Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prompt 1: The Role of Women

In today’s readings, “Female Nurses For Soldiers” (778) from Specimen Day, “Democratic Vistas”, and “Beautiful Women” (413) how does Whitman portray appropriate roles for women in society? How does this portrayal of women attempt to reconstruct the actual role of women in the mid-to-late nineteenth century?

The mid-to- late nineteenth century is often referred to as the Victorian Era. During this period in American history, there was increased attention given to human morals and modesty. Many of the literature written during this time commented on the roles and responsibilities men and women took on in order to better American society. Woman during this period were viewed as the leading force behind moral reform because they acted as the main caregiver of children. Although men were considered intellectually and physically superior to women, women were more virtuous than man and superior in child raising (Killingsworth 31). Since women were considered to be conscientious, benevolent, selfless, religious, and moral, their main role was to serve as an exemplary mother and wife The woman’s sphere was in the household and it was in this atmosphere in which women were to spend all of their time and energy in. Literature such as Catharine Beecher’s The Duty of American Women to Their Country written in 1845, describes how imperative it is for women to prepare their children for citizenship and says that women must continue to be submissive, pure, and domestic in order to fulfill their American responsibility (Wrobel 10). Jennie June, one of the first woman American journalists described the typical attitude towards woman and their responsibilities by commenting, “A woman is not a woman unless she has been baptized in her love and devotion to home and children” (Killingsworth 40)

Furthermore, women were supposed to take care of their body and physical appearance in order to be more effective wives and mothers. This notion is highlighted in an 1852 magazine, Peterson’s Ladies Magazine when the writer describes the advantages of physical exercise and says that women who exercise will have a better marriage and be better equipped for conception and pregnancy (Killingsworth 12). Yet, during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, female sexuality was downplayed. It was a common medical myth that females had to have an enjoyable sexual experience and orgasm in order to conceive a healthy child. Women’s own needs and satisfactions were deemphasized while their sexual duty was stressed. Often in the literary world, descriptive and intense heterosexual love was looked down upon and considered a forbidden subject (Killingsworth 36).

During this time in America, the feminist movement was just beginning, and often time women that tried to write about female superiority and advancement were shunned (Killingsworth 29). However, there were subtle hints at social reform for women written about in magazines such as The Ladies’ Companion, The Ladies’ Pearl, and Godey’s Ladies. At times these magazines would have articles focusing on a women’s right to an education and the legal defenses against spousal abuse (Killingsworth 31). Although females were beginning to see an increase in educational opportunities, the main reason for such reform was to strengthen their domestic knowledge so that they could raise children who would improve American society. Even the reform movements that were taking place within womens fashion was not for the women themselves. For example, during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, there was a reform movement for anti-tight lacing. However, this push to get rid of tight corsets was because of the thought that this fashion would damage the internal environment of unborn babies (Wrobel 11).

Walt Whitman was a product of the society in which he grew and was a part of. Therefore, Whitman’s personal poetry and prose contain allusions to women and their role within America. In today’s reading, “Beautiful Women”, Whitman provides a short vignette-like description of women. Whitman makes a clear distinction between older and younger women and comments, “the old are more beautiful than the young” (413). However, Whitman does not include the reason why he considers the older women to be more beautiful. Perhaps, in this poem Whitman is echoing Jennie June’s statement that a female is not a woman unless she has been a mother and wife. Therefore, it can be argued that Whitman is upholding the traditional nineteenth century view that women’s value and worth increases with age, domestic knowledge, and domestic experience.

Even throughout Whitman’s prose, he includes descriptions of females. In “Specimen Days,” Whitman writes about female nurses volunteering during the Civil War and states, “They deserve to be mention’d with respect” (778). Because Whitman specifically mentions and acknowledges women’s labor duties outside the realm of the household, Whitman could be considered progressive in his view towards women. Yet, it is important to note that the women Whitman describes are participating in subservient and selfless roles. Whitman clearly states that they are “volunteers” and “help”. Furthermore, Whitman continues to make a distinction of the superiority of older women when he argues, “no young ladies answer the practical requirements of nurses” (778). Rather, Whitman mentions that mothers, middle-aged women, and healthy elderly women make the best nurses. Upholding the nineteenth century view of women as caregivers, Whitman describes how the nurses have empathy and a calming presence because their child raising experience. Furthermore, Whitman makes a comment about females and their education when he references a nurse who was illiterate. Although she was illiterate, Whitman considered her the “best nurse”. Therefore, it can be argued that in this line that Whitman feels women have natural gifts and abilities for care giving, and thus do not need to be educated. Furthermore, Whitman also mentions race in his description of the nurses and states, “There are plenty of excellent clean old black women that would make tip-top nurses” (779). Whitman was in the midst of racial tension between African Americans and Caucasians but manages to include and praise African American women for their care giving ability. In this instance, African American women are placed in the same category as the Caucasian nurses. It can be argued that because Whitman concludes the piece with this notion, he is attempting to reconstruct the idea of African American women as inferior and demonstrate their equality.

Lastly, in Democratic Vistas, Whitman writes about the future of America and provides readers with his personal opinions concerning the developing nation. Whitman describes his hopes for a community of men and women who are “organized in running order and powers judiciously delegated” (992). In this portrayal of a future American community Whitman depicts women as having a “true personality, develop’d, excercised proportionately in body, mind, and spirit” (993). This notion of women taking care of their body and mind in order to improve society is in line with Jimmie Killingworth’s reference to nineteenth century writers that wanted women to take care of their physical appearance in order to have a better marriage (Killingsworth 12). Also, Whitman reflects the common nineteenth century notion of women performing household duties when he describes a woman that works as a housekeeper. In Whitman’s description of the woman, he mentions how she started her own seamstress business but then resorted back to working as a housekeeper for others. Whitman expresses his opinion regarding her career change by stating that she “went boldly to work for others”. Therefore, Whitman was in agreement with the nineteenth century way of thinking that women were better left to perform household duties. In this section Whitman also refers to another woman with whom he describes with high esteem and states, “Never abnegating her own proper independence, but always genially preserving it, and what belongs to it- cooking, washing, child-nursing, -she beams sunshine out of these duties, and makes them illustrious” (991). In this second illustration of an upstanding woman, Whitman is expressing his belief that women should remain selfless caregivers and take pride in their responsibility of running a household.

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