For my history class, I was assigned to read a chapter from “Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic,” written by Jeanne Boydston, an American historian. And as I settled into a couch at Lilly, sipping my fifth cup of coffee that day, I read the lines that Boydston wrote about women in the 19th century, about how they were glorified into a domestic sphere and romanticized as a “bright and central orb, whose genial light kindles with soft and heavenly radiance upon the scene of loveliness which invites him to rest.” Ugh. But as I continued to study the words of Boydston, I became increasingly aware and unsettled that these lines resonated something within me, stirring up whispers of past memories and experiences within my own life, that only confirmed the ever present influence of social gender spheres today. Boydston wrote this article about the 1800s, a time, in my mind, that seemed irrelevant to my everyday life with its antiquated social customs and norms. So why did I relate to the idea of the women she portrayed: painted with an inherent grace, a comforting touch, a haven of solace at the end of a long day?
While we have obviously made political, economic, and social progress since the 1800s regarding gender equality, one aspect of “traditional womanhood” that is still expected of women today is the role of a nurturer. From the moment girls are bought their first Barbies and have baby dolls shoved in their arms, we are instinctively taught to take care of others. Moms traditionally stay home with children when they are sick, maternity leave is a norm over parental leave, and women nannies are preferred over male ones. The culture of our society still ingrains us with this idea that we, as women, must take those, especially those who are helpless and in need, under our wing. It’s no wonder then that William Alcott, an American author who Boydston quoted in her work, proclaimed that “A woman ‘...has duties to perform to the sick and to the well-to the young and to the ages; duties even to domestic animals.’” Although perhaps not as explicit as Alcott put it, women today, based on these existing ideas from the 1800s, are still expected to fulfill this social role. Granted, nurturing may be at least partly due to evolutionary processes in early societies, but at the same time, social customs, traditional gendering of roles, and a patriarchal society have sustained this culture for far too long.
In my own life, specifically in certain relationships, I recognize now I took on the expected role of nurturer and caretaker, based on my identity as a woman, over time and perhaps in situations I should not have. Regardless of how someone treated me, I was there to empathize with struggles I would never really understand, to provide calming advice, and a comforting hand to hold. It felt good to be needed, to be able to watch over someone that I loved deeply, and to be relied on in the harder times. But in the times between, the effort, time, and love I invested would be faced by biting comments that would make me question the true intentions of these people. When they needed me, I was there. When they didn’t need me, I was annoyingly still there. It was a continuing cycle, weaved secretly between the rest of our relationship: them hurting me, them needing me, me comforting and nurturing regardless.
When I finally came to terms with behavior that was intentionally wrong, hurtful, and uncalled for, I knew there was only a limit to my forgiveness and the continuation of my role as a nurturer within this cycle. Perhaps this is what separates me from women of the 1800s: the ability to take back what I had given so many times and what was not valued anymore. I can’t take back my actions in the past, but I can take back what was stripped of so many women years ago: the lifelong label as nurturer, caretaker, one that puts others’ needs above her. Women were depicted as a “great reservoir of love, the water-works of moral influence, from which go out ten thousand tubes, conveying the ethereal essences of her nature, and diffusing them quietly over the secret chambers of man's inner being,” and their economic dependence and livelihood depended on fulfilling this role. But mine does not.
Yes, it feels good to be needed. But at what cost? The relationships I cultivated were not all bad, but they were highly characterized by my role as a nurturer. I couldn’t leave someone in need, even if they had been intentionally unkind to me before. It’s hard to walk away from people you love, but in the long term, it’s even harder to bear the constant hurt of someone you invested so much time and love in. Boydston stated about women in her work: “Against its callousness, she offered nurturance. Against its ambition, she pitted her self-effacement and the modesty of her needs. Against its materialism, she held up the twin shields of morality and spiritual solace.” The “traditional woman” put her husband’s needs above hers in the act of nurturing him, and in a society now where I have a choice, even for people I have loved in a way I never could have imagined, I could never do that to myself.
Being nurturing is overrated, and forgiveness is overrated sometimes too. Women of the 1800s didn’t have a choice: they were bound to this ever present idea with the shackles of male social and economic dominance. But even if our natural instincts of nurturing haven’t changed, we do have the choice now to take it back, to put ourselves first, and to be unapologetic for doing it.
Sana Pashankar is a Trinity first-year. Her column, small girl, big ideas, runs on alternate Fridays.