Sunday, September 30, 2007

"The Hidden Ones"

This book review speaks for itself, quite eloquently. We're No Angels By KATHRYN HARRISONPublished: September 30, 2007 New York Times, Book Review "The pervasive theme is rebellion." Laurel Thatcher Ulrich begins her new book, "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History," struggling to explain — understand — the appeal of an aside she made in the spring 1976 issue of an academic journal, a comment that has become a popular slogan printed on T-shirts and coffee mugs and bumper stickers, usually without her permission and often without attribution. It was in an article for "American Quarterly," about the pious and extremely well-behaved colonial women described by Cotton Mather as "the hidden ones," that Ulrich made her now familiar observation . Her study of wives and mothers and daughters as they were remembered in funeral eulogies, the sole record of women who lived and labored in silent obscurity, illustrates a critical point. Much of what is characterized as female "misbehavior" is a matter of voice — of a woman insisting she be heard, paid not only attention, but also the respect due a being as fully human and necessary as a man. Given millenniums of patriarchy, the issue of women speaking out is necessarily that of their speaking out of turn. The mostly male forums of public life may patronize women with token attention and even, sometimes, take their words seriously, but they rarely if ever pay attention to a woman as they would to a man, without consciously taking her sex into account. Is it an accident of fate that "Well- Behaved Women Seldom Make History" is published as we look ahead to what may become the historic first of a major political party nominating a female candidate for president? Has Hillary Clinton arrived at the forefront by misbehaving? Ulrich, a Harvard historian whose "Midwife’s Tale" won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for history, uses "three classic works in Western feminism" as a springboard for examining the theme of "bad" behavior. Could the popularity of her slogan, she wondered, be explained by "feminism, postfeminism or something much older?" The answer emerges in Ulrich’s choice of texts: Christine de Pizan’s "Book of the City of Ladies," written in 1405; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s "Eighty Years and More," published in 1898; and "A Room of One’s Own," based on two lectures Virginia Woolf gave in 1928 — all works by women who "turned to history as a way of making sense of their own lives." History, Ulrich reminds us, "isn’t just what happens in the past," but what we choose to remember. As much invention as discovery, history attempts to make the chaotic present into a coherent picture by comparing it to images, equally artificial, fashioned from events long past. Pizan, Stanton, Woolf: three women with "intellectual fathers" and "domestic mothers," who were "raised in settings that simultaneously encouraged and thwarted their love of learning" and "married men who supported their intellectual ambitions." For each, her "moment of illumination came through an encounter with an odious book" expressing man’s "disdain" for women. Pizan responded to a 15th- century satire containing "diatribes" against her sex, Stanton to law tomes that set forth the rights of husbands and fathers over their wives and daughters, Woolf to "The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex," an imagined history representing what she discovered in the reading room of the British Museum. Ulrich’s new book is a work of selection and synthesis; she finds common archetypes in far-flung sources, making connections that are sometimes distant but never tenuous. The "Amazons" chapter is illustrated by examples from archaeological digs in Kazakhstan, South American folk tales and her own cultural backyard, which yields "an Olympic athlete, a female soldier, a lesbian separatist, a comic-book heroine." Her associative logic reveals how A prefigures Q or even Z rather than ordering A before B before C, and brings a female sensibility to what is more typically the linear, cause-and-effect formula of history, a majority of which, Ulrich points out, is written by men. Defined broadly by Ulrich as "women warriors," Amazons make history because they misbehave; they assert their presence in a world that instructs women to remain silent, submissive. Hillary Clinton, who famously refused to "bake cookies" in the background of her husband’s career, is an Amazon, destined to be as much the property of myth as of history, between which lies a vast and unfixed common ground. The celebrated Rosa Parks didn’t happen onto the stage of American history but was cast for her myth-ready appeal. The president of the Montgomery, Ala., N.A.A.C.P. interviewed women arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats, rejecting unusable candidates — an unwed mother, for example — before he found Parks, whose stainless reputation made her suitable for championing a cause. Parks’s good behavior was as necessary as her "bad," itself confined to voicing her refusal to comply with segregation. As Hillary Clinton well knows, to claim an audience is to submit to muckraking, and while an exposé can enhance the career of an Amy Winehouse or a Paris Hilton, it can halt political aspirations. It behooves an ambitious woman to be judicious in her misbehavior. Women have long perceived their status, at least in the United States, as analogous to that of blacks (and, by extension, other people of color). Here we’ve arrived at the 21st century yet to become citizens first and women second, our successes still the exception and never the rule in any career that isn’t inherently decorative, or doesn’t require changing sheets or bandages, or taking off clothing. That women don’t have voices but female voices is obvious from the way our vote is courted, our leanings studied as if influenced by whim or superstition or, heaven forbid, hormones (never a problem for men, of course). ULRICH considers the women’s suffrage movement in the chapter titled "Slaves in the Attic," addressing the subjugation of race and gender as twin forms of slavery, a stance taken by anti-abolitionists themselves, who legitimized it with biblical discussions of who was to serve whom. Her portraits of four 19th-century women named Harriet, three runaway slaves — Powell, Tubman and Jacobs — and the novelist Beecher Stowe, provide a surfeit of answers to the question Ulrich frames at the end of "Amazons," of where women’s "fury comes from and why it will not go away." Because Ulrich’s extensive research allows her to make imaginative leaps, spanning centuries and continents, the reader accepts that she occasionally forces coherence onto unwieldy material, resorting to the overly careful formula of academic papers, rehearsing established connections before introducing new ones. Pizan, Stanton and Woolf appear throughout to reorient us, their interruption more welcome in some contexts than in others. Whether scripted as "angels in the house" or slandered as whores for the sexual freedom that enhances a man’s prowess, women continue to struggle against the restrictions of patriarchy. If it feels like a leap of faith to look forward to when we will be citizens first and women second, Christine de Pizan offers a plan for the meantime. "Redefining the boundaries of womanhood" through a highly selective review of the past, she wrote a history of her sex that she could accept — a recipe for shoring up female sanity if ever there was one.

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