More on Women and Dirty Work

working woman

My mom read aloud Raising Maidens of Virtue by Stacy McDonald to my sisters and me when we were growing up. I don’t remember much of it, other than the comfort of snuggling up to my mom as she read aloud, the beautiful watercolor illustrations, and the funny, relatable stories of home life. The only chapter I can recall is the one describing femininity as soft, beautiful, nice-smelling, and pastel.

That was my technical, working definition of femininity: soft, beautiful, nice-smelling, and pastel. True femininity required proper hygiene, long, flowing skirts, lavender scents, and nicely-done hair and makeup. This no doubt fed into my assumption that women could avoid hard, dirty work on the grounds of their gender. “Lady” was equivalent to “woman”; “lady-like” equivalent to “godly” and “Biblical.”

I love soft, beautiful, nice-smelling, and pastel things. With my pastel pink wedding reception, obsession over Modcloth, and penchant for doing my makeup just for fun, I definitely consider myself a girly-girl.

But I don’t believe that soft, beautiful, nice-smelling, and pastel is the definition of femininity. I don’t believe it’s even a requirement of femininity. Femininity, to me, means “related to what is female.” Each particular woman defines what femininity means for herself, and because every woman is different and because a woman’s body and personality is multifaceted and versatile, femininity in an external form can look like anything from combat boots to high heels.

Women have beautiful bodies, no doubt. Estrogen makes our skin soft; our curves provide warm, snuggly places for nursing babies; we rock stilettos and V-backs and mermaid dresses. Women have strong bodies, too. We birth those babies, after all. We run marathons, perform pointe ballet eight performances a week, and join the army.

I would love to start calling those things feminine, too — the blood and guts, rough and tumble, muscular and strong things about our bodies. With that in mind, here are some feminine things I love:

An army master sergeant, Deshauna Barber, took home the Miss USA title — and she’s awesome. What a perfect combination of beauty, brains, and beast strength! I can’t get enough of this quote: hot dog girl makes me laugh. period commercial with actual blood.

Cup of Jo’s beauty uniform interviews are my favorite.

Speaking of insane things your body can do…ballerinas in the city blew my mind.

Let me know what your favorite feminine thing is, and enjoy your weekend!

4 thoughts on “More on Women and Dirty Work

  1. chai_party

    Oh, I remember that exact bit of Raising Maidens of Virtue–wasn’t it a chapter called ‘Powdered and Perfumed’ and it opened with a story of how if you smelled bad, it was a bad Christian witness. That was such an upsetting book for me; I’m trying to remember if it was that one or another which made the comparison between ‘giving your heart away’/having premarital sex, and trying to repair a rip in a beautiful piece of fabric. REAL subtle imagery there, huh?

    It would be interesting to trace the roots of what most Americans consider to be ‘femininity’. From what I’ve heard, it isn’t really linked closely to an early Israelite or early Christian ideal at all (I’m thinking of the ‘dress modestly’ verses which seem to have been about avoiding outward finery!) I think the Medieval romance ideas influenced a lot of it, and then of course everyone’s favorite scapegoat the Victorian era. At LEAST we can be glad we don’t live back then!

    It’s probably also worth bringing into the discussion that most of the world’s female population doesn’t and never has had the choice to work or stay at home; to dress extravagantly or avoid dirty work. I remember being particularly convinced by the argument that if a particular idea of what femininity ‘should be’ breaks down when you try to apply it to a poor woman living in a developing country, it isn’t correct. In other words any moral norms about gender behavior should be universal. And personally I can’t think of any universal moral norms that don’t apply equally to men :)


    • Bailey Steger

      Excellent comment! Thank you for your thoughts. I’m afraid I don’t remember much of Raising Homemakers besides that bit, but those analogies are prevalent in purity culture. I *loved* your point on how these ideas of femininity do not at all come from early Christian or Israelite ideas, but rather from Western ideas. I too was convinced that a “Christian femininity” that only applied to middle class Western women could not be a universal mandate!


  2. Justine

    The part of Raising Maidens of Virtue that I remember most was the chapter about three sisters: one who was lazy and liked reading romance novels, and also kept herself clean and pretty, and two younger ones who worked in the garden and cleaned out the chicken coop and got dirty. The oldest one was really glad she wasn’t all dirty and smelly when a certain young man came to work for their father. When he requested a meeting with the father, she was sure he was asking to court her. However, he was asking to court the second daughter who was hard-working and not afraid to get dirty.
    I remember the chapter you are talking about too. I think my mom’s reaction to that was, “That’s a bit extreme.” In a large family, who has time to take a bath every night and use expensive oils to smell fancy? lol
    I think men and women should both be able to live life. Yes, it is fun to sometimes dress up to be attractive for your husband, but who can be seductive and alluring all the time? Both of you get to live life, sometimes have bad breath and terrible hair, sometimes dress up, sometimes not feel well and curl up in PJs and a bulky sweater. Both are people, both should be able to act like people.


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