Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"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.

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