Before the opening of the West, the stereotypic spinster was a horsy type, a woman with a loud voice or a gruff manner, usually suffering from unexplainable robust health. She was an unfortunate who sometimes found tolerance for her eccentricities if she lived in a family that endured her presence with reasonable good grace. She existed on their charity.
But when the Western migration began, there was a reversal.
Men at first continued to marry the Eastern beauties with pale skin, fair hair and tight corsets, trundling them across the prairies in covered wagons. But the journey was too arduous for many of these women, and their graves dot the landscape from Illinois to the Oregon Trail.
A process of natural selection began. The men wooed the stronger women, the sisters of the beauties, the women who would have ordinarily been restricted to a life of spinsterhood.
These stronger, hardier women made it West, and contributed to one of the freest eras for women in our history. No one could afford fainting spells when the Indians circled an isolated homestead. Pioneer women ran the farms, drove the wagons, and shot game, same as the men. Many of them became widows in that lonely, dangerous land. . . . And yet many of these widows continued westward, ran their own farms, reared the children, and endured the hardships of a new and raw life.
They were respected women, and the esteem in which they were held was reflected in the pioneering laws in the Western states giving women legal rights. In 1850 Oregon decreed single women could be granted ownership of land. In 1869, Wyoming become the first state to grant women the right to vote.
But the era of the independent woman didn’t last long.
As the West settled down, women reverted to the traditional images. The daughters of the pioneers shed their mothers’ independence and self-reliance, tightened and lengthened their skirts, and presented themselves as proper, civilized women waiting for the right man.
The forthright women were once again the spinsters.
O’Brien, Patricia. The Woman Alone. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973. 80–81. Print.
Until relatively recent times man’s span of life was short.
Throughout most of history the truly old were a rarity. In an excavation of one of the world’s oldest cemeteries, the skeletons showed that the average age of the population at death was twenty-five, and there is no reason to suppose that the place was unusually unhealthy.
Thus it seems plausible that the momentous discoveries and inventions of the Neolithic Age—the domestication of animals and plants; the invention of the wheel, sail, and plough; the discovery of irrigation, fermentation, and metallurgy—were the work of an almost childlike population, and were perhaps made in the course of play.
Nor is it likely that the ancient myths and legends, with their fairy-tale pattern and erotic symbolism, were elaborated by burnt-out old men.
This history of less ancient periods, too, reveals the juvenile character of their chief actors. Many observers have remarked on the smallness of the armor which has come down to us from the Middle Ages. Actually, the men who wore this armor were not grownups. They were married at thirteen, were warriors and leaders in their teens, and senile at thirty-five or forty.
The Black Prince was sixteen when he won fame in the battle of Crécy, and Joan of Arc seventeen when she took Orléans from the English. . . . In the first half of the sixteenth century, Charles the Fifth became Emperor at the age of twenty, Francis the First became King of France at twenty-one and Henry the Eighth King of England at eighteen.
The question is whether the juvenile mentality is confined to adolescents. Do people automatically grow up as they grow older? Is not juvenility a state of mind rather than a matter of years? Are there not teenagers of every age?
Hoffer, Eric. The Temper of Our Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. 4-5. Print.
“The idea was that jazz used to challenge the public and make them think in terms more advanced rhythmically than they were used to thinking in. In the ’20s, it was hard to get a group of people to clap on two and four. One, two, three, four… this was difficult.
Well, we haven’t gone much further. The public is ready for something new because everybody that listens to jazz can clap on two and four. At this period, 30 years is long enough to be stuck there.
It’s time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into more adventurous rhythms. ‘Take Five’ is proof of it. After all, the kids are tired of rock ‘n’ roll, too, and yet they can dance in 5/4 time. We’re the only group that I know… we can play an entire concert and not play in 4/4 or even in 3/4.”
—Dave Brubeck, jazz pianist and composer
“The Dave Brubeck Quartet.” Hosted by Steve Race. Jazz 625. BBC. 25 Aug. 1964.
“Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” By Paul Redford and Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing. NBC, Los Angeles. 28 Feb. 2001.
TR: So where does the term ‘heterosexual’ come from?
HB: Thanks to psychiatrists in the 1880s and 1890s—a part of the medical profession that was deeply unscientific at that time. It meant that somebody with a medical degree and all of the authority it brings could stand up and start making value judgments using specialized medical vocabulary and pass it off as authoritative, and basically unquestionable.
Psychiatry is responsible for creating the heterosexual in largely the same way that it is responsible for creating the various categories of sexual deviance that we are familiar with and recognize and define ourselves in opposition to. The period lasting from the late Victorian era to the first 20 or 30 years of the 20th century was a time of tremendous socioeconomic change, and people desperately wanted to give themselves a valid identity in this new world order.
One of the ways people did that was establish themselves as sexually normative. And it wasn’t the people who were running around thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a man and I like to sleep with other men, that makes me different,’ who were creating this groundswell of change; it was the other people, the men who were running around going, ‘I’m not a degenerate, I don’t want to sleep with other men, I am this thing over here that is normative and acceptable and good and not pathological and right, that’s what I am. That’s what I need people to understand about me, because I need people to understand that I am a valid person and I need to be taken seriously.’
Rogers, Thomas. “The invention of the heterosexual.” Salon. 22 Jan. 2012.
Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not.
According to Ann Leighton, the late historian of gardens, America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the custom of “uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passer-by.” France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.
Pollan, Michael. “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns.” The New York Times. 28 May 1989.