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 Snopes.com, 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.