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A Conservative Folklorist on Social Class and Gender Roles (1852)

Remarkably, the conservative folklorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897) was skeptical of any artificial separation of gender spheres according to which men were active in public life and women stayed at home with the children. Drawing on observations from his travels across Germany, Riehl argued in The Family (1852) that the ideal of separate spheres may have been a reality for the upper classes, but was certainly not the case for the lower classes and the rural population.

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Among the people, the commercial occupation of woman is also still completely identical to that of the man. By contrast, as occupational circles presuppose greater wealth and education, woman is granted less participation in the man’s vocation.

Among peasant wage-laborers and poor cow farmers, a woman does exactly the same as a man. The level of intellectual education of the two is also entirely the same. Both work in the field, guide the plough and wagon together, sow, harvest, and sell things together or by taking turns at random. Work in the house is only an occasional addition for the woman. Indeed, male and female occupations are often found to be interchangeable, just like the words cap and bonnet. For example, the herder may knit socks as he watches the herd, while his wife walks behind the plough. In fact, it is often as though the Old Testament curse that woman shall give birth in pain has been lifted from these women; for they give birth “behind the bushes,” pick up the poor new-born child, carry him home an hour’s walk, and three days later are back at their accustomed work. It is precisely pregnancy and childbed which, in other circles, make it impossible for women to engage continually in an external occupation like the man, who is always master of his body.

In a rich and flourishing peasant population that is located along major roads, a woman no longer exchanges her work so consistently with that of the man. There the woman would, as a rule, consider it rather unseemly to guide the horses or simply to steer a boat; she would be laughed at if she walked behind the plough, and the man if he knitted socks. In the more developed strata of the peasantry, the chief activity of the woman is already limited more immediately to the house; moreover, the differentiation of male and female dress and customs is usually far more highly developed among flourishing peasant populations than it is among wretched and backward ones. But at least part of the agricultural work is done by man and woman without distinction everywhere in the countryside.

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