Gender Roles of the Victorian and Progressive Era

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					Gender Roles of the Victorian and Progressive Age: The Public Man, the Private Woman

Aliona Pitchkar

History 245 Professor Banner October 11, 2007

Pitchkar 1 For hundreds of years the American people have taken pride in a society which they have characterized as being socially developed, fundamentally aware and above all, equally just. Nevertheless, the American way of life is undoubtedly one which categorizes people into predetermined social roles – predominantly male and female niches. This trend was particularly evident throughout the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive era of the early twentieth century: women were expected to exist solely in the private sphere of the home and to behave in a pure, pious, and domestic manner; men, on the other hand, were encouraged to exist in the public sphere and to behave in accordance with the popular male mystique of the time period which associated masculinity with adventure and risk. The various historical movements and institutions which dominated this time period reveal the vastly different worlds which characterized the lives of men and women. One of the most popular arguments of the time which provides compelling evidence of the difference between the male and female sectors of life was actually one which was often agreed upon by both sexes – the “moral superiority of women” argument. This point of view, which was extremely popular throughout the Victoria age – although its credibility did begin to falter in the Progressive era – contends that women are superior to men in terms of piety and moral goodness. The interesting aspect of this school of thought was that both males and females used it to justify their own opposing arguments. Women emphasized this point when they asserted women‟s rights to participate in politics and other matters of life which belonged to the public sector. They blamed men for the failure and corruption which existed in society and claimed that if women were allowed to extend their moral goodness outside the home all of mankind could benefit from it. 1 Men, in contrast, used this argument to support their claims that the world of politics was too rough for women whose pure nature was more properly exuded within the home or in reform
Lois Banner, "Organizers and Innovators" in Women in Modern America: A Brief History, 40 – 41 (California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005).

Pitchkar 2 activities. Although men and women disagreed on their proposed application of this argument, they completely agreed on one thing: women were considered unadulterated and moral, whereas men were bold and daring. This unquestioning acceptance of a double standard of morality between men and women provides distinct evidence of the harsh social guidelines which existed in the time period. It asserted that women ought to stay in the home while simultaneously encouraging men to participate in the public sphere of society. Additionally, there has also always existed a vast difference between the portrayal of men and women in Western culture. Throughout the bible, as well as in popular literature and film, the image of a woman has always taken one of two possible forms – either the sinful “Eve” or the pious “Virgin Mary.” These two stereotypes represent the typical virgin/whore split which characterized the cultures‟ portrayal of females.2 Eve was the first sexualized women in Western culture. She is meant to symbolize everything women should not want to be – she is the original sinner from the Garden of Eden who steered the pious Adam from his righteous course. The Virgin Mary, on the other hand, is meant to signify all the virtuous qualities women should strive to embody. Since she was impregnated by God she is infinitely sexually pure and completely devoted to moral goodness. Women were either to acknowledge the domestic role of being “Virgin Mary” or to accept being ostracized by their peers for being the sinful “Eve.” On the contrary, men have played a great deal of roles in Western culture. They have been explorers, soldiers, gentlemen, intellectuals and above all, politicians.3 The necessity and “correctness” of the male role within the public sector was being continuously reinforced via literature and other common modes of entertainment. This contrasting representation of male and female characters clearly proves the bias ways of thought which were characteristic of America between the end of Victorianism and the dawn of Progressivism.
2 3

Lois Banner, “Background to the History of Men” in USC Course Reader: History 245, 1-8 (Fall 2007). Ibid, 2.

Pitchkar 3 Surely there were other major historical movements going on during this time which certainly observed the separation of men and women in to public and private spheres, respectively. These were the reform movements of the Progressive era, and amongst the most popular of them were the settlement houses. By the late 1800‟s settlement houses were springing up all over the country and were quite encouraged both by men and women – after all, they did fit in perfectly with women‟s traditional role of service and domesticity. The two most notable ones were Hull Houses in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams in 1889, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, founded by Lillian Wald in 1895. These homes provided a great humanitarian service for the communities in which they were located – usually city slums vastly populated by immigrants. Unlike Addams and Wald who remained in the houses their entire lives, most women chose to live at settlement houses for a few years after college graduation. It is no surprise that marrying right away or going into professions which still discriminated against them were not very appealing options.4 Although it is true that males also participated in settlement house work, their presence constituted no more than a small minority of the settlement house movement and they most certainly did not control the industry. At the same time that Jane Addams and Lillian Wald were encouraging other women to accept their moralistic and humanitarian nature by participating in Progressive reform, there was quite a different message being delivered to America‟s male population by Theodore Roosevelt. With much support from Jane Addams herself, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt ran a successful campaign and became president of the United States in 1901. During his time in office he strongly asserted the value of “macho” tactics in line with his idea of proper maleness. Roosevelt encouraged men to participate in politics, sports, and hunting – the three institutions which he claimed were necessary for a man to indulge in, so that he may prepare himself for the


Banner, “Organizers and Innovators,” 45.

Pitchkar 4 ultimate male experience: war. His point of view was that politics belonged to the aggressive, independent, and self-sufficient man; whereas management of the home, morals, ideals, culture, and education belonged to the virtuous, altruistic, fragile, and sensitive woman.5 In his famous autobiography The Strenuous Life, Roosevelt highlighted all the obstacles which men should overcome in order to emerge as a righteous “all-American” man with all of the correct male virtues associated with masculinity. These did not include social service and emotional expression, qualities which were deemed vital by participants of the settlement house reform movements. Instead they articulated vigilance, courage, and a fierce personality. He also openly attacked the gentle, timid, or lazy man and associated his kind with femininity in a negative aspect. 6 Overall, Roosevelt truly reconstructed the essence of male identity. As his popularity rose, more and more men were joining political parties, becoming members of sports teams (especially football), and taking frequent all-male hunting trips. He greatly associated gender roles with the effective fulfillment of citizens‟ political prerogative; claiming that the US needed more than ever to rebuild a “thoroughly manly race – a race of strong virile character,” which could defend and develop democracy.7 Although women like Jane Addams and men like Theodore Roosevelt were often in very good relations with each other, they were both enforcing the separation of other men and women into two vastly differing social worlds. Roosevelt‟s was a frantic, hostile world of male party politics; while Addams‟ was a nurturing, domestic world of female reform politics. Not only do these views represent the popular beliefs of the Progressive era, but they also clearly reflect the opposing roles that men and women were socially conditioned to abide by.

Arnaldo Testi, "Theodore Roosevelt and the Culture of Masculinity," The Journal of American History, 1511 (March 1995). JSTOR, via USC, 6 Ibid, 1511. 7 Ibid, 1520.


Pitchkar 5 Another cornerstone of the divided spheres of men and women was dictated by the “breadwinner ethic.” This widely accepted social institution contended that men should be capable of supporting their families without outside help, especially from a wife. Although some women were slowly starting to participate in the labor force, many of them were very discouraged from doing so. The essence of the breadwinner ethic rested in the idea that a truly masculine and selfsufficient man was solely capable of carrying the financial burden of a family on his shoulders. By women leaving the private sector of the home, which was their appropriate place according to Victorian ideals, they were threatening their husband‟s sense of masculinity.8 As a sort of backlash against the increase in women‟s participation in the public world of labor and politics, men resorted to asserting their own rough, hegemonic masculinity. This newly emerging male mystique paved the way for what historians now refer to as the “crisis in masculinity” of the 1890‟s. This so-called crisis was characterized by an increased effort on behalf of men to suppress the women who were leaving the home by subjecting them to subordinate positions, namely “female” jobs in the area of labor, and reform activity in the area of politics. Many popular authors of this time period were noticing this newly emerging blending of the private female sphere and the public male sphere, and the common opinions of the time were ringing loud and clear in their literature. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this can be found in the well-known Henry James novel, The Bostonians. Set in Boston, it is the story of the contest between Basil Ransome, a Southerner who has moved to New York City to seek his fortune as a lawyer and Oliver Chancellor, a well-to-do Boston woman, for the control over Verena Tarrant, who has a particular gift for public speaking.9 The way many American males

Lois Banner, “The Emergence of the Modern American Woman” in Women in Modern America: A Brief History, 24 – 25 (California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005). 9 Banner, Lois, "Background Notes for „The Bostonians‟," Blackboard Academic Suite, (October 2007). Blackboard Academic Suite, via USC,


Pitchkar 6 were feeling about this intermingling of women in the male public sphere is accurately embodied in the famous speech given by Basil Ransome: The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it‟s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, and age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddles sensibilities, which if we don‟t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been. The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality, to look the world in the face and take it for what it is…that is what I want to preserve, or rather, as I may say, to recover. His blatant view of how a woman‟s place is in the home and how a man‟s place is outside of the home reflects many popular beliefs which date back to the 1890‟s – 1920‟s. The common opinions of the time, like the moral superiority of women argument and the breadwinner ethic, show that people associated the two sexes with their own unique gender roles. Women were benevolent and moral, while men were independent and adventurous. Additionally, the ways in which men and women were represented in entertainment and literature, such as in the bible and The Bostonians, shows that very different character traits were associated with masculinity and femininity. Even the most prominent personalities of the time, such as Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt, served to further encourage the separation of men into the rough world of politics and women into the timid world of reform. All things considered, I believe it is definitely safe to say that the common understanding throughout the Victorian era and the Progressive era was that a woman‟s place was in the private sector of the home, while a man‟s place was in the public sector of labor and politics. Taking into account all of these phenomena, it becomes quite clear that Victorian and Progressive society as a whole was built on the notion that women were domestic creatures while men were civic beings.

Pitchkar 7 Bibliography Banner, Lois. "Background Notes for „The Bostonians‟." Blackboard Academic Suite, October 2007. Blackboard, via University of Southern California, Roscoe, Will. “We‟wha, the Celebrated Lhamana." In The Zuni Man-Woman. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. Roscoe, Will. “The Rites of Gender." In The Zuni Man-Woman. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. Banner, Lois. “The Emergence of the Modern American Woman, 1890." In Women in Modern America: A Brief History. California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. Testi, Arnaldo. "The Gender of Reform Politics: Theodore Roosevelt and the Culture of Masculinity" The Journal of American History (March 1995): 1509 – 1533. Journal Storage (JSTOR), via University of Southern California, Banner, Lois. “Background to the History of Men” University of Southern California Course Reader: History 245 (Fall 2007): 1 – 8.

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