to characterize the bourgeoisie and their homes tended by angelic wives and daughters. Bourgeois women could attain this preciousness because working-class domestics scrubbed floors and stoops on their knees, emptied chamber pots, cooked every meal, scoured pots and pans, and laundered the family’s clothing weekly. The wife’s cleanliness was made possible by the domestic’s dirtiness. Images of good and bad women were easily projected onto middle-class and working-class women.
The class and race divisions between mistresses and servants visibly heightened the emotional attributions of the division of household labor. The work of cleaning up the “bad” body was given to “bad” women, and this work distribution confirmed the dominant beliefs that class and race differences were due to the moral superiority of middle-class white women and the moral degradation of working-class and black women.
Home, Sex, and Work in the 1920s and 1930s
I began this work asking how notions of bourgeois gentility were sustained when in the twentieth century most women came to do the work of their homes and feelings about women’s contamination could no longer be split between the housewife and the domestic. How did middle-class women make this transition—in actual work and in self-image? How was the home as an unconsciously dirty place connected most deeply with our despised physical fallibilities made emotionally habitable when there was no despised domestic to deflect feelings of dirtiness from wives and mothers?
I have offered three answers in this book, and I would like to speculate about a fourth. First, I have concluded that until almost midcentury, servants continued to take the greatest burden from middle-class women and to be the primary women associated with dirt. By having an “other” in her home, the middle-class woman not only got work done, but also her pristine identity affirmed. By emphasizing her difference from women domestics, the housewife upheld her position as a pure woman and as a person almost as detached from concern for the physical needs of life as her husband, almost as unsullied as he. The price, of course, was separation from the interests of other women, exploitation of the labor of other women, and continued denial of her own power and responsibility.
Second, middle-class households continued the pattern of finding sensual satisfactions in consumer goods, while simultaneously making life cleaner and less erotic. Encouraged by rising consumer standards and advertisements, MCHs gained ever higher ideals of furnishings to own, accoutrements for meals, child-developing toys to purchase, and personal attractiveness to tend and pamper.
The increase in consumer pleasures required, however, a matched increase in hygiene and order. Despite important changes in household sanitation, most obviously the spread of fully equipped bathrooms, home washing machines, and “clean” gas and electric fuels, continuous work was required to keep households up to magazine standards of presentability and wives up to advertising and movie norms of beauty. Meal preparation and cleanup and cleaning rooms and soiled clothes remained constant preoccupations.
Both kitchens and bathrooms were obsessively cleaned, according to the reports of housewives and servants. Weekly cleaning of stoves and daily cleaning of dishes, counters, and floors indicated the need to remove food odors and remnants from sight. Refrigeration slowed down natural decay and enabled a housewife to keep leftovers, but she then had additional work to disguise these as fresh food, incorporated into new dishes and not simply warmed up.
Daily scrubbing of bathrooms and provision of clean towels removed remainders of the physical needs of excretion and of body cleansing. Tidying living rooms, changing bed linens and airing mattresses, straightening curtains and placing pillows and window shades at even angles, all worked to make the home an ordered and perfect place that looked as if it had not been disturbed by human life.
Clothing standards rose with the advent of commercial laundries and home washing machines. The fastidiousness of perfect clothes heightened distinctions between those able to hire such equipment and those unable to do so. Hygienic distinctions between servants and mistresses remained intact, though now wives also wanted their servants to be fresh-smelling and not to disturb the atmosphere even when the servant sweated to put out the labor necessary to maintain the domestic aura. When servants could not meet criteria of personal hygiene, the wife’s superiority was demonstrated; when they could, it was also proof of the wife’s virtue, since she, or women like her, had trained the servant to civilized manners and demeanor.
Third, the MCH defined her own housework job to resemble the rationalized, sublimated work world of her husband. Instead of envisioning radical reforms of household-based service, middle-class American women sought to remove the stigma from the occupation that defined daily work for most women by masculinizing it. They postulated a male standard of worthy endeavor and likened housework to men’s production work instead of to women’s service work. Men had no associations with the infant experience of physical weakness and sensual pleasure. To adopt the model of men’s work was to emulate rational, abstract work.25 Housewives could portray their work as managerial and economic—analogous to their husbands’—and deflect images of manual tending to physical needs onto the women who cooked, laundered, and cleaned for wages.
Home economics as a college-based, research-defined field promised to elevate housework from manual labor to a profession like engineering. It enabled women’s culture of homemaking to be more widely recognized and undoubtedly raised women’s self-confidence and ability to care for families. Simultaneously, it accepted masculine standards of value and rationality and based good homemaking on commercial consumption. And, at the same time that the discipline helped to define minimum standards of household well-being, it also showed women how to organize their housework in conformity to income and race status. Beneficial though systemizing household information was, it left intact the devaluation of housework in the middle class and in popular culture.
Working-class women, however, could not reject the work on which their incomes as servants depended and the activities in which they spent hours of their lives and in which they felt pride of accomplishment. Domestics saw the possibility of their occupations being treated like other work, with hours and wages regulated like industrial jobs and with health, retirement, and unemployment benefits like other employment. These conceptions depended upon seeing housework as work and not as an invisible set of services performed out of sight of husbands and the public world. Servants had a notion of housework as a job, like a factory job, and not, since it was not their own home, the place connected with sensuality and repression. Their conception led to transforming service work into a business and caring for food, people, and laundry in commercial enterprises, a shift that would accelerate after World War II.
When servants vanished, hygienic standards for work increased, and MCHs found they had no one’s work to manage but their own and that they could no longer live at home as angels. My speculation is that the fourth change that occurred was that middle-class housewives lost the ability to split womanhood into two groups, with themselves on the good side. Instead, increasingly, the split between good and bad became internalized, and women engaged in heightened efforts to control and to deny the power and dirt of their bodies.
As women became more directly linked to the dirty work of the home, they spent more time purifying their own bodies and eradicating their physical shame. Even more than in the nineteenth century, a woman’s virtue exhibited itself in the ordered and exquisite use of purchased objects and in the maintenance of a body that exhibited no dissolution—a youthful, perfumed, fit body.
In the care of their bodies, as well as their domestic space, wives exercised greater fastidiousness as they became more solely identified with the home. Restraints on the sensual self shifted, but they did not erode. Women could be sexy for their husbands but not for other men. The MCH’s relationship to her husband often exhibited maternal qualities; she overlooked his boyish high spirits and thoughtlessness, and she put away household cares to play with him when he came home from work. In brief, she was a good mother, who kept at bay signs of her domestic work, her own physical aging, and her sexual power. The witty, sexy, youthful wife of the 1920s and 1930s was on her way to being the “playmate” of the 1950s, a fantasy of sexiness without sexuality, of “sanitized” and nonthreatening sex.
By 1945, the American home and the American housewife had achieved the position they would enjoy in the post– World War II era as the loveliest, best-smelling, most sanitary houses and women in the world. Almost magically, the homes were spotless without marring the beauty of the women responsible for them. Such magic was sure to be short lived.
Dualisms Between and Within Women
Feminist theorists of the past two decades have emphasized the pervasiveness of images of women that link them to an untrustworthy mortal body and how these images are contrasted with the image of men as thinking beings who master their bodies as well as all else in the natural world. Standard cultural oppositions between reason and emotion, asceticism and sensuality, pain and pleasure, purity and impurity, cleanliness and dirt have been linked with the fundamental male–female dualism.26 These theorists have usually assumed that all women suffer equally from identification with the elements unconsciously associated with the fact of being a woman. They have not examined the effects on women of another dichotomy we know to be true, that between good and bad women, between virgin-seductress, angel–whore, and Madonna–Magdalen, a dualism that divides women from each other but that also divides a woman within herself, since no woman can escape completely the fear that she carries bad impulses within her.
This book rests on the proposition that Western culture depicts all women as potential seductresses and monsters but that white middle-class women have been given the hope that they can squelch social suspicion and self-doubt through two means: restricting themselves to housework and to marital sex and distinguishing themselves from women of color and working-class women. The obliteration of personal fears, however, requires constant new assertions of purity and, ironically, inhibition of other forms of self-assertion. These inhibitions are notable in political decisions like requiring white clothing for suffrage marches in the 1910s and for Equal Rights Amendment rallies in the 1970s. White is visually dramatic, but as the bride’s color, it also conveys messages of virginity, nonsexuality, physical purity, and fragility.
White middle-class women of the 1920s and 1930s, like women of the 1980s, did not claim sexuality as an act of self-development outside acceptable social contraints. Although overt sexual behavior became more acceptable and good sexual relations came to be seen as the cement holding marriages together, a double standard persisted. Young women had to take care to be sexy enough to be normal and yet to mete out sexual availability with great care to avoid “the onus of ‘bad girl’ status.”27 Ultimately, sexuality had to be sanctified by marriage and wedded to housewifely duties.
This dualism has persisted throughout the twentieth century. Black women have emphasized how white women continue to enjoy the benefits and to suffer the limitations of acting like ladies. They remain “nice girls,” as black poet Doris Davenport has noted:
[White women] cling to their myth of being privileged, powerful and less oppressed . . . than black wimmin. Why? Because that is all they have. . . . Somewhere deep down (denied and almost killed) in the psyche of racist white feminists there is some perception of their real position: powerless, spineless, and invisible. . . . The “white supremacist” syndrome, especially in white feminists, is the result of a real inferiority complex, or lack of self-identity.28
It is not only white skin, itself a socially defined perception, that keeps white women’s privileges intact; it is white middle-class women’s acceptance of and complicity in a hierarchy of female goodness that imputes moral superiority to some women’s life patterns and immorality to others’.
Women are still aspiring to be good, even when that means confinement and self-restraint. Despite current fashions of clothing that reveal women’s legs, hips, and breasts, the emphasis on women’s controlling their sexuality or channeling it into motherhood (with its Madonna associations) remains. Women’s obsessions with fashion and cosmetics and shaping their bodies to wear fashionable apparel may even be seen as a denial of physicality, as women seek to shape and to disguise their universally deficient bodies to fit a narrow ideal of the beautiful.29 Girls are still reading romances that teach them that sex is justified if one is in love and that marriage culminates and cleanses sexual activity.30 Young women students imagine a full professional life as well as having children, unwilling to imagine their lives tainted by the care infants need.31
This book has been intended to show how myriad women shaped their individual existences within cultural notions of good and bad women and within economic and racial realities of privilege and need. The systems harmed all women, though in different ways. I hope that I have clarified the ways in which it harmed white middle-class women and the women on whom they relied to perform stigmatized and exploited labor so that we can all begin to attack those profound internal images of femininity and goodness/badness that inhibit and drain us and that keep us fearful of and separated from other women.