Interlude: Class and true womanhood

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Success at posting every day for a week! It feels good even if the last two posts have been written before I go to bed ;)

In other news, AWH now has a page at Google+. Check it out.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the ways “true womanhood” specifically excludes black women. But as I’ve noted a few times before, this is a model of femininity that erases and maligns so many identities and experiences that it ultimately denies the “realness” of the vast majority of women.

Class is a huge axis along which women are allowed or denied the label of true women, though not in a simplistic way that pits the rich or the middle class against the poor. Rather, socioeconomic status intersects with race, and geography (among other factors) in terms of which kinds of women are seen as exemplifying natural or godly femininity.

As I see it there are at least two fairly distinct, though not without overlapping ideas and influences, cultures in the white true womanhood movement. There’s the rural, almost homesteading culture, which seems to emphasize the role of wives in labor and production in the home (reproductive and otherwise). It’s a culture that preaches a particular kind of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned, “traditional” ways that to a degree deliberately isolates them from the rest of society, physically and culturally.

And then there’s the kind that centers on the trappings off white suburban life: owning a nice home, keeping that home looking nice and respectable, in the name of “hospitality” and “fellowship,” and keeping oneself looking nice and respectable (both stylish and modest!). It’s a model of true womanhood that requires being able to afford a certain level of consumption.

This is the culture I grew up in. Most of the families at church were financially comfortable. I’d say the majority of the church was upper middle class, and a not insignificant minority of the church was squarely upper class (new suburban rich persuasion). There were families who struggled financially, but the vast majority of the church was comfortably middle class or wealthier, and most people were from families that had been in middle class for some time.

Both official teachings and church events as well as the church culture reflected assumptions that everyone was fairly well-off. For example, it didn’t occur to me until I went to college and met people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that being a “good” member of my home church required expenditures that many people simply could not afford. Being fully “invested” in the church as a family with children meant sending or accompanying kids on myriad youth retreats, excursions, and missions, attending at least one out-of-town conference a year (often more), joining the evangelical versions of Boy or Girl Scouts, buying several books a year for discussion at bible studies, and numerous other literal investments of money – speak less of all the time away from home and work that had to be set aside for such things.

True womanhood as understood in this context makes similarly significant demands on families’ time and money. Women are expected to stay at home once they became mothers, and to homeschool their kids. Home ownership is also expected. I can’t tell you how many women from my former church have blogged ad nauseam about how they’re learning to “trust God” through the “trial” of not yet being homeowners. The cluelessness and privilege, it is rather epic.

Homes are to be tastefully and fashionably decorated. Women are expected to be frequent and accomplished cooks of healthy meals. And they’re expected to have larger families than average for suburban communities – 4 or 5, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 or 9 kids. To successfully do all this on one income in an area where cost of living and house prices are high (or even average) often requires a considerable income on the part of the husband and considerable labor at home as teacher, child-care provider, home decorator, chef, etc., on the part of the wife.

More thoughts on this coming.

4 Comments

  1. I only just connected your church stories with him of the ‘don’t waste your sports’ drivel. Class and ‘womanhood’ is a huge deal there, and I’m really interested in the rest of your analysis.

  2. I am from the rural-lower class. I really used to worry that I would never be a ‘real woman’ since my hands are genetically soft and I cannot callous like my mother, grandmothers, aunts etc no matter how hard I work. Everyone works and works hard. The older kids do the jobs that require the most strength, regardless of gender.
    My mom has always worked several jobs. She either worked at night, took us kids with her, or I watched my younger siblings. However much she contributed financially and with unpaid labour, she still placed herself last in the hierarchy of importance.
    Rural communities may be more isolated from the larger culture, but there it is close-knit. Perhaps part of it is the acknowledgement that we have to work together to survive. It is a weird gender dynamic where everyone does what they can and everyone’s work is appreciated but, perhaps in spite of that or because of it, some older norms of patriarchy are upheld more.
    Now I live in the city and am middle class. I’m not good at the model of femininity expected of me. I’d rather do dig potatoes than decorate my house. I prefer not to stay at home and refuse to wear heels.
    I can see how city femininity is tied to class. The women in our church who devote their entire lives to their homes, children, and volunteering (successful womanhood) are those whose husbands can afford nice homes and second vehicles. The single working moms aren’t ushered ‘in’ until that brief window when their kids leave home but before they need grandma to babysit.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience, prairie! I think it’s so important to hear a diversity of voices on these issues – both because people’s experiences range so widely, and also because it disrupts this idea that “femininity” is one thing. And I hear you on the close-knit nature of rural communities – friends and family I know who grew up in rural communities often really miss that aspect of rural life.