The Progression of Disrespect Damages Us
Women need respect because women are humans. Humans need respect because, as communal creatures, the opinions of the people around us determine our incomes, our positions in society, how much we are given (leeway, grace, casseroles), how much is expected of us (excellence, time, amusement), how we marry, and how our children move through the world – just as a start. It has been said that women value love over respect, which may be true – but it doesn’t mean that the absence of one or the other is an acceptable way to live. If women are not given respect for what they do, they will do something else until they find that respect… or a facsimile thereof.
I’ve pondered the respect issue for quite some time. If you look back on history, you won’t exactly find that women are considered the equal of men, especially in public life. However, what you will find is that women were respected for being good at women-things. A good wife is worth more than rubies… can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy… is that girl you’re staring at going to make your life run well? It’s not like you can write off the contributions of half the human race and get anywhere. That’s ridiculous.
A Progression of Disrespect
Can we pinpoint, exactly, when respect dissolved? No. However, a pattern emerges – a progression of disrespect, if you will. In the base state of things, everyperson’s competence at doing life is assumed. Individual differences of course – Bob is better at building houses than Larry, and Mary is a much better cook than Diane. But we assume at this base state that Larry can build and Diane can cook, even if they’re not the best in the world. They’re competent. I don’t wander in and tell Diane how to sift flour just off the street. When we assume competence, the position of advisor must be earned.
The first stage of disrespect is “experting”. This feels helpful. I have a library of books on “how to” do things. But experting goes beyond just a “how to” book, and sets “should” standards. Consider child-rearing manuals throughout the 20th century (and shudder). The experts know more than you do, and their way of doing things is the Only Right Way. Now, as an “expert”, I can order Diane to sift her flour three times before even considering baking a cake. Instead of summarily throwing this stranger out of her house, as I am an expert she’ll bow and scrape – and do exactly what I tell her to. Relationship? I don’t need one. I’m an “expert”.
The second stage of disrespect is out-sourcing, which comes with a set of sub-stages. In out-sourcing, as an expert, I start by telling dear Diane that the only way to bake a really lovely cake is to buy my cake-flour. It’s too much trouble for her to sift it, and she’s never going to do so properly. But I, and my flour, are here to save her. In subsequent stages of outsourcing, I gradually take over other parts of the process until Diane, knowing her own innate incompetence, gives up and buys cake from my bakery.
The third stage of disrespect is denigration. Baking is for losers. It’s a waste of your time and effort. Now that the entire process is out of sight, now that Diane (or more probably, her granddaughter) is utterly unfamiliar with the ingredients and wouldn’t recognize the difference between a Twinkie and a homemade sponge cake, now she’s going to start looking at cake as just another commodity. Cheapest, quickest, most convenient. Because she’s buying like that, fewer and fewer quality options become available. Because what she’s buying is very low quality, it is only natural that Diane Jr. thinks of baking as a waste of time. She does more important things, like filing papers and answering phones.* Baking is out of sight, out of mind – and so is the baker.
Clothing as Example
Originally, women were in charge of the entire process of making clothing, from growing flax (or keeping sheep) through making cloth and sewing it up. This very valuable commodity, cloth, was so ubiquitously in the hands of women that “distaff” (which is a term for the stick you hold your fiber-to-be-spun on) is a synonym for “pertaining to women”. The cloth trade is recorded as far back as 1900 BC, there are notes about this in Cuneiform (from a woman to her husband – so much for treating women’s contributions with disrespect).
Gradually, clothing became “experted”. Books and articles were written to teach women how to sew “properly” – with details that extended to stitch length and direction. Magazines circulated with the latest fashions, and women were expected to dress like other ladies of their social class. Colors, hemlines, even modesty was determined by experts – not the women themselves.
The first stage of outsourcing was a dependence on dressmakers and tailors, at least for certain articles of clothing. These professionals had the tools, materials, and skills that a woman at home would be unlikely to have at her disposal – if she had the time to create more than basics. (From experience, I can tell you that sewing a wardrobe, even with modern appliances, takes a lot of time. It takes me a full day of work to sew a shirt for my husband, for example).
The second stage of outsourcing was the introduction of ready-made clothing. This occurred not more than 150 years ago – it hasn’t been long! While women retained their skill at sewing, they could recognize well-made garments. I can recall being shown the difference between a well-sewn and poorly sewn seam (in the era before sergers) and taught how to check the quality of fabric. I also remember buying fabric with my mother, as she had it made by a dressmaker (the expert) instead of being dependent on the department stores. At this point, although most of the work was done by experts, good work was valued and understood because of a basic understanding of the task at hand.
Eventually, almost all of us bought most of our clothing ready made, and fewer and fewer could so much as sew on a button. The sewing trade disappeared behind closed doors, and then those doors moved overseas. Creating clothing is out of sight – out of mind… and horrors ensue. Clothing is worth nothing. Creating clothing has been reduced to a hobby. The respect for the process of making the sort of clothes we wear on a daily basis has completely eroded. The progression of disrespect completes with vast heaps of discarded clothing crowding our landfills and filling our water with microplastics.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Where you spend your time is where you give attention. Attention begets respect. As “real life” moved out of the home and into the office, our attention moved to how to win respect in that venue. All humans require respect – and women gradually had respect withdrawn from their lives. Where once we were needed and relied upon for our skill, wisdom, and productivity, we became mere ornaments – “Angels of the Household”. The less time spent at home, the less respect was given to homemakers – and soon, housewives were considered a luxury good, a waste of a good mind.
Is it any wonder that women, given no respect for what they’d been doing for thousands of years, stopped doing this work and clamored for work that would bring them respect? Occupation that would bring them into association with others, connection. Humans need community. Year after year, homemakers became progressively more isolated. They complain of never having adult conversations and suffer from loneliness and self-doubt. The progression of disrespect has reaped a fine harvest.
So we must ask ourselves, is the work of homemaking worth doing? If, upon careful examination, we decide that we do need someone to concentrate on raising children, to foster social connection within community and extended family, to keep a close eye on the food we nourish ourselves with and be conscious to minimize waste and maximize resources, we will need to return respect to the position. We require nourishment to the spirit as well as to the body.
If we decide that none of these things are important, we can go on as we have. Soon enough we will own nothing and care not – because our homes will be irrelevant. Totally dependent on what we find in the marketplace for our food, the coverings for our body, totally dependent on experts to raise our children, we will take what is on offer because we will have no capacity to do anything else. And where will the progression of disrespect take all of humanity, when that is complete?
Choose you this day… personally, I think developing respect is a wiser plan.
*I have spent plenty of my professional life answering phones and filing papers. Work done well is honorable. But do you really think filing paper is more important than the food you put in your mouth? If so, we need to talk.
NOTE: I brought over this piece because 1) I know the audience here is more varied than my other online spaces. I’d like your input. 2) I feel like this is important and of interest to this audience.
If this interests you, come chat with us over at Locals. I put up regular locals-only content as well as the articles I share elsewhere, and Locals is the place to discuss, to post your own ideas, or even to argue (courteously).
Locals is a members-only platform, so you do have to register. However, I have a trial code, so that you don’t need to pay for your first month. HISTFEMTRIAL16 goes through 12/9/22. I hope to see you there. https://historicalfemininity.locals.com/