Double Vision and Women’s History

Sometimes I feel very lucky to live in Washington—for instance, when I need some obscure book or magazine from the 18th or 19th century, the kind of thing maybe three people in the world are interested in, and I can just hop on the Metro and go read it at the Library of Congress.

Last Friday, I felt the same way about the National Portrait Gallery. Not only is it a terrific museum where I have spent many happy hours, but last Friday they organized a five-hour symposium on a subject I find of great interest: women’s history in the late 18th and early 19th century. Five different academics (all female—a “whole binder full of women,” as someone inevitably remarked) delivered papers in a well-appointed auditorium, and the whole thing was capped by a reception in the museum’s stunning atrium. And all of it was free (or at least, supported by our tax dollars—a fact I’m hesitant to point out, lest someone become indignant about it).

The symposium was tied to one of the museum’s current exhibits, entitled: “A Will of their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic.”

Who, you may ask, was Judith Sargent Murray? I had only a vague sense of who she was myself, and I’ve been researching a female contemporary of hers who shared many of her ideas—and yet never mentions Murray in her writings.

Murray was, like the woman I’ve been researching—Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807—what one might call a proto-feminist. She lived from 1751 to 1820, and in 1790—two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—she published an essay entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in which she argued that women were just as capable as men and that it was only their lack of education that held them back. She also believed that women should be independent, that they shouldn’t be required to marry (although she herself was married twice), that they were free to comment on any topic they chose, and even that they could lead nations and armies. All of this was pretty radical stuff at the time.

Anderson wasn’t quite as upfront about her feminism as Murray, and she didn’t write as much about women as Murray did. But as I listened to the speakers, I kept seeing parallels between Murray and Anderson. One of those parallels was that neither of them talked much about other American women. Murray listed a whole slew of “female worthies” in her essays, published under the pseudonym “The Gleaner,” but they were almost all women who lived in the past or in Europe. One of the things that puzzled me about Anderson was that, although she too vigorously defended women’s capabilities and stressed the importance of their education, she overlooked other accomplished women in America—including Murray. When she did hold up a woman as a paragon of accomplishment, it was Emilie Du Chatelet, a French mathematician, physicist, and author who died in 1749.

Murray’s biographer, Sheila Skemp, suggested that Murray’s failure to acknowledge the accomplishments of American women (with the exception of her friend, the historian Mercy Otis Warren) had to do with her elitism and her pride: coming from an important New England family, Murray considered most other American women beneath her. She also may not have wanted to promote potential rivals.

Anderson was also an elitist, and she certainly thought well of herself. But, while her father was a respected doctor, she didn’t come from a grand family. And she wasn’t celebrated enough in her own right to be worrying about promoting rivals. It seemed to me that her failure to acknowledge the achievements of American women stemmed more from her general disdain for all things American. While she desperately wanted to improve the cultural sophistication of her fellow citizens, she clearly felt that was an uphill struggle. For her, the real locus of civilization was not in the cultural backwater that was then the United States (and, in her view, Baltimore in particular), but in the past and in Europe. So it was natural for her to look to those sources when searching for an example of sophistication and intellectual accomplishment, whether male or female.

I asked Skemp whether that might have been part of what was going on in Murray’s mind, and she said yes, she thought it was. In an era when we in the United States feel like we’re living in the center of the universe, it’s hard to imagine how marginal existence here must have felt a couple of hundred years ago. We were the sideshow to the great pageant of Europe, the experiment that many doubted would last—the place where life was new and crude, with no great cultural institutions to boast about. These days, some of us may feel ashamed of our American-ness from time to time (I certainly did as a teenager touring Europe during the Vietnam era), but it’s a different kind of shame. Back then, it was probably equivalent to what someone from Kazakhstan may have felt during the “Borat” craze.

The other thing that struck me about Murray was that she, like Anderson, shrank from the logical conclusion of her arguments about women’s capabilities. After presenting her case that women were fit to lead nations and even armies (a pretty radical thought even for the 21st century), Murray pulled back. Just because women could do these things didn’t mean they should, she said. Rosemarie Zagarri, another historian who spoke at the symposium (and who I was thrilled to discover remembered me from the prenatal exercise class we took together 25 years ago), said that Murray didn’t want women to become too masculine or to encroach on their husbands’ prerogatives. Murray defended women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, touting their virtues of amiability and tenderness. She didn’t even suggest that women should have the right to vote.

Neither did Anderson—nor did she remark upon the fact that the one state that had allowed women to vote since the Revolution, New Jersey, actually rescinded that right in the very year that Anderson was publishing her magazine, 1807. Like Murray, Anderson didn’t push for equal rights. Although she was crossing the generally accepted line between men’s and women’s roles by assuming the position of editor (she was apparently the first woman in this country to do so), she defended that transgression in terms that were in keeping with the notion of women as the softer, civilizing influence in society. Women, she argued, had the responsibility of promoting the cause of “taste, literature, and morals” in a town “where the nobler sex are almost entirely engrossed by parchments, pulses, or price currents.” She herself had no interest in “price currents,” and it’s not at all clear she thought women in general should have anything to do with them.

Zagarri suggested that Murray stepped back from her more radical positions because she was wary of the public reaction to her views on women. When I asked Zagarri what that public reaction had been, the answer was: there really wasn’t one, as far as we can tell. Zagarri pointed out, wisely, that the things we identify as important from our perspective weren’t necessarily the things that appeared important to contemporaries. Murray wrote about a lot of other things besides women’s rights, so her fame—to the extent she had some—may well have rested on the essays that today hold little interest for us. Who was to know that someday we would have female Secretaries of State, female Supreme Court Justices, and serious female candidates for the Presidency? Given what happened in New Jersey in 1807, it may well have looked like the tide was going the other way.

It’s always important, when looking at history, to maintain at least two points of view, as much as we can: the view from here (that is, the present), and the view from there (the time we’re looking at). People and ideas we now identify as significant and forward-looking may, in the eyes of contemporaries, have just appeared wacky. Or they may have been so obscure as to occasion little comment.

So why didn’t Eliza Anderson mention Judith Murray? One possibility is she’d never heard of her.

Historical Fiction at the AWP Conference

I’ve spent a good part of the last three days at the annual AWP Conference. AWP is an organization of writers and teachers of writing (the acronym supposedly stands for “Association of Writers & Writing Programs,” in which case it should really be “AWWP,” but never mind), and I had no idea there were so many writers in the United States. It was completely overwhelming. And exhilarating (look at all these people who care so passionately about writing!). And depressing (look at all these people who so desperately want to get published!).

But what I really want to talk about is, of course, historical fiction. Out of the hundreds of panels on offer, there were only three devoted to historical fiction, all well-attended. (Well, I really only know about two of them, because for some reason two of the three were scheduled to meet at the same time.)Listening to the panelists, I was gratified to hear echoes of many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had during my own writing process: the need to find a gap or a mystery in the historical record, so that your imagination has room to play; the necessity of, as one panelist put it, gathering so much information about your period that you “drown” in your research (that was from Jane Alison, author of The Love-Artist, a novel about Ovid); the lingering anxiety that nevertheless you’ll get something wrong and be exposed as a fraud.

I certainly know the last feeling well–even though, by the time I started writing A More Obedient Wife, set in the 1790’s, I’d been working as a historian in that period for almost seven years. Maybe you can never really shake that anxiety when you’re writing about the past. (Although there are those rare birds, like Edward P. Jones, who are immune to it. He wrote his novel The Known World, about black slaveowners in the antebellum South, without doing a lick of research. One of the panelists–Robin Oliveira, who wrote My Name Is Mary Sutter–said she heard him respond once to a question about how he could do that. “It’s my book,” she quoted him as saying, “and I can do what I damn well please.”)

But what I wanted to ask the panelists and didn’t get a chance to was this: isn’t there also a sense in which we can know the past BETTER than the present? True, we can never be entirely sure of the details of daily life in the way we are of those that surround us now. But the past is not a moving target. It’s fixed, static–whatever happened there has already happened.

Maybe more important, we have a perspective on the past that we can never have on the present, because we know–in historical terms–what happened next. In that sense we have an advantage over our characters, who have no idea what lies down the road. We know which institutions and ideas will become discredited in the future. And we know which ones will ultimately win acceptance.

Take, for example, a character in the novel I’m working on, a doctor of the early 19th century whose ideas about the cause of disease anticipated germ theory. His contemporaries ridiculed him–disease caused by tiny invisible animals that somehow entered the body?–and he lost a good deal of his practice. Now, in the 21st century, I can simply present his experience, without authorial comment, and both the reader and I will know something that he doesn’t: that he was basically right. Another of my characters is a woman who dared to undertake what was considered a man’s job, and who argued, over sometimes fierce opposition, that women had the potential to be the intellectual equals of men if they were only given the same educational opportunities. Someday, she lamented at one point, her ideas would be recognized as valid. And we–the writer and the reader–will know that they were.

That kind of layering–the layer of what the writer and reader know, as compared to what the characters know–is one of the things I love about historical fiction. The closest thing I heard to it at the AWP panels was from a writer named Kelly O’Connor McNees, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, which is set before Alcott became a successful writer. “I knew what she would go on to,” O’Connor McNees said, “and she didn’t know. I had to admire her audacity.”

I suppose that’s what all of us aspiring writers need: audacity. We need to act like we’re all going to end up like Louisa May Alcott, even though we know that can’t be true.

"From a Learned Wife, Ye Gods Deliver Me"

As I sit here anticipating a winter storm–the second in a week–that may knock out power, I feel a particular kinship with the people of the early 19th century who I’m writing about here. Imagine a world with no electricity, no internet, no central heating, no cable TV … Sounds a lot like the world they inhabited. At least we’ll still have indoor plumbing. And even if I’m reduced to writing with a pen, I won’t have to use a quill (I tried that once and don’t recommend it).

But now, to Eliza. What became of her after she accompanied Betsy Bonaparte on her voyage across the Atlantic? The first year or so after her arrival back in Baltimore, in November 1805, isn’t well documented. In 1802 her father mentioned in a letter that she had taken up teaching school–presumably teaching girls, since boys were generally instructed by men–but we have no information on where she might have done that, or how long the job lasted.

But by October, or perhaps earlier, of 1806, she had taken up a new line of work, albeit an unpaid one: she had become the editor of a magazine.

Now, let us pause for a moment to consider how extraordinary it was for a woman–and a woman of only 26 years of age–to do such a thing in 1806. Although during the Revolution and its immediate aftermath there had been some talk of women’s rights in the United States–including Abigail Adams’s oft-quoted plea to her husband to “remember the ladies”–it didn’t lead to much in the way of actual rights. Women today complain of glass ceilings, lack of pay parity, and having to shoulder most of the housework when they get home from their jobs–as well they should. But when you compare that to the legal disabilities women labored under 200 years ago, and then-prevailing attitudes about their capacities and their rightful place, it becomes clear that women have indeed, as the cigarette ads used to say, come a long way. And not just because they’re now allowed to smoke.

Married women couldn’t make contracts or own property in their own names–which made it impossible for them to operate a business. Single women were spared this disability–and in New Jersey, up until 1807, they were even allowed to vote–but few professions were open to them. And, since marriage was considered to be the be-all and end-all of a woman’s life, an unmarried–or, worse, divorced–woman didn’t fit particularly well into the society of the time. Young women were supposed to get married; after that, they were supposed to devote themselves to their husbands and children (assuming they didn’t die in childbirth, as many did).

True, Mary Wollstonecraft had written A Vindication of The Rights of Woman in 1792, but even its modest claims–such as that women should be educated, in part because that would make them better companions for their husbands–were considered pretty far out there. And after Wollstonecraft’s well-meaning widower published a memoir in 1798 that exposed the details of her unconventional life, including the fact that she’d had a child out of wedlock, no one wanted to have anything to do with her ideas.

For a sample of contemporary opinion on women, we need look no further than the very magazine where Eliza Anderson became editor–it was called the Companion–just a few months before she assumed that post. In May 1806, the magazine published an article by an author using the pseudonym “Tibullus.” (Virtually all early 19th-century contributors to magazines used pseudonyms, a convention that served its purposes at the time, but that now makes life exceedingly frustrating for the historian.)

This Tibullus opined,”There exists not an instance on record of one noble discovery being added to human science, through the exertions of a female.” He added that this was a good thing: “Vanity holds so predominant a sway in the breast of woman, and is so prone to distend itself at every increase of knowledge, that science becomes with her a most pernicious acquisition.” Occasionally a women might be able to engage in a few “sprightly flourishes of the mind.” But, he added, “when she attempts the critic and philosopher, nature is outraged; man revolts at a monster so unnatural in the creation, and exclaims with the Roman poet–O sit mihi non doctissima consors.” This last bit is helpfully translated as, “From a learned wife, ye Gods deliver me.”

Now of course, not everyone in 1806 agreed with Tibullus. The following week another correspondent–signing himself “A.B.C.Darian”–weighed in on the issue. But his response also sheds light on what women were actually up against. Maybe it’s true, he says, that women are “just smatterers in learning,” but that’s because of “proud man, who in the plenitude of his power, selfishly restricts them to the arts of dalliance and the charms of pleasing.” It’s not that women are incapable of learning, it’s that they’re prevented from getting any. “What parent,” A.B.C.Darian asks rhetorically, “thinks of giving to a daughter the education of a son?” A little French, maybe some Italian, and instruction in “music, dancing, embroidery or needle work” … such was the extent of most women’s education (and of course we’re talking about the wealthy ones–the poorer ones were lucky to learn how to read and write). Buck up, he says to women, “ye fairest flowers of creation.” Don’t believe those who deny that a woman has a brain, those who “can grant her no other attainment but what conduces to her lustre as a mistress or a slave.”

So how, in these circumstances, did a woman manage to become editor of a magazine–a magazine not devoted just to fashion and food and other “feminine” concerns, but a magazine that included articles on politics and history and criticized the local arts scene? I’m not sure I can actually answer that question, but stay tuned for a description of what happened next.

Exciting(?) News From the Past

So, faithful readers (“reader”? anyone?) are dying to know: who IS the historically significant, hitherto unknown woman I mentioned in my last post? Actually, really faithful readers will find the revelation to be old news, since I’ve mentioned her before in this space.

Her name was Eliza Anderson — or, to be more complete, Eliza Crawford Anderson Godefroy, and she lived from 1780 to 1839. That she’s unknown is probably self-evident, unless you’re one of the handful of people who know about her. So, why is she historically significant? I think she may well have been the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

Perhaps this fact strikes you as something less than earth-shaking, and it surely won’t require the rewriting of high school textbooks. But if you read through secondary source after secondary source, and they all identify someone ELSE as the first female magazine editor — someone, that is, who came later — you can find this tidbit of knowledge pretty exciting. At least, I can!

It’s not just that Eliza was the first, of course. She edited her magazine in a pretty interesting way, and she had a pretty amazing — if ultimately sad — life. I’m currently working on a scholarly article about her, but it’s a safe bet that very few people will ever read it. So I thought I might add, marginally, to the number of people who know about Eliza Anderson by occasionally posting some snippets about her here. If you’re intrigued, please come back for more!