I started to learn Japanese a couple months ago. It has always been something I wanted to do, but I had never really had the motivation until now. I have always wanted to travel to Japan and that is one of my main goals in studying the language (it is also something to look forward too once the COVID pandemic has died down). I believe it is really important to learn at least some parts of the language and culture of the place you want to travel to. It will enrich the overall experience.
One important part of studying Japanese is familiarizing oneself with the writing system. A combination of three different systems are used: hiragana, katakana and kanji. I wanted to know more about why three systems were used, so I began to research. To my surprise, I actually discovered a very interesting piece of women’s history.
To give a brief overview of the three types of writing systems (note: I am not an expert as I am still learning myself). Kanji developed first and is adapted from Chinese characters. These symbols are used to represent entire words. Hiragana and Katakana use characters to represent the 46 sounds used to make up Japanese words. Each character is a syllable.
As stated above, Kanji was the first writing form to be developed. In medieval Japan, only elite male members of the imperial court could use this form of writing. All official documents were written in Kanji and (like most places in the world at the time) politics was the domain of men. Women were not allowed an education in writing as they did not belong in the public sphere. Based on the standards of the era, women would never have a place in the government of their country. Without the ability to write, there was no way for women of medieval Japan to express themselves. Yet, the women of the Japanese court were innovators.
The women developed onnade (“Women’s Writing”) which was an early form of the modern kana (hiragana, katakana). The origin of this name was obvious as it was very popular for women to use this writing system. They used onnade to express themselves through poetry, letters/personal correspondence, and literature. There were many female novelists who came from this era. The most famous was Lady Murasaki Shikibu. She wrote The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century (which has been considered the world’s first novel). Lady Murasaki was an imperial lady-in-waiting and a noblewoman who used the onnade to compose this work. The Tale of Genji centers around a charismatic fallen prince and recounts his adventures ( and lovers). Besides Lady Murasaki, there were many talented women in the court around the same time such as Sei Shonagon, Izumi Shikibu, and Akazome Emon. All of the women during this period took something (writing, in this case) that had been taken away from them and made it their own. They created art and spread ideas around the court.
Naturally, this writing system was looked down upon by the male members of the court. Those who were part of the education system and those of society’s elite felt that the only the Kanji they used on official documents meant anything. Yet, eventually, the kana became more popular as it was easier and filled in the gaps of the language that Kanji left out. This was especially important for male novelists as the centuries went on. Japanese women of the medieval period took action to form their own ways of communication. They filled in any gaps that their lack of education produced. .
It was not only in Japan that women helped to influence the development of language/writing. Women in the west also had a hand in developing their local vernaculars. In medieval Europe, Latin was the language of the church and other official documents. As the fad of courtly romance rose, many noble women began to commission books written in the “common” tongue (not Latin) as it was easier for them and a wider range of the population to understand. This even included a famous women’s health text that was translated into many “common” tongues (English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, etc) , so more women could better educate themselves about their body and reproductive health. This was titled “The Trotula”.
As I learned more about how the Japanese writing systems were developed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that women actually developed many of the writing systems that are used today. In 1900, an official writing system was established in Japan using hiragana, katakana and kanji. This is what is seen today. Based on my research, it seems that the original hiragana had many more symbols, but the amount was reduced to help create a more streamlined system. These stories fascinate me as it shows that even though women were denied the education they deserved, and were blocked from exchanging ideas through the written word, they became innovators and developed their own way of communication. They did not need to follow the “status quo” had already been set out for them.
While doing research for my series on the suffragist movement in the United States, I came across a very interesting trend that was briefly popular during the mid-19th century. Elizabeth Smith Miller debuted the “Bloomer” costume in 1851 . Miller was working in her garden and became irritated when her long and heavy skirts got in the way of her work. As she was now thoroughly fed up, she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the skirt to a shorter version. Underneath the skirt, she would wear a wide pair of trousers which allowed her more comfort and freedom to complete her tasks. This outfit soon became a hit among the early feminists in the budding suffragist/women’s right movement. This new fashion trend pushed the boundaries of the feminine norms of society (despite being short lived) and it is easy to see why it became popular with suffragists. The Bloomer walked so future fashion trends of the 20th century could run. I really have never looked deeply into fashion history before, but it is fascinating how through this mode of art/expression women were able to convey what they wanted and resisted against societal norms.
Elizabeth Smith Miller wore her new outfit when she went to the Seneca Falls Convention and met up with her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton loved the look and others at the convention soon began to take notice as well. Most importantly, Amelia Bloomer (where the fashion trend took its name from) , who was the editor and writer of The Lily. The newspaper was dedicated to the women’s rights and temperance movements and was run completely by women. After meeting Miller, Bloomer began to write about how impressed she was by the invention and how she had adopted the style. She printed descriptions and instructions on how others could make the Bloomer. Eventually, the media was calling the style the “Bloomer Dress”, which shows how much influence she had on the trend.
There was an article written in The Lily (by an anonymous writer) that was titled, “Do Women Ever Do Any Hard Work? (1854):
“Go into the towns, and you will see them serving customers in all kinds of stores- attending to, working at, and carrying on all kinds of trades, sorting and packing up all sorts of goods in factories and warehouses; they do all kinds of weaving, dyeing, knitting, spinning, and sewing of all kinds of articles in use; they work at the shoe trade, and not a hat made but they have a hand at it; some you will find, keep Post offices, teach school, and preach the gospel; others employ their time in doctoring, nursing, and attending on the sick; some you will find in Bake-houses, making bread and various other things made in such places; and in butcher’s shops I have seen them cut up carcasses equal to men, and for Barbers they can’t be beat. Others go out washing clothes, and brewing beer all day long, and which are very different operations to anything you see done here; besides a great many of them have to attend to their own house affairs as well; so that woman’s work is said to be never done; and now tell me. if you don’t work hard, who does?”
I quoted this article because most women during the 19th century did not sit around doing nothing all day. They did work and, if not in a workplace, it was at home. They had to raise children, run a household, do chores, etc. The clothing of the era was modest, heavy, and restrictive. The aim of women’s dress during this era was to accent their curves, but, as a result, comfort was forgotten. Women wore many layers of clothing. The first layer a bloomer, then a chemise, followed by the tight corset, a camisole to cover the corset, a petticoat, a large and awkward hoop skirt, the over petticoat and then, lastly, the blouse/bodice and skirt. As you can see, it would take very long to get dressed in the mid-1800s and, not to mention, difficult to move. After so many layers, a tight corset, and a hoop skirt it would be difficult to complete any task. Imagine attempting to sit down or bend over in a hoop skirt or walk up stairs with layers of skirts at your ankles. It made any physical activities difficult such as bike riding, gardening, and hiking. Not only was the clothing restrictive physically, but also restricted what activities women could participate in.
The Bloomer, naturally, was an attractive option. The allowed more comfort, the ability to move more freely and participate in more activities. It also was a healthier option as the heavy use of corsets was not the best for the body. Part of the advertisement of the day was that it was good for women’s health.
The trend also was a statement. Women in trousers was unheard of and challenged the feminine norms of the time. It proved that women wanted more opportunities. Society had women trapped under the constricting social norms, no room for advancement outside of the house, and even trapped them in the acceptable clothing of the time.
In the end, the Bloomer phase was very popular with young bicyclists (especially in Europe) and early feminists, but the majority of women were not ready to take these steps. The media and public opinion made this difficult. The women who participated in the fashion statement were ridiculed and harassed. They were considered unfeminine and were viewed as resisting their own gender roles. They received so much backlash that within a few years many of the pioneers (Bloomer, Stanton, etc.) actually went back to the original style of long dresses. They did this, not because they had given up, but knew it was a distraction affecting the larger cause (votes for women, women’s rights to education and employment, etc.). Yet, Bloomers still made an important impact as fashion continued to be used to reflect a new type of woman throughout the 20th century.
In 1926, Coco Chanel came out with the original “little black dress”. Prior to the 20s, the color black was for mourning, so typically your everyday clothing would not contain this. Not only was the color different, but the style. It was very simplistic, it was short, yet elegant. It was also made for a majority of women to afford. It directly contrasted with the tight, restrictive, and over the top clothing from the prior century. The bobbed haircut was also paired with the new, liberating clothing style. It was another way to send a rebellious message. Women were ready to move past what society expected of them and take on their own destiny. At the time, despite its popularity, the bobbed hair was controversial. It was banned at certain establishments, like some schools, and highlighted as masculine in the media. It was paired with the image of an immoral woman.
In the 1920s/1930s, Chanel also designed the iconic tweed suit. She took inspiration from menswear and sportswear and then added a feminine twist. It was comfortable, but also gave a powerful look to the women who wore it. The style is still popular today. Women were beginning to take on new roles in the workforce and that was especially evident during World War II.
During the 1940s, rationing was extremely important in order to contribute to the war effort. Every resource was needed for the soldiers overseas. This included fabric, which actually led to shorter hemlines on dresses and skirts. The clothing was similar and more utilitarian. Pants and jumpsuits became more popular as women now had to work in the factories, labs , government jobs, and even in the military to fill in for the men who were now overseas. This was an accepted “sacrifice” for the war effort, but proved that women were capable of much more than society previously allowed. The change in fashion responded to the change in the expectations, yet continued to hang on to the modern day. Women made a huge impact during this period and continued to fight for more opportunities in the future.
The 1960s brought about the miniskirt which corresponded to the rebellion of the youth during this period. The miniskirt was a direct contrast to their parents fashion and their parents expectations. With changes, such as the development of the birth control pill, women were sexually empowered for the first time. The invention of the birth control pill relieved women of another restriction in their lives. This restriction included the pressures to marry quickly and settle down, to be submissive, and to remain pure. Just like men, they could finally be liberated and make their own choices. The 1960s and the miniskirt, was an era of new freedom and pushback against the social norms of the 1950s for young women.
In the 1980s, the power suit became a very popular look. You can see the influence the Bloomer and the Chanel suit had on this look. Iconic features are the padded shoulders and oversized look of the outfit. The focus now was not on the fact that the wearer was a woman, but what she could achieve and bring to the workforce. The suit represented respect and power. Women wanted to break that glass ceiling and they wanted to be successful themselves. They wanted to compete in the workforce and climb the ladder in their careers. Yet, there were barriers (that women still face today) in the corporate world that put women down due to their gender. They may find challenges getting paid what they deserve, getting that promotion that they worked hard for, or even finding opportunities in general. The suit gave the confidence needed and they felt they were dressed for the part they wanted. The power suit represents the ambition that women had to really show what they could achieve.
I do not claim to be an expert on fashion history, but, prior to this research, I never really thought about how the way we dress often coincides and aides in the social movements of the period. Women used fashion as an outlet to express what they wanted and what was missing in their lives. Without the Bloomer, could the power suit have existed?
The turn of the century brought about a new era of suffragists. The previous generation attempted to fight for their suffrage rights while still trying to fit into the roles that society made for them. They wanted to fight for progress, but also could not afford to stand out in ways that may look badly on the cause as they would lose support. For this reason, the old generation of suffragists did not encourage street speaking, marches, or acts of civil disobedience. Victoria Woodhull (a woman who I profiled two years ago: historynavigator.org/2018/06/18/victoria-woodhull-first-female-presidential-candidate-and-activist/ ) was a woman ahead of her time and was a very popular figure. She was bold and headstrong. She even announced her candidacy for president in 1870 (prior to women receiving the vote!). Woodhull was a divorcee and lectured about women’s rights and their sexual freedom. It was the free love portion and her spiritualism beliefs that cause the suffragists to want to disassociate from Woodhull’s brand. They knew that this would be a discouragement to any politician who may have sided with their cause. Society was not ready to accept women’s suffrage AND their sexual freedom. Just like with the temperance movement, the women of the older generation were still very concerned with appearances despite their activism.
Yet, in the wake of the 20th century, the world was changing. In Great Britain, the “suffragettes” were making loud scenes to get what they wanted. The suffragettes held parades, gave speeches, performed skits, participated in hunger strikes , and , sometimes, even performed acts of violence. American suffragists, like Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Cady Stanton) , traveled to Great Britain and were influenced by what they saw there.
Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It is an amazing milestone to hit and to honor, but, on the other hand, it is shocking to think that the female citizens of this country have only had the right to vote for one hundred years. There are so many stories, people, and events that went into the long fight for the 19th Amendment, but in these next two posts I have compiled the events and stories that I feel were most important and encapsulated the movement.
Seneca Falls Convention, July 1848
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 sparked the women’s suffrage movement in America. The event was organized by five women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. It took place in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. This convention was an early introductions, worldwide, of the concept of women’s suffrage. But how did this convention suddenly come about?
The abolition of slavery was one of the first political movements that women participated in and were able to exercise political agency. Beginning in the 1830s, American women were speaking out against slavery in public lectures. A woman’s role, during this period, was to be stowed away in the “private sphere”. They were to be dutiful wives and take care of the children. Being regulated to the household, women never had a chance to reach out further and participate in the public sphere. They were barred from taking an active role in politics. To society, their opinions were unimportant. After a woman married (which was expected of them) they would lose any few freedoms they had and were dependent on their husbands. Married women had virtually no property or financial rights and the option of divorce was near impossible. The ideal “True Womanhood” of the period was a wife/mother who was pious and submissive. By the eyes of the law, women were dependents rather than a true citizen.
August 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment provided women with the right to vote in the United States. It is hard to believe that it was not until 1920 that the female citizens of America received a right that should have been automatic as a citizen of the country. This right is often taken for granted today and it can be difficult to imagine a time when a woman would actually be arrested for voting in an election! It is important to remember this anniversary and to remember how hard the women who came before us fought. They fought so we could participate in government and in the decision making of this country. It is critical that we exercise this right every opportunity we have. During August (and likely the months beyond), I would like to highlight some of the tactics the suffragettes used to have their voice heard, famous standouts, and highlight how much hard work was put into the movement.
Throughout history, morality laws have been used by empires to place restrictions on society in order to create a specific image and enforce power. Many times, these laws would especially affect a specific group within the population. The post this month will compare two different ancient cultures and reveal how ancient morality laws were used to place controls on women. It will explore how these restrictions were to help create the ideal society that the leaders envisioned. In the process, some amazing heroines, The Trung sisters of Vietnam, will be highlighted. Even in the current era, morality laws can still be found. In the past decade there have been many debates which affect marriage rights, healthcare, and the choices of particular groups in our society. Many of the ancient laws that are discussed here will seem outdated, but it is interesting to compare to the discussions happening in our world today.
In this post I want to bring attention to the Christmas Eve Italian Hall Disaster. This event is a forgotten piece of history to those outside of the local area. This story takes place in the early 1900s during a time where big corporations were booming and there were essentially no restrictions on how an employer could choose to treat their work force. It begins with local workers who became fed up with the way they were being treated and realized that they should be worth more to their employers. With great sacrifice to many union families, a strike begins. Unfortunately, it will end in a Christmas tragedy, but there will be a legacy that these families left behind. It should not be forgotten.
“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall and bereft of a champion to take up arms in order to protect it…”
–The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, 1405
Feminism in the 15th century? This is considered a rare concept during the medieval period. This was an era of serfs/lords, arranged marriages, and a time when women were viewed as little more than property. This period lacked champions to stand up to the patriarchy that dominated society. Well, such a champion did exist, though many may not have been familiar with her. She is considered France’s (even Europe’s) first profession female writer and was popular internationally. Her name was Christine de Pizan.
Christine is considered one of the first feminist figures as, through her work, she directly addresses many of the injustices her sex had been subjected to. She calls out the injustice of their treatment in a very progressive manner. This is evident in two of her most famous books, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. Christine’s version of feminism in the 15th century is still not like it is today (as she was still a woman of her time), but it was extremely radical for the period she lived through. I first learned about this amazing woman in an art history course in college and she has been a figure that I have wanted to highlight for a long time now. Continue reading “The Creation of a City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan and her Legacy”→
In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?
Roxelana’s notoriety has lasted long after the end of her life. Despite her status as a female slave in a patriarchal society, she would go on to make her mark in politics, break traditions, and create an example for royal women in the future of the Ottoman Empire. She also founded many charitable foundations throughout Istanbul and beyond. Roxelana would gain the title Haseki Sultan of and become the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. To many, Roxelana may be an unknown figure in history, but she has always been a person of interest to me. I had watched the first season of the Turkish drama, Magnificent Century, and was inspired to learn more. I have been very excited to create this post and hope to bring more awareness to Roxelana’s impact in Ottoman history and women’s history.