Thanks so much for your last letter about “great and not so great expectations” for women.” Right now, I am thinking about how much I expect of myself, wondering if I am trying to do too much!
The Value of Writing Retreats
As you know, I am now two weeks away from leaving Seattle and venturing on to graduate school in Connecticut; so life is filled to the brim with moving plans and goodbyes and last minute projects. Fortunately, I’ve carved out space this weekend to go away for a writing retreat to work on my book. I get to be on a lovely island off the coast of Washington, tucked away in a cabin and enjoying a more contemplative pace of life. I try to take writing retreats every few months. They are such a privilege, but I’ve also come to see them as a necessity for the writing life. There is something about changing my work space that helps stimulate new ideas and sensations. I tell my friends that my writing retreats help me “stalk my epiphanies”—I get to stay up as late as I want, writing away, until something fires in my synapses and the “aha” moment arrives on the page.
This island I am going to is particularly lovely for creative inspiration. It has a wonderful bakery, dirt roads, friendly locals, and the most brilliant stars that light the night sky. Plus, I’ve been visiting it since I was girl, and it holds many years of inspiring memories that somehow have the effect of encouraging me to stride boldly into the future, too. I am thrilled for the move to attend Yale, though the excitement for my upcoming education is not without the nerves.
A favorite book that I take with me on every writing retreat is the classic collection of essays, A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf. With imagination and wit, Woolf gets us thinking about the cultural expectations that have created a history in western society in which many of the talents of women have gone un-offered to the world. What if Shakespeare had had a sister who would had been equally gifted at writing plays? She would never have been given the same opportunities as her brother; and her work, like so many women’s, would have been lost to a silent history.
A Beautiful, Locked Country for Men Only
Perhaps because of my nearing move to Yale, one thing I have been spending lots of time researching and thinking about is the tremendous gift of living in a cultural-historical moment in which the doors of higher education are open to women. (I know that the theme of education keeps coming up in our last few letters.) It really has not been that long since the opportunities many of us have come to expect were inconceivable to previous generations. Thanks to pioneering women like Mary Wollstonecraft or Harriet Taylor, women of my generation can now take their education for granted, forgetting there was a time when not only was higher education locked to women, but nearly all formal education. It is indeed amazing how expectations of women have shifted so dramatically over the last 200 years.
Today, I happened to be listening to a lecture on Abigail Adams (I like to check out lectures on history at the library), and the professor shared some of her life story and read excerpts of her letters. I learned that Abigail Adams lamented that she had no access to formal schooling (though she did receive some education by her father). However, in her 40s when traveling in England during one of her husband John’s diplomatic missions, she had her first opportunity to take classes. She took courses in electricity, magnetism, and optics and was fascinated. She wrote of her late-found education that, ”It was like going into a beautiful country which I never saw before, a country which our American females are not permitted to visit or inspect.”
Isn’t that heart-wrenching?
For Abigail Adams, being in Europe, taking courses, and meeting other women who had also sought out education helped to vindicate her feeling she had had all along—that it was not right to deny women access to education.
However, she was quickly ready to clarify that women need to be educated not in order to usurp male roles, but to be better wives and mothers. She explained that since women were raising the sons who would become the next generation of leaders and statesmen, the mothers ought to be properly educated in order to bring up such great men. In this way, her radical idea could still snugly fit into the lap of patriarchal expectations.
Wollstonecraft and Mill
Mary Wollstonecraft also used a similar approach of upholding patriarchal expectations, even in the context of advancing women’s rights. She explained that women ought to have access to education for the primary purpose of making women more rational, with the end result of their being better wives and mother. And while it is easy to critique her argument now, she was effectively moving the conversation forward in her historical moment. A Vindication of the Rights of Women (written in 1792) was a response to Rousseau’s Emile, in which the highly influential philosopher adamantly denies women rights to education. Rousseau thought society itself would crash down if women were allowed to do the things that men were traditionally allowed to do! (When I read him, I can’t help but think how remarkably similar his arguments are to those of many conservative pastors I have heard preaching today. Scary!)
Several years later in 1869, John Stuart Mill—who was the husband of Harriet Taylor, a member of the British parliament, and an advocate for women’s rights— advanced the cause for women’s education in his own strategic (yet ironically patriarchal) way. He explained that women would only be holding their husbands back from progress if they were not allowed to be educated, since men spend so much time with their wives. We mustn’t have women holding men back! So, once again women can only be educated for an end result that benefits others, not themselves. (But as Mill himself carefully notes in his writings, he didn’t necessarily use his best arguments when he wrote. He was a utilitarian and a pragmatist, and he used the arguments that he thought would be most effective for advancing his cause.)
Moria Gatens writes in Feminism and Philosophy that even the best pro-feminist women and men need to be critiqued, because most of them positioned their progressive ideas within philosophical assumptions that were still deeply rooted within traditional gender expectations. I like how she so articulately deconstructs Western, Enlightenment philosophy and shows how most all the terms (freedom, citizen, labor, education, etc.) silently and effectively exclude women, who generally could not own property, be educated, or have legal ownership of the profits from their labor—all foundational ideals within democratic, Enlightenment thinking.
Yet, at the same time, these historical characters who pioneered for women’s education were making key advances within their own time. They were using the “currency” available to them within a society that had rigid expectations of women’s and men’s roles. If they hadn’t made their small steps, I would not be going off to graduate school in 2009. Now it is my turn to share in the responsibility of advancing their steps, fulfilling their visions, and opening new, wider pathways for the girls and women of my generation and those who come after me.
Letha, thank you again for this correspondence. I look forward to keeping up these letters while I am at Yale Divinity. In fact, the next time you hear from me I will be all settled into my new home and life. Thanks so much for all your prayers and support.