CAS WR 100 K6
Women in Leach’s New Capitalist Culture: Equality in the Department Stores
Historian William Leach, in The Land of Desire, argues that a new culture developed in the United States after the Civil War into the early twentieth century, shaped by capitalism. A part of this new culture, Leach claims, is the “democratization of desire” (Leach, 3). An idea that now everybody could desire whatever they wanted, there was no social class limit on what you could want. Leach’s claim suggests that this new equality of desire also created a more egalitarian society for women throughout the country, but the opposite is true. This new culture was exponentially more detrimental for women than it was positive. This new culture exposed differences between social classes that had never been seen before. The poor were worse off, the rich, better off, and the creation of this new culture only made things worse. It became commonplace that women of affluent backgrounds were almost exempt from the rule of law, while poor women were treated more strictly by the law. This new modern American consumer culture created a terribly less egalitarian society for women in the United States.
In the 1905 silent film, The Kleptomaniac, filmmaker Edwin Porter tells the story of a rich woman’s triumph over the law, while simultaneously showing the defeat of a poor woman. This rich woman seems to have a problem with stealing from Macy’s and is caught by a store inspector; she is arrested and taken to court. She is released without much of a trial and receives no punishment. While that story is going on, at the same time a poor woman is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and is also arrested. In her case she is not let free, but she is taken in for what appears to incarceration. This movie seems at first to be an exaggerated, Hollywood story, but that is not the case at all. In reality, stories like this happened all the time during the early twentieth century. While Porter’s tells an interesting story, his discussion about social classes in the film is even more interesting. The clear distinction is shown early on in the film when both women are caught stealing. From 3:15-3:24 the rich woman is treated with respect as she is taken into the superintendent’s room. The opposite is the case when the poor woman is caught. From 7:02-7:17 the poor woman is treated terribly as she is arrested and taken into custody. These two scenes are indicative of what society thought about social classes during the filming of this movie. As the rich woman is treated with respect and kindness, the poor woman is treated terribly with no respect. High class women were never punished for their theft in department stores, they found it not worth the trouble. On the other hand, poor women were always punished for their thieving, never let off without punishment.
Another instance of this is when they are brought into the police station. From 5:21 to 5:39 (Porter) the rich woman is brought into the police station with careful respect and gentleness. But when the poor woman reaches the police station, from 7:36 to 7:52 (Porter), she is again manhandled as she exists the carriage and is treated rudely. Yet again another instance where a rich woman is treated better than a poor one. She can walk almost freely, without any hindrance. While on the other hand the poor woman is forced to walk uncomfortably, with no respect. The poor woman continues to get the short end of the stick. Society valued the comfort of the poor woman more than that of her working class counterpart. From 9:08 to 10:05 (Porter), the entire court scene, the poor woman is easily convicted and stands no chance in the court. The opposite is true for the rich woman. She is able to get off without a problem and receives no punishment. These two scenes show that, even in a court of law, the two women are not equal. The fourteenth amendment to the constitution calls for equal