More Excerpts from My Writing: The Place of a Woman

Women have traditionally negotiated a contract of dependence with men.  To some extent, this has been dictated by force.

The Sillery Indians are especially severe on the women who leave their husbands. An instance of this sort having occurred, they secure permission from Montmagny to build a little prison of their own at Sillery, in which the woman is placed, with an injunction to entreat God to make her more sensible and obedient. Here, in the depth of winter, she is kept twenty-four hours, without fire or blanket, or at first, without other bed than the bare ground.”                                                                                     Reuben Gold Thwaites[i]

But a splitting of roles has evolutionarily and historically also been encouraged to have one half of mankind fine-tuned to respond to children: the half of the species that painfully bears the children into this world being the natural choice for this role.  That may be our biology, but biology does not dictate destiny.  Each of us is unique, and offered the opportunity by God to establish a creative response to our biology, to forge a path that can be as peculiar, spectacular and intricate as any meteor shower or spider’s web.  We can be authors of our own destiny.  God has given us that freedom and gift.

Although women on average may not be physically as strong as men are, we should recognize that even the strongest human has physical limits.  Einstein, discussing human limits, said it well:

Whatever your difficulties are in math, I can assure you that mine are far greater.”[i]

Einstein, who was himself married to a mathematician Mileva Maric, may have been surprised to discover that several women with MacArthur genius grants in physics (Lene Vestergaard Hau, Deborah Jin[ii] ) are in fact successfully tackling some of his mathematical difficulties.  From the point of view of physical strength, not all men are equally strong.  That is at least one reason why we invent tools to help us.  Physical strength is not the end-all and be-all.  The argument that a right to vote for a particular group should be based upon physical strength or measurement of any other statistically variable quantity simply does not hold water, either for men or women.

To prove, however, that woman was not intended to be the equal of man, the argument most frequently alleged is that she is the weaker vessel, inferior in stature, and has much less physical strength. This physiological fact, of course, cannot be denied; although the disparity in these respects is very much increased by neglect or mismanagement. But allowing women generally to have less bodily power, why should this consign them to mental, moral, or social dependence? Physical force is of special value only in a savage or barbarous community. It is the avowed intention and tendency of Christianity to give the ascendancy to man’s moral nature; and the promises of God, with whom is all strength and wisdom, are to the upright, the pure, the good, not to the strong, the valiant, or the crafty.

                                                                                                    Samuel May[iii]

Each of us should feel challenged to create the solutions to our problems.  There is more than one way. Invention and experience go a long way.

In 2010, it is difficult to imagine that fewer than 100 years ago, the U.S. government would not acknowledge the vote of a woman, and several women including Susan B. Anthony in fact went to prison for trying to vote[i].  Many occupations were formally closed to women in the public sphere: doctor (1849), lawyer (1869), politician (1925), architect (1878), ministry (1853[ii]), published author (1650[iii]), professional artist (1707), patented inventor (1809), chemist (1873), performed symphony composer (1897), police officer with arrest powers (1910[iv]), pilot (1911), military (1782), explorer (1804), engineer (1876[v]), public political speaker (1831), dentist (1866) … The dates in parenthesis after each category indicate when each barrier was breached in the U.S..   Some of these barriers were “illegally” breached by women who disguised themselves as men (Deborah Sampson fought in the Revolutionary War, removing a bullet from her wound herself, to avoid discovery.  This was 150 years before the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Fleming (the first antibiotic).  Another woman, Elizabeth Newcom, made the 600 mile deployment march during the Mexican War (1846-48) to train at Pueblo, Colorado only to be discovered and turned away once there.  Higher education only became formally accessible to women in xxx.  The first Bachelor’s degree was awarded to a woman in 1841, the first Master’s in xxx , and the first Ph.D. in 1877[vi].  Xxx was the first year a female professor was awarded tenure.

Mary Wollstonecraft is credited with being the initiator of women’s suffrage in England with the publication of her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.  In the US, Seneca Falls, NY, became a pivotal site in the suffrage movement when the first national conference on women’s rights was held there in 1848, a reaction to being denied a voice at an international conference on the abolition of slavery in England.  The Seneca Falls convention was organized by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Stanton, and Ann McClintock, just 10 years after the first national constitutional government had granted suffrage to women (Pitcairn islands).  Over 240 people attended, and 100 of them signed the Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence subsequent to the convention.  Prior to this, the path to suffrage, achieved in 1920, was defined by the literary works and thinking of Fanny Wight, Margaret Fuller, Stanton, as well as the political actions of Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Helen Keller, Frederick Douglas and others.  More tangibly, this path would later involve the acquisition of property rights, the acquisition of divorce rights, the extension of suffrage to African Americans in 1869[vii] and finally the depletion of the male workforce during World War I.

After her husband horsewhipped and beat her, one woman took her plea for divorce to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1862. The Chief Justice denied her, stating, “The law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force necessary to make the wife behave and know her place.”[viii]

In 2012, most, but not all, people in the U.S. would be indignant at these words.  Hearing the law sanction violence against women as a potentially necessary or socially desirable subjection in marriage is offensive.  At the time, sadly, few people probably blinked twice.

With this history in the background, I arrive in Seneca Falls after dark with the dogs and look for the closest place to pitch a tent.  It must have been a Friday night.  The bar scene was happening, and when I asked around, someone told me that there were some woods a couple of miles up the road where the high school kids go to drink, and sometimes camp out.  In all my activism work for homeless animals, the following disclaimer was noted at the bottom of my flyers:

“State legislation (HB 568) is being considered in Ohio to ban pit bulls – the first ban on a state-wide level. There are 12 states that have state-wide legislation prohibiting municipalities from discriminating against pit bull mixes: CA, CO, FL, IL, ME, MN, NJ, NY, OK, PA, TX , VA. In 2009, dogs were responsible for 16 human fatalities in the US (97% of fatalities over a 10 year period have involved unaltered dogs; 25% have involved tethered dogs). This represents a ratio of 87 500 dogs killed for every human fatality. Swimming pools were responsible for 30 times more deaths than dogs were. Smoking was responsible for 10 000 times more human fatalities than dogs were. Alcohol-related driving was responsible for 1000 times more human fatalities than dogs were.”

As tempting as the symbolism of the proposed campsite was, “Pitching a tent with Petey and Duke to prevent drunk driving among teenagers,” the dogs were too tired to make these last few miles.  They simply didn’t have it in them.

I don’t cry easily anymore – if I ever did.  After years of homelessness, I simply don’t have easy access to that part of my emotions.  We found the Wall of Water in the darkness.  It’s a small national park with a chapel under construction on the property. As I stood there reading the “Declaration of Sentiments” at the Wall, the tears began to stream down my face in the darkness, my body resonating with the physical metaphor.  I felt the words so deeply.  Although it had not been my original intention, I knew that this was the only meaningful place for me to pitch my tent that night (and there was thankfully a small spot). I thought I might be arrested, but I took the chance.


[i] C:\Documents and Settings\c\My Documents\8-27\The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents Volume 24.htm

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