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Discuss the ways that domestic ideology constructed femininity and what this meant for women's agency

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Introduction

Discuss the ways that domestic ideology constructed femininity and what this meant for women's agency. 'Any girl worth her salt wants to be the best housewife ever - and then some' screamed at us from the pages of Woman's Own in 1932. (Pugh 2000, p.212) Yet, this philosophy was not a new phenomenon. According to feminist historians, domestic ideology and particularly, its focus on separate spheres for men and women has played a fundamental role in British culture since the late eighteenth century. (Webster 1998, p.ix) Although there is vast material available on this subject, a full exploration of this area of women's history would exceed the limits of this particular essay. Hence, in this instance, attention will be offered to the importance of the prevailing domestic ideology during the interwar period in British society. This will be undertaken within a Cultural Studies framework with reference to Hall's reading of the circuit of culture using the constructionist view of Saussure's semiotic theory. (Hall 2000, pp.1-19) I will illustrate how representations of femininity were directly associated with domesticity and the central notion of the interwar years was foremost that a woman's place was in the home. There is a mass of information regarding women's continuing and vital role within the field of politics. Historians such as Pugh have suggested that feminism fell apart during the interwar years but it is evident from the women's legislation introduced between 1918 and 1929 that there were still many successful campaigns being won. (Pugh, p.108-109) During this period we can observe a dichotomy between the dominant domestic discourse and feminist ideology which was perceived by many men and paradoxically, many women as a threat to the traditional gender roles and as a force to break up the family. Yet, as Beaumont suggests, this negative portrayal of feminism and subsequent backlash was unfair in that many feminist societies had not challenged women's domestic role but were in fact campaigning for better status and rights for women both inside and outside the home. ...read more.

Middle

The idea of smaller families was advantageous for women in that having fewer children freed up more time for them to go out to work should they choose to, albeit on lower pay than their male colleagues. It must be kept in mind that although working class women had always played a fundamental role in childcare and housework, their middle class counterparts were now expected to do the same and to maintain certain standards in doing so. As previously mentioned, a woman's role after the war was seen as primarily that of wife and mother, blissfully content with her life within the private realms of domesticity. Thus, this dominant stereotypical image of the ideal feminine woman was reinforced within popular culture in the form of the booming newspaper, magazine, novel, cinema, radio and advertising industries. Beddoe highlights the abrupt transformation in advertising, offering images and headlines which were no longer signifiers of women as war workers but signifiers of women as housewives. (Beddoe p.13) There were more than fifty different women's magazines in circulation during the 1920s and 1930s aimed at both middle class and working class women. (Pugh p.209) Their titles alone emphasised their domestic predisposition. Articles on beauty, cookery, childcare and housekeeping were covered and according to Pugh, the nearest these 'came to tackling feminist issues' was on the problem page and despite the successful legal reforms on issues such as divorce, these controversial subjects were largely ignored. (Pugh p.209) As Adam suggests, such reforms were still concerned with women in their identity as wives and mothers. (Adam p.98) Ironically, women were encouraged to take up suitable employment which would prepare them for married life, once again propagating the notion that in order to be truly feminine a woman's role should be within the home. In sharp contrast to this there were the women who did not wish to conform to these pressures to be constrained within domesticity but who wanted to work and have worthwhile careers. ...read more.

Conclusion

(Bruley p.62) From 1918 British society felt a great need to return to pre-war 'normal life' and the subsequent reassertion of domesticity and return to traditional gender roles within the separate spheres. If we refer back to Hall's reading of the circuit of culture, it can be utilised to explain the significance of domestic ideology in the construction of femininity. The actions of the media and government agencies played a fundamental role in the representation of women during the interwar years. Yet these manipulative processes could not have worked alone. The identity of women was constructed according to stereotypical ideals which were disseminated via media propaganda and other popular cultural forms such as novels, films and advertising of consumer goods. Women's prescribed role was centred on familial and domestic life and this was the one desirable image during this period, accepted and unchallenged by the majority of British women. This was regulated by the State by means of legislative measures such as the marriage bar, imposed to put women back in their place and advocating the role of wife and mother only served to exacerbate these powerful idealised images which were then consumed by society giving them cultural meaning. However, it should be recognised that there were women who were happy to stay at home as they considered marriage their best career option. There were also women who resisted pressures to conform; asserting themselves both within the workplace and socially and politically within other areas of the public sphere. But this freedom came at a cost, as representations of these women were mostly negative and disapproving. Wartime work had offered women a new sense of self-worth and pride in their abilities. (Braybon & Summerfield 1987, p.131) Yet, this came to an abrupt end for many as the overriding central notion of the interwar years was that a woman's place was in the home and this feminine ideology filtered into every area of women's lives and many feminists and anti-feminists alike would argue that this remains the case even today. ...read more.

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