Thursday, October 07, 2010

Cleaning House

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.

9 comments:

Glenna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenna said...

Florence Scala's former role as a housewife got me thinking about what titles actually are. Some titles seem important, like "Duke" or "Doctor" or "President." In some ways though, even the most prestigeous titles are limiting. What if a doctor wants to skateboard? I am a student but I would really like to teach, for example. I'm glad that Scala broke the expected barriers of her title; Chicago is historically richer due to her actions. It inspires me to break the constraints of the terms "student" and teenager." Whether or not someone else limits me to those words does not mean I must do the same to myself. Scala proves it can be done.

Jenn M. said...

Thank you for bringing this up. I feel like this needed to be addressed. We are not in a time period where such comments are appropriate to be said just on the base that these are women.

Alex M. said...

I believe women have legally become equal to men, but are socially unequal. That is why in class we hear many sexist comments how the term housewife is a negative description of Scala. I think, the debate over the word housewife has two sides. On one side, (Doc Oct's side) the dictionary shows that the term housewife is a neutral term with no negative connotation. On the other side, (the students) society shows a different light on women as housewives which has a more negative connotation. Both are valid points, but they are on two different levels: the definitional level and the social level.

Emma said...

I think there may have been a bunch of misunderstandings in this argument. I don't think(?) that anyone was arguing that being a housewife is a bad thing and that housewives are inferior at politics. Florence Scala proved that housewives can be in fact very strong politicians. But DocOc brought up the fact that what made Florence's story all the more fantastic was that the women were housewives, and that made it more powerful when they stood up for their community. Doesn't the belief that Florence's groups' defense of their neighborhood was so unexpected prove that people had some small bias against housewives in the first place?

Chlo Scho said...

Emma:
I completely agree with what your saying. If the writers placed an emphasis at all on the fact that her rise to power was fantastic means that deep down they believed that she was an underdog (a redemptive arc if you will). Would her stand have been as amazing if she had been a middle-aged white man? Probably not, but the fact she was a woman and a housewife did make her story a little bit more appealing to the masses, a more of an "At-a-girl" sort of thing.

Nikita S. said...

I really liked how you brought up an unintentional nuance of this situation, Emma. You posed the question "Doesn't the belief that Florence's groups' defense of their neighborhood was so unexpected prove that people had some small bias against housewives in the first place?" We would not have been addressing this issue in such detail if there weren't specific societal views on the connotations of housewives and women and general. In a way, applauding the fact that Scala's movement was composed of "neighboorhood women" gives us similar attributes as others who believe the term "neighborhood women" has a negative connotation

Mike Leventhal said...

I don't think that this discussion really has much to do with "connotation". We've spent a lot of time discussing whether or not the word housewife implies anything negative, but that isn't nearly as important as what the word actually means. In 1960, a married woman was unlikely to be employed; and even less likely to be in a position of power with significant political clout. That evidence by itself is enough to make the argument that the passage in question shows that Scala's movement was "not expected to be significant" and "courageous". I'm not sure if the word's connotation, whatever that may be, is as important if we cannot even agree on what it is.

Doc OC said...

Come on, people, we've been squabbling like a bunch of housewives. Seriously...

Thanks for all the thought you have given this topic. My final words: The question in class did not concern the second class status of women at the time -- which everyone would grant -- but whether the authors of the text cast Scala in a negative light. Did Mayor Daley see Scala as annoying and even as his inferior? Almost certainly. Did Scala's society see her as inferior? In large part, yes. Did the authors, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor see Scala as an inferior person? Almost certainly not. I find their tone to be remarkably neutral.

As a fun writing challenge, see if you can re-write the passage in a more neutral tone.