History and Historiography, Modern

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History and Historiography, Modern

To understand the important role of concepts of production and consumption in the history of women and gender one needs to look at the point of change and decipher its lasting ramifications. Before the Industrial Revolution (c. 1790) production was an integrated, undifferentiated process in which men, women, and children worked together. The exigencies of survival necessitated cooperative work among all the members of the family. The major impact of industrialization, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century but picking up speed and becoming a pervasive element in American culture in the period 1820–1920, was to separate work from life. Karl Marx's definition of production was that which produced capital. By 1820 work was associated only with labor for wages conducted outside the household by men.


Before industrialization the colonial housewife was valued for her contributions as a producer. However, by 1820 the housewife had been replaced by the wife and mother who was no longer seen as a producer but as a dependent and a consumer. Thus, not only did the site of material production change from in-house to out-of-house, there was also an ideological shift in terms of women's status. Women's work was devalued by 1820, and women were devalued as well.

The shift from a producer to a consumer society affected women's roles to varying degrees. For example, mid-Atlantic farmwomen between 1750 and 1850 illustrated a distinction between the history of rural women and that of urban women. Rural women participated in three areas of life: household production, market activities, and public activities such as involvement in religious organizations. They also continued to be and to be considered producers. Rural women's butter production continued to be a significant component of their roles as both women and wives-mothers. Therefore, although some women's status decreased as a result of the shift from a producer to a consumer society, rural women participated in both production and consumption. In addition, that transition in women's history did not have a significant effect on black women, free or enslaved. Black women were not involved in the ideological process that devalued women's work or in the continued valuation of farmwomen's production. Their experiences as slaves were significantly different in that they were considered not people but chattel.

The concept of production also created new opportunities for native-born New England farmwomen in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Thousands of Lowell "mill girls" seized the chance to work in the textile mills in the 1820s and 1830s to earn their own wages and experience more independence. The interdependence of the mill hands also generated female solidarity that contributed to the formation of the first female labor protests. Mill women participated in labor turnouts and later created the Ten-Hour Movement. They also organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Despite that effort, women's textile work and lives existed within a paternalistic system of boardinghouses and managers. However, the women who worked in textile mills were predominantly white and native-born. Once the influx of immigrants began in the 1850s (mostly Germans and Irish came to the industrial centers), the status of mill work decreased and native-born white women returned to the farm. Furthermore, factory work did not open opportunities for black women, and that remained the case throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.


The concepts of production and consumption had a significant impact on women and gender. Industrialization separated the work of women from that of men (and children). The shift was not from production to consumption but from one system of production to another. Whereas women, men, and children previously had to work together to accomplish household tasks, household technology created devices that made women the sole beneficiaries of such work; significantly, those devices actually increased women's labor rather than reducing it. For example, before the creation of the vacuum cleaner, women, men, and children would haul out their rugs perhaps once per season and even children might participate in beating the rugs. With the invention of the vacuum cleaner, women as the primary housecleaners spend substantially more time on this task by doing it more frequently.

Thus, as society became more consumer-oriented, expectations for household cleanliness magnified and multiplied women's work in the process. Women's work within the home did not diminish in amount or expectations once women no longer were considered producers. The shift from a producer to a consumer society, or from one system of production to another, devalued women's work, created opportunities for employment for some women but not others, and increased women's housework rather than decreased it.

Between roughly 1880 and 1920 the culture of consumption began to affect women's lives in new ways that have had lasting ramifications for conceptions of gender. The proliferation of goods and services and the creation of the leisure industry (amusement parks, dance halls, and movie theaters) created new opportunities for immigrant working women. New jobs in factories and department stores created wage-earning possibilities. Consumption of leisure and fashion and heterosexual socializing opened up new possibilities for women in turn-of-the-century New York to experience independence from their parents and find new means of self-expression. Working women accepted treats that they otherwise could not afford (small gifts and entrance fees) from men. However, without substantive changes in the allocation of power, resources, and work, the liberating qualities of consumption were hollow. Moreover, in the dance halls an ideology was formulated that fused women's aspirations for independence and self-definition with consumption and heterosexual companionship. Thus, consumption did not foster feminist consciousness among working-class women, and social gender relations were not altered.


Consumption convinces women that consumerist choice is a substitute for power. The cultural representations of women are used to convince women that they can alter the quality of their lives significantly without making substantive changes. Simply by trying to achieve "the look" or by decorating the home according to the notions of style, they can be successful and satisfied.

Decoding women's magazines illustrates the ways in which advertising and magazine copy attempt to provide women with sufficient choices to make them think they are creating individualized selves when in fact they are subscribing to predetermined ideals. Women's magazines do not enable women to question or diversify the ideals that are presented to them for consumption. Thus, concepts of production and consumption not only have been major factors in the history of women and gender, they have continued to be influential in the first decade of the twenty-first century.


The impact of the linguistic turn on the writing of U.S. women's/gender history has been to problematize the language used to describe the history of women and question the binary opposition of biological sex. The historian Joan Kelly (1976) argued that women's history attempts to return women to history and history to women. Women cannot be studied in isolation because to study one sex necessarily entails studying the other. Furthermore, women's history does not accept the social relations between the sexes as natural but insists that they are socially constructed by and for women.

The linguistic turn questions what is meant by women, womanhood, and femininity rather than accepting their meanings as standard. It also acknowledges that those meanings shift over time, that gender itself is dynamic. Joan Scott (1996) argued that in addition to the social relations of the sexes being socially and culturally constructed, scholars of women's/gender history must reject the idea of the binary opposition of the sexes. Thus, to understand how social relations between the sexes affect women's experiences, scholars must attempt to understand the construction and reconstruction of gender. By focusing on the construction of gender it is possible to locate power. It is in language that people locate meaning. The shift from the opposition of the sexes to the construction of gender also does damage to arguments that rest on the foundation of sexual difference, that is, cultural feminism.

There are many scholars whose work has contributed to the turn of the writing of U.S. women's/gender history to a more complex understanding of the construction of womanhood and femininity. In Cynthia Russett's Sexual Science (1989), for example, there is a description of how the Victorian medical profession devised a theory of conservation to explain and justify the subordinate role of women. The theory rested on a Darwinian explanation that women's evolution had stopped at a certain point to enable women to reproduce, which constrained their potential but facilitated the success of the species. Victorian doctors used this, according to Russett, to protect their status as men and as doctors. The theory rationalized that women's inequality was nature-ordained and that women therefore could never be equal to men in power, position, or authority.

Similarly, Ann Douglas (1973) described how womanhood was constructed in the nineteenth century by the cultural ideology that women were ill because they were women, thus linking female gender with incapacitation. Douglas found that many women considered themselves ill to escape the burdens of the kitchen and bedroom. She also noted that women were determined to be ill because they had violated their femininity by engaging in unfeminine pursuits such as intellectual ambition and lack of selflessness. To cure women, doctors tried to return them to their so-called feminine states. Thus, the American physician Weir Mitchell devised a "rest cure" that required days in bed with no mental stimulation. Women were considered the most feminine when they were pregnant, a sign of male potency.

Scholars of women's/gender history also look to visual representations of gender as cultural sites of the construction of gender. Barbara Melosh (1991) describes how New Deal public art represented male and female forms according to social expectations and needs rather than serving as accurate reflections of women's roles. Hence, cultural representations can reflect society's constructions of gender. Melosh portrays how women in public art almost never were depicted in their roles as professionals (teachers, social workers, nurses), and in the rare cases when they were, they always were presented as being subservient to men. Furthermore, the hero images served to illustrate men's strength and capacity as wage earners and women's roles as companionate helpmates to squelch social anxieties about women's increased visibility in the labor force, their legal right as voters, and their attempts at independent lifestyles. New Deal public art illustrates the idea that gender can be created not only to reflect but also to reinforce traditional notions of what constitutes womanhood. Artists and administrators alike vetoed images that depicted too many women or were on a scale that implied strength.

The construction of gender is relational: Women's weaknesses are celebrated by society to bolster men's strengths. As Susan Brownmiller (1984) argues, the creation of feminine ideals served to make appearance, rather than ambition or accomplishment, the emblem of female desirability. Hence, women compete not for professional achievement but in their efforts to reach feminine ideals. The construction of gender is fundamental to women's/gender history scholarship, for to understand and chronicle women's experiences, historians need to dissect what makes females women, how this has influenced their status, and how scholars might propose ways to change the system of social organization for the better.

The linguistic turn also can be considered part of the movement of scholarship beyond the search for sisterhood (Hewitt 1985). Understanding the ways in which gender is constructed enables scholars to explicate the myriad ways in which womanhood and femininity have served as cultural ideals that are not representative of all women at all times.


Brownmiller, Susan. 1984. Femininity. New York: Lindon Press/Simon & Schuster.

Coward, Rosalind. 1985. Female Desires: How They Are Sought, Bought, and Packaged. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Douglas, Ann. 1973. "The Fashionable Diseases: Women's Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-Century America." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4(1): 25-52.

Dublin, Thomas. 1979. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Hewitt, Nancy. 1985. "Beyond the Search for Sisterhood: American Women's History in the 1980s." Social History 10: 299-321.

Jensen, Joan M. 1986. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kelly, Joan. 1976. "The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women's History." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1(4): 809-823.

McCracken, Ellen. 1993. Decoding Women's Magazines: From Mademoiselle to Ms. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Melosh, Barbara. 1991. Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Peiss, Kathy Lee. 1986. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. 1989. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scott, Joan. 1996. "Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis." In Feminism and History, ed. Joan Wallach Scott. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                      Keren R. McGinity

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History and Historiography, Modern