Mary Chapin Carpenter is an American rock, folk, and country music singer-songwriter who signed in the late 1980s with Columbia Records, who promoted her as a country singer. One of her most famous songs is her 1992 hit, He Thinks He’ll Keep Her. This song is widely credited with illustrating the salvation of a woman freeing herself from the traditional atomic family into the workplace. The song begins by documenting a few items that make it evident that she is a housewife – one who appears to do everything for her husband. For example: making his coffee, his bed, doing his laundry, and keeping him fed. Following a few of these examples, the verses, “When she was twenty-one she wore her mother’s lace and said “forever” with a smile upon her face,” briefly touch on the “norm” of marriage as something that is supposed to happen when coming of the right age. The lines that come after continue to paint the picture of outdated stereotypical gender roles: taking care of the kids; putting on a surface front that portrays a perfect family despite her unhappiness that is prevalent in this song; and her keeping everything in line and on time like clockwork. The line, “He thinks he’ll keep her,” is inserted occasionally at the end of some verses, alluding to the strength that she will eventually find to leave the husband that takes her for granted and confines her abilities. This does indeed happen and there is a shift when she talks about being thirty-six and finally putting her foot down to leave him. One line that I think carries a lot of weight is “for fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay, now she’s in the typing pool at minimum wage.” I feel these verses highlight the difficulty of working hard for many years without any sort of compensation other than a rabbit-hole of a comfort zone that can seem extremely terrifying to leave. More importantly, she does in fact leave and even though she is starting from the bottom, she is slowly working to make her own way.
This can be tied back to a few of the readings we did in class. For example, in Towards Equality, it highlights that marriage and motherhood should not be disabilities for women and in this song – it is very clear that the duties being performed by the woman are constraining both her happiness and ability to go out and do things for herself. Additionally, in Our Bodies, Our Selves, it emphasizes choice over destiny and I feel like this relates back to women being not properly educated about their bodies and having children that they did not necessarily want or getting married simply because that is what “everyone” did by a certain age. In a similar way, The Feminine Mystique, discusses that housewives feel trapped within themselves and their own minds – convincing them of the falsehood that motherhood and marriage is all that life has to give them. In this song, it isn’t until she leaves her husband that she finds her own life and what she wants.
The song, however, does have specific limitations as a representation of feminisms broadly constructed. For example, her limited scope of just female and male relationships excludes the LGBTQ community and it implies that the type of situation being described in the song only occurs between heterosexual members of the community.
Beauty in American culture has been constructed around an accepted norm or a set-standard of what makes someone desirable and beautiful. Overtime, cosmetics have become deeply intertwined with this beauty culture in America and it is no small industry – a $43.6 billion industry to be exact(1). The vastness of this industry has caused a lot of examination of beauty culture and cosmetics during the nineteenth and twentieth century and picking apart common misconceptions associated with the beginning of cosmetics. It has been a long standing assumption that the beauty industry was pioneered and dominated by males in order to sway women into a singular, confined definition of beauty, however, in Kathy Lee Peiss’s book, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, she demonstrates that this is not the case. Within this book, Peiss illustrates a beauty industry powered by women in the late 1800s and early 1900s – one where women owned the companies producing the cosmetics and one where women sold the cosmetics. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture elaborates on two things that cosmetics gave women: opportunity for expression through make-up and employment for women.
As someone born during the baby boom and coming of age in the 1960s(2), Peiss watched as the judgments surrounding manufactured beauty changed with great speed. The meaning of cosmetics in relation to beauty standards, ideals of femininity, profit making, and politics remained difficult to pin-point. However, Peiss argues that beauty culture should be understood not only as a type of commerce but as a system of meaning that helps women navigate the changing conditions of modern social experience. Women dipping their toe in “modernity,” often placed them into a public space that was not always welcoming. In the history of beauty culture, there lies a web of intimate rituals, social relationships, and female institutions. Over decades, women have passed down the teachings of cosmetics to their children and in these little jars of makeup, lies a detailed history of women’s ambition, pleasure, and community.
Kathy Lee Peiss, born in 1953, is a well-known author and American historian. She received her Bachelor at Carleton College and her Master of Arts and Doctorate of Philosophy at Brown University. During her lifetime, she was an instructor at Rutgers University and New Brunswick, Canada from 1980 to 1981. Additionally, from 1981 to 1986, Peiss worked as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts from 1986 to 1992. Since this time, she has continued to teach as a professor. Peiss has also been listed as a noteworthy History educator by Marquis Who’s Who. In 2011, she chronicled the purpose of cosmetics over time and the impact they have in regards to economic, sociological, and psychological aspects(3).
Peiss uses a mix of both qualitative and quantitative methods by developing her argument with participants and observations; first hand accounts of people’s experiences; and consumer surveys. Peiss begins her novel towards the end of the 19th century. During this time, cosmetics often contained toxic substances (i.e. lead) and were associated with “hussies” or prostitutes. In the introduction, she brings this up in the example of two lipstick shades named Lady and Hussy. The Hussy shade outsold Lady 15:1. Additionally, cosmetics were condemned by society saying that they created false needs, manipulated fears of the consumer, and raised superficiality over true substance. All this being said, Peiss makes sure to bring it back to the beauty business being largely built by women – some of the most successful entrepreneurs being immigrants, working class, and black women. The focused attention on face and figure paved the way for the pursuit of beauty to be acceptable and respectable. Transitioning into the early 20th century, women began to embrace cosmetics a lot more. However, advertising and social pressure to be “attractive” lowered self-esteem. In the first chapter, Peiss talks about an incident involving a 24 year old housewife who applied a commercial skin lightener who was admitted to the hospital and became paralyzed from the elbow down. This led to a focus on cosmetic preparation. Women were expected to be able to gather roots, distill essences, identify different herbs, and compound remedies for the skin. Many household manuals during this time included information regarding waters, oils, powders, and ointments meant to aid in the beautification of women. In this chapter, Peiss also discusses the origin of different cosmetics and beauty techniques. For example, indigenous plants were used to treat skin problems and methods like using crushed berries to redden cheeks were brought from Native Americans and West Africa. Moving on to chapter 2, Peiss describes the ideal beauty image as pale and because of this, white powder and skin lighteners became a big part of daily life for both white and African Americans, thus further propelling the aesthetic dimension of racism. Additionally, the rise of photography changed how people perceived their appearances. Portraits gave many people an idealistic version of how they looked – therefore, when people began to be photographed, they were not pleased with how they appeared. This resulted in the retouching of photos with painting or simply just wearing more makeup during photography sessions. Similarly, as photographs became more widely available, a domino effect was instituted: celebrities becoming beauty icons; celebrities using more makeup; the acceptance and consumption of makeup continually growing; and the cosmetics industry evolving into a commercialized industry. And of course, with the growth of a new “trend,” many opinions followed. Some people stood firm in their belief that painting was morally corrupt. Others sat more towards the middle, feeling that it was alright only if it was worn in a conservative fashion. Then on the other end, makeup was viewed by some as helping out the women who had not been blessed with “beauty” at birth. The key takeaway from this chapter is that someone painting their face moved from a trait of prostitutes and hussies to that of the “average” woman. During a time where it had been prohibited, chapter three centers on the transition of women into the commercial beauty industry. The Achilles heel of the beauty industry at this time was that it was a quiet industry. Many who used these products did not speak about their use of them in addition to wanting no one to know about their purchasings of them. However, in contrast to the women who were ashamed, there were the women who saw their own potential within the beauty industry. They saw an industry focused mainly around women as a place where they could get their foot in the door. Peiss drops a few names of entrepreneurs within the industry: Florence Nightingale Graham, Helena Rubinstein, Annie Malone, and Madam C.J. Walker. All were successful within their respective careers, however, their approaches were not all the same. Rubinstein and Graham sold their products in a more primitive “boutique” style, while Malone and Walker tried to market to everyday women. Transitioning onto chapter four, The Rise of the Mass Market, Peiss expands on the growth of the market for cosmetics following World War I. Between the years 1909 and 1929, the number of cosmetic manufacturers nearly doubled and their value rose exponentially. With this came a large scale system of mass production, distribution, marketing, and advertising that later transformed the initial patterns of buying and selling. The cosmetics industry transitioned to producing goods for national sale. Then, in promoting the Made-Up Woman, during the 1920s, mass produced images of glamorous screen stars, flappers, and beautiful women began to influence the fashionable ideal and beauty rituals. However, within this were racial divisions.The mass market’s democratic vision of beauty denied African Americans entry due to the unfortunate fact that white women were the target audience for national advertising. In Peiss’s sixth chapter, she talks about the beauty industry’s success in convincing their consumers that in order to fulfill individuality and femininity, one would need to purchase cosmetics. However, where information is pulled from is skewed due to its sources being limited to white middle and working class women. The use of cosmetics boomed in larger cities like New York and Chicago and came into play a lot later in smaller towns. Then, wrapping up in Peiss’s final two chapters, she discussed the white-dominated ideal “appearance,” and the weight that these powder and porcelain jars had in the war of cultural visions. Many black reformers and educators spoke out about the political meaning of appearance. The beauty industry increased the discontent of African Americans, gay activists, and feminists in regards to commercial exploitation by the long-standing beauty ideals.
One area in Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, that Peiss really excels at is disproving the wide-spread assumption that the cosmetic industry painted women as the victim in its narrative. The history of beauty in America is often looked back upon as one where the women experienced shame and they were looked at as being on the losing side. Peiss’s greatest strength within her novel is combatting this misconception but in chapter 3, Peiss does an exceptional job of illustrating that the cosmetic industry resulted in both social and economic empowerment for women. Beauty was the catalyst that allowed women to break from the confinements that labeled working as taboo unless their social class truly depended on it. It is depicted and regarded as women viewing it as a way to get their foot in the door – it was something for them – specific to them. Peiss even uses accounts of four entreprenuers to further her argument regarding the doors that the cosmetic industry opened for them.
Overall, Peiss does a great job in her documentation and elaboration of the cosmetic industry in her novel – however, that is the only thing she focuses on. I would have loved for her to dive deeper into related areas since she alludes throughout the book to discussing beauty as a whole. This is not necessarily a weakness, but I think her writing could have been further developed and well-rounded by drawing parallels between fashion, plastic surgery trends, diet culture, and “ideal beauty.” The title of Peiss’s book is Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, with emphasis on that second part: the making of America’s beauty culture. By Peiss only focusing on the wearing and history of cosmetics – I feel that it shadows other very important fields that are within the umbrella of beauty culture. More specifically, she could’ve addressed those other fields and made connections with the dangerous and sometimes unhealthy lengths people would go to in order to fall within the parameters of America’s beauty culture.
After reading this book, it is safe to say that my initial view of the history of the cosmetic industry has been broadened. I feel that this could be a really good book for college students or anyone wanting to look deeper into the history of the oppression of women or even just women’s beginnings in the workplace. I now see the opportunities that the industry gave to many women. However, I believe after reading this book that women were victims at times, victorious at times, and sometimes even the ones being the oppressors. This is a read I would love to revisit and draw deeper connections with other viewpoints after my completion of the GSS 101 course. .
(1) Manager, Jonas Sickler SEO. “Beauty Industry: Cosmetics Market Share, Trends, and Statistics.” Terakeet, 22 Oct. 2021, https://terakeet.com/blog/beauty-industry/.
(2) Peiss, Kathy Lee. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
(3) “Kathy Lee Peiss.” Prabook.com, https://prabook.com/web/kathy_lee.peiss/639345.
American social norms surrounding marriage and family structures have undeniably exploded since the 1950s golden age of Ozzie and Harriet-style unions. Over the past five or six decades, the United States has experienced a rapid decline in marriage and an enormous rise in births to unmarried mothers, especially among poorer, less educated Americans. Family sociologists agree that, in general, childbirth outside of marriage objectively increases poverty levels and inequality for children. In her 2014 work Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage,” Isabel Sawhill explores the causes and consequences of these striking changes in the United States’ marriage culture. She presents the reader with several explanations for the societal developments, including economic changes due to deindustrialization and globalization and a general liberalization of norms surrounding sex and marriage. However, unlike her colleagues in the field of family sociology, Sawhill identifies changes in women’s role in society as the overwhelmingly most powerful catalyst in the decline in marriage and increased childbirth to unwed mothers. In turn, Sawhill’s solution to the consequences presented by these developments is also ultimately a feminist one, as she argues that men must accept women’s changing roles and agree to function in a more androgynous union with a non-gendered divison of labor.
Throughout the expository introductory chapters of the book, Sawhill joins the existing dialogue of her contemporaries, including Charles Murray, Bradford Wilcox, and Robert Putnam, to establish a fact agreed upon by all family policy analysts and family sociologists: marriage is objectively the most successful union for stable parenthood, but marriage as an institution is rapidly declining in the lower socio-economic classes in the United States. What the U.S. has developed, in turn, is a cycle of poverty that fosters unstable family structures and unstable family structures that foster poverty. Sawhill’s main impetus to research the topic lies in the welfare of children. Her main argument is that marriage has seen such a rapid decline in recent decades because of the relative social progress women have made and the subsequent change in women’s opportunities and gendered expectations. Sawhill sees these developments as undeniably positive ones; however, progress for women has led to unintended consequences for children, as children have no autonomy over what type of family structure into which they are born, but must suffer any consequences assiociated with an unstable family. Sawhill’s argument develops into a suggested remedy for the future, in which she proposes that the government subsidize long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to drive down the fertility of women drifting into motherhood with little active intention to do so.
Isabel Sawhill works at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow in Economic Studies. She serves as the co-director of the Center on Children and Families, as well as the president of the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In recent years, she has focused especially on economically disadvantaged children in the United States, though throughout her life her research has examined various economic and social topics. She has extensively researched unplanned pregnancy, the economic consequences unplanned children face, and how the United States can best prevent unintended pregnancy.
Isabel Sawhill lays out her argument with extensive discussion and analysis of empirical, quantitative evidence representing the trends in marriage in twenty-first century America. Along with her contemporaries in the field of family sociology, Sawhill uses statistical evidence to determine that children fare best when they grow up in a household headed by their married parents. Despite marriages’ positive outcomes for children, though, Sawhill tells the reader that “marriage is on the wane,” going so far as to claim that marriage is an “endangered institution” (Sawhill 17-18). The bulk of her research is thus to explain why marriage rates have fallen so drastically; her findings bring her to the conclusion that “the changing status of women is the most important driver of changes in the family” (Sawhill 28). From the advent of the birth control pill, to increased numbers of women in college and the labor force, women have far more opportunities now than they did the so-called golden age of marriage, making them less inclined to marry, especially at a young age.
Sawhill also engages with her contemporary interlocutors by highlighting the growing class divide in family structures between the well-educated upper class and the less-educated lower classes. While women in the less educated, lower socio-economic classes have increasingly forgone marriage, while having children outside of marriage more and more often. However, women of higher socio-economic status are entering into so-called neotraditional marriages, which resemble 1950s-style unions, but are predicated on much greater egalitarianism between the husband and wife. Sawhill suggests several remedies to the negative consequences for children produced from what Sawhill considers unstable family structures. She argues that the U.S. government should subsidize long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to push down the fertility rates among the lower socio-economic classes in which fertility is high but marriage rates are low. She also supports increases in traditional government welfare programs to provide monetary and medical assistance to those in need.
The greatest strength of Isabel Sawhill’s work, I argue, is her introduction of a new explanation for the divergences in family structures in the United States during the past few decades. Her thesis, arguing that changes in women’s status in American society have been the greatest catalyst for breaking down the traditional family structure of the twentieth century, is an argument relatively untouched by Sawhill’s contemporaries. While family sociologists and policy makers have engaged in debate over the cause of changes in family structures, Sawhill presents a perspective unique from her colleagues by making her argument centered around the cultural shifts that occurred due to feminist movements. This argument strong and logical; the advent of accessible and relatively affordable contraception, the legalization on abortion through Roe v. Wade, no fault divorce, women’s increased presence in higher education institutions and improved status in the work force, etc. have all undeniably shifted marriage norms and structures (Sawhill26-30). She explains the bifurcation between upper and lower economic class families through the lens of gendered norms as well; well-educated, wealthy women are delaying marriage and childbearing while they gain education and profession status, but “at the other end of the economic spectrum, families are falling apart” (37). Sawhill explains this development as a result of lower-income men refusing to approach partnerships and marriage with an egalitarian view of gender.
Arguably Sawhill’s biggest weakness in her text is her explicit call to drive down the fertility rates of the less educated, lower income rungs of American society. Though she provides copious evidence that the instability present in many lower income families harms innocent children, her suggested remedies evoke the disturbing history of eugenics and birth control. Though Planned Parenthood provides undeniable benefits in 2016, and although Margret Sanger is often portrayed as a champion of women’s rights and social progress, we must remember the initial intentions of Planned Parenthood and birth control in general. While Sawhill herself may advocate purely on behalf of blameless children, her call for government-subsidized fertility control of less educated, poorer women threatens the agency of women on the sole basis of their economic status, as well as treading frighteningly close to outright eugenics. While children do unfairly suffer due to their parents decisions, we must always respect the agency and value of people regardless of their education attainment or economic status.
Overall, Isabel Sawhill provides an interesting and important commentary on the developments of marriage norms in the United States, with her predictions for the future and suggested remedies for the negative consequences associated with these changing social norms. The book exists in a field presumably off the radar of the average person, even among the more educated ranks. However, family structures and practices affect the future generation of thinkers, leaders, and influencers of our economy and society, and evidence shows us that the environment in which they are coming of age has a much greater affect on them than we may realize. Because Sawhill’s topic of analysis includes such a broad range of people—that is, all of American society—everyone could benefit from reading her text. I would openly recommend this text, but would explicitly suggest any reader to examine closely her remedies for the future and approach the work with a critical eye.
Sawhill, Isabel V. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2014. Print.
“9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women,” was a heavily shared graphic article during the summer of 2016. Sarah Cooper published the article on her satirical “office humor blog” known as The Cooper Review, which generates a variety of cartoons, listicles, and videos under the descriptor tagline, “Funny because it’s true.” However, as I dig into the complexities of the article’s simplistic assumptions, this tagline becomes less ironic and more revealing in how the media it promotes is actively harmful in reinforcing particular norms and binaries.
The graphic article begins with an introduction that suggests the audience (females in business work environments), the antagonist (males and “the patriarchy”), and the purpose (how to alter female leadership style in order to avoid negative perception from men): “In this fast-paced business world, female leaders need to make sure they’re not perceived as pushy, aggressive or competent. One way to do that is to alter your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.” The full introduction, brimming with sarcasm and humor, sets the reader up for the satire to come: “Should men accept powerful women and not feel threatened by them? Yes. Is that asking too much? IS IT? Sorry I didn’t mean to get aggressive there.” The piece goes on to present nine graphics, each with its own caption and “strategy” for women in the workplace. This framework alludes to the “corporate manual” and variations of leadership strategy guides in the corporate world. These guides permeate the business world in the form of books, magazines, online publications, and are sometimes specified towards women, such as Levo League, an online platform dedicated to providing resources, advice, and connections to businesswomen.
Each of the graphics in the article is a colored square framed by the article’s name “9 Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women” on top and The Cooper Review branding on the bottom. Between that framing, bold black letters spell out “#1” through “#9” and range from simple actions (e.g. “sharing your ideas” and “emailing a request”) to responding to external incidents (e.g. “someone steals your idea” and “hearing a sexist comment”). Each square is split by a black line, the left side title “THREATENING” highlighted black and enclosed in sarcastic quotes, while the right side title “NON-THREATENING” is not highlighted and is not enclosed in quotes, making it more approachable. Underneath each title is a simple gray scale drawing of a woman or a woman with a man and a text bubble above the woman’s head. The only differences between the left and right sides of each graphic are the characters’ facial expressions as linked to the text (“threatening” vs. “non-threatening”), showing that the “non-threatening” responses are supposedly more polite and happier for all those involved. The left to right transition, imitating the normal English reading pattern, also subconsciously implies which situation is the “right” way for women to act in order to be respected by men.
Despite the biting sarcastic humor of the graphics and their respective captions, the graphic article makes several assumptions that detract from its explicit attempt to undermine particular gender societal expectations. Most glaringly obvious throughout the nine graphics is the reinforcement of the gender binary and gender stereotypes as well as a complete lack of racial and body size diversity. Cooper’s article is fixated on women versus men and their respective perceptions in a corporate work environment. Every “woman” has long hair (either white or black), white skin, is thin, and wears some sort of blouse or suit jacket. Almost every graphic also includes the image of a “man,” also white with either white, gray, or black hair and a collared shirt and/or tie. In promoting such homogeneous images though, the graphic article reinforces a deeper problem of norms in the corporate world. The graphic images only present two categories of gender identity, one type of body size, one race, and most likely one social class, which perpetuates the same normature that the aforementioned “corporate guides” already promote. By showing one type of person, Cooper falls right into line with the large marketing structures that subconsciously promote homogeneous images and what is acceptable in the corporate world.
Cooper’s #whitefeminism mission leaves out several gender and racial identities, but she also goes further as to pinpoint and use male stereotypes. For example, “#6 When You Already Knew That,” depicts a “threatening” standpoint in which the female character tells the male character that she has already explained something to him. The “non-threatening” side presents the woman saying she would love to hear him explain it again. In the caption below, Cooper states “Men love explaining things.” While she might intend to present men as stereotypes in defiance of the generalized representations of women, such a statement doesn’t lead to a productive outcome for her assumed female audience. In breaking down expectations of women in the workplace, she builds up and reinforces stereotypes and expectations of men. In the last graphic, “#9 When You Disagree,” the only change between “threatening” and “non-threatening” is the fake mustache on the female character. She claims that wearing a mustache makes you “more man-like.” But what does “man-like” even mean? Having facial hair? “Growing a pair”? Although Cooper intends this comment as a joke, there’s also an unfortunate underlying assumption about what masculinity even means. But, her assumption that men receive more respect in a work environment due to their biology also reveals a subtler point about gender characteristics and perceptions. As we discussed in class, butch and femme characteristics receive different treatment outside the LGTBQ+ community, and perhaps more masculine qualities (i.e. butch) receive a greater degree of respect in the office environment. Studies have shown a counter-intuitive wage gap in which gay men receive a smaller salary than straight men while lesbian women receive a larger salary than straight women. Not only does the graphic article present the characters as cisgender, they also appear heterosexual, which brings us back to another corporate normature that Cooper sustains. One of our takeaways from the Wilchins piece discussed in class was that with sexual queerness comes a level of gender queerness and vice versa. Meanwhile, the characters in Cooper’s graphics seem to all fit the socially constructed gender and sexual norms that the typical corporate guide would also promote, whether intentionally or not.
Cooper sets out to critique and disrupt the man/woman dynamic in the corporate workplace and model that has been promoted by countless publications, advertisers, and media. She focuses on women’s oppression in the workplace and uses a male/female inversion to prove the lack of respect women receive. However, this graphic article fails to act as a didactic piece and comes across as only entertainment because she only inverts the heteronormative male/female relationship and reproduces other homogeneous racial, sexual, and class expectations in the corporate world. If she wanted it to be more than a piece of entertainment, highlighting the intersectionality of oppression in the workplace would ultimately teach and flip her audience’s expectations of who really does work in the business world.