Embedded female roles

Throughout history, especially in western society, women have usually been the ones in a family to nurture the children, make dinner, clean the house, etc. This is  commonly seen as the natural role which women should play in their family and relationships, however in recent years these common roles for women have been challenged, and are not always the case in relationships anymore. These roles have caused many stereotypes, and expectations of women in relationships. Many men expect their girlfriend or wife to fulfil these roles, but many women are not wishing to fulfil these roles anymore. In today’s western society, there are many other family dynamics that are arising and becoming more popular. The most common would probably be the family with two working parents. Then there is the new ‘stay at home dad’ family, where the roles are reversed and the wife goes off to work, and the husband stays home with the kids. This new family dynamic is being exposed in the media, and on television, in shows like “Modern Family” and “Up All Night.” Here is a clip from ABC news, which showcases and talks about the growing popularity of stay at home dads.

The way in which women are expected to be stay at home moms and perfect wives is now more seen as a view of sexist people, or male chauvinists. These are the people who still believe that women should not be working away from the home, and that housework and childcare is where they belong. These are also the people who come up with the women bashing jokes as follows:

Q: Why can’t women drive?
A: Because there’s no road between the kitchen and
the bedroom

Q: Why do women have smaller feet than men?
A: So they can stand closer to
the sink.


So how does this all relate to indigenous people, and the works we have been studying? Well, in Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, the main female character Cogewea is not the average woman for her time and her community, and seems to challenge the expected female roles, even in her time period. Cogewea not only helps her sister with her kids, and all the cooking for the Ranch, but also takes part in the ranching duties along with the men of the ranch. She says at the beginning of the novel “Cooking and rope-throwing!.. What a combination!” (Mourning Dove 21). Cogewea not only rides with the men, but has beaten many of them, as Celluloid Bill says while describing her “Yo’ can’t mash with that there girl! One day she beat me in a hoss race on th’ upper trail, an’ she bested me with th’ rope.” (Mourning Dove 35). As part of the Okanagan tribe, Cogewea would have been raised and taught to be a gatherer of herbs, do most of the cooking, and to look after the children in the tribe and in her own family when she starts one. The men in the Okanagan tribe would have been taught to fish and hunt. These were the traditional male and female roles of the tribe, at the time in which Cogewea was written.


Another source describes what a daily schedule would be like for a student at an Indigenous boarding school:

“Young women spent either the morning or the afternoon doing laundry, sewing, cooking, cleaning and other household tasks. Older girls might study nursing or office work. The young men acquired skills in carpentry, blacksmithing, animal husbandry, baking and shop. They chopped firewood to keep the steam boilers operating. The work performed by students was essential to the operation of the institution. The meat, vegetables and milk served in the dining room came from livestock and gardens kept by the students. The girls made and repaired uniforms, sheets, and curtains and helped to prepare the meals.”


The male and female segregation of duties and taught skills is very clear here. Women learned skills that would lead them to do work on the inside of the house, that was unpaid and would lead them to be supported by their husbands, and the men learned the skills that would lead them to jobs, and working outside of the house and making money on their own. The only exception to this would be the older girls learning about nursing and office work, which would still be considered “women’s work” and not be appropriate for a male.

This theme is also seen in Robert Arthur Alexie’s “Porcupines and China Dolls,” where the children in the mission schools are separated by sex, and are given different chores and taught different skills depending on their sex. When life at the mission school is described it is said that “after dinner, the girls clean up the dining room and the kitchen while the boys are told to haul water, cut wood or do other chores” (Alexie 10).

At the same time period, western culture seemed to have similar views of male and female roles, and in many ways pushed these views onto indigenous people through the mission schools, boarding schools, or whatever you wanted to call them. A source which states what the indigenous people learned at the mission schools says: “Another important component of the government policy for “civilizing” the Indians was to teach farming techniques. Although few reservations in the Pacific Northwest had either fertile land or a climate conducive to agriculture, nonetheless it was felt that farming was the proper occupation for American citizens. So boys learned how to milk cows, grow vegetables, repair tools, etc. and even had lessons on the various types of plows.”


The colonizers were trying to force their views of what male and female roles should be onto the indigenous people, and this makes me wonder if it was really the indigenous people who had these strong male and female roles laid out and embedded in their culture, or if it was the influence of western culture that made these roles prominent in their societies.

The 1920s were also a time of change for women. Women started challenging the expectations that they were to stay at home, and not have jobs outside of their homes.

“As industrialization and immigration changed the face of most cities, women were slowly changing from homebound producers to wage-earning consumers. In Amy Peiss’ book Cheap Amusements this facet of new women’s roles is discussed in detail. Peiss points out that, “By 1900 important changes in the social organization of labor and expanding job opportunities… created new work experiences for women” . These new work experiences took them out of the home and gave them a new independence and freedom from their previously male and home dominated lives. It also gave them a new world within which to explore and succeed. While so many married women barely left the house this new breed of women left the house for work and leisure as Peiss points out, saying, “many mothers went out no more than twice a week.” With incomes of their own, even if they gave most or all of their paychecks to their family, women found a new niche in society as workers and indirectly then as consumers. With money of their own, aside from that spent on family, they were free to buy things that had before been traditionally made at home, such as clothes. As workers, they became more influenced by the society around them, not just influence from family or neighbors and, in turn, led them to realize a change needed to be made in society. This expansion of world brought reform minded women to the front of society.”


This being around the same time as Cogewea was written, makes me wonder if this is what was happening with Cogewea. She had been exposed to western culture, and was also challenging the expected role she was to fill. She was a rebellious girl in many ways, and it seems that she may have become this way due to her exposure to western culture, and her education. She is not only rebelling against the ways of her ancestors, but also against the role that she has been expected to play as a woman. In this light, Cogewea can also be considered a part of the “new breed of women” and should be proud of herself for challenging the expectations of her as a woman, and doing what she wants to do in her life.

Works Cited:

Beck, Nicole. “The Rapid Changes in Women’s Roles from 1900 to 1920.” Yahoo Voices. Web. 25. July. 2012.. http://voices.yahoo.com/the-rapid-changes-womens-roles-1900-1920-12739.html

Dove, Mourning. Cogewea. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Print.

Marr, Carolyn. J. “Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest.” University Libraries, University of Washington. Web. 25. July. 2012. http://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/marr.html

“Native American Facts for Kids, Okanagan Tribe.” Native Languages of the Americas website. Web. 25. July. 2012.


“Women Jokes.” Jokes4us.com. Web. 25. July. 2012. http://www.jokes4us.com/dirtyjokes/womenjokes.html


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