Mill workers, suffragists, and ‘Rosie the Riveter’ helped change the definition of ‘woman’

In “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” Lillian Faderman argues that as American women emerged from the home, forces conspired to push them back.

"Woman: The American History of an Idea," by Lillian Faderman, Yale University Press, 848 pp.

In a memoir written late in her life, teacher and poet Lucy Larcom recalled the decade she worked at a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800s. “I felt that I belonged to the world, that there was something for me to do in it,” she enthused. As Lillian Faderman illustrates in her sweeping “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” that sentiment had been largely denied to women, who had long been told that their place was in the home. 

In her exhaustive study, Faderman, a prominent LGBTQ historian and professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, charts the changing meaning of “woman” from the 17th century to the present day. With such an expansive time frame, she necessarily writes in terms of broad historical patterns, but she illustrates them with a wealth of examples. 

When small numbers of women became industrial wage laborers in the early 1800s – performing their jobs away from the watchful eyes of their families, as opposed to bringing spinning or weaving work into their homes – the shift was momentous. As Faderman observes, a woman could “begin to define herself outside of her roles as daughter, wife, and mother.” 

Throughout the book, Faderman is attentive to issues of race and class, noting that dominant notions of womanhood oppressed different women in different ways. In early America, upper-class white women had little choice but to fulfill the role of “lady,” while some middle-class women aspired to that status. On the other hand, enslaved Black women were particularly vulnerable to rape and abuse.

During the 19th century, women increasingly argued that their difference from men made them morally superior rather than inferior. With this justification, many embraced a range of causes, including temperance, the abolition of slavery, and suffrage. Still, they were denied the full rights of citizenship. “The contradiction was too blatant to ignore,” Faderman writes. “Popular sentiment deemed woman morally superior to man while perpetually reminding her of the inferiority of her place.”

“Woman” proceeds briskly through American history, documenting cycles of progress followed by backlash. Faderman observes that wars gave women space to “step beyond the boundaries that were deemed natural to them,” but that periods of crisis were often followed by renewed calls for women to occupy traditional roles.  

For instance, during the Depression, when jobs were scarce, women were pressured to leave the workforce to make room for men. When the United States entered World War II, however, women were needed to take over the jobs of men fighting overseas. They were “urged out of the home that they had so recently been urged into,” Faderman wryly notes. But in the postwar years, women were once again called upon to quit their jobs, to marry young, and stay home raising children. 

Faderman tells the fascinating story of Coya Knutson, the first woman from Minnesota elected to Congress. She served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, but her campaign for a third term, in 1958, was derailed when her estranged husband signed a letter written by her political rivals urging her to quit politics and “go home and make a home for your husband and son.” “She was mocked all over America,” Faderman reports, “with headlines jeering, ‘Coya, Come Home.’” The leaked letter was seen as pivotal in her eventual defeat.

This stultifying cultural coercion, what Betty Friedan in 1963’s “The Feminine Mystique” called “the problem that has no name,” helped give rise to the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s. 

The parade of names and events in “Woman” can be dizzying. Still, the author’s impressive array of examples amply prove her central point, that oppressive “formulations of the idea of woman – notwithstanding some modifications here and there – kept a tyrannical hold in America for four hundred years.” As she notes, notions of gender are now being contested in previously unimaginable ways. Could these new understandings of gender at last put the traditional concept of “woman” to rest? Because that concept has proved so persistent over the centuries, Faderman is not yet prepared to say.

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