The relationship between public and private aspects of life can often only be distinguished by a thin line. As time progresses, men seem to be found less synonymous with their careers, while women have emerged in the workplace and are found to be commonplace. In the 1800 and 1900’s, men were defined by their jobs – the townsfolk were known as “the blacksmith,” “the shoemaker,” “the fisherman.” Women were mostly defined by their work at home, which clashed with the concept of separation of public and private lives. While men were characterized by the work they performed, women were merely “housewives.” Their private lives were filled with constant toils, be it cleaning the house, cooking the meals, or caring for the children. Men left their jobs at work, and came home to their wives’ places of employment. In this, the blurred line of separation between public and private lives becomes fairly distinct for men, and nearly nonexistent for women.
However, not all women of the time period shared the same views of their position. Female authors of the era offer a plethora of different perspectives on their lives, be it a fictional plea for freedom from oppressive employers, a commentary on married life, or the dread of living alone while the man of the house is at work. Whether the works are fictional or autobiographical, they all convey the same sort of idea – men in the workplace and women on the home front. Female activist and author Fanny Fern places herself in the shoes of a middle-class housemaid, who replaces the position of a housewife for an upper-class family in her narrative, “Soliloquy of a Housemaid.” Poet Emily Dickinson rather frankly expresses the oppression of married life as a woman in “She rose to His Requirement.” Anne Bradstreet celebrates her love for her husband while simultaneously stating her dread and emptiness while he is extendedly at the workplace in “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment.” While all three women convey different aspects of the toils of being a housewife or maid, they all remain correlated with the underlying theme of work infiltrating the home front.
Fanny Fern’s narrative “Soliloquy of a Housemaid” offers nearly a comical insight to the life of a simple maid named Sally who assumes the position of a housewife when the actual mistress of the house refuses to work. In this, Sally’s public and private lives meld into one, her work life overpowering all privacy. Fern’s narrative is short and sweet, but conveys a strong appeal – a housemaid’s lament that is all the more sympathetic as a narrative than could ever be as memoir. Fern starts out the work with the words, “Oh, dear, dear!” The reader immediately senses Sally’s exasperation, and can almost hear her gasping for breath and trotting the stairs while relaying her qualms. Emphasized words are italicized, such as in the sentence, “Wonder if my mistress ever thinks I am made of flesh and blood?” Within the first fifteen words, the reader is completely informed as to Sally’s employment and exasperation as well as her mistress’s ignorance and pettiness.
The pace of the narrative is quick; it reads as though a rushed housemaid were relaying it while sewing buttons, never stopping to take time for herself or take a rest. Fern need not infer nearly anything, as it is all stated simply in black and white – a snobby, entitled family oppressing the rites of “a poor tired woman” while enlisting her fulfill the position of a regular housewife. Sally wants nothing more than a simple smile every now and then, a thank-you or good-morning, “a kind word [that] would ease the wheels of my treadmill amazingly, and wouldn’t cost them anything, either.” The principle of the matter is what matters most to our fictional Sally, who has not a moment to herself to even repair her own clothes or make a proper bed. In this, she takes on all the responsibilities of a typical housewife, but is not bequeathed the gratitude and affection that a family of her own could show her. Because she is female, she is automatically entitled to the job of housemaid, where were she to live in a house of her own, her tasks would be similar and unpaid.
In the same vein of womanly duty, Emily Dickinson, whose sexual orientation was often of questionable nature, expresses her views of domesticity and deliberation. She sees woman as the victim of marriage, as is conveyed immediately in the first stanza of her poem. “She rose to His Requirement, – dropt The Playthings of Her Life To take the honorable Work Of Woman, and of Wife-” Dickinson plays off the theme of a distinguished man coming along and sweeping a young maiden, obsessed only with “Playthings,” off her feet, and making her a woman. The reader can infer Dickinson’s opinion of the theme immediately without her outwardly stating it. She cynically picks apart the duties of marriage – the strapping young man employing a vulnerable, naïve girl to do his bidding in the bedroom and the kitchen. By accepting marriage, Dickinson suggests that a woman sacrifices herself to the gods of a typical, male-dominated society.
Emily Dickinson states that, in society, a woman is not a woman until marriage, when she can begin to satisfy a man and his every whim. Her life has begun with a wedding, “Her new Day,” when she can obtain the duties of a loyal housewife and work in the privacy of her own home. Again, the thin line between public and private life becomes thinner, as it is automatically assumed that the new wife will stay home and work day in and day out for nothing but a husband’s love. Her work is her house – her “Requirement.” Dickinson uses this word expertly, as it fills the quota of a typical housemaid. When one applies for a job, he or she brings in a resume – a list to fill the prospective employer’s requirements. Dickinson cleverly conveys that, through marriage, a woman is applying for the job of housewife, and that a man, should he choose to ’employ’ her, will grant her the ability to work and toil at home instead of in a workplace. The new wife’s private life becomes congruent with that of her working life, even in the privacy of her own home.
Another author who plays off of the theme of female domestic responsibility while the man brings home the bacon is Anne Bradstreet, especially as conveyed through her poem, “A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment.” Bradstreet has no qualms about married life – she is, in fact, infatuated with her husband and states that the two are “one.” However, she is disturbed by the fact that her husband must leave her side every formidable ‘winter’ and leave her at home to herself. She compares the distance between them as the distance between the head and heart – “so many steps, head from the heart to sever, If but a neck, soon should we be together.” Bradstreet delves into a concept that both Fern and Dickinson neglect to even consider – the concept of love between husband and wife. Bradstreet writes from an autobiographical perspective to her husband, and is content with being loyal to him though he is far away. However, her animosity lies where she “at Ispwich lie;” the fact that her husband is away at work while she must stay home and keep house. He is the breadwinner, and she is the housewife. No matter how strong and equal their bond of love might be, there lies a perpetually outstanding difference – he can come home from work in the ‘summer,’ while she lives in her workplace.
Perhaps, however, the most interesting aspect of the poem lies in its title – “…Absent upon Public Employment.” Bradstreet’s husband was taken from her due to his public work, while she, in her private work, remains at home. How would the title have been different if not for the word “public?” Because his work differentiates his public and private lives, he is therefore absent, or away from the home, due to his job. If he were gone because of employment, the poem loses the effect of woman and man, of housewife and breadwinner. Therein lies the theme once more – a man’s public and private lives remain distinct and separate, while a woman can no longer even distinguish her privacy from work.
Though the stigma of housewife has changed drastically from the era in which these women wrote, females in the workplace with Mr. Mom at home are still a rare breed. Women are domestic creatures by nature, and as a result, the different spheres of home and work have become interlinked, and often completely overlap. Not long ago, a woman who stayed home raising her children for thirteen years was left penniless after a divorce with her husband, due simply to the fact that her work life was at home, unpaid, and unappreciated. The formality of the woman at home – cooking, cleaning, caring for the children – has not long been shaken from American society. The gender-biased employment race does not often take into account the skills that a woman possesses from bringing her work home day after day, which are perhaps, the most invaluable yet. So while men can step away from their identities as craftman by day, a woman carries with her the stigma of housewife in both her public and private lives – at all times.