When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her because she wasn’t married and could not be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.
Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.
Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.
Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.
So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband, average children and life of housework.
There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).
In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:
My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)
In shady paths, serene, content I grew,
Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:
When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,
Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:
“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”
I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–
The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.
The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,
And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”
In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.
But god-like still he waited long and sought.
Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams
of high renown, with cries to him I fled.
And now, serene, content, with him I roam
In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.
Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.
Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.
WARNING: This is not about gay marriage. It’s not about gender politics or more aptly put: gender war. This about history.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Genesis 2:18
For much of recorded history most people looked around and noticed that men and women looked and acted in different ways (with some overlap). They looked at animals. Rams and sheep, bucks and does, ducks and drakes. We don’t have to believe in the Biblical account of creation to understand that most people realized a duck and drake were of the same kind, but their purposes were complimentary and different.
Let’s march onward to the US Civil War. In THE VACANT CHAIR The Northern Soldier Leaves Home Reid Mitchell devotes a chapter to the need for femininity in the masculine world of war.
But women are soldiers now you cry. Yes and for a disturbing look at women who kill from thousands of miles away click HERE. Women are strong. They write songs about roaring and not needing men. Go women!!?
I’ve never seen our ducks declare war on our drakes (though occasionally they squabble). Same goes for our sheep and goats. Same goes for the Civil War soldier and the women folk back home. Reid even goes on to say that one of the reasons the southern soldier had it so hard is that he believed in his manly role as much as his northern brethren. Northern women remained safely out of the actual war’s reach. Northern men could at least rest easy on that. They could go fight a war and miss their wives and sweethearts and dream about being nurtured by them at war’s end in the same homes they left.
Not so for the southern men who had the added worry of their women and children directly in the war’s path. Towards the end of the war the Confederacy held back the troops mail for fear of large scale desertion–though not really desertion but an adherence to the manly virtue of protecting one’s family.
And what about womanly virtue? Modern culture decries anything that smacks of the Bible–maybe it’s why there is such a hatred for history (especially American) but as a college student being indoctrinated by men haters who blamed Jewish rabbis and Jesus freaks for everything I wish I would have opened up the good book myself and read PROVERBS 31 which describes what a virtuous woman looks like. It would have given me some balance:
10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
The soldier of the Civil War even if not a Christian (though most were) lived in a culture saturated by Judeo-Christian values. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. The basic notion of men and women serving complementary yet distinct roles seemed to serve humanity fairly well for thousands of years. Despite Louisa May Alcott’s fictional tomboys and the few hundred women who impersonated men to join the ranks of the Union Army most women played mother or lover to the soldiers. Whether as nurses or homemakers, activists or laundresses most women accepted their feminine side–many actually valued it!
And so did the men. They missed the nurturing, the companionship and the spirit of women. They did not wish for more men. Letters home were filled with talk of home and the women who made it a home. Of course there were some men happy to get away from women and some women relieved when such men left, but the overriding feeling as the war dragged on was one of deep missing, deep lonesomeness for the opposite sex. Other men just couldn’t cut it.
How does one make sense of this desire in a culture bent on gender fluidity?
When researching for my novels many of you know I “went to war” as a reenactor. My college indoctrination was wearing off as I studied history not through the eyes of embittered leftist college professors, but through the eyes of the men and women of the time writing about their lives in diaries and memoirs.
I still clung to the notion that I had to be the same as men so I convinced my father to buy me an Enfield rifle. We drove to Gettysburg to pick it up. The thing is beautiful, but I immediately realized with sinking heart that there was no way I was going to enjoy carrying it in a wool uniform.
I wrestled with womanhood. First of all I was hardly virtuous. Then came Antietam. A friend let me borrow a corset and hoop skirt. I figured as a researcher it would be interesting to see how the other half lived before getting fitted out to play one of the few hundred women who fought.
And then it happened like magic.
As I walked around owning my feminine side I suddenly understood the power of it. At first I assumed the feeling would go away, but it got stronger each time I slipped into the role. And here’s the equally weird thing: men treated me differently. Now to be fair we were all slipping into what we thought we knew about the 1860’s.
Weren’t people more polite back then? Yes and no. But the part that intrigued me and intrigues me still is that once we played at respecting gender roles we found that we respected the opposite gender more. We behaved better towards each other. (Okay better is relative–I get it, but I don’t care).
Maybe someone smarter than me can explain how playing a virtuous northern woman actually made me respect myself and men more.
Why did men stand a little taller as I walked by? The same men who chatted with me in jeans the day before as we set up our tents. The uniforms we wore as men and women of the 1860’s fit better than the unisex jeans and t-shirts we wore in our real lives. Some will say it’s just a game we played–but it was a game worth playing.
BTW, THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell offers such valuable insight into the minds of the northern men who went off to war I think every angry man hater (and woman hater) should be forced to read it as penance. Can’t we just love one another?
Good news! There was no such thing as “rape culture” among Northern soldiers fighting for the Union in America’s Civil War. Scholars looked for the tell-tale signs of “rape culture” and found none. No Rolling Stone frat parties gone awry, no Duke Lacrosse team—oh wait those things didn’t actually happen. Back to the Civil War. Despite what popular culture would have us believe about men and boys in America, most don’t rape–or think of rape. Many don’t even want to be around women anymore for fear of the “rape culture” witch hunt.
Oops. Back to the Civil War:
Northern men in the 1860’s were supported by a culture that valued self-restraint. In fact self-restraint in men was seen as one of the top indicators of a truly masculine man. To lose control was seen as childish, feminine and kind of pathetic. Of course this does not mean that all men kept away from prostitutes or that all men were angels–there were a few cases of rape but astonishingly rare.
For all the bad press patriarchy gets, the notion of the South going against the father (government) and the brotherhood (the northern states) created an interesting twist when it came to how the northern soldiers viewed southern women. This changed over the course of the war to be sure as the women went from outspoken vixens (she-devils) to co-combatants (stories of women luring soldiers to guard their homes only to shoot them in the head spread like wildfire and in some cases were true). There was a sense initially that messing with southern women was like messing with your best friend’s sister–not good. As time went on it seemed more soldiers fantasized about killing southern women than sleeping with them.
And what is this thing about rape during war anyway? There’s always plenty of hookers hanging around. Rape during war is mental assault against an opponent–what kind of man isn’t able to protect his women folk? Again I will remind everyone that northern soldiers were hardly ever rapists (like most US men are hardly ever rapists). In the rare recorded cases the raping seemed to be more a thing done to slave women (considered southern property) and usually in front of their white southern female owners as if to warn them that it could happen to them if they weren’t careful. Some Union soldiers blamed the fiery southern women for prolonging the bloody war by convincing their men to keep fighting against all odds.
There were a few well-documented cases of gang rape done by colored troops and here the reasoning may have been more in line with revenge against their former white masters.
Here are my questions: When did self-restraint in men become something to be laughed at? When did men begin to cling to childhood and abdicate their proper place as men? What’s not cool about taking care of families (other than divorce courts being brutal on men)? When did childish women decide that unrestrained lust would make for better relationships? When did these same women start calling all men rapists?
There was a Cult of Womanhood back in the 19th century. Women had a great mission and a great power. Not everyone lived up to the ideal or even wanted to and that’s fine, but when a culture turns its people into children unable to use self control and actually applauds self obsession and stupidity one wonders when the real men and women will stand up.
Essay prompted by THE VACANT CHAIR by Reid Mitchell
When does having a sense of group consciousness stand in the way of personal responsibility and self-actualization?
“Harriet called the mill her “Alma Mater,” and felt that its “incentive to labor” and the discipline of the work were of great value. “We were taught daily habits of regularity and of industry; it was, in fact, a sort of manual training or industrial school.”
Girls in this position did not see themselves as members of the working class–the term and concept working class was an invention of industrialism that was still in formation in the 1830’s. Group consciousness was absent from these girls, who viewed their stay in the mills as temporary, a stepping stone to a better life or else a deliberate sacrifice for others. Rather than improve the lot of all workers, they hoped to rise above it, individually.” from A Good Poor Man’s Wife by Claudia L. Bushman
Identifying with a group in our day seems to bring strife and irrational blaming of other groups. Wonder what the mill girls would say.
READ MORE ABOUT MILL GIRLS:
I’ve had my fair share of less than stellar drunken moments running with the fast crowd and trying to keep up with my boyfriends’ drinking. And then my husband’s drinking. Such was life in the 20th century. Men and women were equals. “Anything you can do, I can do better,” was my hidden mantra when the boys came round.
Yet, looking back my father was right. Nothing good comes of a girl out past 12 in a saloon. Dancing on a slippery bar and crashing down with the hanging glasses almost landed a friend in the hospital. How many places in Hoboken were we banned from? I can’t remember.
Now what does this have to do with history? For a brief shining moment in America there came upon the land the Cult of Womanhood. People nowadays look on this period as the ultimate joke against women. They think that the sinister members of the patriarchy, rubbing their hands together viciously, devised a way in which women could be fooled into actually believing that their role in society mattered. They forced women to think that they were an integral part of bringing forth a civilized nation. (Note: should one sex be more moral than the other?)
Of course women did drink and get knocked up and all, but the point was that in general they were to be the torch-bearers of the high ground and were to pass it on to the next generation. You see how devious this plan was? Women kinda fell for it (even as the very few smart ones saw through it and worked for free love and the right to wear pants).
A lot of women thought being with the kids felt right and that working in a coal mine wasn’t appealing. Many thought politicians were swine and were happy to steer clear of the pig pen. While they mourned the loss of their men in battle, most didn’t want to join them. Some will say the men were just throwing the women a bone whilst they went off to do real things like make war (and do boyish things like play video games in their pajamas all day).
There were women who bucked the whole marriage and family thing and were looked upon warily until they proved their mettle. They edited newspapers, traveled the world and became spies, etc. People like to say men don’t respect women, but do women respect men? Aren’t we all a bit self-righteously pointing fingers most of the time? Do we live in a fantasy land that says women are as strong as men until they get knocked out by a drunken football player? Or that women can get drunk and high and accuse all men of gang rape? Or that teenaged boys will consider sex with a hot teacher rape? Haven’t men and women been abdicating responsibility for their actions by blaming the other sex for centuries?
None of us want the moral high ground anymore. That’s for suckers. We want to do as we please and call it some form of sublime equality instead of a race to the gutter. We’re all only one sloppy drunk night away from killing someone on the rode to our “rights.” Men and women sit equally on the bar stools. We have our rights. We want more rights. But do we have love?
The waters are muddy once the intoxication wears off. Temperance women were laughed at and their battle lost. Some went on to fight for rights and others went quietly home to their husbands (some of them good and some of them bad). Rights are about me. Love is about you. Which am I willing to I fight for?
Who says women couldn’t do anything in the 19th century? Not Isabella L. Bird. Ladies and gents, listen up. Here’s a story full of spirit. Dear Miss Bird was a sickly soul, but despite her weakness, she charged ahead endeavoring to see the world and write about it. And so she did.
As simple as that. She made choices. Didn’t expect others to treat her in a particular way, but noted when people treated her kindly. First she went to Australia, then China and finally to Colorado where she gifted future generations a marvelous look into one woman’s fearlessness and heroic curiosity.
How many of us modern girls would throw our cares to the wind, travel alone or with strange men into deep mountain ravines and sleep in insect infested hovels for fun? How many of us would climb such treacherous mountains on horseback and suffer being thrown and tumbled over by said horse?
Isabella refused to ride side-saddle, yet threatened to sue a newspaper when a writer said she dressed like a man (which she most definitely DID NOT!). She fell for a famous handsome bad boy “Rocky Mountain Jim” who just recently lost his eye to a grizzly and despite his bad reputation quoted poetry and seemed bewitched by this strange English lady who found him tucked in a little valley of the mountains.
Their romance was ill-fated and only a year after she left him in his frosty mountain solitude he was shot dead.
Do you like sunsets? Do you like trying to describe them? I get about as far as saying, “It was a pink sunset . . .” But not Isabella. Some people are born to write about natural things in such a way that the reader feels nearly as in awe as the writer (and without photographs!).
When we bemoan our boring lives or how fate has made us women or how life keeps throwing us curve balls we need heroines like Miss Bird. She shows us from her far distant time that we hold the key to our adventurous lives. God gives us the mountains and the sunsets, the tumbling horses and the people we come across on our travels, but He lets us decide how we’re going to handle it all. Isabella made do and then some. She didn’t hate men for being men and didn’t hate being a woman. She was who she was and that was all she needed.
So let’s be happy in our skins today. Men and women alike–I love you. Now off you go! Have an adventure or read this book.
Don’t you just love finding musty old paperback treasures for fifty cents? The American Western Novel drew me in since its title has two of my favorite words in it–American and Western. Both words often get a bum rap and I tend to like anything that’s undervalued or misunderstood.
Yeah, our government sucks, but I have a lot of faith in the common man (and woman). Wake up people!
The western sometimes sucks, too. Yet within this lowly genre are a few treasures and a great amount of food for thought about life in general:
Civilization and feminization–now this is interesting. Since we no longer as a culture value the feminine what happens to civilization? We do value empowering women to compete more like men (or better yet oust men from power)–but the word feminine is equated with standing in the kitchen baking cookies (may I ask–aren’t chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven deliciously civilizing things?).
Conventional feminine values vs. masculine ones? What’s this all about? Maybe it’s about the tension driving both survival and civilization–the hunting and the gathering, the building and the nesting. This tension is good (though at times it doesn’t feel like it). This tension is sexy and dynamic. Men want respect–women want love–books and lives hinge on these things. Okay, hang me for generalities, but old books about other books do this to one’s mind.
Hey, you know that whole thing about needing two incomes to get by? People used to live with a lot less. By today’s standards most of us growing up in the 1970’s were poor.
This section brings me to the present. Why does it feel like we’re sending troops to Africa– are involved in African politics– to possibly take their riches? Hmm. Americans enjoyed Westerns because we liked to believe there were white hats and black hats and we were the guys in white. This was a far distant time when the average Joe believed in moral absolutes. This is not to say that our impulses were always simple and good. Our ability to do what’s good is certainly not absolute.
Here’s why this book is great: It’s not a very angry historian’s or English professor’s rant about injustice. It’s actually refreshingly neutral. The author doesn’t suggest that masculine is better than feminine or that civilization is worse than primativism. It doesn’t give answers. That’s up to you and me.