Self Portrait as “New Woman”
“While Johnston was running her studio in Washington, feminist campaigns to secure the vote and other rights were encouraging women to break out of their domestic roles. In 1897, she published an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal urging women to consider photography as a means of supporting themselves. “To an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible,” she wrote, adding that “hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.” Johnston also used her influence to help other American female artists—for example, arranging exhibits of their work for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Her portraits of Susan B. Anthony, taken that same year, capture the stoic determination that the feminist leader needed—for half a century—to hold together the competing groups working toward women’s suffrage. And yet there is no evidence that Johnston ever participated in a feminist campaign.” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Victorian-Womanhood-in-All-Its-Guises.html
A nice room of her own.
American sensuality in studio.
Portrait of artist.
Images Library of Congress
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.