I may have mentioned a while back that my favorite primary source I’ve ever used (perhaps an overstatement, but probably not, given my deep love for this dialog) comes in the form of a short story called Alcuin, published in 1797 by Charles Brockden Brown (yes, a man). For those of you who don’t know, Alcuin features a silly conversation between a school teacher and Mrs. Carter, the sister of a highly regarded doctor, who hosts salon-type dinner parties and facilitates discussions between leading local intellectuals. Being a curious fellow, rather than engaging with his fellow men, the bewildered school teacher instead turns his attention on Mrs. Carter and attempts to engage her in a discourse. What follows is both hilarious and snarky, as Mrs. Carter delightfully refuses to answer any of his questions, and at the same time exposes the early Republic’s hypocrisy. Like many of the women I’ve researched, Mrs. Carter subtly proves her superiority as she plays the dumb, evasive female.
Alcuin was published by a man, which, of course is problematic. But the fact that a man put such strong words and actions in the character of a female is indicative of a larger discourse brewing. Indeed, the story was published around the same time that Judith Sargent Murray and Mary Wollstonecraft were arguing for the equality of the sexes, and Hannah Adams and Mercy Warren were joining John Marshall, Jedidiah Morse, and David Ramsay in the ranks of our first national historians. In the context of my thesis, that’s what made this source so damn cool, but what strikes me now as I look over my old notes and furrow my brow is how poignant most of what Mrs. Carter has to say remains even today. I typically try to avoid most discussions of current politics, but I do fear that my country is on the verge of a major relapse regarding women’s rights. There’s just something about reading a 215-year-old document and having so much of it echo the present day that really (excites me) freaks me out…
I’m going to try not to copy and paste an entire document of my crazy notes into this blog post, but I do want to share some of my favorite quotes. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Mrs. Carter is a grade-A historical badass. (I’ve bolded the parts I found particularly relevant.)
To her, after much deliberation and forethought, I addressed myself thus: “Pray, Madam, are you a Federalist?” The question, to be sure, was strange, especially when addressed to a lady; but I could not, by all my study, light upon a better mode of beginning discourse… [She answered,] “What! ask a woman, shallow and inexperienced as all women are known to be, especially with regard to these topics, her opinion on any political question! What in the name of decency have we to do with politics?”
Okay, so, as a side-note, I read Mrs. Carter as a very sarcastic and snarky character. She may be saying that women should avoid politics, but given her lines in the rest of the dialog, I sense an inherent eyeroll in everything she says in the above quote…
Yes (said the lady); of all forms of injustice, that is the most egregious which makes the circumstance of sex a reason for excluding one half of mankind from all those paths which lead to usefulness and honour.
Nothing has been more injurious than the separation of the sexes. They associate in childhood without restraint, but the period quickly arrives when they are obliged to take different paths. Ideas, maxims, and pursuits, wholly opposite, engross their attention. Different systems of morality, different languages, or, at least, the same words with a different set of meanings, are adopted. All intercourse between them is fettered and embarrassed. On one side, all is reserve and artifice; on the other, adulation and affected humility. The same end must be compassed by opposite means. The man must affect a disproportionable ardour; while the woman must counterfeit indifference or aversion. Her tongue has no office, but to belie the sentiments of her heart, and the dictates of her understanding.
See: male/female toys, fearing Hillary Clinton’s over-ambition when anyone running for President of the United States is definitely over-ambitious, “slut”-shaming/”player”-praising, a recent study that women speak less (or feel less comfortable speaking) in certain situations than their male peers… (I could go on, but I won’t because it’s past my bedtime.)
Perhaps there is no country in the world where the yoke is lighter than here; but this persuasion, though in one view it may afford us consolation, ought not to blind us to our true condition, or weaken our efforts to remove the evils that still oppress us.
Even the government of our own country, which is said to be the freest in the world, passes over women as if they were not. We are excluded from all political rights without the least ceremony. Law-makers thought as little of comprehending us in their code of liberty as if we were pigs, or sheep. That females are exceptions to their general maxims, perhaps never occurred to them, if it did, the idea was quietly discarded without leaving behind in it the slightest consciousness of inconsistency or injustice.
If they generously admit me into the class of existences, but affirm that I exist for no purpose but the convenience of the more dignified sex, that I cannot be entrusted with the government of myself: that to foresee, to deliberate and decide belongs to others, while all my duties resolve themselves into this precept, ‘listen and obey;’ it is not for me to smile at their tyranny, or receive as my gospel, a code built upon such atrocious maxims. No, I am not a Federalist.
I’m not going to turn this into a political rant. I haven’t the research or the heart for that at the moment. For sure, from the bolded sections, you know where my sentiments lie. Just know, we stand on the brink of such backwards policy with regards to nearly everything in the 21st Century that even a white, privileged man in the 1790s understood what a wrong step might mean for women today. That’s pretty messed up. Please, if you have sisters, mothers, wives, aunts, girlfriends, friends that are girls, daughters, nieces, cousins, grandmothers, great-grandmothers…educate yourselves, step into their shoes, and vote for what is right.