The Rise of the Modern Woman

The Rise of the Modern Woman

The Rise of the Modern Woman

The Rise of the Modern Woman

Excerpt

Women have experienced a vital series of changes during the past two centuries, and their implications remain to be fully worked out. The first shock of change was encountered near the outset of the nineteenth century, primarily in Western Europe and North America. Industrialization and urbanization set a new stage for women. This was true for the male minority as well, but change was to have a differential impact on the two genders. Novelty was most obviously thrust upon women, who were pressed into new work situations and new residences, for which they were supposed to assume prime responsibility, and exposed to new educational systems and political movements. But women also served as direct agents of change, particularly in alterations of family structure and functions but also, especially after 1850, in the broader society, forging new efforts at legal and political reform and seeking new systems of health care. In diverse areas of endeavor, not always in unison, women were on the move.

From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, and not assuming that the modern woman is even yet fully formed, one can see in the nineteenth century a number of false starts in the female reaction to the varied trappings of industrialization. False starts, that is, in that a number of crucial nineteenth-century developments were to be seriously modified, indeed repudiated by the most articulate women, during the twentieth century. This is why the nineteenth century, flexibly construed, serves as a convenient first period in the passage of women from traditional to modern. By 1914 women had completed the pattern of initial adjustment, and some strained to move more quickly and in more novel directions. By the 1920s important elements of nineteenth- century women's culture, especially those subsumed under the heading "Victorian," had become the enemy, attacked as degrading to the x-chromosomed gender.

But the nineteenth century is not a museum piece in women's modern evolution, though there is a tendency still to look at some aspects of Victorianism as oddities from which the twentieth century in its wisdom has escaped. Most historians see the nineteenth century as integrally tied to woman's history right up to our own day. Features of "Victorianism," objectionable to some, persist, for nineteenth-century female culture took deep roots; Mother, in its modern connotations as a nineteenth-century product (crowned with her own "Day" by the U.S. Congress in 1917), is still with us, for example, however confining the maternal role may seem to some. Other nineteenth- century developments, such as the first widespread adoption of artificial contraception as a means of birth control, seem basic to the modern woman even freed from any specifically Victorian trappings. Finally, it can be argued that insofar as women in the nineteenth century seemed to cling to many established roles, even to glorify them, they adapted quite rationally to the massive changes in their environment, more rationally than men who, voluntarily or under compulsion, exposed themselves more obviously to the cutting edge of industrial society; more rationally, some contemporary women would hold, than those of their sisters who now challenge the substantial role differentiation between genders.

Any such basic and complex century of change must provoke extensive historical debate. A serious subject, vital in any understanding of the contemporary human animal, attracts powerful minds, and these carve out their own particular expressions. Though a rather new field of study, women's history already bears the mark of this process. And historians, again like other serious researchers, know that controversy is the stuff of professional life, at once advancing knowledge and venting professional egos. Controversy in women's history is fueled by two additional factors. The latter half of the twentieth century is witnessing a truly dramatic upheaval in women's roles and male/ female relations, directed both toward great- . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.