A Delicate Blossom of Womanhood

Back in my not-nearly-misspent-enough youth, when I was in erm… gymnasiet (which is sort of highschool, except more – it’s a three-year program, you go there if your career plans include going to university, what’d you call it? And yes, I know I keep asking that question)… Anyway, several of my teachers had conspired to delve into a specific important period in Denmark, which I can vaguely recall included the 1700s and 1800s and we spent 1½ years of the three immersed in said era in both history and Danish classes (and maybe one more subject?) and by the end, I was sick to death of it and never wanted to read anything written before 1960 again in my life. Which was unfortunate – instead of instilling a love of history and literature, they created an aversion so deep that I’ve repressed everything I learned. Nay, scrubbed it out of my mind. OK, so I’m a history nerd, but the urge to avoid literature – or perhaps I should say Literature – stuck.

Fastforward to sometime in the 80s, when I finally gave in to the feelings of guilt over being unfamiliar with much of the English-language classics, determined to do something about it with about the same level of enthusiasm I employ when eating brussel sprouts and picked up Pride & Prejudice. Then I spent several weeks asking everyone I knew why on earth they hadn’t told me it was funny and in general raving about Jane Austen. Fastforward another couple of decades and we’re in October, 2007 and I’ve just finished reading Persuasion by the incomparable Miss Austen (apparently, despite the earlier positive experience, the aversion stuck enough that it was 20 years before I picked up another pre-1960 classic. I’m working on it). I’ve had a spectacular time, especially since it was narrated by Nadia May, who brilliantly captures the intricacies of the language, but what struck me most was how horrendous it must have been to be a woman in the 18th and early 19th centuries. More specifically, wives and daughters of gentlemen.

The first thing that makes me grateful to be born in 1962 was the thought of how boring it must have been. No education beyond a facility in French, Italian, etc. Being “accomplished” meant playing the piano, embroidery, drawing and… what? Developing the ability to listen patiently to the inane blatherings of people older and/or of higher status? Not being allowed to run, be required to move in a delicate unladylike manner and being treated like the slightest inclement weather could kill you - one quote (of many) in Persuasion was "it began to rain. Not much, but enough to make shelter desirable for women". I'm beginning to realize that in all of these books one woman will somehow become injured or ill in a way that requires spending a lot of time at death's door, often from a mere cold. But it shouldn't be surprising - at the time, women were kept in so weakened a state that I am surprised any of them survived past 21 at all (come to think of it, that would’ve been positively middleaged when the average life expectancy was 30).

When spending time with Ms. Austen, I was overwhelmed by how confined the women were, physically, emotionally and socially. Back at the beginnings of the reality show craze, Britain’s Channel 4 got in on the act in trademark British manner. In Regency House, they recruited a number of men and women in their 20s and 30s and plopped them down in a manor house pretending to be the 18th century. Reading about it is one thing, but watching these 20th-century women doing nothing but a bit of embroidery, taking a turn about the room at a snail’s pace, never be allowed to be free, to have a belly laugh or to talk about anything of substance was both frightening and enlightening.

Reading Persuasion made me think about feminism and where we been and where we're going. What the differences are between then and now and what similarities still exist, just better hidden. And it felt right to think about that with more attention this week in particular, because this week, it's been 78 years since Canadian women were granted person status in the eyes of the law. Seventy-eight years. A lifetime, that's all.

We've only been persons for a lifetime.