Flashback Friday.

Heather L. sent us a link to a business called The Occasional Wife. It’s slogan: “The Modern Solution To Your Busy Life.” The store sells products that help you organize your home and office, and provides all kinds of helpful services to support your personal goals.

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There are two things worth noting here:

First, the business relies on and reproduces the very idea of “wife.”  As the website makes clear, wives are people who (a) make your life more pleasurable by taking care of details and daily life-maintenance (such as running errands), (b) organize special events in your life (such as holidays), and (c) deal with work-intensive home-related burdens (such as moving), all while perfectly coiffed and in high heels.

But, the business only makes sense in a world where “real” wives are obsolete.  Prior to industrialization, most men and women worked together on home farms.  With industrialization, all but the wealthiest of families relied on (at least) two breadwinners. In the 1950s, the era to which this business implicitly harkens, Americans were bombarded with ideological propaganda praising stay-at-home wives and mothers (in part to pressure women out of jobs that “belonged” to men after the war).  Since then, women have increasingly participated in wage labor.  Today, the two parent, single-earner family is only a minority of families.

So, in our “modern” world, even when there is a wife in the picture, there’s rarely a “wife.”  But, as the founder explains, it’d sure be nice to have one:captureb

See, she was his wife, but not a wife.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Tasks performed by wives have been increasingly commodified (that is, turned into services for which people pay): for example, house cleaning, cooking, and child care.  This business just makes the transition in reality explicit by referencing the ideology.  The fact that the use of the term “wife” works in this way (i.e., brings to mind the 1950s stereotype) in the face of a reality that looks very different, just goes to show how powerful ideology can be.

Originally posted in 2009; the business has grown from one location to four.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The original compute-ers, people who operated computing machines, were mostly women. At that period of history, most typists were women and their skills seemed to transfer from that job to the next. As late as the second half of the 1960s, women were seen as naturals for working with computers. As Grace Hopper explained in a 1967 Cosmopolitan article:

It’s just like planning dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are “naturals” at computer programming.

But then, this happened:

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Computer programming was masculinized.

The folks at NPR, who made the chart, interviewed information studies professor Jane Margolis. She interviewed hundreds of computer science majors in the 1990s, right after women started dropping out of the field. She found that having a personal computer as a kid was a strong predictor of choosing the major, and that parents were much more likely to buy a PC for their sons than they were for their daughters.

This may have been related to the advertising at the time. From NPR:

These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almostentirely to men and boys. This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative.

By the 1990s, students in introductory computer science classes were expected to have some experience with computers. The professors assumed so, inadvertently punishing students who hadn’t been so lucky, disproportionately women.

So it sounds like that’s at least part of the story.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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At the turn of the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe, it became wildly popular — and that’s an understatement — for ladies to wear feathers and whole taxidermied birds on their hats. One ornithologist reported taking two walks in Manhattan in 1886 and counting 700 hats; 525 of which were topped by feathers or birds. Buzzfeed has a collection of vintage hats featuring birds; here are some of the ones that were most stunning to me:

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At the time, not many people thought much of killing the birds. Europeans and their American cousins “didn’t believe they could put a dent in an animal’s population.” Birds seemed to be an “abundant, even inexhaustible” natural resource.  So take they did.  Millions of birds all over the world were harvested for hat makers for years. The Fashioning Feathers blog offers this example:

A single 1892 order of feathers by a London dealer… included 6,000 bird of paradise, 40,000 hummingbird and 360,000 various East Indian bird feathers. In 1902 an auction in London sold 1,608 30 ounce packages of heron… plumes. Each ounce of plume required the use of four herons, therefore each package used the plumes of 120 herons, for a grand total of 192, 960 herons killed.

Ornithologists started to sit up and take notice. One estimated that 67 types of birds — often including all of their sub-species — were at risk for extinction.  Not only were birds killed for their feathers, they were killed when their feathers were at their most resplendent. This meant killing them during mating season, interrupting their reproductive cycle and often leaving baby birds orphaned.

A campaign to end the practice began. In Europe the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds targeted women. They launched a sexist campaign accusing women of supporting the heartless slaughter of birds. Fashioning Feathers includes this image from a pamphlet titled “Feathered Women” in which the president of the Society calls them a “bird-enemy.”

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Virginia Woolf went for the jugular, pointing out that — even though the image shows a woman swooping down to kill a bird — it was largely men who did the dirty work of murder and they were also the ones profiting from the industry.

Ironically, middle class women were at the forefront of the bird preservation movement. They were the rank and file and, thanks in part to their work, in the U.S. the movement led to the formation of the first Audubon societies.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society organized a feather boycott, angering hat makers who called them “extremists” and “sentimentalists.” Politicians worried out loud about the loss of jobs. Missouri Senator James Reed complained:

Why there should be any sympathy or sentiment about a long-legged, long-beaked, long-necked bird that lives in swamps and eats tadpoles.

Ultimately the Massachusetts Audubon Society succeeded in pushing through the first federal-level conservation legislation in the U.S., the Lacey Act of 1900.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Some nice news has come out lately that the occasional toy store is taking the words boy and girl off of their aisle signs — mostly in Sweden, I say half-jokingly — but Google ngrams suggests that we’re nowhere near backing off of separating children’s toys by sex.

Sociologist Philip Cohen graphed the frequency of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” relative to “toys for children.” This is just language, and it’s just American English, but it’s one indication that the consciousness raising efforts of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys is still on the margins of mainstream society.

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As you can see from the graph, the extent to which children are actively talked about as gendered subjects varies over time.

One explanation for why companies resist androgynous toys and clothes for children — an arguably adults, too — has to do with money. If parents with a boy and a girl could get away with one set of toys, they wouldn’t need to buy a second. And if they could hand down clothes from girls to boys and vice versa, they would buy less clothes. The same could be said for borrowing and trading between family members and friends.

It would really cut into the profits of these companies if we believed that all items for children were interchangeable. They work hard to sustain the lie that they are not.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

In her provocative book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines discusses a classic medical treatment for the historical diagnosis of “hysteria”: orgasm administered by a physician.

Maines explains that manual stimulation of the clitoris was, for some time, a matter-of-fact part of medical treatment and a routine source of revenue for doctors. By the 19th century, people understood that it was an orgasm, but they argued that it was “nothing sexual.” It couldn’t “be anything sexual,” Maines explains, “because there’s no penetration and, so, no sex.”

So, what ended this practice? Maines argues that it was the appearance of the vibrator in early pornographic movies in the 1920s.  At which point, she says, doctors “drop it like a hot rock.” Meanwhile, vibrators become household appliances, allowing women to treat their “hysteria” at home. It wasn’t dropped from diagnostic manuals until 1957.

Listen to it straight from Maines in the following 7 minutes from Big Think:

Bonus: Freud was bad at this treatment, so he had to come up with some other cause of hysteria. After all, she says, “this was the guy who didn’t know what women wanted.” No surprise there, she jokes.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Today is the anniversary of the 34th American presidential election.  The year was 1920; it was the first presidential election in which women were allowed their own votes.  This seems like a good day to post a memento from the political battle over women’s suffrage, the right to vote and run for political office.

The fight for suffrage took decades and women were on both sides of the issue.  The document below is a copy of an argument against women’s suffrage — Some Reasons Why We Oppose Votes for Women — printed in 1894.  The National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage was led by Josephine Dodge.  (Open and click “full size” to read.)

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Alice Duer Miller was on the other side of the fight.  In 1915, she wrote and circulated a satirical response titled Why We Oppose Votes for Men.  Drawing on parallel logic, she made a case for why it was men, not women, who shouldn’t be voting. (Click for a larger copy.)

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1. Because man’s place is in the army.

2. Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.

3. Because if men should adopt peacable methods women will no longer look up to them.

4. Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms and drums.

5. Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them particularly unfit for the task of government.

It helps to have a sense of humor.

Happy anniversary of the first gender inclusive American presidential election everyone.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

When you hear the phrase Hush Puppies, think of basset hounds, and see these shoes, do you think “rugged, masculine, virile”? Because that’s what the copy says. In fact, this ad argues that wearing these shoes might make a women’s rights advocate call you a male chauvinist pig because they’re that masculine.

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If this isn’t evidence of the fact that masculinity is socially constructed and changes over time, I don’t know what is.

Found at Vintage Ads.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed.  Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.

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So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.

But, that’s not how it is.  Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time.  It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s.  It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses.  When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.