I’m thrilled to be writing this week’s blog post (as incredibly and inevitably nerdy as that sounds), as I will be discussing some of my most personally beloved sociologists…Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and W.E.B. Du Bois! They make my feminist and critic of race relations heart absolutely flutter!
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s theories are akin to Marxist theories; she purported that the traditional family structure is exploitable, comparable to how Marx found the capitalistic nature of the social structure exploitation. Further, Gilman is critical of the place of women among the working environment. She feels that women never reap the fruits of their labor, as all rewards are owned by her husband. A woman receives no compensation or economic credit, and her husband is the beneficiary for her labor.
Perhaps the most notable of Gilman’s contributions are her metaphor of “the corset”. It is similar to Marx’s theory of false consciousness, in that this symbolic corset constricts women’s liberation and causes great social constraints. I love the way it is described in the book, thus, I will go ahead and include it here, as Gilman herself puts it more eloquently than I could do justice:
“Put a corset, even a loose one, on a vigorous man or woman who never wore one, and there is intense discomfort, and a vivid consciousness thereof. The healthy muscles of the trunk resent the pressure, the action of the whole body is checked in the middle, the stomach is choked, the process of digestion is interfered with; and the victim says, “how can you bear such a thing?” But the person habitually wearing a corset does not feel these evils. They exist, assuredly, the facts are there, the body is not deceived; but the nerves have become accustomed to these disagreeable sensations, and no longer respond to them. The person “does not feel it.” In fact, the wearer becomes so used to the sensations that when they are removed,—with the corset,—there is a distinct sense of loss and discomfort.” (pg. 202)
This analogy, I find, is absolutely riveting. As aforementioned in the quote, removing this “corset” would be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable. In fact, if women were to see their genuine role in society or to reach a point of self-actualization, it would be difficult or even unwanted to break free of these now visible chains, as it is all they are accustomed to.
At the risk of sounding extremely unacademic, I think W.E.B. Du Bois was just an absolute “badass”. His most salient philosophies focus on the construction of race. He describes how race is a social construct, and is highly dependent on context and place by people in society in a position of power. The concept of the veil and double consciousness are Du Bois’ most notable contributions to race/ethnicity theories. These two concepts intertwine with each other, and help to describe the troublesome experience of African-Americans, and the burden they are forced to endure in their interactions. The veil is a limiting construct; it is itself a physical demarcation from their white American counterparts. This veil also differentiates Blacks from being identified as “true Americans”. The veil also acts as a barrier for African-American to view themselves outside of what white Americans prescribe for them. Double-consciousness is the idea of looking at oneself through the lens of others (similar to Cooley’s looking-glass self). Black people have to know how to operate in two existences: as a “white American”, and as a black person. They have to know how to be both American AND African-American and move between these two identities based on context. This is similar to the concept of code-switching. It is essentially being bilingual.
Modern Application of Theory
Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness could be applied to, and resonate with other marginalized groups, particularly the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual/Transgender) community as a modern example. There is much confliction and confusion regarding identities in this community, as in the United States, we live in a very cissexual, and heterosexist culture that does not facilitate orientations outside of what is heteronormativity. A gay man, for example, faces this conflict. He wants to be openly gay, and wants to get what he feel he deserves, and be viewed in a way that reflects who he is. However, it can be difficult to achieve all of this. For example, this gay man posts his music on soundcloud. It gets played in over 100 countries. Some of them are very religious countries. He doesn’t know if his listeners are homophobic or not, which, undoubtedly, some of them are.
My love for Charlotte Perkins Gilman, though fervent, is somewhat challenged by the multi-faceted (and possibly contradictory) nature of Gilman’s beliefs. Gilman, though notably and undeniably a feminist, is also racist in her nature. I had mentioned in an earlier blog post (Max Weber’s) the importance of contextualizing these theorists, and understanding the concept of being a victim of their time. However, I find it troublesome how Gilman is able to critique the nature of gender relations, yet, does not find the same foundations applicable for race. Her liberating ideas do not extend beyond women, and I find that problematic, as it neglects the complexities of race that should be addressed. She further contradicts herself in her comparison of women and men. Gilman claims that men and women are the same, and that society creates the gender gaps (gendering children early on with pink/blue, etc.). Simultaneously, Gilman completely depreciates a man’s capacity to love and feel affection to the same degree as women. This is, at least through a modern lens, a very “un-feminist” view to have, as it ascribes characteristics and a blanket belief of an incorrect assessment on how a particular gender behaves. Feminism is the philosophy that asserts in a society, men and women should be equal. Gilman, through the understanding of “today’s” feminism, would not really have feminist ideas, as she is creating a dichotomous scale for men and women. She is further segregating them when she explicitly appreciates women in a more nurturing role than men, because she believes they are inherently more capable. Her reference to women as “saintly givers” and men as “warling beasts” is a very anti-feminist rhetoric, particularly with the aforementioned understanding of feminism. However, just like with my critique of her racism, her philosophies and contributions to the field can still be greatly admired and appreciated…they just need to be contextualized and taken with a grain of salt. While she is interesting, and well written. I reject her ideas that basically boil down to nothing more than pleasure v. pain utilitarianism, and a justification for why mental pleasures are more important than social pains. We are more than our stimulus, and this perspective is an attempt to simplify a complicated and deep issue.
Possible Research Questions
- Is double-consciousness/the veil more overt in modern times, now that society is more homogeneous and there are more and faster forms of media to convey Black images and perceptions?
- Like Gilman, does modern feminism neglect and ignore the plight of black women in America in favor of white women? Do black women need to exhibit double-consciousness to have their plights recognized in feminism?
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2012. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.