Bootstrapping Broads: Talking Feminism

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

garden photo

Harriet Beecher Stowe, European gardens and gender bias were discussed in a recent Modern Language Association (MLA) panel at their annual convention held this year in Austin, Texas. The panel, entitled, “Bootstrapping Broads: On the Work of Writing Labor.”

Gretchen Murphy, a professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin, spoke at length about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her experience in 19th Century England. She saw Stowe as “a female celebrity” in her time, but restricted in what she could do and saw because Stowe was “reproducing the vision of elite British philanthropists,” hinting at the common feminist term, ‘patriarchy.’ Murphy criticized the labor market of that era and conditions of the dressmaking industry. She averred that there was a “double trap” of purchasers claiming no knowledge of wages and consumers not claiming responsibility for rushing orders and straining workers. Oftentimes, “workers [were] boarding and working along [with the] proprietor in the dressmaking residence,” she said. Murphy was critical of dressmaking patrons and their owners, where workers boarded with the owners and patrons rarely saw the workers. This model “prevented regulation” of dressmaking shops and businesses and factory laws did not affect these house-based businesses.

It apparently never occurred to her that the dressmakers and customers may not have wanted to see each other and that the former found boarding with their employers to be economically advantageous: cheap rent with amenities. Ironically, that same panel featured a lecturer who compared America’s current economy unfavorably to Europe’s present-day marketplace, with about as much justification.

Kaye Wierzbicki, a junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C., compared European and American personalities by way of comparing gardens. She pointed out that most European gardens have gravel, are orderly and uniform. Americans typically have secure pavement and are rather unorganized, in her opinion. This reflects on the mindsets and personalities of the two cultures, Wierzbicki said, and how Europeans typically do not rank salary or prestige in jobs. “Jobs are organized by a general field,” she said, “[There is] no judgment or ranking” in Europe. Also, she said that “Domestic arts and sciences section includes housekeeping” in Europe, where “Work is work is work” and people prefer “work over profession.” This, she felt, “[is] the invisible substructure of work” at play.

She failed to note that Europe is also boasts high unemployment and economic stagnation, no matter how pretty their gardens are.

On that same panel, Marion Rust, an associate professor of English and director of the Committee on Social Theory at the University of Kentucky, lashed out at the patriarchy, a favorite pastime of MLA members of both genders. She said there is an “expected behavior for women professors” and no corresponding code of conduct for men. Moreover, she claimed that “the perceptions that women have soft and sweet personalities” hurt students. She went on to complain about what she saw as the censure of women who are “inappropriately aggressive.” Aggressiveness in men, she asserts, is prized.

For many women professors, they have to “Carefully [know] how to present themselves, not too strong, but not too soft,” Rust said.