Discuss the ways that domestic ideology constructed femininity and what this meant for women's agency Essay

‘Any girl worth her salt wants to be the best housewife ever – and then some’ screamed at us from the pages of Woman’s Own in 1932 - Discuss the ways that domestic ideology constructed femininity and what this meant for women's agency Essay introduction. (Pugh 2000, p. 212) Yet, this philosophy was not a new phenomenon. According to feminist historians, domestic ideology and particularly, its focus on separate spheres for men and women has played a fundamental role in British culture since the late eighteenth century. (Webster 1998, p. x) Although there is vast material available on this subject, a full exploration of this area of women’s history would exceed the limits of this particular essay. Hence, in this instance, attention will be offered to the importance of the prevailing domestic ideology during the interwar period in British society. This will be undertaken within a Cultural Studies framework with reference to Hall’s reading of the circuit of culture using the constructionist view of Saussure’s semiotic theory. (Hall 2000, pp. -19)

I will illustrate how representations of femininity were directly associated with domesticity and the central notion of the interwar years was foremost that a woman’s place was in the home. There is a mass of information regarding women’s continuing and vital role within the field of politics. Historians such as Pugh have suggested that feminism fell apart during the interwar years but it is evident from the women’s legislation introduced between 1918 and 1929 that there were still many successful campaigns being won. (Pugh, p. 08-109)

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During this period we can observe a dichotomy between the dominant domestic discourse and feminist ideology which was perceived by many men and paradoxically, many women as a threat to the traditional gender roles and as a force to break up the family. Yet, as Beaumont suggests, this negative portrayal of feminism and subsequent backlash was unfair in that many feminist societies had not challenged women’s domestic role but were in fact campaigning for better status and rights for women both inside and outside the home. (Beaumont 2000, p. 13)

These women recognised that it was only by getting involved in public life and politics that they could bring about change and their importance should not be forgotten. Feminism merely fragmented as it became clear that the war had changed everything and for much of the traumatised British population, there was a feeling that people just wanted stability and a return to the way things were before 1914. However, although this is more than worthy of a mention, due to the restrictions placed on this essay I will be unable to offer more detailed attention to this aspect of women’s history.

In order to consider the circuit of culture as highlighted by Hall as an analytical tool to examine this period, it will become evident that meaning is not fixed and is constantly shifting thus resulting in both positive and negative ways in which women were represented. Beddoe demonstrates this argument, stating, ‘there is no fixed definition of femininity and the female role: such definitions are shaped and moulded by the times. ‘ (Beddoe 1989, p. 9) Culture is about shared meaning expressed through our common access to language using signs and symbols such as written words and visual images within our representational system.

According to Hall, meaning is constructed by how we incorporate these concepts into our everyday lives and give value to them. (Hall, p. 4) The cultural circuit is concerned with representation and the production and exchange of meaning, how this maintains identity and marks out difference and how this is consumed and regulated. (Hall p. 3) It is important to recognise that these processes are all inextricably linked. To take this a stage further we must consider Saussure’s semiotic approach to cultural representation.

As Hall points out, Saussure considered language as a system of signs carrying meaning; comprising of the form, i. e. the actual word, image or photo which acts as signifier and the idea or concept it triggers or is associated with, which acts as the signified. Both are required to produce meaning and it is the relationship between them which sustains representation but when this link is broken, it allows for the constant production of new meanings and interpretation within both a historical and cultural context. (Hall p. 1) Now, to apply this analysis to the women who had played an integral part in the war effort, taking on often dirty and dangerous jobs. They were seen in public places for the first time, in occupations such as engineering and government offices. Women’s role in the public sphere was accepted and indeed, encouraged by society in general. The images of working girls portrayed by the media and state agencies signified hardworking, patriotic women who were offering an invaluable contribution to the national struggle.

Yet, when the war ended the public and media perception of these women was transformed. Women who were once praised for their patriotism were now branded as parasites and now signified the undesirable ideal of a wicked woman refusing to give up her job and labels afforded her such as limpet, pin money wife and flapper. (Beddoe p. 13) The wartime heroine ideal had been replaced and those who continued to work were juxtaposed against the now desirable image of a happy, contented housewife and mother.

Beddoe draws remarkable parallels with the desirable image of the ‘Perfect Lady’ compared to the undesirable ‘New Woman’ of the 19th century, highlighting how definitions of femininity have changed. (Beddoe p. 9) The increasing resentment towards women workers was exemplified by Sir George Barnes, M. P who reproached, ‘there are still a good many young women who … work only for ‘pin-money’ – they should be replaced by the ex-soldier in all cases. ‘ (Adam 1975, p. 2) In other words, women were expected to step down from their roles as workers to allow the men to reclaim their jobs and the women to return to their rightful place within the home or domestic related work. It became generally accepted that a woman’s first place was in the home but if she did go out to work, then it was as a low paid worker. (Beddoe p. 7) The constantly shifting image of the flapper is a powerful testimony to Saussure’s theory.

In 1890 the term signified a young prostitute and prior to the war it referred to any female with a boyish figure. Beddoe p. 23) Pugh argues that by the 1920s a flapper was on the one hand, denoted as ‘ultra feminine, shallow minded … frivolous … irresponsible. ‘ Yet on the other hand he suggests that ‘men found this return to femininity reassuring. ‘ (Pugh p. 73) Furthermore, Beddoe argues that by the 1930s the image of a flapper was now signified by a short-haired, smoking, dancing, drinking girl who was lacking in sexual morals. This was once again a derogatory term aimed mainly at working class women who continued to work after the war. (Beddoe p. 3) It is evident from this example, the manipulative role that mass culture and the state played in the production, consumption and regulation of this image in order to mark difference and advocate the desirable and non desirable identities of women.

Women’s identity was that of wives and mothers and not of workers. The notion of a woman’s place became the hegemonic ideology and those who did not conform were seen as different and undesirable. The birth rate was steadily decreasing and the government wanted the depleted population replenished and as Purvis asserts, ‘discussion of motherhood was framed in terms of national need. (Purvis 1995, p. 313) Yet, after the war both middle class and working class women were practising birth control in order to limit the number of children and smaller families became the norm by the 1930s. (Bruley 1991, p. 71)

This decision was undertaken by women for financial reasons as well as to avoid the often fatal risks involved in childbirth and as Bruley argues, the small family ‘was an essential part of the new vision of privatised family life’ widely promoted in Britain at that time. (Bruley p. 2) The idea of smaller families was advantageous for women in that having fewer children freed up more time for them to go out to work should they choose to, albeit on lower pay than their male colleagues. It must be kept in mind that although working class women had always played a fundamental role in childcare and housework, their middle class counterparts were now expected to do the same and to maintain certain standards in doing so. As previously mentioned, a woman’s role after the war was seen as primarily that of wife and mother, blissfully content with her life within the private realms of domesticity.

Thus, this dominant stereotypical image of the ideal feminine woman was reinforced within popular culture in the form of the booming newspaper, magazine, novel, cinema, radio and advertising industries. Beddoe highlights the abrupt transformation in advertising, offering images and headlines which were no longer signifiers of women as war workers but signifiers of women as housewives. (Beddoe p. 13) There were more than fifty different women’s magazines in circulation during the 1920s and 1930s aimed at both middle class and working class women. Pugh p. 209)

Their titles alone emphasised their domestic predisposition. Articles on beauty, cookery, childcare and housekeeping were covered and according to Pugh, the nearest these ‘came to tackling feminist issues’ was on the problem page and despite the successful legal reforms on issues such as divorce, these controversial subjects were largely ignored. (Pugh p. 209) As Adam suggests, such reforms were still concerned with women in their identity as wives and mothers. (Adam p. 8)

Ironically, women were encouraged to take up suitable employment which would prepare them for married life, once again propagating the notion that in order to be truly feminine a woman’s role should be within the home. In sharp contrast to this there were the women who did not wish to conform to these pressures to be constrained within domesticity but who wanted to work and have worthwhile careers. Yet, any woman who did not fit the idealised vision of womanhood would be liable to ridicule and pity.

A career woman would be negatively depicted as a deviant; she signified a lonely neurotic spinster who would alienate herself from men and therefore her chance at true happiness. Spinsters implied failure. However, there were cultural mediums such as feminist magazines, cinema and fiction that offered counter signifiers which positively promoted career women, albeit their narratives inevitably ending in marriage. (Beddoe pp. 16, 25, 26) Beddoe asserts that single women often feared their sexuality being questioned and being labelled ‘lesbian’ or sexually deviant. Beddoe p. 4)

These negative connotations were another way to keep even independent women in their place. State legislation and labour exchanges also supported the view that a woman’s role should be centred on domestic and familial life. Post war government legislative measures were yet another way of regulating and enforcing the dominant ideology and ultimately forcing women back into the home. This is exemplified in unequal pay for women in professions such as teaching and medicine and the implementation of the public service marriage bar around 1919. (Bruley p. 1) Women were forced to resign from public service jobs upon marriage as it was assumed that they would then become dependants of their husbands. This bar was only partially removed in certain boroughs in 1935. (Bruley p. 68)

Unemployment benefits ceased for the majority of women from 1919, (Purvis 1995, p. 324) and domestic service was also enforced. (Pugh p. 82) Furthermore, working class girls received education aimed at promoting domestic and housewifery skills above all else and the school leaving age for children was raised to sixteen to keep them out of employment thus leaving jobs for the men. Beddoe p. 33) The preoccupation with house and home continued throughout the interwar period and the four million newly built homes available for rent and purchase, offered the luxury of modern facilities and gardens for many. (Bruley p. 60) It should be noted that these were beyond the affordability of many families who continued to live in poverty.

According to Beddoe, although these housing improvements ‘faithfully represented the wishes of working class housewives’ and respected the notion of ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ it still placed renewed emphasis on the underlying domestic ideal. (Beddoe p. 4) Once again, the idea of a nice home acted as the signifier for femininity. Giles supports this argument when she reiterates the observations of Burnett that the home was ‘the spatial and symbolic arena of women, the signifier of the feminine and the private … the primary site of sexual difference and … sexual division of labour. ‘ (Giles 1995, p. 66) In other words, the home was portrayed, as the preferred place of the ‘competent housewife secure in her suburban home. ‘ (Giles p. 68) A home of their own was a place where women would be able to define their feminine identity according to these stereotypical ideals.

Yet in reality it could be a very different story. Living miles from the towns and as a result of the new housing, sharing few communal facilities, many young women, especially young mothers felt isolated. Their mental health came into question and they were labelled by social workers and then society, with ‘suburban neurosis. ‘ (Bruley p. 74) Again, those ‘nervy’ women not maintaining the vision of the perfect wife and mother signified failure and were viewed negatively by the relevant agencies. Like the women who chose careers above marriage they were seen as deviants.

In the years after the war, consumerism was booming with a range of new appliances becoming available for the housewife to purchase for her home in order to reduce the amount of time spent on her chores and to ‘end the drudgery’. These items were signifiers which were again reinforcing the notion of domesticity and as Pugh rightly asserts, only served to promote higher standards, which would take more time and therefore add to a woman’s burden. (Pugh p. 87) Interestingly, as Bruley highlights, with new consumer goods becoming more widely available also came more employment opportunities for women within the expanding businesses. Bruley p. 60)

On the one hand these products were promoting domesticity within the private sphere yet on the other hand they were also encouraging women to venture into the public world of industry. We must recognise that there were both working class and middle class women who had no choice but to return to or remain within the domestic sphere after 1918. For many working class women their career aim was to marry a husband who would provide for her and in return she would be happy to take on the household management and child care responsibilities and many would take great pride in doing so.

There were single women who stayed at home to look after parents and siblings but many women, married or not had no choice but to go out to work and endure the double burden of work and domestic chores to support themselves and their families. Some women were forced to lie about their marital status in order to find work and earn an income. Bruley highlights how some women resisted these pressures, quoting from an oral history interview conducted by Teresa Daly, one woman confesses, ‘I tried hard to find employment … to do this I took off my wedding ring and called myself ‘Miss Adams. (Bruley p. 69) However, domestic service had lost its status and appeal after the war.

Working class women had now experienced working in factories, offices and shops offering them companionship and shorter working hours resulting in considerable freedom for their own social lives and families. They were understandably reluctant to take on this role again hence why their middle class counterparts were forced to take on more domestic roles as finances were often strained and employing domestic servants had become increasingly difficult.

Having said this, despite its unpopularity, it must be kept in mind that domestic service still remained a major employer of women during the interwar years. (Bruley p. 62) From 1918 British society felt a great need to return to pre-war ‘normal life’ and the subsequent reassertion of domesticity and return to traditional gender roles within the separate spheres. If we refer back to Hall’s reading of the circuit of culture, it can be utilised to explain the significance of domestic ideology in the construction of femininity.

The actions of the media and government agencies played a fundamental role in the representation of women during the interwar years. Yet these manipulative processes could not have worked alone. The identity of women was constructed according to stereotypical ideals which were disseminated via media propaganda and other popular cultural forms such as novels, films and advertising of consumer goods. Women’s prescribed role was centred on familial and domestic life and this was the one desirable image during this period, accepted and unchallenged by the majority of British women.

This was regulated by the State by means of legislative measures such as the marriage bar, imposed to put women back in their place and advocating the role of wife and mother only served to exacerbate these powerful idealised images which were then consumed by society giving them cultural meaning. However, it should be recognised that there were women who were happy to stay at home as they considered marriage their best career option. There were also women who resisted pressures to conform; asserting themselves both within the workplace and socially and politically within other areas of the public sphere.

But this freedom came at a cost, as representations of these women were mostly negative and disapproving. Wartime work had offered women a new sense of self-worth and pride in their abilities. (Braybon & Summerfield 1987, p. 131) Yet, this came to an abrupt end for many as the overriding central notion of the interwar years was that a woman’s place was in the home and this feminine ideology filtered into every area of women’s lives and many feminists and anti-feminists alike would argue that this remains the case even today.

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