Section 302, Group 2: Leo Curatola, Sonia Holsen, Leah Shapiro, Maci Camara, Gretchen Grams
1. Good Wives
Good Wives, by Louisa May Alcott, is described as a story for girls and a sequel to Little Women. Continuing the story, this novel features the sisters’ unique experiences with womanhood, economic autonomy, and expectations of marriage. Interestingly, the front matter of the book includes advertisements for dyes, medicines, and cooking supplies, all of which support gendered notions of the woman as the cook, caretaker, or otherwise emblem of domesticity. As the author of Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories, Alcott wrote Little Women and Good Wives based on her own life growing up with her sisters during the American Civil War era. In a time period with strongly enforced traditional gender roles, Alcott’s (and her protagonist Jo’s) success as a writer and determination to be a self-sufficient woman was quite unconventional. Written over a series of months, this novel was quite a success both critically and commercially.
2. Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim
Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim by Carrie L. Marshall was published in 1899. The story itself follows two sisters who are orphaned when their father dies. They are then left to defend their homestead claim on their own as they are thwarted by their enemy neighbor who wishes to take the property for himself. The girls learn the values of friendship, perseverance, hard work, courage, and forgiveness throughout the story, which is marketed quite clearly as “a story for girls.” This story, as well as ones like it that we’ve read, deals with concepts of girlhood, home, class, domesticity, and childhood. The trajectory of the story implies that young girls should value hard work, patience, kindness, and generosity in place of greed, laziness, and arrogance. It’s told with the backdrop of class struggles and a middle-class perception of work, domesticity, and home. Protecting their home and their family’s memory/legacy is the most important thing to the girls and it adds great value to their character, as insinuated by the story. Their home and land is the last thing that connects them to the domestic paradise they remembered as younger children, and they live with the assumption that they are building this home for them to live on with their families, securing comfortable domesticity as their ultimate goal.
3. Barbie Babysitters Line
Pictured here are playsets on the market today of Barbie Skipper Babysitters Inc. which are part of the greater Barbie Franchise. Barbie was created by Mattel Inc. in 1959 and remains the largest and most profitable line of toys that the company has ever created. Skipper is Barbie’s sister and was created in response to requests for Barbie to get married and start a family. Skipper follows in her sister’s babysitting footsteps and creates her own business with her friends called Barbie Skipper Babysitters Inc. Skipper and her friends come with toddlers and accessories in these playsets for consumers to engage with. While babysitting is a common first job for many American girls, there may be implications about traditional gender roles and underlying messages of domesticity as an integral part of girlhood.
4. “The (Not So) Modern Cult of Domesticity”
This article explains the modern understanding of “The Cult of Domesticity,” the author uses images, gender roles, and analyzes definitions to portray how society has constructed the idea of domestic work. The author, Carla Franco, uses several images that script domesticity. The first image depicts a woman holding a saucepan over a stove, this image was labeled “The Happy Housewife.” Further in the article, there are several pictures of young girls playing with toy kitchens, dollhouses, and baby doll strollers. It is important to understand the overall concepts of domesticity and class. As well as be familiar with how gender roles have changed throughout the past century. Carla Franco has written a few activist articles for medium.com. It seems that her interests lie within social inequalities. The information in this article can be used to display the change of the word domestic over the course of several years. It can be tied to the literature we’ve read in previous coursework and the idea of scripting doll-play has been discussed throughout the semester.
The four items that we have chosen, two from the archives at the Memorial Library special collections and two non-archival, are strung together through ideas of domesticity, class, and expectations for girlhood. Throughout the semester, we have focused on how girlhood is experienced by girls from various backgrounds. Looking at the pieces we have chosen, we have been able to draw parallels to these experiences. The astonishing result of our research is the fact that stereotypical expectations of girls relating to domesticity can be seen in older items like Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim just as they can be seen in present-day items like merchandise from the Barbie franchise.
Starting with Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim, we identified an initial construction of girlhood and domesticity. The story itself follows two sisters who are orphaned when their father dies. They are then left to defend their homestead claim on their own as they are thwarted by their enemy neighbor who wishes to take the property for himself. In this story, which is marketed clearly as “a story for girls”, the portrayal of the sisters can be seen as breaking gender norms. In other colonial literature we have read, such as Little House on the Prairie and the Kirsten stories, protection of land and home is typically portrayed as a man’s job. However, in this story we see girls taking on this role and defying the stereotypical ideas of domesticity.
Another novel with similar themes was Louisa May Alcott’s continuation of Little Women, Good Wives. Just as in Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim, the sisters in Alcott’s novel struggle to discover their identity as girls and how they fit into society. Also described as “a story for girls”, Good Wives follows the sisters as they transition between girlhood and womanhood, grapple with financial autonomy, and navigate contemporary expectations of marriage. In doing so, the novel simultaneously maintains and breaks the boundaries of heteronormative domesticity. Specifically, while Alcott uses characters like Jo to push against these expectations of women, the front matter of the book perpetuates notions of women as the cook, caretaker, and otherwise emblem of domesticity by including advertisements for dyes, medicines, and cooking supplies.
Good Wives is not the only example of this that we found in our research. Another item we have chosen to analyze was the Barbie Doll Babysitter collection. Upon requests for Barbie to get married and have children, creators at Mattel opted to create Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister whom she would babysit. Even though the idea behind Skipper’s creation was to keep Barbie from becoming “too domestic,” an argument could be made that this outcome was simply the lesser of two evils. Instead of Barbie becoming a wife and mother she fills that role in a different sense as a babysitter. Even though Skipper is not her own child and she doesn’t end up marrying long-time boyfriend Ken, of all of the jobs available for a young woman to take, she is a babysitter. Not only that, but critics also point out that Barbie remains in this role for an extended period of time, and caring for children seems to be the only source of income for the character. Despite Mattel attempting to prevent their dolls from becoming domestic, they still ended up scripting a certain kind of play that teaches girls to fulfill domestic roles.
In the three items we have discussed, we can see that ideas around girlhood have, whether intentionally or not, been used to reinforce notions of women as belonging to domestic roles. It was through our fourth item, however, that we began to understand the resilience of domesticity as a dominant part of our society over time. The (Not So) Modern Cult of Domesticity is an online article that describes how everything from the scripting of toys to modern-day laws has been used to enforce notions of women as domestic house workers throughout American history. What really caught our attention in this article was the description of classes’ role in determining domesticity. The article described that the average woman was able to stay home and tend to the house, but as economic decline approaches families, women get sent out for work, and the acts of domesticity changes. This explanation of class helped us rationalize the depiction of domesticity in the other three items.
In Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim, the sisters have a terrible economic standing and end up having to fulfill a lot of traditionally male roles as a result. In Good Wives, we see the sisters attempting at some points to gain economic autonomy but not fully succeeding. This makes sense since the sisters are in an economic middle class meaning they don’t need to fully change their domestic roles but it still makes sense for them to try. In the Barbie collection, Barbie is often seen as upper-middle-class which is a complaint by critics. However, this explains why Barbie is seen in solely domestic roles. Although she is still technically working as a babysitter, one could question whether she needs to work or not considering the affluent lifestyle she appears to live.
Throughout our research, we looked at how domestic roles played into different depictions of girls and girlhood. In the end, we found that girls were depicted in differing domestic roles based on their economic class. Although there could have been other factors that played into this conclusion, our correlation between domesticity and class stuck out the most. These two themes are the most dominant impression of American Girlhood throughout our four researched items.