Today in Equality

Jezebel weighs in on a trend in old-fashioned prairie dresses (sadly there’s no evidence of this promisingly modest style appearing in Portland):

“There is something about the idea of a frontier woman that’s so interesting to me, because it’s so tough and adventurous,” Hay, one of the original purveyors of the prairie dress, told The Daily Beast in October. “I love mixing that strength with styles that are covered-up, dainty, and restrained.” 

The dresses evoke a certain nostalgia, a throwback to a time when femininity and women’s identity was sharply defined and didn’t have to be individually conjured or chosen.

There’s something to this. Individually “conjured” or “chosen” identities aren’t all they’re made out to be. Women today are overwhelmed with countervailing pressures at every turn to “define” themselves–most of it coming from corporate America or other self-interested entities. Liberated from traditional femininity to be slaves to commerce. Miserable, jaded, unable to give expression to their disappointment. But choices at every turn!

One was a homemaker, in the literal sense of making a home from scratch, and a wife, mother, and defender of the family. There’s a comforting familiarity to it. Lena Dunham told the New Yorker, “They really look like […] the dresses that characters in your favorite book would have worn.” 

It’s a pleasant thought. But in Dunham’s likely “favorite book,” Ma is also startlingly, overtly racist, in ways that are inextricable from her brand of frontier femininity. “Why don’t you like Indians?” Laura asks her over corn cakes and molasses on the steps of their covered wagon, which Ma had laid out like a table, complete with a centerpiece of flowers in a tin can. “I just don’t like them,” Ma replies. “And don’t lick your fingers, Laura.”

Nothing will be left standing. Everything is imbued with our sin.

The very modesty of the dresses triggers as well. It’s a shame. They really will leave women no avenue but slut-hood or the burka before they’re done.

There certainly is a feminist argument for conservative dress. Presently, as no one is standing up to them, the women demand the right to dress like prostitutes but take offense at so much as catcalls on the street. But they’re still going to considerable trouble to outfit themselves, as feminists will complain, as visual titillation for men.

Conservative attire tells men it’s off-limits from the start and demands respect.

White supremacy is woven into this

So this Jezebel writer can’t help but make the trend sound appealing, and I think I can see how women might be attracted to it:

Yet the resurgence of the prairie dress, and of the frontier femininity it represents, is shorn entirely of the racism and colonial entitlement it once cloaked. Recent reporting has remarked on a resurgence of the “traditional,” in dressing styles, gender roles, and ways of living, perhaps as a reaction among progressive urban-dwellers to the anonymity and economic, cultural, and political demands placed on them by modern life. The mythology of the homesteading woman is infused with just enough adventure, strength, and pluck to make its version of womanhood appealing to women who have rejected other models, in particular, the post-war-era American ideal of the suburban wife and mother. It is internalized as feminism: one that claims a traditional appearance and traditional role as a radical act.

Girls tarted up are prisoners of the present sexual chaos. Women properly dressed are not. They put up a border against it; they have sovereignty. They have agency.

The prairie dress is a radical act in this environment.

But there is another specter besides a potential resurgence in modesty haunting modern femininity–not enough women writing letters to the editor. A lady-reader writes to the New York Times:

Similarly, submitting a letter In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.” Although he was referring specifically to sentimental novelists, his letter expressed the larger belief that women’s writing was not worth reading or publishing, that their words and ideas didn’t matter, and that their work was, to use the language of Hawthorne, “trash.” 

As a historian, I see this playing out not only in the antebellum period, but also in the postwar era when I read letters to the editor. As I scan through various national newspapers, day after day, year after year, I find myself hoping that someday, eventually, women will be represented proportionally. I am always disappointed; they always skew male. 

Perhaps Hawthorne’s disdain for scribbling women is not such distant history. 

Does she know that this “Harry Potter” they speak of is not the author of the Harry Potter books?

This problem is especially concerning because unlike an Op-Ed — where the writer presumably has some expertise in the subject matter — anybody can submit a letter to the editor. It is, I’d argue, the most democratic section of the paper because children and adults, billionaire philanthropists and minimum-wage workers, and people of all genders can contribute. Each has an equal opportunity to express her or his thoughts and participate in a robust debate in the public sphere.

I know letters to the editor are the latest in media innovations (are women sending enough telegrams?), but this better describes social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube. Also dominated by guys, most of whom work for free. That’s the real distinction: guys will work for free to show off their knowledge of something.
Letters to the editor strike me as of the same category as white guys showing you how to do things on YouTube for free.

The problem of course is it makes the guys look good. It’s a masculine virtue, inextricable from all the putative “toxic masculinity”.

But it doesn’t make men look better than women–if you accept biology and not feminism’s premise that we are essentially no different but for the plumbing.

The feminists–and us, as long as we’re in their thrall–are hamstrung by this necessity: having declared the sexes “equal” in all things, women will continually come up short in comparisons. But if we accept sex roles and their biological basis, we recognize comparing male and female characteristics like this as comparing apples and oranges.

In fact, putting too much energy into hobbies or non-paying work, no matter how altruistic, is just the sort of thing wives chide their husbands for–if they’re any good.

Therefore, I’m troubled that in 2019, The New York Times struggles to find women’s letters that are worthy of publication. to the editor says that in a society that refuses to acknowledge your full humanity, you insist on it. It is asserting that your ideas and words deserve an audience in a world that has historically devalued them. It is accepting that you most likely will never receive external validation for your efforts save for an automated email thanking you for your letter. 

This really has to stop. It’s clear one reason women don’t write letters to the editor is because it doesn’t offer them a sense of validation. Men, on the other hand, will sometimes devote their lives to a cause without once asking.

You have to wonder if they’re paying attention. Didn’t we just hear about this guy?

Is any of this making women happier? Sparking their joy?

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