Let’s have a chapter on men

I’m starting to wonder what it would be like to read a book on daily life in X place and time that starts out by telling you most people, even among the upper classes, spent their days running their households, engaging in textile production, raising children, or (if they were wealthy enough) overseeing servants who did that work for them, and then has a section describing how men’s lives differed from that norm.

I know there are reasons other than direct patriarchy why such books aren’t organized that way — because men’s lives have historically been more varied, the descriptions of their activities requires more words if you aren’t just going to blow them off with a few sentences, which would make for a hell of a long chapter on the male experience — but I’ve read a lot of works in this informal genre, and after a while you really start to notice how thoroughly that experience is centered, and then women’s lives are a sidebar. It would be an interesting trick to flip it around, highlighting the fact that by far the most common occupation across a given society was “domestic manager,” and most of ’em were women.

6 Responses to “Let’s have a chapter on men”

  1. Jaws

    One wonders how much of this is a cascading failure of recordkeeping. Because to contemporaries women’s lives were of less importance, of (to those writing things down) less variation, fewer records were created. The next generation to come along in study — which would not be the next generation chronologically, but somewhere down the road — would have a natural, if nonscientific, tendency to take the absence of records as evidence that there was no difference. That next generation would then start to establish an orthodoxy of silence in writing about that particular past, starting a positive feedback loop and creating self-fulfilling prophecies. “You think women lived rich and varied lives? How come we have no evidence of it, either direct or indirect? Next issue.”

    (In human behavior, a “positive feedback loop” is almost always a negative thing.)

    • swantower

      Oh, there’s unquestionably a dearth of records about women’s lives, which makes it harder to go into detail about them. But there’s still room to make a decision about what gets framed as the baseline experience of that time and place, and by raw statistics, running a household was the most common one. It would be interesting to read a book which takes that as its starting point, and positions everything else as a departure from that widespread commonality.

  2. Saber

    To play devil’s advocate: would the life of an ordinary serf or peasant in said time be any more exciting? It would consist of waking up early, working the land, maybe cutting down some trees or feeding the animals, and going back to their windowless, dirt-floor, one-room house before nighttime came. A female serf would have different chores (e.g. raising the children, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, textile work, cooking, tending to the garden etc.), but I doubt that those are significantly less exciting than those performed by their male counterparts.

    • swantower

      It isn’t about what’s exciting — though I’ll note that many of these daily life books do talk about agriculture and livestock, rural housing, and so forth. But the actual point is what gets positioned as the default, and what gets positioned as the exception. Over and over again, these books frame the default rural or urban or peasant or royal life as what a man would experience, and then women’s experiences are described by how they differ from that baseline. Whereas a statistical mentality would say, all right, the biggest commonality here is the domestic work women did (modulo their particular status and community), with everything else being the exception to that.

  3. Nick

    Actually, it was only the relatively wealthy where the women were primarily domestic managers; the poorer used to have to go out to work as well as the men, or sometimes worked at home. I recommend looking up the work of Prof. Jane Humphries of All Souls, Oxford, who has a lot of papers on things closely related to this.

    Disclaimer: she is a close friend of mine. Any errors in the previous paragraph are mine alone, though!

    • swantower

      By “manager” I don’t mean that they had servants to oversee; I mean that women and girls took primary responsibility for domestic tasks like cooking, making and mending clothing, and raising children. Even when women went out to work, let alone worked from the home (which was the most common scenario in many times and places), they still usually had to do that work as well, though parts of it might get outsourced, e.g. buying ready-made food.

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