Lyndsay Faye on Victorian Writing

Lyndsay Faye on Victorian Writing

What are women useful for? The question has plagued humanity since the dawn of time.

Certain answers are more obvious than others: we excel at pregnancy by comparison to men. Childbirth is another arena in which men don’t hold a candle to our capabilities. Likewise child-rearing has long been the domain of women, and in matters of household management, we are generally thought to thrive. A decorative element surely factors in as well—women are often the subject of paintings and sculptures, for instance, and we look elegant draped in lace, the way the arms of sofas do.

During the late 1840’s—the time period during which my third Timothy Wilde novel, The Fatal Flame, is set—women began acting in disturbing and inexplicable ways. They began working outside the home, and what is more, when they were paid a mere pittance of what they deserved, they began to strike.

This is not to suggest that women had not worked prior to the mid-nineteenth century; in rural areas, women were as responsible for heavy work around the farm as were their fathers and spouses, and though the labor—milking, tilling, harvesting, preserving, cooking, etc—was separated into masculine and feminine categories, wives and daughters contributed incalculably to the prosperity of the enterprise. Often women also toiled over handcrafted goods like soap, straw hats, quilts, etc. that could then be sold at market to enhance the family’s income. All of these tasks revolved around the domestic sphere, however, as you can see—holding vocations like clerk or bookkeeper never even entered the minds of most women even if they were responsible for the household accounts, and as for doctors or lawyers or scientists, you may as well have suggested they train to be dragons.

The urbanization of nineteenth century lifestyles and the technological leaps that enabled the rise of manufactories did much to fragment this model, however, and “meaningful” labor became a bone of contention. No longer did you grow your corn and eat it; you worked as a typesetter at someone else’s behest and bought someone else’s corn with your wages. Many philosophers of the workplace, male and female alike, bemoaned this loss independence and the increased reliance on the wealthy to provide the (often inadequate) salary to purchase the (often inferior) corn.

When the traditional rural rubric began to collapse, poor women found themselves in the regrettable position of wasting away supposing they lost their male providers—without so much as a sheep or a cow to fall back on, merely a rented tenement and their dozen or so cockroach roommates, employment meant the difference between literal life and death. This was particularly true if children were involved, as babies are notoriously unpunctual and scarcely ever make effective stevedores, no matter how often they apply for odd jobs down at the dockside. The birth of feminism as a mass movement in this nation was by no means based on a desire to usurp men or even to demand their respect: is was based on that odd quirk of nature which causes all humans to try to avoid starving to death.

The women in The Fatal Flame—Sally Woods and Ellie Abell in particular—represent some of the first women to live in city boarding houses, unmarried and without male supervision, and to collect wages in exchange for long hours cutting and sewing. This behavior, it will surprise few to learn, was approximately as shocking as their walking into the Capitol building and setting themselves on fire. A brief and truncated list of things that would supposedly be ruined forever by the rise of female employment includes:

1) marriage

2) religious faith

3) all demarcation between the sexes

4) the national economy

5) rainbows

Lyndsay Faye on Victorian Writing

All right, that last one may have been a slight exaggeration; the others, I assure the reader, are not.

Surely, one might imagine, the same radical liberal men who were so tirelessly working to end slavery were ready to give such women their full support? Here is an 1848 excerpt from the abolitionist publication The Liberator that illustrates perfectly just how helpful most male social justice crusaders were regarding the fledgling feminist movement:

We view it as a most insane and ludicrous farce, for women in the nineteenth century to get up in a public and promiscuous assemblage and declare themselves “oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights,” when, if they really knew what belonged to their true position, instead of stirring up discontent and enacting such foolery, they would be about the sober duties and responsibilities which devolved upon them as rational beings, and as “helpmeets” of the other sex.”

That is to say, such men were approximately as helpful as a herpes flare-up. There can be nothing more rewarding than being accused of foolery and having your qualifications as a “rational being” called into question, all in the same glorious sentence.

It brightens my spirits whenever I think about the staunchest ally of early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott: he was a gentleman and a scholar, and his name was Frederick Douglass. Unlike the white male abolitionists going into hysterics at the thought of financially independent women, Douglass knew what it was like to be supposed mentally and morally inferior for no reason other than his natural biology. He was one of very few men who attended the infamous Seneca Falls conference in 1848, and regarding the ultimate usefulness of women, perhaps it is best to close with his words:

Woman knows and feels her wrongs as man cannot know and feel them, and she also knows as well as he can know, what measures are needed to redress them… We can neither speak for her, nor vote for her, nor act for her, nor be responsible for her; and the thing for men to do in the premises is just to get out of her way and give her the fullest opportunity to exercise all the powers inherent in her individual personality, and allow her to do it as she herself shall elect to exercise them. Her right to be and to do is as full, complete and perfect as the right of any man on earth. I say of her, as I say of the colored people, “Give her fair play, and hands off.”

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