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Throughout the history of the United States, significant changes have taken place in all spheres of life. Gender roles typically reflect the major social, political, economic and moral values of an epoch, and they tend to transform in alignment with the major values. So, the role of a woman in a family has evolved since the time of colonization. While traditional significance of marriage and motherhood prevailed at first, women progressively broadened their opportunities in education, employment and business, which questioned their stereotypical role.
To begin with, it is worth saying that women played an important role in families in Colonial America. On the one hand, European immigrants brought their traditional values with them, which meant that women were considered to be a weaker sex in all aspects compared to men. They had to take a submissive position to their husbands as heads of households and were devoid of many rights that modern women do have, such as voting and an opportunity to get proper education; they were not protected legally and financially from poor treatment of their spouses. Modesty, obedience, repressed sexuality in favor of religious piety, were the Puritan values, which determined the position of women in a family. On the other hand, it would be totally wrong to say that the structure of society was the same, as it was in Europe. Hence, the role of women could not be the same, as they had to face different challenges as well as they were open to different opportunities. There were several major reasons for this special situation, in which first American women found themselves, and which determined the future dynamics and transformations, and shaped a model of an American woman.
First of all, life in colonies was much harder than it was in Europe. People had to start from scratch in all aspects because nothing but the land was available to them. So, it is quite natural that women had to participate in fighting their families’ ways, including physical jobs. Although the role of a mother and a wife was primary for them, it was far from aristocratic lifestyle, empty chatting and celebration. None of the goods or services was available, so families had to produce them on their own. Thus, apart from cooking and looking after children, women had a range of occupations, which were necessary for the household. They had to produce clothes, soap, candles, and participate in farming. Of course, they were primarily assigned the jobs, which were typical for females; however, this was not always the case. The United States was a young country with its institutions and economics in incipient phase, so there was a shortage of labor. Besides, immigrants were people who were less traditionalist, as one had to have an adventurous touch in order to move to a new country. So, having women in male jobs was not a rare case, too. It was an absolute necessity in situations, when a woman has lost her husband for any reason. She had no one to rely on, so she had to take charge of her family as a bread winner. So, strong women were less sensational in the Colonial America, than in Europe of the epoch. Besides, there were more men in colonies than women, this is why women were so valuable and probably more appreciated. At the time, having a family was vital to be recognized and to succeed in the community, so if a woman’s husband died, there were always pretenders to her heart. A researcher describes a remarkable situation: “In the Virginia colony it was bantered about that when a single man showed up with flowers at the funeral of a husband, he was more likely to be courting than mourning or offering condolences” (Sage, 2007).
Speaking about an institution of a family, it is worth saying that it was closely related to religion. Since the situation of colonizers was full of hardships and uncertainty, there had to be some basic values on which family and social life would be grounded. Hence, religion was a force, which made the family and the community cling together. Because the church was newly established, it had less formal rules and ranks, than churches with history. Women’s number in congregation was larger than that of men, which led to the phenomenon called feminization of religion. In the context of the family, gender roles were differently assigned, differently when one spoke of faith: “the lead in the family practice of religion in New England was often taken by the wife. It was the mother who brought up the children to be good Christians, and the mother who often taught them to read so that they could study the Bible” (Sage, 2007).
When speaking of how families were influenced by their backgrounds before immigration, it would be true to say in different states the situation was different, and hence it shaped different social realities. Thus, New England was a Puritan region; the local communities were mostly formed by nuclear families who immigrated together. In contrast, it is reported that mostly single people immigrated to Maryland, both male and female, who got married late: “Nearly three-quarters of them arrived as indentured servants, and neither men nor women servants were free to marry until their terms were completed. Additional years were often required to accumulate the capital necessary to establish a household. Immigrant women in Maryland usually married in their mid-twenties, and men seldom wed before their late twenties. . . . the lack of women” ( Family Structure – U.S. Colonial Era to 1899).
Nevertheless, Colonial America remained a patriarchal society, which was also true in families, where father were leaders in all aspects. However, the situation began to change in early nineteenth century with industrial revolution. The economic development of the United States lead to the change of the society structure, and men had more opportunities to become economic leaders of their families. Thus, while in earlier times men and women shared household work and raising children, the tendency emerged for women to take charge of family sphere as the husbands were involved in working outside families. At the same time, the situation revealed the inequality in the aspect of social life. Men were able to express themselves both within the family and in society, while women’s function was confined to the family. This exposed inconsistencies of society and gave way to feminist thought development in the United States.
Studies show that it was about 1875 when women started working outside their households alongside with men, and working class women were the first ones to take this opportunity (Woodcock, p.3). It was hard to say, though, whether this was an achievement of feminism or just a desperate situation but nevertheless this was a milestone when a new pattern started to shape: a married working woman. With many women starting to work, further socialization of females took place, which meant they finally could experience a larger world apart from their household. However, this did not help women to dramatically change the situation in their family life, where they were totally dependent on men. This happened because discrimination was typical for the time: women received much lower salaries than men did, which meant that their income was very low and was not a huge contribution to family budget. That meant that women would have never been able to make their own living without spouses, fathers and brothers. As a researcher points out, “the atypical employed wife had little social support for a lightening of her considerable work and family burden. The employment interval for most working-class women, then, had relatively little impact on the essentials of the female life cycles” (Woodcock, p.10).
Speaking about the role of a woman in the sphere of family life today, it is worth saying that there is some controversy about this topic. The point is that history often works according to pendulum effect, and this is largely the current situation with women. Because they were oppressed for centuries in spheres like employment, politics, education, these spheres were quite attractive. Hence, feminist thought was aimed at female liberation by providing more opportunities to women in these fields, which looked so alluring. At the same time, because stereotypical women were housewives, they were considered as derogatory by feminism, as a form of women’s oppression. As a result, there has been a trend of moving from one extreme to another one, which was about to deprive them of their advantages, rather than just provide them with opportunities. Many women are successful in business and politics today, they acquired confidence and leadership skills, and they can be managers above men. However, this position requires sacrifice in many cases, which means that less time should be spent with their families and children. Many modern women do not spend more than a couple of months on a maternity leave because they are eager to return to business. Socialization process, which was so important at previous stages, now becomes even harmful. Because of immense fixation on their social image, some women avoid breast-feeding just to keep their appearance. This dependence on external communication distracts women from their families and their important functions of being a mother and a wife. Although a lot has been claimed about gender differences being the result of upbringing and not inborn, women’s natural cycles make it important to realize herself within the family context. Instead, social aspects become more significant to them, so that their natural roles and happiness is ignored.
Of course, there have been many positive changes that made woman a human being that has equal opportunities for success and respect as those of a man. Women can vote now, they can be candidates to the same-level jobs and education, then can hold any office. At the same time, the clash between social and family values is inevitable. While an extended family was important in previous centuries, it is a nuclear family that is of primary importance nowadays. This happened because of the fact that people tend to be more economically independent on each other, so there is no necessity to unite in extended families to survive. In this system, a woman became quite independent too. She does not longer need her husband’s financial support, so while in the past, marriage was the only possible way of socialization, it is no longer the case. Hence, marriage became rather a partnership for common goals, than a necessity for a woman.
Thus, an apparent transformation has been completed, which provided solutions and still left a lot of questions unanswered. In this context, there are certain challenges posed in front of a modern woman, as well as a number of opportunities. Speaking of challenges, it is quite clear that the refusal from stereotypes and reconsidering gender roles lead to undermining of a family institution as it is. Many women today find it unnecessary to get married, which is a striking difference comparing to the past. Thus, it is necessary to reconsider the role of marriage and its purpose, in order to open new prospects in front of a woman. Old meanings do not work and marriage is no longer the only survival solution for females. Yet, whenever the institution of a family is weakened, the same happens to society that is built on its foundation. In fact, other meanings can be found to marriage, than just financial support from the spouse. Women should realize that marriage is an opportunity of personal growth because of constant dealing with challenges of communication. Another challenge that is closely related to the first one, is gender roles exchange: feminization of men and masculinization of women. Many people argue whether this is normal or harmful, yet this definitely does not contribute to keeping traditions of family building.
Apart from challenges, new opportunities are open in front of women today in the sphere of family life. First of all, there is a freedom of choice and flexibility, which means that a man and a woman can work out their own scheme of communication that suits them best. This flexibility is able to make the institution of marriage more adaptable to challenges that society poses. Besides, in case male feminization and female masculinization are not permanent states but conscious decisions, suitable in a particular situation, than this state can be quite resourceful. Having choice about being soft or severe, sociable or goal- oriented broadens horizons for a woman, who can use different types of behavior for her success and socialization.