Law and Conversation

November 2, 2010

Vote today! Suffrage and stories of women’s lives and the law

Yesterday a friend forwarded an e-mail headed “Voting rights for women.”  The e-mail’s text reviewed the imprisonment and deplorable treatment of women who peacefully picketed the White House in November, 1917, carrying signs criticizing President Woodrow Wilson for opposing women’s suffrage, and noted that women in the US didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.  That’s not even a century ago; there are people still alive who can remember 1920. 

The e-mail, which reprints a February 19, 2004 column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Connie Schultz, refers to an award-winning 2004 HBO movie, “Iron Jawed Angels.”  An excerpt:  “It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul [one of the picketers] insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.”  The Wimminwise blog from The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary has more information about the e-mail and its story, including links to the Library of Congress, from which the photos in the e-mail appear to have been taken, and, which checked out the story’s facts and determined them to be true.

I’ve long thought that modern women who protest “I’m not a feminist, but….” should think more carefully about what their lives would be like without those who marched, protested, and engaged in other unladylike behavior that challenged the mainstream thinking of their day and no doubt earned them condemnation from their families and neighbors.  Stories from and about the 19th century are a great way to start thinking about the transformation in the law and women’s lives.

I posted a couple of months ago about Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” the back story of Bertha Rochester.  Rhys’s story highlights the worst-case possibilities for women in loveless marriages not so long ago.  Because women were raised to be supported by their husbands, because whatever property had been theirs became their husbands’ upon marriage, and because, indeed, women lost their legal identities upon marriage until the enactment of laws giving them rights, there wasn’t much married women could do without permission from their husbands.  Divorces were both difficult to obtain and socially unacceptable in 19th century England, and, in any event, it would have been far more difficult for a divorced woman then to support herself than even in today’s challenging economic times. 

Jane Austen’s novels (which Bronte didn’t like) are also windows into the world of middle- and upper-class English women in the 19th century.  Though she wrote her novels with a delightful sense of humor, Austen shows very clearly the limited and bleak choices of those women:  marriage or relying on male relatives who may or may not have been kind or congenial for support.  Working-class women, of course, had equally dreary choices and even harder lives.  Though they could and, indeed, often had to work outside the home to support themselves and their families, their options were domestic service, low-paid manual labor, or prostitution. 

It seems comical today to note that writing was considered unfeminine and inappropriate for women in Charlotte Bronte’s day.  And it’s poetic justice that Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843, is probably remembered more for his advice to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte to leave writing to men, for “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,”  than for any of his poetry.

For literary smiles, check out this YouTube video on Bronte Sisters Power Dolls from FineMoustaches.  And if you’re a US citizen, read Connie Schultz’s column in the Plain Dealer from Sunday, and don’t forget to vote.

UPDATE:  See this subsequent post for more context for Southey’s advice to Charlotte Bronte, courtesy of Dennis Low, whose comment appears below.


  1. A stirring post which I really enjoyed. But Robert Southey was actually one of the 19th century’s foremost champions of women writers. In the letter you misquote (tantalizing soundbite I know) what he means by ‘business’ is ‘profession on which you can financially depend’ rather than ‘business’ in the sense of ‘women have no business doing this’&c. He was quite right, too, particularly if you look at the poetry market at the time. If you’re interested, I have a lengthier discussion of it in my book, The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets (Ashgate, 2006)

    Comment by Dennis Low — November 2, 2010 @ 4:29 am | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment, and for your remarks on Southey, about whom I admit I know little.

      Chagrined at the thought that I might have misquoted Southey, your comment sent me scurrying to Juliet Barker’s 1994 work, The Brontes, which indicates that I did NOT misquote him. The commonly repeated sound bite does benefit from a larger context, though. As quoted on p. 262 of my paperback edition of Barker’s work, that context is as follows: “The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation….Write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that the more likely you will be to deserve and finally to obtain it.”

      I do see your point about what he meant by “business,” and I daresay it wasn’t much easier to make one’s living by writing poetry in 19th century England than it’s ever been. But if, in making his point, Southey didn’t mean to single out women, why didn’t he write “Literature cannot be the business of ONE’S life,” or “of A PERSON’S life,” or “of ANYONE’S life?”

      In thinking as I write, and viewing the quote in the light most favorable to Southey, I suppose that he, like many of us (including me!), might simply have chosen that word at that particular moment inartfully, and had no such intention. Perhaps, too, you’ve answered these questions in your book, which must be very interesting. Based only on this information, though, I’m not convinced. At any rate, thanks for your very kind words on my post, and I hope to see more from you.

      Comment by helengunnar — November 2, 2010 @ 8:22 am | Reply

  2. […] of the Lake Poets” (Ashgate, 2006), posted an interesting comment on Tuesday in response to my post that day, in which I (accurately) quoted from a letter that Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate […]

    Pingback by More context: Charlotte Bronte vs. Robert Southey « Law and Conversation — November 5, 2010 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  3. […] women of the upper classes who were unlucky enough to be married to men they loathed because of their legal status as chattels in the not so distant past.  Galsworthy, incidentally, studied and practiced law before going on to a distinguished literary […]

    Pingback by Lawyers in fiction « Law and Conversation — February 16, 2011 @ 12:07 am | Reply

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