Carole Owens A ways to go, but a long way from Submit

STOCKBRIDGE — Thinking about the movements #MeToo and Time's Up from an historical perspective may be interesting. It is like measuring the distance of a journey. Where did we start? How far did we travel?

In the 18th century the path to respect for a woman was as an industrious, frugal, and fruitful wife. A good wife turned raw materials into the needs of the family and did it on a shoestring while bearing many children. She was an economic bow in her husband's quiver. The notion of a woman as companion would come later; the notion of a woman as equal partner would come much later.

The reality of a woman defined in relationship to a man was so ingrained that today researchers have a hard time finding a woman's first name. She was the wife, the spinster daughter or ward of John Jones. Finding something as elementary as her first name meant finding the record of her birth, marriage and death.

Dear Prudence

Even the language was different reflecting different values: a good woman was a Goodwife. An amiable woman was not affable; an amiable woman was compliant and deferential.

An attractive woman was not physically appealing; an attractive woman was an agreeable and obedient woman. A homely woman was not ugly, she was domestic. Lest they forget their proper place, baby girls were given names like Deference, Patience, Prudence, and Submit.

Unlike the women of today, 18th century women rarely outlived their husbands. Their life span was markedly shorter; they were used up, buried, and replaced more than once in a man's life. Forty to 65 percent, were literate, but literate was not educated. Women could read but what they could read was limited.

In 1645 Gov. Edward Hopkins of Connecticut consulted the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop. He was concerned because he feared his wife had lost her wits and was suddenly insane. Winthrop said that the origin of the woman's madness was reading books. "If she had attended her household affairs and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper to men, whose minds are stronger, [she would have] kept her wits."

Unlike today, women had no public life, that is, no life in public. They went to church but could not stand and speak aloud to the congregation. They went to town, but they could not own anything, and the last contract they could sign was a marriage license.

The American Revolution — the fight for freedom — was not lost on the women. When it began men were subjects of the king, and women were subjects of men. As the war and the rhetoric heated up, there were rents in the fabric letting in light, and things — even if small things -- changed.

Still waiting on pay

It was 1809 in Connecticut before a married woman could own property separate from her husband. In New York and Massachusetts, it was mid-19th century. It was 1886 before the age of consent was raised from 10 years old to 16. It was 1898 before rape was considered a violent crime. It was 1920 before women had the right to vote. It was 1973 before abortion and contraception were considered legal, giving women control over their own bodies. It was 1974 before a woman could borrow money without a male cosigner; that included getting a credit card. It was 1978 before women had the right to keep their jobs when pregnant. When was it that beating a wife was considered a violent crime? Not yet. Equal pay for equal work? Women are waiting.

Equality for women is less a march and more a dance: one step forward two steps back. The current movements may not enjoy uninterrupted forward motion because the underpinnings of the treatment of women date back to English Common Law. They are ingrained, change slowly, and invite backlash. What should be remembered, however, is since the 19th century, no little girls have been named Submit.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions