Women As Culture-Keepers

When I wrote the post “What Does a Powerful Woman Look Like?,” one word I managed to avoid was “culture,” even though what I was ultimately trying to say was that you can tell a powerful person by the influence she has had on her culture.

I might have avoided the word because “culture” is hard to define. It’s not synonymous with history, although events do help to shape it. It’s more than the shared set of values of politics or religion. And although the word is often used as a blanket term for the arts, in its broadest sense it encompasses much more. Wikipedia defines culture in three ways:

  • Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
  • An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

In my opinion, culture is what identifies us, as individuals and as groups. Your culture is the milieu in which you exist. When forced out of your milieu, or natural habitat, you experience “culture shock.”  You don’t know how to relate to the world, to other people, or even to yourself. Culture provides you with your points of reference so that you know how to navigate the world.

Some men think that they are the shapers of culture because they’re given most of the credit for making history. They see themselves as the movers and shakers, the ones who set policy, enact and enforce laws, fight battles and govern countries. Although there have always been women who have also done these things, it has been men’s accomplishments that are seen as carrying more weight.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the role that women play in the shaping of culture. While men provide the broad brush strokes of a society’s culture, it is women who fill in the details. And more than that, women are also the ones who are primarily responsible for transmitting culture from one generation to the next.

To get at what I mean, let’s look at a typical family: The husband’s job determines the socioeconomic level of the family but it is the wife who decorates the home, plans the meals, picks out the clothes, and spends most of the disposable income. She is also the one who writes thank-you notes, invites the in-laws over for Thanksgiving and makes most of the decisions about family rituals. Because she is the primary child caretaker, she picks out the books the children read, decides what television will be watched and buys the toys the children play with.

In American society, even though over half of the work force is made up of women and 75% of those work full-time, it is still the woman who does all these things and more. Why? Is it because her husband refuses to help her? Or is it because she feels like it is her responsibility to fulfill this function?

It’s no secret that modern American women feel a high degree of stress from balancing all the balls we have in the air. So why don’t we just let some of them fall to the ground? Why worry about the house, how the children dress, what kind of meals go on the table? And why, for God’s sake, do we knock themselves out over birthdays and anniversaries and showers and weddings and holidays?

I read an article the other day about women in the Netherlands. It seems that even though they live in a society with a high degree of female political participation and have all the reproductive rights they could want, they have not, like American women, enthusiastically entered the work force. Only 10% of Dutch women are employed full-time and they appear, by the choices they make, to like it that way. They are far more interested in having time for their families and communities and yes, dare we say it, for themselves.

So why can’t American women do the same? I think there are three main reasons why we don’t.

One is that America is a consumer-driven society, feverishly intent on buying the next best thing to come on the market. Needless to say that takes money, often more than one income can provide. While there are some married women who work purely out of economic necessity, I think a lot of us work for the “extras.”

Second is that American feminism has not only encouraged women to work outside of the home, it has at times made it seem that a woman who doesn’t is cheating herself. It’s no secret that many women refuse to identify with the feminist movement because they feel that feminists look down on homemakers and women who choose to work part-time.

Third, American women are not appreciated for what we do best, which is to preserve and transmit our culture. The old adage that “the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world” is one way of describing just how important women are for the continuation of civilization. But our role is downplayed partly because it’s feminine in nature and therefore not considered to be as important as masculine pursuits and partly because we’re so used to women doing it, we take it for granted. (One Mother’s Day a year just doesn’t cut it.)

If women have so much influence, then why not make sure we’re making the mark we want to make? If we don’t have time for ourselves, our families and our communities, then maybe we need to rethink our priorities. If we don’t, we may end up with a culture that isn’t worth transmitting. Is that really want we want?

One Reply to “Women As Culture-Keepers”

  1. Hi

    I stumbled accross your page whilst searching for my masters thesis. I am currently looking into gerontology through feminist perspectives having completed my BA diss on Barbie, feminism, freud and lacan.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the representation of aging females within western culture as most major feminist authors I have come to admire avoid it completely. Be great to get another like minded persons opinion!


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