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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A True Woman?

I shall speak about women’s writing. Woman must write herself. … Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. (Helene Cioux --- a French feminist writer)

In the nineteenth century America, the main norm imposed to middle and upper class women was well-known as The Cult of True Womanhood. If a woman wanted to be considered as “good” and “true” woman, she had to follow the four attributes in The Cult of True Womanhood; namely piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

A woman must be pious in order to raise pious children that later on will be the pillars of the country in the future. (It is related to the fact that America was a Puritan country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With its Industrial Revolution in the beginning of the nineteenth century, American men were busy outside home, in industry. To raise religious children, they gave that burden on women’s shoulder! American people didn’t want to leave their heritage as a pious country behind.) Since it is her obligation, she will be easily condemned if the children grow up not as religious people. While the father is “free” from this duty. Easily society will judge the mother as a “bad” woman if something “wrong” (read  the kid doesn’t grow up as pious person) happens. Not the father.

A woman must be pure. This is especially in the context that a woman is not supposed to have sex before marriage. (While men can do it to their hearts’ content!! Either before or after getting married) When a man proposes her for a marriage, a woman must give her virginity to her husband in return of the dowry the husband has paid to her parents. Later on, a woman still must keep their being pure, meaning having sex only with her husband, in return of the monthly paycheck her husbands give. No wonder, then, if many radical feminists propose an idea that marriage is just practice of exclusive prostitution.

A woman must be submissive. She must submit herself to her husband. Her husband has a higher position than her. Inevitably, it must be related to the money the husband gives her every month. (Referring to Marx theory, the one who has money has the authority; the one who doesn’t have money is marginalized.) The husband makes any decision related to the family matters. The woman is supposed to say, “My husband knows better than I do. Whatever he says is the best for all of us.” She is not supposed to argue. She must keep all her own ideas for herself. It is not good to debate a husband.

A woman must be domestic. She has to stay home to take care of all household chores, including to take care of the children and the husband as well.

These four tenets in The Cult of True Womanhood do not differ a lot from what has happened in Indonesia, right? Only we don’t know term like The Cult of True Womanhood with its piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. But the practice is just the same. Since I did research only what happened in the nineteenth century America, I don’t have any idea how these four tenets are similar to the condition in our country. What caused that? Can I simply say that Dutch (as a western country that used to colonize us for more than three centuries) brought this culture to our country? Or our ancestors in the past already practiced this for ages? In America, the separation between public and domestic spheres all started in the beginning of nineteenth century with the industrial revolution (during the previous centuries, people had home industry and America was still an agrarian country, so both men and women spent most of their time at home.)

Besides those four attributes, one most conspicuous thing is prohibiting novel reading. A woman is not allowed to read novels because possibly it will excite their way of thinking so that they will be rebellious toward the “good” norm. When a woman wants to read, she is supposed to read Bible only, or Conduct Literature that comprises articles about how to be good and true women. (In our country now, examples of this Conduct Literature are, let’s say magazines such as Kartini. Femina, etc that usually contains articles such as “how to be an ideal wife” or “how to be an ideal mother” or “how to attract men/boys”.)

If novel reading is prohibited, novel writing is more cruelly banned. A woman is not supposed to write, especially to express herself. It can be especially related to the third tenet of The Cult of True Womanhood norm; submission. Expressing what is in her mind verbally is not allowed, moreover in written form that can be read by other parties. When a woman feels that there is something wrong, she must repress it. No questioning.

No wonder during the nineteenth century America more women became patients of mental hospitals than men. The main reason is women must follow what society determines for them. Not all women are created as passive and idle. This unwise norm of course triggers rebel to intelligent, hardworking and creative women. Women have their own way of thinking. Women have their own right to decide what is good and bad for themselves.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist writer living in 1860-1935 proposed an idea that a woman must write to express herself. She cured herself from mental depression she suffered by writing a lot of articles, books, novels, and poems. She also went around America to express her way of thinking that a woman must be economically independent to have her own identity, to be equal to men.

So, girls, start writing from now on. Express yourself openly and confidently. Don’t let things blocked inside your mind and heart.

Yogya 19.08 010106

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