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.
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?
LINK to article on history of gender specific children’s clothing:
“I think it will suggest to more than one man that if women could vote they would vote on the side of morality, even if they did vote and speak rather frantically and furiously; and it will also suggest that when the women once made up their minds that it was not good to have the all-powerful ‘primaries’ in the hands of loafers, thieves, and pernicious little politicians, they would not sit indolently at home, as their husbands and brothers do now, but would hoist their praying banners, take the field in force, pray the assembled political scum back to the holes and slums where they belong, and set some candidates fit for human beings to vote for.
“I dearly want the women to be raised to the political altitude of the negro, the imported savage, and the pardoned thief, and allowed to vote. It is our last chance, I think. The women will be voting before long; and then if a B. F. Butler can still continue to lord it in Congress; if the highest offices in the land can still continue to be occupied by perjurers and robbers; if another Congress, like the forty-second, consisting of fifteen honest men and two hundred and ninety-six of the other kind, can once more be created, it will at least be time, I fear, to give over trying to save the country by human means, and appeal to Providence. Both the great parties have failed. I wish we might have a woman’s party now, and see how that would work. I feel persuaded that, in extending the suffrage to women, this country could lose nothing, and might gain a great deal. For thirty centuries history has been iterating and reiterating that, in a moral fight, woman is simply dauntless; and we all know, even with our eyes shut upon Congress and our voters, that, from the day that Adam ate of the apple and told on Eve, down to the present day, man, in a moral fight, has pretty uniformly shown himself to be an arrant coward.” Mark Twain
postcard images courtesy of all- that’s- interesting tumblr.com
First off, I’m giving everyone permission to objectify this man–he’s most likely dead so I don’t think he’d mind. Let’s assume that he’s looking so proud because the baby is his own. A book came out a few years ago describing a study of the present day working class white male which found that the traditional role of man as provider had suddenly disappeared and that any young man still sort of into the idea of raising a family, getting up early for work and being proud of his manhood for doing it was now considered a chump. Better to stay unmarried, father a few kids that the government could take care of and party with the boys. The working class girls had no intention of marrying these guys and fair play to them–why marry a child in a man’s body?
I don’t have a lot of wisdom on this subject, just a few ideas floating around my head about boys and men. My son used to watch me sew on an interesting looking machine. He mentioned he’d want a machine like that so as a joke my father bought him a pink Barbie one for Christmas. He opened the gift, but as soon as he saw how feminine it was he shoved it aside and never talked about sewing again. I sort of bought gender neutral toys for him only because blocks and Lincoln Logs were just that way though I was fine with him being boyish. My daughter was born loving pink and purple.
Boys are just different. Not bad. Different. The good men that I know have this drive inside of them that sometimes they have to hide. It’s a drive to be admired as a hero. Since forever people have enjoyed this about them, but it’s gone out of fashion for a while–as if by forcing men to remain irresponsible children will somehow give women more space to grow into whatever it is we’re aiming for.
I, for one want a place in the world for admiring heroic men–not super men in movies who are still kind of pathetic these days, barely able to hold their own against kick-boxing women. There is way too much ambivalence about manhood! Does this automatically mean I want Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire? No. I just believe that men who claim their roles as strong fathers and brothers, workers and friends are to be celebrated. I laughed at Everybody Loves Raymond, but do all men have to be portrayed as stupid fools? What a miserable existence for women if when we marry we have to put up with an idiot and turn into a carping old hag.
Take a look at the picture again. This guy is proud of his manhood–as he should be.
The New Girl by Sally Mitchell (great book)
A confession–I home-schooled my daughter for less than a year. ( I also got donkey basketball cancelled at our town school–but that’s for another day). After days of arguing over multiplication I ended up letting said daughter sleep until noon and go for bike rides for the rest of the day (she still was ahead of her class upon return). The one thing we agreed upon was that The Little House on the Prairie books were cool. Here’s when men’s eyes glaze over or looks of uncertain panic race over their features imagining (wrongly) that women really want a Michael Landon “Pa” who constantly breaks into tears as a husband. Let me assure you, men, that the books are nothing like the insipid show. In real life Pa fought wild animals, built things, teased his wife, and nearly starved to death to save his family during a long winter. He died young, but before he did he lived adventurously and sang songs at bedtime.
Women readers grumble “I thought she was focusing on women for a few days?” and I hear you. Laura Ingalls, writing about her young adulthood at the turn of the century, captures the bittersweet reality of life. She doesn’t write about women kick boxers coming to town to show the men a thing or two. She doesn’t make men “sensitive” in a Alan Alda/Ed Sheernan sort of way. And most of all she doesn’t have the women grow up and turn into beautiful, delicate creatures. We often look back or look forward to a time when women and men got things right or will get things right (depending on our agenda), but even a quick perusal of Genesis shows the same battles. The stories also show pretty strong women. (As an aside Teddy Roosevelt once said that a thorough reading of the Bible was worth more than a college education and I have to agree with him–I thought I knew the Bible from stories I heard on Sundays as a child, but REALLY the actual Bible when read and pondered is a writer’s dream go-to for drama).
Maybe I am avoiding really focusing on women because we’ve become a very controversial lot. If I say we’re in danger of becoming dictatorial in our constant demand for “rights” and more “rights” to “express ourselves” in ways that half the time seem self destructive, some feminists will get huffed. If I suggest that men and their patriarchal society are at the root of all evil, I lie to myself because women in business, the arts and politics can be just a vicious and brutal as men. So how does one write about women in the late-Victorian era?
Katherine Weldon in The House on Tenafly Road and I both picked men with substance abuse issues. It doesn’t really matter that much that she wore corsets and skirts and I wear Levi’s. A love story is a love story (I don’t buy that patriarchal society created romantic love as a device to control women). Feminists say the personal is political and to some extent they’re right, but what tends to happen is that every slight, every misunderstanding, every rape, every wrong against women lands squarely on the poor guy in front of you who for the most part doesn’t have the time or inclination to be all of that evil at once.
Now in my actual life most of my friends are drawn to men in a big way. They’re kinda cute, you must admit. In my fiction the girls/women are really confused and mixed-up and in love and restless and confined and . . . all of the things that make us human. When one of my favorite girl characters (after a tragic incident with an unfaithful suitor) is feeling particularly bitter about being a woman, a man gives her a bicycle and there begins her lust for freedom. It might cost her everything. It might not.