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On this regional public affairs program, historian Gretchen Kreuter speaks at University of Minnesota's Women's Day on Campus, sponsored by Continuing Education for Women.

Kreuter shares excerpts from women's diaries and letters, showing the continuity of women's experiences.

Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.

Is all of life became increasingly specialized woman was endowed with a special set of qualities piety Purity submissiveness in given a special environment the home in which she was supposed to cultivate these qualities and bestow their benefits on others. In a country like ours when there were many things that divided us. I think maybe Americans were looking for something to provide order and unity and what they found was that change was creature the true woman and her natural habitat the home and family. Yassa is one woman wrote in a woman's magazine of the 19th century. There is something sedative which the duties of the home involves. It affords security not only from the world, but from delusions and Terrors of every kind. The home is supposed to be cheerful place. So that husbands and brothers would not need to go elsewhere in search of comfort in Repose woman was supposed to dispense comfort and cheer. In home. She was not only the highest adornment of civilization, but she was supposed to keep busy yet morally uplifting tasks and the popular literature and platform oratory of the 19th century claims most housework if looked at in true womanly fashion could be regarded as uplifting. Now I would guess that just about every one of us here today has had some experience with the tasks of Home and Family certainly as daughters. Perhaps also be as wives and mothers. I would also guess that a few of us would characterize them as primarily either sedative or uplifting though. They have moments of each and sometimes the sanative parts are artificially induced. Out of need rather than is something that emerges from the normal course of events. Now you if this is true fresh today and I think it is it when our families are smaller and our domestic tasks are lightened by household technology. We can suppose I think that sedation and uplift we're even less characteristic of the lives of our foremothers. We're just beginning to look at what women themselves had to say about their lives instead of what others said those lives ought to be like we're starting to look at the real rather than the ideal. Now course there is much that is sad and Troublesome about what historians are finding out about the realities of women's lives. There are thousands of small tragedies in the ordinary stuff of lives both past and present women bear children and sometimes lose them illness and injury are known to most and death comes at last but that isn't all that is contained in in women's past or present and those are not the things I want to talk about this afternoon. I think that there is a rich vein of humor that emerges from the letters the Diaries the autobiographies of American women, even the feminists I blush to say, even the feminist and wouldn't even think of doing so except for the common and widespread belief that feminists past and present are singularly humorless people incapable of laughing at themselves or anything or anybody else, you know, Grim world of reality strife and male chauvinism. Perhaps you remember the the suffragist in the old Alec Guinness movie kind hearts and coronets, which was shown recently again on television. She appears in a Manish suit. She's Grim left. She's portrayed significantly Enough by Alec Guinness. She she throws the votes for women leaflets from a hot air balloon until she is brought to Earth by a well-placed arrow. She's an object of ridicule and we don't expect anything very witty from her. Now I realize there was some danger in telling you that you are about to hear about woman's wit and humour. It's sort of like the life of the party tide pool before telling a joke. I informed his listeners that this is the funniest story. He's ever heard one feels compelled and in such circumstances not to laugh less patellar become even more garrulous and a curse humor is also very much a matter of personal taste also the width of prominent persons or or historical figures is notoriously exaggerated. I remember reading of a book that was published about a year at about a hundred years ago in Russia called The Witch of the czar's. Included the hilarious tale of Tsar Alexander. Who is that Carriage stopped briefly beside a Workman who was digging a ditch in the Noonday Sun at Shedd desire to the ditch digger hot work. Everyone laughed until tears ran down their cheeks at the cleverness of his remark or so. It was reported by the author of The Witch of the czar's in my family hot work has become a shorthand way of saying that something was a rotten joke that somebody is exaggerated their own wittiness eat at my own risk and yours start with a theory and a method the theory is that that much of the humor that one finds in the way women talk about their own condition and experiences comes from the contrast between the ideal and reality either is they perceive it or is we do The message is to proceed through the through the female life cycle and see what Reflections women have had about its various stages. I sure you. I don't intend to be exhaustive. But but merely to share with you some of the realities of a few women's lives from childhood through courtship wife and motherhood to old age. What is beginning with with childhood as we all know according to the canons of nineteenth-century female deportment little girls were very early supposed to become little ladies and prepare themselves for lives and which they were to be of service to man. But lots of little girls didn't want to be a little ladies and Mary Putnam was one of them Mary Putnam. Wanted to be a physician her parents wanted her to remain at home. In 1858 when she was 16 years old Mary Putnam wrote to a friend describing her situation. My whole existence she wrote is governed by abstract ideas. For instance. There is an abstract general idea extant of a father coming home regularly tired at night from the plow. I believe the usual Legend runs and being silenced by the brilliant to get touching performance. I was sweet only daughter upon the piano in a manner that cause tears to his eyes as he remembers the dreams of his youth but that's blooming girl in white muslin with a Charming cherub in the Cradle consequent way to carry out this idea, although my father is very seldom tired and certainly never plows. Although he's not particularly fond of music and my performance is so far from either brilliant or touching that I suspect. He's entirely indifferent to it. I practice in accordance as I said before this ideal. There's another idea of an amiable sister that I am supposed to be feebly endeavoring to imitate. Although all my brothers and sisters have always been much more decorous and well-behaved children than my unlucky self. It is been studiously impressed on my infant mind ever since I was 5 years old that I was the eldest of younger urchins and steadily my steadily give myself the task of improving their morals and manners. I can't say that I ever did but the principle is the same that the ideal must be preserved regardless of fact. But Mary Putnam finally did went out over the objections of her family, but not for two years and interesting enough in deference to her wishes that her father took the unusual step of paying for her household services in those years. Religious experiences also Loom larger in the lives of girls a hundred years ago, then is likely to be true today and Calvinism held many and it's icy grip summer able to look back on their religious obsessions with at least a touch of humour Mary Livermore became a suffragist over former Civil War nurse Remembered in her reminiscences the Sundays of her childhood and and sitting in church. She wrote it a sounding board overhang the pulpit which was small and circular and seemingly suspended in the air for the posts that have held it in the narrow spiral staircase which conducted to it when close buy curtains. I thought the minister when he passed inside those curtains Rose in the air very much as a source from the ground until he came to the level where he could be seen by the people. And the doctrine of predestination of course was was a key element of Calvinism. And when Mary Livermore was seven a baby sister was born and I think this illustrates that the doctrine of predestination predestination could be put to many uses. She she reminisced I bent down to kiss to plump Rosie sleeping baby. Then the watch Flash through me what if she is not elected to be saved and his lost and infinite feeling of pity or her came as I thought what her new might be. Oh mother I cried don't let's keep the baby. Let's send her back to God. What if she doesn't grow up to be a Christian and his lost we will pray that my father that God will make her a Christian and we will try to train her so that she will become one. But the doctrine of election has been thoroughly talked me and I was not comforted by that promise. But father if she is not elected to be saved, how can she be do send her back to God? Tell him we don't want any more babies in this house. Is there just a hint of sibling rivalry here and character-building was something else that that little girls gave more thought to than we suspect they do today when we read House Charlotte Perkins Gilman went about building her character. We may be grateful that the Habit to has fallen into disuse. She was determined to cultivate the habit of caring for others. She found that she was really indifferent to others and thought that it was you know that she shouldn't be so she located a little crippled girl and persuaded her to allow Charlotte to practice benevolence primer. She wrote later. I read to her that was easy. Her eating was restricted, but she could smell and I brought her flowers than with long careful saving. I bought her a small music box for $3 a huge song for me. It was a mere toy but proved a great comfort to her in about 2 years. I heard through a kind cousin, it's some old lady had said that she did like Charlotte Perkins. She was so thoughtful of other people harass a tie. She also explained every year I would lay out one or perhaps two desirable traits to acquire. andina, leisurely manner acquire them I selected gradually carefully choosing for imitation some admired character of history or fiction not too far beyond me and then catching up followed by the selection of another more difficult at the time when this long effort ended I had got his far is Socrates. One New Year's Prayer heard during these years provoked me almost to interrupt the minister was drowning along in the vial newest style Val knowest how a year ago. We made good resolutions and have broken them now know is how we undertook to develop a better character and have failed. I wanted to speak out and tell him that there was one person president. Who had undertaken to develop better character and succeeded? Who had made good resolutions and kept them everyone. Once safely through childhood either with or without improving the character that next approved stage of the life cycle was courtship. Anna Howard Shaw a doctor Minister and ultimately head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association described in her room innocence has her first proposal of marriage. She was about Seventeen by this was in the 1860s. She wrote Jeff the youth who sought my hand was about 20 years old and buying on Happy chance. He was also the least attractive young person in the countryside. His costume like himself left much to be desired. He wore a blue flannel shirt and a pair of trousers made of flour bags. Search trousers were not uncommon in our Region's was in Michigan and the boy's mother who had made them for him had thoughtfully selected a nice clean pair of sacks on the back of the bags directly in the rear of the wearer was the simple Legend 96 lb. And this is striking effect of the young man's costume was completed by a bright yellow sash which hell is trousers in place. I'd like to set this young man inform Durana that his dad had just given him a cabin. Are you okay upstairs a cow and some hens and after letting this announcement Sophie and he said will you have me? Groping for an excuse and I replied she was already engaged that's darn disappointing to a fellow. He said and left the house. She subsequently married, but not this is a gentleman. For young women who found their suitors more acceptable at marriage generally followed and Mary brought its own new obligations for some they were bergenson Jane Grey swisshelm who became an abolitionist and newspaper editor found that she had a passion and a talent for painting that interfere with the performance of her household duties as she wrote in her autobiography again. And again, the fire went out after the bread ran over in the pants while I painted and dreamed I tried to compromise but experience soon deprive me of that. Hope in my doubt. I met one of those newspaper paragraphs with which man are want to Pelt women into subjection. It route a man does not marry an artist but a housekeeper. Miss fitted my case and my Doom was healed. I put away my brushes resolutely Crucified My Divine gift and while it hung writhing on the CrossFit my best years and Powers cooking cabbage. Jeans for sale ultimately left her husband and turn to journalism not art in of her own first newspaper. She wrote it was quite an insignificant looking sheet, but no sooner did the American Eagle catch sight of it that he swooned and fell off his perch Other marriages were happier Cajun Ignatius Donnelly mentioned in her introduction Donnelly and Ignatius. It seems we've been pretty well-matched but a Kate suffered from her husband's long absences from home. He was a congressman in Washington and 1860s and she found their separations difficult five weeks. She wrote five weeks are elapsed since I saw your dear fat face. And if you do not come this week, I will surely you elope with someone on one occasion Ignatius is returned to his family was delayed because he had received an invitation to the White House and a Kate wrote. You have honored the Lincoln's I suppose you had to notice them. Well, I hope it will be for the best but really they are the kind of people one would scarcely desire in one set. Her and her affection. However, did not cause her to abandon her judgment or suspend her critical Powers. At least not always when Ignatius sent her some of his poetry for her evaluation. Did she call it slop? She urged him not to publish it when he wants sent her a very long bought for letter about Washington Society in a way that was quick clear from reading the letter that he thought he was being very profound. She replied that that letter was flatter than a pancake right about something you know about One of the themes I think that emerges from almost every reflection or reminiscence I have read of married life is an undercurrent at at least partially of frustration a sense of being fragmented and never never getting as much done as one had hoped. We've seen it clearly in the in the Jane swisshelm reminiscences. It's in Kate Donnelly's letters as well. But I think it comes through Best in a letter that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1850 about not her husband, but her plumber. She describes to a friend her sink. So this seems think lingered in a precarious state for some weeks. And when I had nothing else to do I used to call the plumber shop and do what I could in the way of enlisting the good man's sympathies in its behalf. How many times I have been in and seated myself in one of the old rocking chairs and talked first of the news of the day the railroad the last proceedings in Congress the probabilities about the millennium? And that's brought the conversation by little and little round to my sink. A month passed before the sink was completed at about the same time. Beecher Stowe gave birth to her seventh and last child little Charlie and so she was confined her bed for two weeks. During this time. She wrote. I have employed my Leisure Hours in making up my engagements with newspaper editors. I have written more than anybody or I myself would have thought I have taught an hour a day in our school and I've read two hours every evening to the children yet. I am constantly pursued and haunted by the idea that I don't do anything. Since I began this note, I have been called off at least a dozen times once for the Fishman to buy a cod fish wants to see a man who had brought me. Some barrels of apples wants to see a book man misses album to see about a drawing. I promise to make for her then to nurse the baby then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner. And now I'm at it again for nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write it is rowing against wind and Tide. What Ro she did her sister-in-law urged her to write something against slavery and Harriet replied as long as the baby sleeps with me night, so I can't do much but I will do what it last the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared less than a year after she got her sink fixed. Motherhood alluded to so briefly and here by Harriet Beecher Stowe was of course very often likely to follow marriage and if ever there were a subject on which myth and reality diverged it was that one. Somehow Instinct was supposed to be sufficient for most things related to mothering Elizabeth Cady Stanton Drew highly indignant at there such a substance. And also what she found to be a great deal of ignorance and contradiction when she tried to learn about infant child care in in her reminiscences. She wrote about her own experiences in her efforts to care for her first baby. She wrote I had a little faith in the popular theories in regard to babies as I had on any other subject. I saw a baby's on all sides heel half the time Hale and peevish dying early having no joy in life and parents complaining of weary days and sleepless nights while each child and turn ran the gauntlet of red gum whooping cough chicken pox mumps measles and 5th. Everyone seemed to think these these afflictions were part of Eternal plan that Providence had a kind of Pandora's box from which he scattered. These venerable disease is most liberally among those he especially loved Having gone through the ordeal of bearing a child. I was determined if possible to keep him. So I read everything I could find on babies but the literature on the subject which is confusing and unsatisfactory is the longer and Shorter Catechism in the 39 articles of our faith. Stanton did find useful have her book by Andrew come on infancy. And she read it aloud to the nursemaid who was helping to care for the baby at the nursemaid was not interested and is Stanton Road, although out of her ten children. She had buried 5. She still had too much confidence in her own wisdom and experience to pay much attention to any new idea. That might be suggested to her when Stan said that the that the baby should not be bandaged from hip to armpit as was the custom at the time of the nursemaid refused saying that because the bones of newborn infants are so it might fall apart unless they were pinned up snuggly. And staying the course was indignant. She she wrote isn't it remarkable that kittens and puppies should be so well put together. Bet that they need no artificial bracing and the Human family be left. Holy to the mercy of a bandage. Suppose a child was born where you couldn't get a bandage. Stanley had no more confidence in doctors at winter infant was a few days old the doctor discovered that the collarbone was bent and he put on a bandage around the collarbone and attached to the wrist to leave the bandage 10 days and everything will be alright. Shortly after you left the child hand turn blue. Show the nurse sent for another Doctor Who rebandage the child and left this time. Only the child's fingers turn blue. So it was with Katie Stanton took over in after some experimentation. She devised a satisfactory bandage that didn't cut off the circulation 10 days later the doctors returned. These two sons of aesculapius She Wrote made their examination and said all was right Rippon. I told them how badly their bandages worked and what I had done myself, they smiled at one another and one said well after all a mother's instinct is better than a man's reason. Thank you. Gentlemen are there was no Instinct about it. I did some hard thinking before I saw how I could get pressure on the shoulder without impeding the circulation is you did. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was another Relentless foe of those who would romanticize mother's instinct. What is an instinct? It is an inherited habit. There is an insect which prepares for its young at to eat and neatly paralyzed caterpillar this ingenious mother lays her eggs in a neatly arranged whole been stings a caterpillar so accurately as to deprive them of motion, but not have life and seals up the whole over eggs and fresh meat in full swing of the maternal Instinct accrual. We observe observe took out the helpless caterpillar as soon as he was put in but the Instinct guided mother sealed up the whole just as happily she had done the trick as her Instinct prompted and there was no allowance for scientific observers in that prompting. She had no intelligence only instinct. And like Mike Stanton Charlotte Perkins Gilman believe that if mothers use their brains, if they tried to learn what they could about child rearing infant mortality rates with children would be healthier happier and better able to become useful adults Gilman Gilman Road our eyes grow moist with emotion our own mothers and what they have done for us our voices thrill in Trimble with Pathos and veneration as we speak of the mothers of Great Men Mother of Abraham Lincoln mother of George Washington and so on head John Wilkes Booth no mother. Was Benedict Arnold an orphan? Who in the name of all common sense raises are huge and growing crop of the idiots and degenerate Smooth Criminal. As well as all the vast mass of slow night and Prejudice during Harry people unclog the wheels of progress by their mothers to be credited. With all that is good and the fathers with all that is man. Her solution like like Stanton's with views of intelligence and observation not Reliance upon romanticized and largely hypothetical maternal instinct. Vigorous old age of course is partly a matter of luck. But as many women have found out it is a goal worth working at eight stack who was once the dean of women at the University of Minnesota and later president of Radcliffe married at 65 because she didn't want marriage to interfere with her career. Nevertheless she and her husband live to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary together. Charlotte Perkins Gilman times before took particular pride in keeping herself in good physical condition at her favorite exercise was the traveling rings that is single rings that hang from the ceiling and extend the length of a gymnasium. She wrote about this wonderful exercise who mounted table with one of those in one hand welder on back launch worth in a long swing and catch the next for the other. I will strongly in the first to get along swing back carefully letting go and it hung vertically so that it should be ready for the next should be ready for their turn goes swinging on to the next down the road and back again. Why is room yes. Life, she wrote does not offer many opportunities for this exercise. But I had a chance at it when about 36 again when someone over 50 and last lecture Enid Oklahoma University. I did it the whole row and back at age 65, whereby she can quote. It is apparent that a careful orderly training and physical culture last a lifetime. Mental Vigor is that is no less admirable course in in 1895 Elizabeth Cady Stanton made some notes in her diary of the books that she had recently raped. Andrew weitz history of the Warfare of science with theology Boswell's life of Johnson crosses George eliot's wife Matthew Arnold's essays and criticism Bacon's essays Herbert Spencer Irving's Oliver Goldsmith for yesterday's in five or six more several of the novels of Charlotte Bronte Sakura, George Eliot and Cabot Lodge is life of Washington. She was at that time 84 years old. Now I would certainly not claim that the foregoing example that I have read to you are typical of the generality of American women the very fact that most of those I selected were women with some public Eminence and reputation women who wrote their autobiographies or who save their letters means that they were a typical they were not ordinary people. And in the ominous words that psychologists used to use when discussing women they were deviant. But in most important respects, I think their experiences were hours. All were daughter somewhere sisters wives and mothers as well. And if they were not ordinary people they were certainly real people and I think that is what the mythology of woman and Womanhood try to ignore Priscilla wine.


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