Women and the Domestic Realm
A Woman's Place?
Throughout history, the fate of women has been greatly shaped by domestic work. Society has generally figured that women should be responsible for work in the home over anything else. Such a strongly embedded mindset has affected the activities in which women have been able to partake. Education and work outside of the home have been realms that many women have been unable to access in certain societies because social norms have dictated that women focus on domestic work. Therefore, women pervading realms outside of domestic work have actually been seen as extraordinary in many cases.
Florence Nightingale is an example of a woman who was able to escape the common ideology that women should primarily focus on domestic work. As a woman who defied social norms and pursued nursing – a field many women would never think to enter because of its reputation as a “lowly and distinctly disreputable occupation” (p. 244) – Nightingale was able to embrace intellectual and spiritual pursuits while seeing domestic work as something that “oppresses and silences the women who live there” (p. 245). She lamented that “[n]othing can well be imagined more painful than the present position of woman” because they conventionally would shut themselves away in their homes instead of acting upon their dreams (p. 248). She considered “domestic duties” to be “bad habits” and claimed that while women often endeavor to achieve intellectuality and other lofty goals, they are instead encouraged into “[p]assivity when we want to be active” (p. 248).
Similarly, Christine de Pizan also noted that the domestic sphere restricts women intellectually and supports the idea that they are inferior to men in many ways. In a realistic conversation in her book The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan spoke that men often maintain that women are unable to learn much, and the response that she received included the idea that “women have more delicate bodies than men” and that women know less because “they are not involved in many different things, but stay at home” (p. 470). She also mentioned that “the public does not require them to get involved in affairs” (p. 471). This illustrates the oppressive setting that many women have lived and do live in; women are considered less able to perform tasks besides those at home, and so are often prevented from doing so.
Domitila Barrios de Chungara wrote about her life as a child when she was expected to do the housework when her mother died because she was the oldest female, even though she was in first grade (p. 119). She “had to combine everything: house and school” (p. 118), and thus had to take care of her siblings, cook, iron, and wash in addition to attending school. Her father expected her to leave school, and it was remarkable that she was able to defy the authority of her father and pervasive social norms around women and domesticity in order to continue going to school. de Chungara noted the strength of that ideology, and wrote that “as long as we continue in the present system, things will always be like this” (p. 120).
In marriage, Chinese women were expected to take care of all household tasks to perfection, and often at the egging of the mother-in-law. Among those tasks included bearing and raising children, cooking, and cleaning. In addition, women had virtually no power in her marriage, and could be humiliated, abused, and even killed by her husband (p. 325). Such a position often caused Chinese wives extreme stress and worse. For instance, Ning Lao T’ai-T’ai wrote about her sister who married young and yet was expected to perform all of the housework. Her inexperience resulted in beatings by her husband and fury from her mother-in-law, and so her “sister went crazy” so that her family felt that a “demon… was troubling her” (p. 347). It could be said that the demon was societal norms.
Even more unfortunate was the fact that the domestic work that women were expected to perform became undervalued in time. Mary Collier explained that such difficult and lengthy work as harvesting and raising children, performed daily, were often looked over and taken for granted. She wrote that though “My Life was always spent in Drudgery” (p. 135), “Their sordid Owners always reap the Gains, And Poorly recompense their Toil and Pains” (p. 138). Women were commanded to perform the difficult tasks often in the shadows of the males, preventing them from moving into higher classes or esteem.
The idea that women should only work at home has affected how women have been able to succeed in work outside of the home. For instance, Catherine Waugh, who graduated from a legitimate college of law, found difficulty in acquiring a job because of “traditional notions of the sanctity of women’s domestic role” and the idea that working was a “threat to femininity” (p. 172). Her friends and even her family discouraged her from entering the field of law, and “it took many days of rebuff to so quench my indomitable spirit”.
These instances illustrate the strength of the ideology that women should remain in the domestic sphere, and how that mindset restricts them and prevents them from entering the outside fields of work, education, and spirituality, to name a few. The ideology encourages people to consider women weaker and tamer, and thus more unimportant. The ideas of a woman’s social place were deeply ingrained in society, making it difficult for women to deny and overcome them. There is no end to the ways that women can thus be devalued and underestimated in this context. Therefore, women have had to work against this just to acquire and succeed in work and school.