by Ruby Scalera
Ms. Two simple letters that not too long ago changed the way women were perceived in the world for good. Though in hindsight it might sound like a clever 1970’s feminist marketing ploy, when Gloria Steinem and her compatriots launched their journal in 1972, they used the moniker precisely as is was intended; as an implicit act, promoting the removal of sexist wording from the English language. Because, until we change the language and refuse to accept the “that’s how it’s always been,” societal formalities will always be reflective of our past, rather than our present and hopeful futures. And, as more women enter the workforce, graduate college and generally take on the eternally ambiguous and frankly impossible question of having it all, women are asked to redefine themselves yet again. Now there must be a redefinition of women’s roles in and out of the household, ending the separation between public and domestic spheres. To even approach such an idea is to unlearn all we have been taught about the way we all move through the world. Unsurprisingly, these are difficult waters to navigate and changing constantly, down to the very basic core of the words we use and the subjects we broach.
Yet, it is merely another instance of women having to undergo a reimagining of their roles and a widening of their spheres as society dictates. For instance, when the good ol’ boys shipped off to war in the late 1930s, American women were required to temporarily step into their positions in manufacturing, industry and agriculture, often playing dual roles as homemakers and breadwinners with the enviable ease borne of their newly forged senses of self and ability. But those freedoms were not theirs for very long. Though nearly twenty million women were employed at the height of the war, those positions were merely temporary—hot and ready for when the G.I.s returned home. Women were of course expected to return, quite literally, to the kitchen, raising the family and keeping the home, and men were to resume the positions they considered rightfully theirs.
However, for many women who had temporarily worked in the public sphere and for many others who simply saw a change upon the horizon, the lack of opportunity and independence they now experienced was no longer acceptable. And yet, many industries remained closed to them, especially married women, and even those who could work in similar roles to men were paid at depressingly low rates. So when Brownie Wise came onto the scene in the early 1950’s, she had a group of women who, whether they were aware of it themselves at the time or not, were bored enough to take the opportunity to make their own money, take their own path, and widen their sphere. However, they were not necessarily the same women who would march in the streets or picket at the courthouses a decade later. They did not necessarily resent their role in the home sphere. They simply wanted more.
“Nobody knows the story of Brownie Wise,” says Laurie Kahn, director, producer, and writer of the documentary Tupperware!, as well as other films and documentaries that highlight women-centric spheres. “She builds an empire for Earl Tupper, who didn’t have a clue how to market his own product. She’s the one who said he should take it out of stores and just sell it at home parties.” In other words, she took what was normally considered a public sphere activity and brought it into the private sphere. It was a sales method that proved remarkably successful, as women sold to women in women-centric places with women-centric products. Therefore, redefining what it meant to be at work in the first place. “She was really good at motivating people and knowing what mattered to them and what their lives were like,” Kahn says, “They were like her own life.”
Brownie Wise is not the only woman to find success straddling that line of working from home, poking at the concept of the classic nuclear family dynamic of post war America, as companies like Avon, Mary Kay and LuLaRoe have quietly and successfully helped to undermine these definitions by bringing effective money making programs into the opposite sphere. And not only do these programs exist in the home but they thrive on it—appealing to the community space of women who (as Brownie clearly understood) want camaraderie and a sense of being heard. While not always, many of the products are for women and sold at women-exclusive events, with an emphasis on the idea that you can find your own independence and capability within the framework of motherhood or home life, an ambitious, if not outright impossible idea as it exists within systems of oppression and patriarchal privilege. And a fantastical, beautiful one as well. And yet, whether you believe these companies to be empowering or predatory, there is no denying their fiscal and social success, proof that women are still desperately seeking a way to be both, in a world that rarely asks men to be all that much of one.
India Hicks may be a familiar name to those versed in the history of the British Royal Family, but she has since forged her own path in business and lifestyle brands, which, like Tupperware, are largely by, for and about women. For Hicks, the decision to move away from the fame and power afforded to her by her family’s name is not dissimilar to the decision for many women to seek their own sense of self and identity outside of the shadow of their husband or father. It is interesting to note, too, that despite having a large nuclear family of her own, Hicks never married her partner and retains her own last name. “It doesn’t matter who you are and where you come from,” she says, of the women involved in her company and the many entrepreneurs and business owners she has met along the way.
“Our need as women to have our voice and be able to stand on our feet is as strong whether you’ve been handed everything or whether you’ve been born with nothing.” She is dedicated to helping women get the skills and experience they need to start their own companies or find success after leaving her brand in other ways. “They want to feel confident in themselves at home,” she added. “That woman has now found that she is having the same moments that I had, which is that her children are growing older, needing her less. She was suddenly in a home where her kids had gone off to college, and she looked around and wondered, what was she going to do next?”
And even beyond that unexpected and sometimes unwanted independence, Hicks often runs across the shifting dynamic of home and work life right in front of her own eyes and what it says about the way relationships have played out in the past and continue to do so now. “When women join our brand, sometimes they need to have the support of their husband,” Hicks said. “It surprises me that still in this day and age, women are having to ask their husbands permission to do certain things. But I do hear that quite a lot. I think that once they do, once their significant other sees the potential of joining a business such as ours and they see the change in their wives spirit and enthusiasm and excitement, then you see the role begin to shift slightly.” In other words, they alter their spheres. Hence, the proliferation and success of businesses that, at least, strive to understand the value and importance of both roles, and to praise those who find their own way within it. “People all assume that the Tupperware ladies were really conventional. And it’s true. By and large, they’re a pretty conservative lot,” Kahn says, of the women who often didn’t see themselves at the forefront of the movement. “I don’t think very many of the ones involved in the early years of Tupperware would have called themselves feminists. But I would.”
And yet, despite the generations that have passed since the Tupperware women, despite the generations that have passed since the word Ms. was introduced into the language, despite the progress and change made by work-at-home programs and female-centric businesses, we’re not out of the woods yet. Women are still being defined by their relationship to men. There are more words we need to change; the spheres still need to be widened, redefined. Forget having it all. Forget domestic businesses. Forget perception of women at home as the standard. Until we do that, we’ll continue to fight the same battles as Brownie Wise and the American women of the 1950’s. Until we reject the concept of taking more work on in the household instead of less, until we redefine not what is acceptable in the home sphere, but what is not, nothing is ever going to change. Ms. rocked the world with two simple letters. Imagine how much progress we can make with a whole new definition.