A Century Ago…

Copyright PBS; Downton Abbey

… they didn’t let women inherit or own property, let alone vote.  Only a century ago, having a son meant so much more than having two or three beautiful daughters who had to marry well.  And a century ago being middle class was so uncool.  How interesting!

I watched the first 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, which airs on PBS here in the U.S.  I absolutely love this show but I think it is because like many of my girlfriends, I am addicted to this time period.  I love all things Jane Austen, and Downton Abbey is very popular because of all the charm of this particular century.  But, what is so interesting to me about this series as an Indian-American, is two-fold: (1) How few rights women, gays, and minorities really had back then, and (2) how culturally similar all of this is to Indian culture in post-British rule India.

Copyright PBS and Downton Abbey
Copyright PBS and Downton Abbey

The virtue of a woman is portrayed with as much similarity as it is in a Bollywood movie especially those movies of the 70s and 80s.  The woman was not to sleep around nor date.  She had to be, well… “proper.”  The guy – it did not matter- I suppose he could do whatever he wished.  But the woman could ruin the entire reputation of her household for four generations to come by just being seen in public with a man.  My, how times have changed!  Growing up, my parents were very traditional and conservative, so dressing appropriate was very important especially how a girl dressed.  And dating was out of the question.  Which is why I think so many first generation American kids like myself secretly dated.  “If you are from a good home, you dress appropriately and part of that is not showing much of your body.  And you can have friends but you cannot date.”  In some parts of Indian society, it is still this way.  How interesting!  Who knew British rule had this much influence on the Indian culture!   Indian women were not allowed to inherit or own property and a last will and testament had to state that a wife inherits or else, the male heirs got to split the property excluding any sisters in the picture.  How simply awful!  The laws have and are changing in India but this drama I watch reminds me of how ill-treated women were for the better half of the 20th century.  And even now, in some British colonies, and in some countries, women cannot even get an education much less vote, or speak out.  And, if they do, they can be killed right there in the streets with thousands watching- able to do nothing.  How dreadful!

The parallels between that time period and what I still see in India when I visit hold true:  to have a male child is priceless.  Most people have begun to value daughters too but ah, to have a son!  Equality (among the sexes) is still not apparent, and women working outside the home is just now starting to take hold.   In our recent visit to India in 2011, I heard the following: “Once she is married, her husband will decide whether she works outside the home or not.”  WTF!?  But, if you are a Downton watcher, you get it.  The male-dominated culture of the British wore off on many colonies and countries they influenced.  First, the father decides what a daughter may or may not do; and then her husband.  Women were treated like property instead of equals.  Let’s not even talk about other discriminated classes during this time period – we won’t go there in this post but you can only imagine.

The other thing I find interesting about this time period is all the cultural norms.  The upper class had to act a certain way – had to behave in a specific manner or they would probably be viewed in a negative light and even lose their “status” in society.  All families had their issues of course, but how these issues could be shoved under the rug was the key.  There was a distinct class system:  Working class, middle class, and upper class (privileged few).  It reminds me of the caste system in India too.  This was not something created solely by Indians- I do believe British rule had a hand in perpetrating it.  And it goes without saying that health care was not what it is now.  A woman could die in child birth because most doctors  just did not have a clue.   Oh, and right – women could not be doctors just yet.  The technology was not there and people were still learning about the female body let alone treating things unique to it.

So why do we all find this time period interesting and exciting and honestly, simply mesmerizing?  I think it is the charm of the period- the beautiful estates, and homes, the dresses (however uncomfortable they really were to wear), and the sweet allure of romance and love without all the modern day nonsense that goes with it.  There was no dating per se.   If you liked someone you better propose so you could hang out and then get married.  You really were not supposed to have any pre-marital “fun” so to speak.  All of this has a certain innocence attached to it and what fascinates us to this otherwise horrible period in civil rights history is that sense of innocence, and romance and the richness of it.  What is not portrayed in Downton and other shows is how the poor lived – under British rule, under any socialist system like this the aristocrats tended to prosper, while the working class and poor got poorer.  The irony of today’s economic woes in America are not lost on me as I write this.  A healthy balance is required in any economy to survive but when one class dominates, the 99 percent suffer.

In any case, a century ago women could not do as much as they can and have done today and I am proud of the progress and evolution of the human race.  Let’s hope the evolution continues… in the proper direction.

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