Women’s Roles Then and Now
In the nineteenth century, the roles of men and women were very distinct and the society ensured that everyone was conversant with these roles right from childhood. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, family members performed almost all tasks together irrespective of their gender. However, during the early years of the nineteenth century, certain tasks were exclusively performed by men while others were specifically accomplished by women. For instance, it is in the nineteenth century when women and daughters remained at home to perform domestic duties while men left their homes to work in factories, offices, and shops. As Hughes (2015) puts it, the spheres inhabited by men and women in the nineteenth century were completely separate because men were associated with the public sphere while women were linked to the domestic sphere. This paper analyzes the variations in women’s roles in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. In the paper, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Barret discuss the roles that women should play in the society while considering societal transformations that have taken place between the nineteenth century and now.
Barret: I can say that the society acquires a new image almost every day. This statement is supported by the tremendous changes that I have observed in the world from my childhood to date. I was born in Durham County, England, in 1806 and since then, I have witnessed several transformations in the society most of which are related to changes in gender roles. I am the first born in a family of twelve children and I happen to be my parents’ eldest daughter. When I was growing up, my parents advised me to keep off certain tasks because they were meant for men, who by then were believed to be physically stronger than women. Women who attempted to perform similar roles as men faced rejection from the society. I become surprised nowadays when I see men and women perform similar roles without any problems.
Nightingale: You are right Madam Barret. I also grew up in a society that was very strict about gender roles. Born in Italy in 1820, I struggled to get education because only men were allowed to go to school then. Although my parents valued education very much, they did not want me to attend school in public because they did not want to violate the society’s customs. I was taken to a social institution where I could interact with people of different social standings. However, I remained awkward in those institutions because I took care not to learn things that could hurt my parents. The fact that I spent the whole day in the social institution did not prevent me from performing domestic duties as my parents believed that I must be prepared to become an “Angel in the House” for the rest of my life.
Barret: I feel very sad whenever I remember how women were treated during my lifetime. The society believed that young girls must be married when they get to their mid-20s. Girls were not expected to look for husbands, but it was the responsibility of men to look for them. All girls who had attained age 20 were grouped together and men were allowed to select the best one to marry from the group. This method of marriage was very bad because a girl could find herself in the hands of a very stubborn man. Traditionally, women were allowed to marry with the main aim of giving birth to children and taking care of those children together with their husbands.
Nightingale: I can remember how women were viewed as inferior people in the society during my time. To make it worse, young unmarried ladies were only allowed to speak to men in the presence of a married woman. The married woman acted as a chaperone watched over the ladies in order to prevent them from having any close associations with men. Moreover, women were not to be seen doing professional work or going to school. Those ladies who attempted to attain higher education were rejected on grounds that they were trying to challenge men’s superiority. Funny enough, some physicians even claimed that too much studied interfered with a woman’s ability to give birth. For this reason, many parents feared taking their girls to school arguing that they might not have children in future. Due to lack of education, women could not hold any positions in government institutions and industries.
Barret: The manner in which the society handled girls and women during my lifetime shows the extent to which they were not valued. From personal experience, I could not find time to nurture my talent in poetry mainly because I was required to spend my time performing domestic duties. Sometimes, I used to pretend that I am sick in order to be exempted from domestic chores. During such times, I could move to a separate room to compose poems. This helped me to become a very good poet when I was an adult. I feel very happy when I see women attaining higher education and doing similar jobs as men in the current society.
Nightingale: Ooh! What a significant transformation! The society really mistreated women and girls alike during my lifetime. Personally, I used to feel lonely because I wanted to obey my parents’ rules of staying away from men. I could not find time to do anything meaningful because I was forced to remain at home doing domestic chores. Furthermore, the fact that the society never valued education for women prevented me from fulfilling my ambition of becoming a nurse. Thanks to the current society that allows women to go to school and to perform similar roles as men.
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