Relationships between Men and Women: Has Anything Changed over the Years?

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Relationships between men and women can be especially complex depending on the social context the parties participating in the relationship find themselves. Through time women were changing and so was the way the world saw them and the way they related to others.

Submitted: June 20, 2011

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Submitted: June 20, 2011



03 May 2010
Relationships between Men and Women: Has Anything Changed over the Years?
Relationships of all kinds are complex, aren’t they? Relationships between men and women can be especially complex depending on the social context the parties participating in the relationship find themselves. For example, in the 1800s, according to Judith Head, most women worked solely at home, keeping the house clean and tidy, cooking for the family, looking after the children, and doing or overseeing all the domestic tasks of the time. They were responsible for raising fine children and keeping the family traditions in place. That was the standard, that was what was expected from good family women. With the Industrial Revolution, many jobs at mills and factories were available for women and girls. The ones who worked outside of their homes were normally young, or widows, or wives members of poor families. They all worked for low paying jobs until they married or became pregnant. Many women became teachers and domestic servants too. All those women worked hard to bring money to their families and had little time to run a perfect home, unlike the women who just worked at home (50-55). Starting the 1840s, many women begun to question the existing standards and their place in society. Still in the 1900s “almost no women had the right to vote, so they did not have the right to question how their country was run. In many countries, women were under the control of their fathers or husbands, who also controlled any money or property they owned. Many women could not live independently because they could not earn a living” (Ross 4). In that case, women were treated like children and they depended on men (normally their fathers or husbands) to live. The relationship between men and women then seemed to be more of ownership than anything else. Men simply “owned” their wives and daughters, determining and controlling all aspects of their lives. However, women were changing and so was the way the world saw them and the way they related to others.
We can see this in the 1879’s play, A Doll House, by Henrik Ibsen. In that play, husband Torvald treats his wife condescendingly, supports her financially and decides every aspect of her life. Nora, the wife, takes care of all domestic affairs keeping the house up to her husband’s taste and standards. In the beginning, she accepts her position and does not realize she does not know anything about life, about living. She keeps a secret from her husband: she borrowed money from a bank in order to pay for a trip to Italy that, according to Torvald’s doctor, would help improve her sick husband’s health and save his life. The condition for her to get the loan was to have her father as a co-signer on the promissory note, but her father was ill and later on passes away. Nora decides to then forge his signature. She did not give that any importance until Krogstad, the employee from the bank who lent her the money, came to talk to her and put her “a little bit more with the facts” (Ibsen 917). She believes she has a good reason to do what she did and that should be enough. She realizes that is not so much so when her husband finds out what she has done. Theater critic Clement Scott adds “She misknows everything. She is all heart like a cabbage, and affectionate as many spoiled children are; but she does not know the value of money, the virtue of truth, or the penalty of a criminal action. She spends money, like other silly women, over ‘bargains;’ she tells little innocent lies, because it is so funny; and, when her husband is ill, and wants a change, she forges a promissory note, because the object of borrowing the money is in her eyes a good one.” She obviously, like most women from that time, has no idea of how to do business, or how the laws work. Women had duties and knowing about business was not one of them.
As a matter of fact, Clement Scott gives a glimpse of how Nora and her actions are perceived through the eyes of society when he criticizes what she does after she has a conversation with her husband:
“She, a loving, affectionate woman, forgets all about the eight years' happy married life, forgets the nest of the little bird, forgets her duty, her very instinct as a mother, forgets the three innocent children who are asleep in the next room, forgets her responsibilities, and does a thing that one of the lower animals would not do. A cat or dog would tear any one who separated it from its offspring, but the socialistic Nora, the apostle of the new creed of humanity, leaves her children almost without a pang. She has determined to leave her home. She cannot pass another night under her husband's roof, for he is ‘a stranger.’ She is a wife no longer; the atmosphere is hideous, for he is a ‘strange man.’ Her husband appeals to her, but in vain. He reminds her of her duty; she cannot recognise it. He appeals to her religion; she knows nothing about it. He recalls to her the innocent children; she has herself to look after now! It is all self, self, self! This is the ideal woman of the new creed; not a woman who is the fountain of love and forgiveness and charity, not the pattern woman we have admired in our mothers and our sisters, not the model of unselfishness and charity, but a mass of aggregate conceit and self-sufficiency, who leaves her home and deserts her friendless children because she has herself to look after. The ‘strange man’ who is the father of her children has dared to misunderstand her; she will scorn his regrets and punish him. Why should the men have it all their own way, and why should women be bored with the love of their children when they have themselves to study? And so Nora goes out, delivers up her wedding-ring without a sigh, quits her children without a kiss, and bangs the door!”
This shows how shocked society in the 1800s was by this revolutionary play. The idea of a woman leaving her husband and children to discover herself, to find her place in the world, was inconceivable. But Nora does just that. She tells her husband “The way I am now, I’m no wife to you” and in regards to her children, “The way I am now, I’m no use to them” (Ibsen 956). After recognizing that her husband of eight years, the man whom she had three children with, is a stranger to her, she “couldn’t stand the thought of it” (Ibsen 956). She realizes ‘if she wants the opportunity to develop an identity as an adult, that she needs to leave her husband’s home’ (“A Doll‘s House”) and leaves him. She leaves him also to figure out on his own what the “greatest miracle” (Ibsen 957) means.
 The couple from Lucia Perillo’s “Long Time Too Long” knows what that “greatest miracle” means. They are in a strong relationship; they love each other, but just need to make time for themselves. They work together on their farm and are always very busy with it. They work hard and barely have time for themselves. At the end of the day, they do not have any energy left. In this 1999 poem, one day the couple decide they have to make the time for themselves during the day “while the sun’s still high” (Perillo 718), while they have the energy to connect and enjoy intimacy. There is understood compromise between what they choose to do and what is being left undone -- their farm work. What a difference between the relationship demonstrated in this poem and the one from A Doll House. In 1999, men and women are partners; in 1879, they were owners and objects of possession. Their relationships changed as women and their role is society changed. 
Women in the late 1900s are not seen the same way as they were in the beginning of the century. Since the mid 1800s, many different women have fought for changes, for their rights, for changing the way society saw women, for having a fair chance, for being heard and respected. As documented by Judith Head, great women fought for their causes vigorously. For example, Hannah Borden, in 1846 founded the Female Labor Reform Association to fight for better work conditions for women and girls in the mills (56-57); Harriet Beecher Stowe, brought to light the inhumanities of slavery with her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” published in 1852 -- a book so powerful that almost “brought the institution of slavery closer to its end” (66-67); Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849 was the first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States and who “was named Chair of Gynecology at the New Hospital and London School of Medicine for Women in 1875” and whose “courage and determination re-opened the professional practice of medicine to women” (74-75); and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1869 founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (76-77). Many of them did not have a chance to see the results of their fights, as it was the case for Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who died before 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. All those women opened the door for women in the new century and helped them demonstrate their strength in tasks they performed, how they stood up for themselves and how they related to others.
 The changes were all over the world. Some countries embraced them more than others, but the changes were all moving forward; women‘s rights was becoming a reality. Women’s rights meant more than “to achieve equal treatment for women and men, but to recognize the value of women and what they do, as well as to overcome barriers to equality at work and in politics. This battle is not over yet, and in some parts of the world women’s lives are very far from equal” (Ross 5).
We can see that in Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom”, also from 1999. The narrator, Cheng, is in charge of security at a factory in China. He is very concerned about his daughter’s future. Beina, who works at the factory, is now twenty-three years old and still had no boyfriend. He worries because she is very quiet and not an attractive girl, with no boyfriend at that age, he “was afraid she’d become an old-maid” (416). Still in those days in China, women were expected to be “good wives and tender mothers” (Ross 18), as the Chinese women’s movement points out in its proclamation from 1924. If those were the honorable things women could be, Cheng thought he could not wait too long; he would have to find her a husband and secure his daughter‘s future. And also, as Ducksworth points out, “in the public eye, he would have failed as a father if his daughter remained single.”
But everything seems to work out fine when Baowen, a handsome, good-natured, well-educated and strong man who also worked at the factory, proposes to Beina. After the wedding, Cheng learns that his son-in-law is a homosexual and his daughter accepts that -- “after eight months’ marriage she was still a virgin! And she didn’t mind!” (Jin 422). That meant no child bearing and no family. How could Cheng explain that to others? Baowen confesses that their marriage was convenient for both; he says, “The marriage helped us both, covering me and saving face for her. Besides, we could have a good apartment -- a home. You see, I tried living like a normal man. I’ve never been mean to Beina” (Jin 420). Cheng tries to help him because he was family “at least in name, and [he] was obligated to help him” (Jin 420). Baowen ends up going to prison and Beina decides to wait for him, she is loyal to him --“he’s my husband and I’m his wife. If I die my soul belongs to him. We’ve sworn never to leave each other. Let others say whatever they want, I know he’s a good man” (Jin 431). Her father does not accept that; he is concerned about his reputation at the factory and about what others would say -- he had “been humiliated enough” (Jin 432).
As the story shows, women in China are still expected to get married, have babies and take care of the family in the 1900s. Women’s rights in China are slowly being recognized and the women are starting to get more respect and to be seen as human beings, but nor without a fight. For example, “the Chinese Suffragette Society demanded political and voting rights for women, and an end to the tradition of footbiding (where girls’ feet were broken and bound to make them very small)” (Ross 7). In 1949, Chinese women finally gained the right to vote. However, because women are still considered less valuable in such a country, parents look to either terminate a pregnancy when they find out that they are having a baby girl or “they leave their baby girls to die because they want a boy” (Ross 27). Some believe that the Chinese one-child policy, which took effect in 1979, is the main cause of the female infanticide. “The policy encourages late marrying and late childbearing, and it limits the majority of urban couples to having one child and most of those living in rural areas to two” (Karabin). The Chinese government “has enacted laws in an effort to meet its goal of lowering the sex ratio at birth to normal levels by 2010” (Karabin).
All three written works touch on how the advancement in women’s rights influences their theme, their plot and their character development. Behind each story, there are facts to support what the stories tell, facts that mirror what kind of society and standards are in place at the time. Those standards determine not only the role of men and women in society, but also the way they are expected to relate to each other and to others. But, as Mandy Ross point out, there is “still a long way to go…” (43) in regards to women’s rights. And she continues “An official United Nations report in 1980 stated: ‘Although women are fifty percent of the world’s adult population, they comprise one third of the official labor force, perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one tenth of world income, and own less than one percent of the world property” (43). Numbers show that being majority does not mean being recognized, but women have come a long way. From being an object to being a human being; from being owned to being a partner in a relationship. That sounds like improvement, doesn’t it?
Works Cited
"A Doll’s House." Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. 106-122. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Apr. 2010
Ducksworth, Sarah Smith. "The Bridegroom." Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition (2004): Literary Reference Center Plus. EBSCO. Web. 29 Apr. 2010.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. Literature: A Portable Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 777. Print.
Head, Judith. America’s Daughters: 400 Years of American Women. Los Angeles: Perspective, 1999. Print.
Jin, Ha. “The Bridegroom.” Literature: A Portable Anthology 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 416. Print.
Karabin, Sherry. “Infanticide, Abortion Responsible for 60 Million Girls Missing in Asia.” Fox News, 13 June 2007. Web. 4 May 2010.
Perillo, Lucia. “Long Time Too Long.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 718. Print.
Ross, Mandy. The Changing Role of Women. Chicago: Heinemann, 2002. Print. 20th Century Perspectives.
Scott, Clement. "Review of 'A Doll's House." The Theatre 14.79 (July 1889): 19-22. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Paula Kepos. Vol. 37. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 29 Apr. 2010

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