The Whole Duty of a Woman
In 1696, The Whole Duty of a Woman was published as a guidebook with the specific purpose of advising women on how to conduct their lives. These books became increasingly popular in Europe during the early modern period as a result of an increasing number of people taking advantage of new types of employment. A new middle class began to originate as more individuals were given the opportunity to seek out jobs as lawyers, investors, supervisors, accountants, business owners, engineers, and many other types of work that were not available during the Middle Ages. A large number of these educated, wealthy men had wives who needed to be literate in order to keep up with business records, respond to party invitations, and properly promote the family name as they climbed the socioeconomic ladder. As a result, many of these recently developed middle class families were forced to experience an assortment of new social obligations that required guidance in order to respond appropriately. In order to overcome these unforeseen challenges, numerous advice books were written not only to direct these aspiring families in the unfamiliar aspects of their lives, but to provide thorough insight into behavior that should be followed as an prominent member of the European community. As a result, these how-to books tended to focus on instructing women within European societies as a way to reinforce restrictive social norms that often derived from Biblical teachings. Even though these guidebooks were helpful aids in allowing individuals to improve their social standing, they limited the social mobility of women due to implicit gender restrictions found within the text.
The Whole Duty of a Woman was a perfect example one of these aforementioned guidebooks because its readership was directed towards women belonging to the literate classes. Unfortunately, this advice book omitted an author to give accreditation which could have had a significant impact on the book’s success. Due to the fact that no one took credit for this publication, a variety of possibilities can be suggested regarding the book’s authorship. The author’s sex may be inferred as a woman based on multiple examples where he/she uses the phrase “our sex” when discussing women (Whole Duty, 15). Still, the sex of the author remains a mystery due to the fact that it just as easily could have been written by a man, whose intentions were to direct women according to standards most males desired. If this was the case, the entire text would have been portrayed from a male perspective while trying to teach the opposite sex how to live their lives properly. This plausible scenario is supported by the fact that the majority of our information on women during this time originates from the pens of men (Wiesner-Hanks, 17). If this book was written by a man, the guidelines that were directed towards women reading this publication were more likely to impose gender expectations that benefited men at the expense of female social mobility. Regardless, the authorship of this piece may never be identified with one hundred percent accuracy, but keeping in mind that it was written for Christian women of a higher class standing can help determine how it impacted gender roles of its time
Gender roles vary depending on the culture and the time period under examination. There are many different influences that cause gender norms to differ greatly among varying groups of people, but for historians, one of the main focuses is to determine how and why gender roles came to be. When examining women who lived in Europe during the early modern period, the historical record makes it overwhelmingly apparent that women from this time were held to significantly different standards than those placed on men. By analyzing books such as The Whole Duty of a Woman, historians can pinpoint many of the social requirements that were created specifically for women between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. These guidelines were primarily written for the purpose of outlining acceptable social standards that women should follow when confronted with a variety of different situations. As a result of sex-specific scriptures in the Christian Bible along with the diminishing number of opportunities for females in the professional field, a variety of oppressive gender roles originated for women that confined them to positions of minimal social freedom and mobility. These detrimental gender norms can be easily found in the guidebook, The Whole Duty of a Woman, which served to reinforce these socially developed expectations.
While keeping in mind that this guidebook had powerful impacts on gender norms that emerged around the time of its publication, it is also important to note that this text was heavily influenced by the Christian Bible which has historically been fundamental in the standardization of gender roles, as well. For centuries, the Bible has been utilized as a guide that directs the lives of its readers. Therefore, it was no surprise that the first section of The Whole Duty of a Woman begins by stating that the most important reason humans were born was for the purpose of serving God (Whole Duty, preface). The anonymous author of this book clearly supported the instructions that were laid out in the Bible because he/she included several of these same directions verbatim in the text. Almost every piece of advice in this publication was a reference back to the Holy Scriptures. This allowed The Whole Duty of a Woman to double as a how-to book, as well as a devotional text. For instance, the book urged its readers to employ all their faculties, endeavors, and powers towards serving the Lord (Whole Duty, preface). This devotional framework was effective because it not only allowed the author to dictate what was suitable for women, but it could also be justified due to the fact that it aligned with the teachings of the Bible. While the goal of the work was to provide women with rules on how to behave appropriately in almost all aspects of life, much of the book’s language has been influenced by the Bible. Therefore, a strong argument can be made that a great amount of gender socialization was a byproduct of the Biblical Word and its teachings.
Christian scripture was one of the best ways to indicate how these gender norms originated and took root in different European societies. For instance, just as the Saint Paul directly instructed women in the New Testament to refrain from broidering their hair or adorning themselves with fine jewelry, the author of The Whole Duty of a Woman ordered women to obey these same principles (Whole Duty, 10). The style of one’s hair may seem like a trivial Biblical aspect to focus on, but to contemporaries, hair carried significant cultural and social importance (Wiesner-Hanks, 207). This was primarily due to the fact that the style of woman’s hair could also be interpreted as a way to distinguish her sexuality. Whenever women were married, they were expected to cover their loose flowing hair because they could be misidentified as an untaken woman. By the early modern period, some churches forbade women from attending their service based on their style of hair (Wiesner-Hanks, 207). This is just one example of how a couple of verses from the Bible were so influential and longstanding that their social ramifications on women extended over centuries of time. Remarkably, this was not the only instance where Paul utilized his authority to dictate what women should and should not do. In 1 Timothy 2: 11-15, Paul specifically stated that women should remain quiet in the church and should refrain from teaching (Wiesner-Hanks, 216). The author of The Whole Duty of a Woman provided several examples of advice that reflected this similar Biblical message. For instance, he/she suggested that women restrain themselves from excessive talking because there is no greater indecency within conversation (Whole Duty, 9). Also, the writer of this piece informed its female readers that is more suitable for women to learn and observe rather than to be a person who dictates and prescribes (Whole Duty, 9). The repeated use of these types of religious verses portrayed the overwhelming authority the Christian Bible had over social interactions for women. When considering that Paul’s words have had a greater limiting impact on women than any other New Testament writer, some speculation should be raised towards the sex of the allegedly female author due to the fact that he/she included more passages from the Saint Paul than any Biblical author. Nonetheless, the author’s inclusion of these gender specific verses helped show just how influential the Bible was in the development of Europe’s standardized gender roles.
Another powerful theme that reoccurred throughout The Whole Duty of a Woman was the emphasis the author placed on selflessness with the mention of certain services women should do for others. The guidebook was designated for women between the ages of sixteen and sixty, so these services varied depending on the stage of womanhood (Whole Duty, preface). The book leaves little room for women to follow their own desires due to the fact that they were held accountable for following gender expectations at such an early age. Instead of seeking out their own path in life, women’s options were often predetermined because they were responsible for the duties required of them for the reputation and well-being of the family. Even the way in which The Whole Duty of a Woman outlined the different sections of a woman’s life can be considered limiting to women’s social freedom. In the book, all of the stages of a woman’s life were defined by her relation to a male counterpart in some way. For instance, the stage of virginity refereed to a woman’s purity that had not yet been defiled by a man. The state of marriage was determined by a woman’s lifelong commitment to her husband, and lastly, the stage of widowhood referred to when the bond she made with her male partner had been broken due to death (Whole Duty, preface). It came as no surprise that the most demanding stage for women was becoming a wife. The publication clearly explained how wives were expected to provide a full range of services to their children and husbands which included anything from needlework to cooking. These duties women were obligated to perform created a dependency on their services that further restricted the social mobility. They were not learning trades that could provide them with alternative options to make a living. Rather, they were simply learning how to perform services that would make them more appealing as a submissive wife who could rely on a husband to survive. In this book, the writer included an entire chapter specifically devoted to the subject of chirurgery, which referred to medical duties of that time (Whole Duty, 96).
As a housewife living in early modern period, it was the woman’s job to tend to family members whenever they fell ill, which included much more effort and expertise than is required today. Medical services were scarce back then and house physicians were usually called only when an illness or injury was alarmingly serious. During a time when many fields were professionalizing, women were abruptly barred from these advancing fields (Wiesner-Hanks, 103). This included their involvement in the medical field which had long been viewed as an activity within the realm of women affairs. As a result, women had to resort to herbal remedies and other more primitive means of medical care (Wiesner-Hanks, 103). The Whole Duty of a Woman provided an extensive array of quasi-medicinal remedies that combined underdeveloped science with what seemed like magic in an effort to help those in need. The author lists a variety of medical solutions to counteract health problems, such as scurvy, hearing impaired, and even “the evil” (Whole Duty, 122-23). Many of these remedies involved concocting elixirs made of different roots and berries (Whole Duty 97). These herbal solutions were one of women’s best option for dealing with illnesses, but women of this time period were still placed in a tough situation. They were expected to help their sick loved ones but only through the use of unequal practices as a result of unfair gender standards in the professional field. While it was a prominent gender expectation that women care for their families, they were forced to achieve this goal only through the use of second rate methods when compared to the advancing medical breakthroughs they were prohibited from using.
Women who lived in Europe during the early modern period were forced to experience the world in an extremely limited way compared to many of their male counterparts, even if they belonged to the higher classes of life. The Whole Duty of a Woman was directed towards educated women of these more wealthy classes, yet the overall language, tone, and content of the book lacked an outlook towards life that promoted higher self-esteem, activism, or even enthusiasm. Instead, women were repeatedly directed to humble themselves and appear meek in spirit towards those they encountered (Whole Duty, preface). This type of language was taken straight from the Bible along with many other Christian ideas that eventually contributed to the development of restrictive gender norms across Europe. These unfair standards were seen in many aspects of women’s lives, but most notably witnessed in their occupations. Women were not allowed to enter into the professional sphere because it was limited to men only. The occupational role of women almost always reflected some form of service towards others, which was further solidified by Biblical texts and established female responsibilities. When analyzing this anonymous author’s advice book, it becomes a perfect lens for viewing not only what these oppressive gender roles were, but how they evolved through religious and gender specific practices to eventually spread throughout the various social domains of women’s lives.
Cultural Expectations for Women within America
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Cultural Expectations for Women within America
Every year about a million immigrants come to America in hope to start a better life for their family. They leave with virtually nothing, just the clothes on their backs and a few, hard earned coins. As they start a new life here in the United States, most immigrants tend to notice the drastic differences that are present between their culture and Western society, particularly in the way women are supposed to talk and behave. In the excerpt from “Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts,” Maxine Hong Kingston addresses these hardships as a Chinese girl who is searching for her voice in America. During the excerpt, Kingston portrays fitting into these “cultural expectations” as absolutely necessary, as shown in the last paragraph in Page 10. She says things like “If you don’t talk… then you can’t be a house wife.” Or “Don’t you ever want to be a cheerleader?” (Kingston 10) At the time of this scene, the narrator was so sure that the American way was the right way, that she bullies a younger student into changing. Alas the student never changes and the narrator falls sick for a year and a half because of her ill actions. However, plenty has changed since that time of the Korean War (1950’s.) Nowadays, these expectations of what is an American woman are changing. Compared to the 1950’s, women currently are holding much more power, and are viewed as a superior sex symbol.
In the 1950’s, a woman’s life path was pretty clear cut, graduate from high school and find a good man while your ultimate goal is to start a family and maintain an orderly house. This is shown when Kingston says to the little girl “Some one has to marry you before you can become a housewife.” She says this as if becoming a housewife is a top priority for a woman. However presently, most women in America hold very respectable jobs and the role as housewife is slowly disappearing from American culture. Another example of modern day women showing strength is portrayed when the narrator’s mother goes on a cultural rampage and forces the narrator to go to the drug store and demand a piece of candy simply because the druggist missed the address of the house. This scene is shown in pages three, four, and five. By doing so the narrator comes off as poor and illogical.
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Keeping these cultural “curses” is a form of weakness, therefore showing that the mother cannot adapt to American society. In contrast, nowadays most foreign women do not keep such absurd cultural tendencies. They leave all those rituals in their country knowing that doing so will cause them to assimilate into American culture ultimately giving them a better chance to succeed.
In the 1950’s, women’s dress code was considered to be very modest. The trendy fashion was a full body dress that showed the ankles. Also, women were not publicized obliged to look pretty. This is shown when a young Kingston talks about her wishes for her body compared to the young child. “I hope I don’t have [her] neck, I wanted a stout neck… Her skin was fleshy, I wanted rough skin…I scratched dirt to blacken my nails… [I hated] her straight hair, turning with her head… I pinched her skin, you couldn’t even see her pores” (Kinston 8). Isn’t it ironic that all the characteristics that the young Kingston describes of the shy girl is actually what is considered pretty in modern day culture? In this day and age, almost all youthful girls in America strive to attain that perfect cover girl look. It is very rare to find a pre-teen girl who enjoys “scratching her nails in dirt” or wishing to have “rough skin.” This shows how much the expectations of women are drastically changing.
Reading this paper, one might be obliged to argue that assimilation is a bad thing and that it is important to keep a foreign nation’s culture, because without it, homelands are destroyed. This essay is not implying to completely abandon cultural traditions while living in the United States, just to keep it at home and practice rituals privately or with a group of the same kind. Doing so will ensure a better chance for an immigrant to succeed in this country. Also, this paper is not indicating that equality in women’s role is perfect, there is substantial room to improve. Women are still not being treated equally as their opposite sex peers.
There are significant changes in what was expected of women in the 1950’s and today. Women today are greatly preoccupied with beautifying themselves for the sole purpose of sex appeal and, hold much more power than their grandmothers in the 1950’s. America is described as the melting pot for cultures because it takes an immigrant’s traditions and melts them to form the American way. Women are an essential part of the United States culture and that will never melt away.