Why Did Mothers Outfit Boys in Dresses?: Parental Roles

Figure 1.--.

Certainly one factor is that in European society and most other societies around the role, a young child is entrusted to the care of his mother with fathers playing only a minor role. Only when a boy reached about 7 years or older would a father take a serious role in his upbringing. This approach was set in the clasical nworld and did not begin to change until the 18th century. This appraocj continued to be generally accepted well into the 20th century. This has changed today in Europe and America, but it is only a relatively recent development. Most mothers and father until the second half of the 20th century saw the raising of young children as the often sole provinve of the mother. Thus outfitting a young boy in dresses seemed for several cengturies as entirely appropraiate as the young boy was generally not deemed to be old enough for the society of men.

Historic Families

The historical family across many cultures, it turns out, cannot remotely be termed a "patriarchy" until modern times. The most common pattern it turns out, certainly in Europe and America it is in fact a gynarchy, composed of the grandmother, mother, aunts, unmarried daughters, female servants, midwives, neighbors called "gossips" who acted as substitute mothers, plus the children. Fathers in traditional families may sometimes eat and sleep within the gynarchy, but they do not determine its emotional atmosphere, nor do they in any way attempt to raise the children. This often included how the children behaved or dressed. Often children younger were generally excluded from extensive association with men. Often men did not want to be bothered with them. To avoid experiencing their own domination and abuse during childhood by females, men throughout history have instead set up androcentric political and religious spheres for male-only group-fantasy activities, contributing to the family gynarchy only some sustenance, periodic temper tantrums and occasional intimacy.

Vertical family structure

Evidence of fathers playing any real role in children's upbringing is simply missing until early modern times. In antiquity, it is difficult to find a single classical scholar who has been able to cite any instance of a father saying one word to his child prior to the age of 7 years. Little children were occasionally shown in roles unacceptable to our modern sensibilities--but otherwise, scholars conclude, "In antiquity, women [and children] lived shut away [from men]. They rarely showed themselves in public [but] stayed in apartments men did not enter; they rarely ate with their husbands...they never spent their days together." Ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish men had all-male eating clubs where women and children were not welcome.

Egyptian Scociety

The husband is usually missing from the homes of most earlier societies, and not just during their frequent military service. Evelyn Reed describes the early "matrifamily" as everywhere being ruled by mothers: "The family in Egypt? was matriarchal? The most important person in the family was not the father, but the mother. The Egyptian wife was called the 'Ruler of the House'? there is no corresponding term for the husband."

Classical Greece

In classical Greece, for instance, "women had a special place. Larger houses at any rate had a room or suite of rooms in which women worked and otherwise spent much of their day, the women's apartments, the gynaikonitis, which Xenophon says was "separated from the men's quarters by a bolted door." In two-story houses, the gynaikonitis would usually be upstairs." The men's dining-room, the andron, was located downstairs near the entrance, guarding the women's quarters: "Here men in the family dined and entertained male guests...Vase-paintings do not depict Greek couples eating together."

The women's area held the grandmother, the mother, the concubines, the mistresses, the slave nurses, the aunts and the children. Thus Herodotus could assume his reader would easily recognize families where "a boy is not seen by his father before he is 5 years old, but lives with the women," and Aristotle could assume his readers' assent that "no male creatures take trouble over their young."

Men in many ancient socities had male eating arrangements. Plato has Socrates suggest a possibly better home arrangement, with "dinners at which citizens will feast in the company of their children.... In general, however, children ate with their mothers, not their fathers...Eating and drinking, far from offering the whole family an opportunity for communal activity, tended to express and reinforce cleavages within it." Boys tended to remain in the gynarchy of their own or others' homes until their middle teens.

In rural Greek villages even today the mother owns the house, passes it on to her daughter as dowry, and continues to rule the house when her daughter has children. Indeed, the husband was rarely with his family in antiquity-legislators sometimes suggest that in order to prevent population decline it would be a good idea for husbands to visit their wives occasionally and not just have sex with boys, as in Solon's law "that a man should consort with his wife not less than three times a month-not for pleasure surely, but as cities renew their agreements from time to time." But for the most part, as Plutarch puts it, "Love has no connection whatsoever with the women's quarters;" it is reserved for relations elsewhere. As Scroggs summarized Greco-Roman practice, "To enter the 'women's quarters' in search of love is to enter the world of the feminine and therefore is effeminate for a male." Xenophon says "the women's apartments [are] separated from the men's by a bolted door?" As Plutarch wrote, "Genuine love has no connections whatsoever with the women's quarters." When Socrates asks, "Are there any people you talk to less than you do to your wife?" his answer was, "Possibly. But if so, very few indeed." Men stayed in the thiasos, the men's club, with other men, and had little to do with their children.

Greek boys stayed in the gynarchy of their own home until they at the age of about 10. Greek girls stayed in the gynarchy until they were about 12, when they too were mairred, usually to an older stranger chosen for them by their family. Brides went into marriages with large dowries, which remained their property for life. The husband might try to enforce an occasional dominance in the gynarchy by beating the women and children-as Seneca described his father doing, usually, he said, for the most "trivial actions" -but normally it was the women of the household who wielded the family whip on the children."

The 18th Century

This mainly vertical organization of most European homes lasted well into the 18th century, when a new "structure of intimacy" began to be built, with rooms connected to each other on the same level.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: December 26, 2000
Last updated: Augist 15, 2002