Recovering the American Past with Brian C. Robertson, a review by Frank Zepezauer (first published in the Mar/Apr 2000 issue of The Liberator), presents information about gender roles that modern feminism opposes, censors, or derogates.
Recovering the American Past with Brian C. Robertson
by Frank Zepezauer, resident philosopher
Have you ever heard of the National Congress of Mothers? Until recently I didn’t know about them myself and I’ve spent a lot of time studying women’s organizations. It so happens that the NCM was actually the biggest women’s lobby in American history. Founded during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, it had 190,000 members by 1920 and over one million by 1930. The National Organization for Women, even in its heyday, could never claim such numbers.
I learned about the National Congress of Mothers in a short but highly informative book, There’s No Place Like Work by Brian C. Robertson. It has a provocative sub-title: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents From Home. The title pretty well tells you what the book is about, an account of how the workplace has replaced the home as the center of our lives.
I found it particularly instructive because Robertson’s account challenges recently formed misperceptions about our gender political history since the founding of the nation. It is in that sense an effort to recover the American past.
Robertson makes it clear who formed the misperceptions of our past 200 years. He writes that – “in order to propagate the notion (central to their ideology of women’s liberation) that before the dawn of modern feminism mothers stayed at home to raise their children only because they had no alternative – feminist writers have been forced into a tortuous and self-contradictory interpretation of the pre-1960s women’s movement, its goals and its guiding principles.”
Who created the housewife role?
What are these misperceptions? The first is that the women’s movement of the 19th Century was like its 20th Century counterpart, an effort to liberate women from the bondage of housewifery.
The facts show exactly the opposite. Women’s organizations throughout that century fought to liberate women not from the kitchen but from the workplace.
The nineteenth was also the first century of capitalism, and as early as its first decade it was pulling women and children into the workforce because businesses needed workers and wanted to depress wages. To combat this system a movement was organized, led largely by women. It was these activists, family-centered Christian women, who fashioned the “separate spheres” concept which feminists would later claim was the work of the woman-enslaving Patriarchy.
The term itself was coined by a woman, Catherine Beecher, who, Robertson says, “saw the mission of the homemaker and mother in explicitly Christian terms.” He quotes her as saying, “The distinctive feature of the family is self-sacrificing labor of the stronger and wiser members to raise the weaker and more ignorant to equal advantages. The father undergoes toil and self-denial to provide a home, and then the mother becomes a self-sacrificing laborer to train its inmates.”
Alexis de Tocqueville took note of how the separate spheres concept was working in the America of the 1830. “American women engaged themselves exclusively in “the quiet circle of domestic employments…in no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways that are always different.” In other words, Americans responding to the guidance of the early woman’s movement worked out a separate but equal gender role system.
Who created unequal wage rates?
These developments reveal the fallacies of the second feminist misperception. It is that “the Patriarchy” connived to subject women to separate but unequal wage rates. The facts, as Robertson discloses them, again show otherwise. The women’s movement of the 19th Century struggled to establish not a male but a family wage. It did not favor men; it favored breadwinners. This policy derived from their primary concern that mothers should be able to devote full time to raising children and managing a home. To do that they had to be provided for, and it was the husband and father who had to do the providing, which meant that he had to earn a wage sufficient to support not only himself but his entire family.
The long enduring effort to institutionalize the family wage eventually succeeded. Robertson writes that “it has been estimated that by 1960 a family wage was paid by 65 percent of all employers in the United States and by 80 percent of the major industrial companies.” He adds, “Although feminist historians today call the family-wage ideal a ‘myth” designed to keep married women oppressed, few myths have come closer to becoming reality.” He later states that “the family-wage economy that prevailed from 1945 to 1970 was the product of an ideal pursued deliberately, primarily by women’s organizations, through the political process….”
A third misperception is that the beginnings of the modern feminist movement was a brave and lonely effort by a few women fighting against great odds. They were a vanguard which gradually gathered enough strength by 1970 to launch the high-powered woman’s movement we live with today. It’s a movement whose leaders consider equality as equal distribution of men and women throughout the workforce, at every level in every enterprise…50/50 across the board. It is therefore the sworn enemy of the homemaker role that so many women struggled to establish during the previous 150 years.
This misperception about the small lonely vanguard is wrong in several ways. It’s wrong first of all in its depiction of the opposition these new feminists faced. It was supposed to be the established order, the Patriarchy. In fact, a great part of the opposition to the new feminism were leaders of the old feminism. They were the family-friendly women who in the mid-twentieth century came to be known as “social feminists.” There were social feminists like Frances Perkins, the first female Secretary of Labor, who fought to maintain the family wage system and who helped establish mother support systems, such as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) based on the traditional family structure. The effort to ensure that mothers would be adequately supported extended to mothers who had lost their providers. But governmental support for such women was limited to once-married women who lost their husbands through death or disablement. Unwed mothers were not eligible. Social feminists wanted it that way, not Patriarchs.
Also consider the fact that the major opposition to the new feminist’s first major campaign, the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, did not come primarily from men but from women. A coalition of women led by Phyllis Schlafly, who were very much like the activists in the old National Congress of Mothers, led the successful fight to kill the ERA. If it had been left to men to oppose it, it would be a part of the constitution today.
The new and radical feminists [more accurately called redfems — WHS] that emerged in the 1960s, the ones who pushed the “ratify ERA campaign,” were in the beginning not all that lonely, nor were they all that impoverished. Even before the Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s trashing of the housewife, appeared in 1963 there was increasing hostility to the traditional family in the academy and the government There was, for example, a 1957 conference on “Work in the Lives of Married Women” which was already outlining the great social transformation that would occur in the next decade.
One of its speakers, Katherine Brownell Oettinger, stated that “we cannot realistically expect to reverse” the trend of mothers working in ever larger numbers…On the basis of our present information we do not believe it is necessarily damaging to a child to be separated from his mother for substantial periods during the day, if adequate substitute care is provided. [No known study] “has established a causal relation between maternal employment and either juvenile delinquency or the maladjustment of children.”
The reversal of the traditional family order, the work of countless family women and men during the previous century, quickly accelerated. By 1963, President Kennedy had established a Women’s Commission which was stacked with career oriented women and in the same year Congress passed an Equal Pay Act, which dealt a blow to the family wage concept.
In 1964, in an attempt to kill a civil rights bill, a Southern congressmen inserted the word “sex” among the groups who would be protected from discrimination. His ploy failed because there were already enough feminist Congresswomen to recognize the opportunity the proposed addition opened up. The word “sex” was retained in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, another severe blow to the breadwinner/housewife system.
The feminists who helped engineer these revolutionary changes had help from another source, the business elites. It appears that capitalism has not been all that family friendly. It took enormous effort in the 19th Century to protect women and children from the forces pulling them into the workforce and it would require the same effort in the 20th Century. But by the middle of that century, the business forces were stronger and, by supplying aid and comfort to anti-family radicals, they managed to bring women back into the workforce.
To bring this off, the same market efficiency arguments were put to work. For example, the Economist magazine published a “Survey of Women and Work” which Robertson said, “summarized the advantages to employers of an expanded labor pool in which the great majority of married women work. One is that as the formerly non-monetary functions of the household are commercialized, new markets are created.” And there are other advantages: “In America, with its booming economy and tight labor market, women are proving a godsend to many employers. They usually cost less to employ than men, are more prepared to be flexible and less inclined to kick up a fuss if working conditions are poor….Employers like them because they allow more flexibility and command lower pay, and because part-timers can be pushed harder while they are at work.”
Thus, as Robertson put it, the old system was destroyed “By conscious effort on the part of a feminist and business elite [as well as] neglect on the part of a comfortable society that had ceased to see any need to shield home and family from destructive market and state pressures.”
If one defines “the Patriarchy” as the male power elite, then it is clear that it was not the Patriarchy who put the housewife in the home nor was it the Patriarchy that resisted efforts to take her out of the home and put her back in the workplace. The Patriarchy wanted her there all the time acting not as radical feminism’s worst enemy but as radical feminism’s best friend.
Who killed fatherhood?
Robertson’s story therefore corrects a pile of misperceptions laid on our doorstep by the feminist movement. It also tends to confirm a theory I have about the fate of fatherhood in the late twentieth century. I believe that the separate spheres system helped to undermine the father role. It had always consisted of three basic responsibilities: to provide, to protect, and to parent. When men separated from their household to earn money for their families, they however tended to concentrate more on providing and less on protecting and parenting.
This tendency was reinforced by the exaltation of motherhood which was part of the 19th Century woman’s movement. Women’s separate sphere became women’s domain and increasingly most of the essential parenting in the family was handled by women. The focus throughout was, therefore, mother-centered. The basic social policy question was “How can we support the work of mothers.” The family wage system was devised as the best way to resolve that problem. Contrary to what feminists have claimed for the past thirty years, it was devised not to serve the interests of men but to serve the interests of women.
Fathers nevertheless remained integral members of the family because they were needed as providers. Their contribution as parents was however increasingly downplayed and the average family came to resemble a military platoon with a second lieutenant officially in command but with a master sergeant really running the outfit.
In the 20th Century, with the drive to send women into the workplace, the titular head of the family was no longer needed. There was then another answer to the question, “How can we support the work of mothers?” It was by making mothers financially independent and by assisting mothers with tax-supported daycare and by assisting mothers, married or not, with government outlays. Of all the blows to fatherhood, perhaps the single most significant was the decision, made somewhere in the Johnson Administration bureaucracy, to open AFDC to unwed mothers.
From that point on, the final answer to the question was “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Fathers had become disposable.
The protectors of women time and again praise to ‘Wessi’ (Westie) women the wonderfully complete world of the ‘Ossi’ (Eastie) women, ever since the end of the GDR, whose all-encompassing children-crèche system secured full-time earning potential and thereby the personal freedom of mothers.
What a full-day program for the children of fully-employed looks like has been thoroughly experienced by the mothers of the former GDR. Marlene, herself a crèche-child and subsequently an educator for child-‘educatetresses’ from Potsdam, told it to me. [Full Story]
— Karin Jäckel, in Germany devours its children — Families today: Exploited and burned out