We've been talking about denotation and connotation in class -- what words mean literally and what they imply. Some words, like "killer" might immediately carry obvious connotations (namely, a violent, immoral person). But words are often context-specific, and if a jazz critic said that Louis Armstrong was a killer trumpet player, she would certainly not be questioning the musician's morals, but rather would be talking about the skill and passion evinced by his playing. In thinking about the evolution of words, I suggested we might consult a dictionary. A good dictionary.
Here is the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word "killer." Note how the first definition -- the primary meaning of the word -- is that of a violent person, a "butcher and a slayer." But a later definition, 7B, relates to skill, particularly musical skill. Note that this connotation of the word was first used in 1979.
Yesterday in class some people seemed to feel that the the phrases "neighborhood women" and housewives" were pejorative, demeaning to the people they defined. The first phrase is just plain hard to read as anything other than a group of women from a certain location. Instead, the authors instead seem to be highlighting the extra-ordinariness of these women who are earlier -- in the same sentence -- described as a part of a grassroots movement, a term used to describe "rank and file members of the electorate." In this case average citizens are taking on the mayor. The word "housewife," however, might possibly seen as a more connotatively charged word -- but certainly not at the time of the events being described in American Pharaoh.
To think of "housewife" (note how the OED definition now says "usually married"; the primary meaning of the word has changed with the time) as carrying negative connotations seems rash to me even today. Many people see the term as value-neutral. If I were writing on the contemporary use of the word without other contextual cues, the most I'd risk is to say that the term might be seen as dismissive to some people. But, in 1959, the year Florence Scala's movement emerged, the word did not carry general disapproval.
In fact, four years later, Betty Friedan, an important feminist and social commentator wrote a landmark book called The Feminine Mystique that helped usher in a new way of thinking about gender roles and social relationships. (Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen said Friedan's book "changed the world so comprehensively that it's hard to remember how much change was called for").
Friedan says, speaking of "the educated housewife" that "many young women -- certainly not all... feel stifled in their homes...find[ing] their routine lives out of joint with their training" (22). She quotes a male journalist in a widely read magazine (Harper's Bazaar) in 1960 who "joked" that the problem could be solved by taking away women's right to vote! Further "a number of educators suggested seriously that women no longer be admitted to the four-year colleges and universities".
Friedan finds the problem exacerbated in the suburbs. How much so? Check out this quote: "The suburban house is not a German concentration camp, nor are American women on their way to the gas chamber, but they are in a trap "(309). She suggests that "if education has made more and more American women feel trapped, frustrated, guilty as houewives, surely this should be seen as a clear signal that women have outgrown the housewife role" (308). (Italics, hers).
But, this landmark analysis of the "ghetto-ization of women" did not exist at the time of Scala's struggle. As historians, Cohen and Taylor could not have used a phrase like "stay-at-home-mom" as was suggested yesterday because the term did not yet exist. It would have been anachronistic -- out of its time period.
Florence Scala, the Italian-American housewife, would have been applauded by Friedan. Rather that accept the backseat role her society offered her as a housewife, she used her education and her intelligence to take on the most powerful political machine in the country. She didn't win the immediate battle blocking UIC, but she helped inspire a new generation of women who could define themselves rather than accept the narrow definitions of their society.