Politics Behind Leaving Home

Politics Behind Leaving Home

By Carley Chan

The concept of home has long been a powerful source of propaganda in the American political landscape. Both the physical and metaphorical act of “leaving home,” whether by men or women, white or ethnic, voluntarily or forcibly, has often had larger political implications.

The plight of marginalized individuals has been continually exploited throughout American history for the purpose of political gain. In the late 19th century, boarding schools to re-educate Indians and assimilate them into American society emerged as a more humane solution to the “Indian problem.” Supporters of this new policy, with their paternalistic faith in the “potential of the Indian,” were the progressives of their time despite the largely inhumane and dehumanizing aspect of the schools which aimed to “kill the Indian and save the man” (Lomawaima, 22). At worst, the white man’s ambitious venture was cultural genocide. At best, it taught Indians the skills for a life of menial labor on the lowest rungs of society.

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a similar example of the disenfranchisement of individuals for the sake of politics. Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes to designated sites “surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards” due to suspicion over their loyalty to the United States (Topaz Museum). The move was not a matter of personal choice, but rather to appease “real” Americans and ease political pressure. To prove themselves as “good American citizens,” Japanese Americans had little choice but to submit quietly to their imprisonment.

Ethnic minorities were not the only victims. In the company town of Pullman, residents who settled there were pawns in George Pullman’s pursuit of the ideal “paternalist institution” (Crawford, 37). Pullman received ample attention and praise for its beauty, innovation, and “financial and social success” (Crawford, 39). For the workers living there, however, the town was unusually restrictive; “nobody [regarded] Pullman as a real home” and many left as soon as they were financially able (Crawford, 40).

Women, who were long imprisoned in the home by the idea of “separate spheres,” were both victims and proponents of the use of the home as propaganda. In the nineteenth century, women were expected to “[withdraw] from the outside world” into the private sphere of the home. Women who were unsatisfied with this “shrunken realm of female agency” struggled to metaphorically leave the home for the public sphere (Kaplan, 586). This struggle continues to impact women in politics today. Despite being freer from gender expectations and restrictions, female politicians continue to cite their competence in the private sphere to justify their involvement in the public sphere. Being a capable mother or a compassionate woman is a vital part of a female politician’s image – but male politicians are not held to similar standard (Lecture, 2/19).

Kenji Fujii, the first speaker, said the nisei’s attitude should be unfailingly grounded in his faith in his essential Americanism. Dave Tatsuno, a prominent member of the JACL, and Ernest Takahashi both, in effect, counseled “voluntary cooperation” with the Federal program of evacuation. Warren Tsuneishi urged continued faith in democracy in meeting the problems of evacuation.

Excerpt from “Pros, Cons of Nisei Attitude Discussed,” 06 June 1942. Courtesy of Topaz Museum.

Nisei, literally “second-generation,” were natural-born Japanese American citizens. Many were confined in internment camps for the the duration of World War II. This excerpt is from an article in the Topaz Times, a newspaper run by the Japanese internees of the Topaz WRA camp in central Utah.  The article documents a weekly Town Hall Forum to discuss the topic: “What should the Nisei attitude be towards evacuation?”

As evident in their language, the Nisei featured in the article fully believed in their status as American citizens – even if the government and many other Americans did not. Despite the gross violation of their civil rights, negative attitudes or complaints towards internment are almost completely absent. Instead, the Nisei stress “voluntary cooperation” and “faith in democracy” to deal with such difficult times.  More cynically, this positive attitude can be seen as the Nisei’s way to appease their oppressors, in hopes of proving their loyalty and hastening their return home.

The woman who has never possessed money of her own earning, has missed a great happiness. The depressing feeling of dependence under which many girls and women suffer, is crushing in many ways to their growth, and to the woman who once achieves independence comes an expansion of soul, a breadth of view, a mental freedom she never knew or imagined. For the first time in her life she realizes that she too is an individual, with the ability and the right to regulate her conduct according to her own judgment, and to grow broader, deeper, truer at her will.

There is one consideration which a woman must take into account in settling the question of her duty and her work. She has a responsibility in regard to herself as well as to her husband, and family. … The woman who marries, – deliberately or thoughtlessly as the case may be, – assumes the duties of wife and mother, and these have the first claim upon her.

“Should a married woman work for money? The effect on herself,” 1892. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

This article, written by Olive Thorne Miller for The Cambridge Literary Bureau and Press, addresses the conflict that arises from the intersection of the public and private sphere. Though Miller acknowledges that wage labor is a liberating and life-changing experience, she still perpetuates the idea that first and foremost, a woman’s place is in the home. Whether or not she wanted to or continues to want to live a domestic life is of little relevance, as her domestic duties “have first claim upon her.” Thorne goes on to write that perhaps, at fifty years of age, a woman will finally be able to pursue her own dreams and desires – but in the meantime, while she raises her children and submits to her husband, she will have to bear “the depressing feeling of dependence” that is “crushing in many ways to [her] growth.”

“Old Kentucky Home - Life in the South,” 1859.

“Old Kentucky Home – Life in the South,” 1859. Image courtesy of In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience.

This oil painting by Eastman Johnson depicts a racially integrated Southern home, where slaves interacted with their white master and his family. This cheerful scene is meant to depict the institution of slavery in a positive light. This romanticized image of white paternalism was far from the reality for many slaves, however. Slavery did not “civilize the Negro;” it was an exploitative and inhumane trade that caused the breakup of African families and forced removal from their homes for the sake of economic profit.

“Emil and Yas Furuya,” 1942. Courtesy of Topaz Museum.

This photo, taken at the Topaz WRA camp in central Utah, shows several internees presumably preparing to leave for an outing. Internees were required to obtain passes before leaving the camp, making migration a larger political issue. A Japanese American’s decision to leave or return home was under jurisdiction of the American government.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here

One thought on “Politics Behind Leaving Home

  1. It is important to realize how throughout history when certain races and ethnicity were being mistreated, that woman were dealing with the same problems. The government seemed to be very stubborn with their treatment of the Japanese and Indians by misplacing them to “better” the country. Women also dealt with government stubbornness due to not being able to vote and the government constantly considering their roles as just domestic ones.

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