Feminist Friday–Modern Feminism, Edwardian Style

Feminist Friday, Folks! You know you want it. The week is themeless, and because I suck at themes, and because I finally nixed one that was going to be a scathing expose’ until I did a minimal amount of research and discovered I really had no case, I’m going to follow Transatlantic Blonde’s lead and write about “Modern Feminism” just like she did, but with a twist. I’m all about the twist. It’s why you thirty readers keep coming back to this blog every third day.

And because I’m not entirely confident that you’ll follow me across the jump just on me being mysterious, I’ll give you the twist now. My piece on “Modern Feminism” is inspired by an anonymously published text from 1913, The Woman with Empty Hands. It’s an explanation of how the author, identified as Marion Hamilton Carter, found herself aligned with the Suffragist movement in the United States. It’s available in its entirety online, and it would take you all of thirty minutes to read, if that. It’s shocking, really, how modern it sounds, and how applicable it seems to today’s feminism.

This is a link to the Feminist Friday hosting blog. Click it.

The following excerpt is from page 36, and it’s a moment when the narrator realizes how large the community of women she has been cut off from until this particular point in her life. She’d learned that there were too few men to marry all the women who wanted matrimony, and had a revelation (emphasis mine):

The whole idea of “superfluous” women was a brand-new one to me, and after I recovered from the sting of my personal feelings I experiences a sense of fellowship with women as a class larger than anything I had felt before. Those thirty thousand left-overs somehow belonged as a chapter in my sisterhood of widows, and were, oh, so much more to be pitied because they had never known the blessing of a good man’s love and protection.

My eyes at this were suddenly opened to some aspects of the world I had never before considered, for I may as well confess that in the bottom of my heart I had always had distinct contempt for an old maid. I’d taken it for granted that if a woman wasn’t married it was her own fault–she hadn’t made herself attractive enough to men in general and one nice man in particular. But when you have thirty thousand surplus women, somebody’s bound to get left out no matter what they do.

Then thought I: If they simply can’t get husbands to look after their legal interests, who does it for them? Some other woman’s husband, who doesn’t care a rap about them personally–or oughtn’t to?

In one minute, with that before me, my life-long cherished view of the whole question of marrying and getting in marriage underwent reconstruction; and that was the precise minute when I began to be a suffragist! The tide of my mind flowed on from sisterhood to votes for women as the natural consequence for insufficient husbands. For the first time in my life, I appreciated the real meaning of “Taxation without representation.”

What I love about this passage is how clearly she sees how she has been privileged and how other women have not, and how she personally has contributed to the game of victim-blaming. What I love more is that she doesn’t back off from the conclusions she reaches about how the world works in order to stay safe inside what she’s already known. (Caveat: Maybe she took longer in real life to accept responsibility for her attitudes and only wrote about it as if it was a one-minute transformation, but she did ultimately accept responsibility.) It’s refreshing to see this so boldly in print, after all the defensiveness about unperceived biases and personal blind spots you encounter online: Her point of view is challenged and she doesn’t back away from following the challenge to its conclusions.

I like, too, how on page 57 she throws down the gauntlet to her opponents, and defines women’s struggle for suffrage on her own terms. (Again, emphasis mine.)

And here is the important point, it seems to me, the men and the “antis” are missing in the psychology of the present stage of the woman movement, particularly as it is manifesting in England: When driven to despair of the use of milder methods–despair of argument with a wolf, or moral suasion with a snake–we start fighting, nerved and spurred to it by one of the oldest instincts in the world–defence of our offspring of body or brain. The instinct has never changed, for those mothers that lacked the instinct to nourish and protect left no offspring in the world; and may Heaven defend us from the woman who isn’t womanly enough to stand up and fight, regardless of self-interest, for the thing she loves! The woman who isn’t willing to isn’t a woman at all; she’s only an apology in petticoats.

She calls out the apologists, men and women alike! She claims the right to defend what’s hers, be it the children of her body or the output of her mind, and frames it as a natural instinct. It is unnatural, then, to accept the constraints that society has put on women as a class. In fact, she’s already compared herself to the American Patriots who fought for independence from England; violence was certainly justified in that case. Her threat is serious–if the women of the United States can’t find an audience from among the wolves and snakes in government, they’ll revolt and it’s possible. After all, the women in England already proved themselves capable of it.

Finally, on page 70 she tackles the laws that oppress women, with the story of a girl who has found herself in trouble, both as pregnant and as homeless and starving, probably after being raped (emphasis added):

The case that converted me to militancy was a girl brought form my own State and rescued, running away, half-clothed, half-staved, by my grey-eyed friend (note: another Suffragist). I took the child home until we could decide what to do with her, and thus I heard her story.

Though I learned soon enough it was the common one, it was my first glimpse into the underworld. I walked the floor almost the entire night, boiling. Remember, I belonged to the “sheltered” classes; I had been outwardly protected as well as inwardly from this knowledge, and when it came, it struck me like a blow between the eyes. Could such conditions exist in a civilized world?–in the same world in which I had lived secure? Little Minnie and my friend left me no matter of doubt about it–this was no unusual thing to happen to an unprotected girl. Worse than that, the laws of all the States set the “age of consent” in a girl’s ‘teens and so, this poverty-pinched mountaineer’s child, unable to read and write, younger in education, intellect, judgment, knowledge of the world and moral sense than my little dead son of ten–and in my fond eyes he was scarcely more than a baby–this poor starveling girl had been endowed by law with the power to “consent” to her ruin, not knowing what it meant then, or would mean thereafter.

In the fire of my indignation two words were burnt upon my brain–“THE LAWS”–laws made by men for women that must be unmade by women for women.

Patriarchy, rape culture, slut shaming, it’s all here. And this is a 98-year-old document, and they are still fussing with laws that oppress women–look up “abortion restrictions” and news from every state pops up. Look up “redefine rape” for the attempt  by the Republican Party last January to make it harder to prove you’d been raped. Go back and read my poorly researched rant on keeping prostitution illegal from last week. A century later, Carter’s “underworld” of women is as firmly ensconced as ever.

I tried to find information about Marion Hamilton Carter the person, and couldn’t. I don’t even know the process by which “Anonymous” was changed to her name. The Kindle version of the 1913 edition even promises pictures, which I’d love to see. I suppose none of that missing information would enhance my understanding of the book, but I would have liked to have looked at the face of the person who said so succinctly and so expressively the things that take me so many convoluted sentences to say.

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  • Melaina25  On June 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    I love hearing her voice, but it’s sad that 98 years later we are still banging on about the same issues. Can we make is compulsory reading for all those who think sexism is dead?

  • Karen  On June 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    You should look up What Diantha Did by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper”). It’s all online. The style of writing does not seem nearly as modern as Carter’s does, and there are sections that will feel quaint and outdated, but the problems she presents of the working mother and all the hassle that is procuring food for a family and running a house in general is rang so true with me. So true.

  • Carole Lange  On September 13, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I was researching the value of this book. I have an original copy. It was my grandmothers’ who was a suffragette and found your post. Wanted to let you know that there is only one image in the book. A photograph of a parade of suffragettes with the caption: ” Suffragette Parade Passing Along Madison Square towards Fifth Avenue.” Photo by the American Press Association. Now you know. :)

  • Karen  On September 13, 2011 at 11:58 am

    And very glad I am to know! Thank you for information from the source.

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