Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Rush Limbaugh’s recent example of foot-in-mouth disease, where he referred to Sandra Fluke as a “slut”, is a classic example of the Madonna/Whore complex.   This is probably one of the most schizophrenic types of sexism, in my view, because men who display this attitude are ultimately screwing themselves.

It would be safe to say that nearly all heterosexual men enjoy having frequent sex with women.  Yet, through religion and other means, they have stigmatized women who are as eager as they and who approach sexual matters in the same fashion as most men do.

For thousands of years, women have been divided into two categories.  There were the “good” women who restrained themselves sexually and who were celibate when single.  These are the type of women such men seek to marry and whom they bestow what they consider to be respect.  The problem with this has traditionally been that many such women who have played by the rules and squashed their sexual desires have often, in years past, remained inhibited even after marriage.  Quite a few women found it difficult to “flip the switch” once they had that magical marriage license in hand. Many saw sex mainly as a duty; something that’s necessary to have children and to keep their husbands appeased.   Though much less prevalent now than in centuries past, it still exists often enough to  be worth commenting on.  This phenomenon is the source of the trite, sexist quotation, “Women give sex to get love; men give love to get sex”.

Then there were the “bad” women; basically the ones who have approached sex like men do and enjoy it for its own sake and those who openly viewed it as a commodity. These are the women who have engaged in non-marital sex, whether or not there is a possibility of a future marriage with their partners. For a sizable minority of men who bought  into the Madonna/Whore complex in centuries past, this even included married women who initiated sex with their husbands instead of  following his lead and seemed to enjoy it “too much”.  Most “bad” women were typically the prostitutes and mistresses and married women who had affairs.  But even women who had been raped or those who had been seduced by  their suitors who then declined to marry them, were considered “ruined” and no longer marriageable.

The original reasons for restricting the sexual expression of women are correlated with religion, but probably were for mostly practical reasons relating to ancient humans settling down into farming communities and the introduction of the ideas of private property and inheritance.

That is, ancient men wanted to make sure that the children they passed their property down to were actually theirs.  Because there was no reliable method for determining paternity in the ancient world, the only way to do this was to restrict the sexuality of women.  This is why women have traditionally been punished for having sex with any man but her legal husband and men have been mostly winked at for straying from their marriage vows.

Naturally, such a system had drawbacks for men, too.   With wives culturally required to regard sex as a duty and with no reliable birth control, horny men who wanted more sex, more lusty sex, and/or who wanted to limit their family size, for whatever reason, had to find other outlets.  Add to this, that many men had the idea that it was wrong to subject their wives, the ones they respected, to passionate sex.   Single men who wished to avoid “ruining” a “respectable” woman also had to find an alternative as well.

Thus, they turned to prostitutes and mistresses.

And this is where the schizophrenia comes in.  These were the women who provided a service for men, who provided a release from the corner they’d painted themselves into when they’d imposed rules to restrain the sexuality of women.  One would think that they would have been grateful to such women for providing a ready sexual outlet.

But, instead, they have reviled and scorned these women; women who gave them what they wanted, even knowing that the alternative would mean much less sex for them.  On the flip side, they “respected” the “good” women, but that didn’t stop them from dallying with the “bad” ones.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

One would also think that the fact that the original reason for restricting the sexuality of women no longer exists, now that we have effective birth control and can reliably determine paternity, would have extinguished the Madonna/Whore complex.  Granted, it has lessened to a great degree since the 2oth century.   And it would seem that men with any sense at all would fervently support the wide availability of cheap birth control, not wanting to ever return to the days where every sexual encounter with a woman was playing baby Russian Roulette.

But Limbaugh and others of his ilk, have proven that the Madonna/Whore complex still has a lot of life in it yet, despite its utter lack of logic and sense for both sexes.


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Up until the late 1960s, all English speaking women used courtesy titles that indicated their marital status: Miss or Mrs, while all men, regardless of marital status, used Mr.  Feminists of this time  pointed out the inequality of such a system where a man’s title simply denoted his sex, while women’s titles denoted her relationship to a man or lack thereof, along with her sex.  To correct this lopsided situation, the title “Ms” was invented to correspond to Mr in that it would refer only to a woman’s sex, regardless of marital status.  I’m guessing the idea was that Ms would eventually replace Mrs and Miss, with these older titles gradually fading away through disuse.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out quite like that.  Ms caught on fairly quickly with younger single women and those of a liberal bent, but many married women of more conservative leanings much preferred the traditional title of Mrs.  Similarly, many older women who had never married clung to Miss.  In the entertainment arena, there had been a long tradition of calling all female celebrities Miss, a practice that is still quite common.

Now, more than forty years after the introduction of Ms,  Mrs and Miss are still going strong, though Ms is now firmly established, despite courtesy titles being used less often in daily life nowadays.  Though usage varies in different countries, regions, classes, ages, and social groups, the way it’s generally panned out is that Ms has largely replaced Miss for adult single women and is used by most divorced women.  Though Ms enjoys some usage among married women, Mrs is still widely used.

So, instead of having one title for all women, as was originally intended, we now have three.  And this brings the inevitable hassle of not knowing which one to use with a woman unless we ask her preference.  For men, it’s business as usual: one title for all men, with no hassles at all.

So, it’s still a lopsided system, despite the efforts of well-meaning people.

Along the same time that Ms was invented, German speaking countries came up with their own solution to this dilemma.  Instead of inventing a new title to add to the two already existing ones, they decided to re-purpose the ones they already had: Frau and Fraulein.   As in English, these titles originally distinguished between married and single women.  Around 1970 or so, it was decided that women’s titles would be based on age, rather than marital status, so all adult women would henceforth be referred to as Frau, while Fraulein would be only for girls.  It’s worked beautifully since that time.

I think English speaking countries would have done better if we’d followed the German pattern.  Re-purposing the existing titles to refer to age rather than marital status would have immediately created an equitable parallel to men, where Mr is for all adult men and the older, less-used title of Master was meant for boys.  There would be no hassle in trying to figure out which title a woman preferred, and it would likely have created less resistance among those of a more conservative bent, considering they were old established titles.

There is even a precedent in English for basing women’s titles on age, rather than strictly by marital status.  Up until the late 18th century, early 19th century, it was not at all uncommon to call women past a certain age Mistress, which is the word that the title Mrs is an abbreviation of. (That’s where that R comes from!).  At that time, Mistress was simply the female version of Mister, without any of the salacious connotations that it has today.

But I’m guessing it’s rather too late to switch to the common sense German system now.  It’s been more than forty years, so I suppose we’re stuck with the awkward, unwieldy, still-lopsided system of three titles for women and still just one for men.

Pity, really.


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The Long and Short of It

Today, I thought I’d go ahead and write about something I’ve always wondered about.

I’ve always been curious about why the hemlines of women’s skirts and dresses rose from floor/ankle length to knee length in approximately a decade.   Hems began slowly creeping up in the 1910s until they reached a modern knee length in the 1920s.

Women in 1910

1915 fashions -- notice rising hemlines

1920s -- Big difference from 1910

I’ve wondered why and how this happened at that particular time when women had never worn short skirts before, and why they’ve remained short ever since (with minor brief aberrations, such at the maxi skirt of the late 60s, early 70s that never quite caught on).   Some might say it was World War I; because of the more active roles women played during that war.  I’m sure that’s part of it, but I’m thinking there must be more to it than that.

I’ve also thought of how adult women at that time, who had worn skirts long enough to cover their shoe tops their entire lives felt about it and how many took  to short skirts like a duck to water and how many resisted it and continued to wear long skirts.   Surely, there had to be quite a few, especially those past a certain age, who had been brought up to believe that showing one’s legs in public to be scandalous.

I’ve googled about this and haven’t really come up with anything.

As for myself, born in the late 50s, I’ve always felt exposed when wearing a dress, especially when minis were the fashion.  With my bare legs hanging out — and even in nylons, they were “bare” to me — I felt vulnerable and self-conscious.  There was never any way for me to be able to relax when in a skirt or a dress.

There was even something faintly juvenile about wearing  a skirt of knee length or shorter.   Remember, that in the 19th century, grown women wore long dresses, while young girls wore shorter ones.   Similarly, for a few decades into the 20th century, boys wore short pants (at least in England, they did), while men wore long pants.

Now, as an adult, on the very few times I’ve needed to wear a dress, I’ve always chosen one mid calf length so as not to feel so exposed, and I wear a pair of shorts underneath, rather than a slip.

Not too long ago, I acquired an eighteenth century gown (the word “dress” was not used for a particular type of women’s clothing then, so “gown” does not necessarily mean formal attire), because I’m interested in becoming a reenactor at some point.  Unlike 19th century dresses, many 18th century gowns are actually comfortable.  And, best of all, I don’t feel exposed when wearing it, despite the low neckline.  The 18th century also had comfortable jacket/skirt combos that I like pretty well,too.

It made me wish that it was more common to wear long skirts for everyday wear nowadays, and not have it be associated with religious orthodoxy or fundamentalism.

Sometimes, being liberated is not having to let it all hang out.

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