Saturday, November 13, 2010

Women’s Work, And All That

One day last year I was busy working in the front garden, and a neighbor approached me. He admired my garden and admitted he appreciated the view from his house, but when he asked for advice on what he could do in his front space and I began to answer, he interjected, “Oh, I don’t garden. [Insert his hearty laughter here.] That’s a woman’s work.”

I don't recall what I did at the time, though I do remember the freezing of the moment, flying bugs suspended in air, and leaves arrested in mid-wind rustle. I think I stared, unable to move my lips and utter anything other than a decidedly unintelligent and inarticulate "uh..."

I now laugh at his naïveté, his rather traditional views, and I am sure while some might laugh along with me, others will find offense in his decidedly sexist comment.

And so this morning I decided to search for “gardening as woman’s work” and came across “hot pink” gardening gloves, gardening tools (pruners, trowels, and assorted paraphernalia of the gardening enterprise) “designed for women” (I assume that design means color), and gardening hats (which reminds me of “the Bean Queen” who lived near my father…she was so anointed by our family because each day she gardened—and gardened she did daily in her retirement!—she would only emerge from the house bedecked in a summer bonnet or wide-brimmed hat, color- and pattern-coordinated boots and gloves, and perfectly pressed khaki pants and pristine white shirt, looking very much like the centerfold of an L.L. Bean photo shoot than the intrepid gardener she proved herself to be. Oddly, we never did spot a speck of dirt on her impeccable clothes, even after hours in the garden…)

I also found this letter in The New York Times:

“Gardening as woman’s work. This has long seemed to me an employment in which women would not only gain health and strength, but in which the modest and retiring might find a congenial occupation, and the products of which are never depreciated because raised by a woman. A peck of peas has a certain market value, not depending upon the hands that raised them. A woman who works making pants receives fifty cents a day, not on account of the amount or quality of her work, but because she is a woman. [Yes, I, too, was struck by the abrupt transition from peas to pants, alliteration aside.] A man engaged in the same garments receives $2 a day, not because of the amount or quality of his work, but because he is a man. It is doubtless true that, in very many cases [Hold onto your hats, this one is a jaw-dropper!], the man does his work better than the woman; but [Okay, soft landing coming] it is not less true that, in a majority of cases, the difference in price grows out of the difference in sex. So of the school. A male teacher receives $1,000 a year [yeah, I know, correlated to the cost of living and compared to other professions, teaching salaries have advanced only marginally since] not because his moral influence is better, not because the pupils learn more, but because he is a man. A woman teaches in a similar school, and receives $400, not because of the inferiority of her moral influence in the school, not because the pupils learn less, but because she is a woman. Now, happily, all this is avoided in gardening. A man who would sell a beet is not obliged to put on a label, ‘raised by a man, ten cents’, and upon another, ‘raised by a woman, four cents’, but the article brings its market value. This is a great advantage, and one affording a special gratification to women of spirit [though presumably not to dispirited women?]. Besides, gardening is an occupation requiring very little capital, and, except in the fancy departments, comparatively little training. Near any of the cities a woman can earn more upon half an acre of land, with four months’ work, than she can earn by sewing twelve months, saying nothing of the healthfulness of gardening, and the unhealthfulness of sewing.
--Our Girls, by Dio Lewis, A.M. M.D.”  

The date: 12 March 1871.

My oh my: so much has changed, yet so much has remained the same. 

I am not sure what to take away from this: that women should flock to agriculture (Lewis, on my reading, seems to refer more to gardening as a business enterprise centered on the production of food, and less to gardening as a leisurely activity, mindful that such would have been an engagement 'afforded' by the wealthy only). Or that gardening is the great equalizer--and from that we as a society must take our cue and re-imagine and re-construct our social institutions, our practices, and our prejudices based on that more primordial understanding?

I rather like the latter interpretation, and resolve at the moment to don my wide-brimmed hat, my hot pink gloves, and become, if only for a time, my neighborhood's Bean Queen. 

1 comment:

  1. The Bean Queen! That takes me back. Apparently she never got dirty because she mostly pointed and her minions did things. You, on the other hand, are not afraid to get dirty.