A Woman Visible

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Twenty-First Century Woman Visits Nineteenth Century Texas

The last few nights I've been watching something that might seem really silly, but I've found interesting and curious. I have been watching Texas Ranch House. The premise of the show is this: fifteen modern people are trained and then sent to a 1867 style ranch. These people live on a 1867 style ranch for two-and-a-half months. During the two-and-a-half-months, they are expected to make a go of the ranch. I enjoy these sorts of "reality shows" because they are a reminder that as smart as we think we are in 2006, we are not the match we think we are for the challenges our ancestors had to deal with.

What I found most interesting about this particular show is the gender problems that became evident as the episodes unfolded (the closing episode was tonight). In 1867, a woman's place was quite different than what it is today. Not that women were completely subservient (many women were independent in the old west), but they weren't expected to be a part of certain parts of life, even on the ranch. In particular, women weren't supposed to be a part of the relationship between the ranch owner and his cowboys. Unfortunately for everyone, Mrs. Cooke (the rancher's wife) never quite caught on that she needed to tend to the business of the house, and not the business of managing her husband managing the hands. This lack of time-period sensibility partnered with her husband's marked inability to make "manly" decisions without her strong guidance, led to some resentment from the hands. She (and all the women) read this as blatant disrespect and sexism. What was disturbing was that she never caught on that maybe, just maybe, her forced visibility in matters not her business was the root of the disrespect. It would seem that, at least in Mrs. Cooke's eyes, the men could do no right, while, in fact, her manipulation of her husband caused him to lose face with the men, and with anyone else that came within her force range. I'm not saying she should have been quiet, but she should have let him deal with the men without demanding to have a say in every part of the ranch.

Another person that fed the gender conflict was the "Maid of all Work," Maura. She was trained to be a vaquero, but ended up in the ranch house. She took any comment by the cowboys as sexist. I have to wonder if she would have had it harder in 1867. By standards of that time, women were only rarely seen riding after cattle. I think her problems were primarily caused because of her attitude toward the men, and because of the way she ended up getting to join the round-up. Once again, Mrs. Cooke raised her ugly head.

In the end, even the folks that evaluated the ranch pointed out that the ranch would have failed, at least in part, due to the resentment Mrs. Cooke's actions had caused during the time they were working. They also stated that Mr. Cooke bore the majority of the responsibilty for the failure. Translation: Mr. Cooke needed to grow some balls and act like the man he should have been.

I know it sounds like I'm supporting the idea that "a woman should know her place" or that "a woman's place is the kitchen," but that's not really what I'm getting at. Or maybe it is. A woman's place should be where ever she can be of the most use and most support for her family, friends, lover, husband...whatever. When she become an impediment to usefulness, or uses her visibility and voice to hold others back and cause tension, then maybe she's stepped out of her place. If Mrs. Cooke had simply let her husband do his job, and offered support without demands and commands, I believe that the whole experience would have been a positive one. Mr. Cooke spent more than his share of time having to make choices to make her happy, often at the expense of his men.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that visibility demands a sense of control (for yourself), common sense, and respect. The number one reason why the cowboys didn't respect her husband is because she didn't treat him with respect. Instead, she hounded him till he acquiesced and did what she told him to do. Sometimes it's best to simply let the man handle the business of the workers, and allow yourself to manage your part of the system. In her case, that would have been the ranch house.

I believe in equal rights and women having a say, but to take over like she did is just...well, wrong. Visibility is not about being in control, or being the most powerful...it's about giving the best that you have in any given situation, and being as kind as you can without losing integrity. To me, the whole family lost their integrity right away. The worst moment was when they ripped off Jared (one of the hands) over a horse, and then had the gall to accuse him of stealing the horse.

It was a great show, but I have to wonder how a different set of people would work out. I also wonder how different women would act in a situation like this.


  • At 1:59 PM, Blogger rattlerd said…

    Glad I'm not the only one blogging about Texas Ranch House today! Loved your post--I think it's spot-on (especially since, as a man, it's harder for me to get away with saying those things!).

    One other point on 'gender roles': Mr. Cooke also needed to throw himself more into his role as the owner--instead of kicking around the house with the women while the cowboys were out riding, he needed to be out there with them every minute that he could. Men (and women) doing physically demanding and dangerous work are only going to respect a leader that leads from the front, one that's out there with them sweating and eating dirt. After two and half months, Mr. Cooke still hadn't learned to sit a horse well or herd cattle--back in 1867 I don't think the concept of the 'hands-off' manager was too widespread.

  • At 6:17 AM, Blogger Sali said…

    I'm glad I don't live in 19th Century Texas where men are ostracized for not being the more visible one in the relationship. This dynamic reminds me of life in Japan where the men on my father's side still expect their women to be "okusan" (person behind), not equal partners with whom there's no competition for visibility or control. The men expect other men to be a certain way as well as the women have gender roles expected of other women, and the cycle is perpetuated. People who don't comply to the system are ostracized by their gender and by society in general. Just one of the reasons I don't live there.

    I grew up in and live in the US where I have a great relationship with a man with whom I'm best friends. We connect on a very deep level, one which transcends differences. I'm very much out there and he's not stripped of his manhood nor does he feel ostracized by his circle of business and friendships. Perhaps it helps that the circle also mainly consists of people with similar, or atleast non-traditional, dynamics in their own relationships.

  • At 9:54 AM, Blogger JessN said…

    I think you have a relationship that works in a way that the couple in Texas Ranch House didn't work.It would seem that you and your man have respect for each other. Respect is what makes all relationships work, and keeps us from putting one behind the other, male or female.

    When I talk about "place" I don't really mean "behind the man." What Mrs. Cooke to Mr. Cooke put him "behind the woman," a place which is just as bad. To really make things work in the situation they were in they both need to show respect for the jobs and responsibilities that they both had to accomplish. I'm sure in your relationship, you don't tell your mate what decisions to make and visa versa. You work together. That's not the way it worked on the show.

    I don't think that the men ruled the women or that the women ruled the men. I do think that they knew the jobs that they were there to complete. If they wanted a successful ranch, they did their jobs and wouldn't try to do the other's job.

    Incidentally, there were women ranch owners. I have to wonder how hard it was for them to get respect initially, and I have to wonder if they gained respect once their competence was revealed. I would think that too much was at stake for too much sexual ya-ya to go on.

    I agree, however, on the point that I wouldn't want to live then. It would be hard, especially since I am a bit outspoken.

    As usual, thanks for the insight. You add so much to the conversation!

  • At 3:17 PM, Blogger Sali said…

    Thanks for making me feel so at home. :-) I learn a lot from reading your blog.

    I hear you--there is such thing as overstepping your boundaries; telling anyone else what to do with personal or professional desicions is pretty out of line. Maybe people get overbearing when they feel too controlled--in this case (the woman in the story), maybe she felt put in a role she didn't like and wanted to live vicariously through her husband who was doing what she really wanted to do. There's so many ways to analyze human behavior but that sort of passive aggression comes to mind.

    Stay bless'd, sista.


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