Rare books, real-world lessons

Today’s post comes to us from Mary Rose, one of the wonderful librarians at Lovejoy.  She has taken over responsibility for Women’s Studies materials and programming at Lovejoy this year, and we’re looking forward to working more closely with her.  Her blog post today considers an exhibit she developed for Women’s History Month last March and how thinking about the work she was presented has impacted her own history.

I am a librarian at SIUE’s Lovejoy Library. In the spring of 2013, I began a two-fold project to create a physical exhibit of rare library books, and a digital companion exhibit. I chose as my subject “literature by, for, and about women.” My goals were to design effective and scholarly exhibits and to showcase interesting old books in the library’s collection. I ended up experiencing something more profound: the beginnings of a personal feminist awakening.

The physical exhibit – “To Whom It May Concern: 19th Century Feminist Response to ‘A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice’” – has ended its run; the books are safely put away back in the archives. But the digital version remains, and I invite you to visit it. For the rest of this blog post, I’ll talk a bit about my own responses to the ideas I discovered in some of the eight featured books while I was writing the exhibit.

For me, the central figure of the exhibit is Margaret Fuller. In the digital exhibit, her portrait is used in the title banner, and the frontispiece from her book is the basis for the background. Fuller’s book Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) is the fourth in the exhibit. Fuller believed in women developing self-reliance and humanity independent from men. She stated that all people are a combination of masculine and feminine “energies.” These ideas are challenging to me. Upon reflection I see my life as a woman as trying to prove there is no inherent femininity in women, that it is all culturally based, that I and every other woman can stand toe-to-toe with any man on anything. Fuller’s ideas (as I perceive them) that (1) men are irrelevant to the self-development of women (even as a standard), and (2) that everyone (male and female) has an inherent femininity (as well as an inherent masculinity), have opened my eyes to the possibility that there is more to being a woman that I have previously allowed.

My reactions to other books in the exhibit, while less dramatic, also expand my understanding of feminism and what it means to be a woman. The first two books are the earliest, published in 1741 (A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady) and 1794 (Lectures on Female Education and Manners). Both of them address middle and upper class women and dedicate several pages to suggesting ways for them to stave off boredom. What a depressing way to spend a life, finding ways to fill your time. Like an inmate in prison: for these women, the home was in a way a prison. Literacy training for women emphasized literally HOW to read, i.e. how to interpret punctuation when reading aloud, as opposed to understanding what you read or employing the knowledge gained in some useful way. Women who actually analyzed what they read and wrote about their conclusions were said to have “throw[n] off the female character”; many men in the satirical Old Maids (1835) refuse to marry a “bluestocking.” These examples illustrate that an intellectual woman was viewed as something less than a valid woman.

The physical tininess of Woman and the Higher Education (1893) almost undermines the impact of its expansive subject: women’s education in the United States over the course of the 19th century. Reading this book reminded me of the two sides of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. This is a complete oversimplification, but the one side prioritized political/legal/civil equality and the other focused on economic equality. No one denies the importance of both, but it is a fundamental difference of opinion about what matters most, the former being more ideological and the latter being more pragmatic, each thinking their approach is the key to achieving both forms of equality. I interpret Woman and the Higher Education as an example of the pragmatic view of equality, while the fight for federal enfranchisement of women is more ideological.

I’ll end my thoughts about the exhibit books with some comments about Otis Tufton Mason’s Woman’s Share in Primitive Culture (1894). This book set off all sorts of bells for me. Mason’s thesis, broadly, is that many feminist initiatives should be tolerated because in fact they are not feminist after all: they are just slightly unconventional extensions of feminine functions that have existed since the beginning of time. These include activities like caring for the sick, textile manufacturing, and management of social groups. However, it is obvious to Mason that women have nothing to offer in masculine areas, like for instance combat. In contrast, Fuller states that “Nature … sends women to battle, … she enables the man … to nourish his infant like a mother.”

Fuller says that “femality” is intuitive, inspiring, and fluid, compared to objective, causative, solid masculinity, but she states clearly: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” Doesn’t almost every activity that seeks to be successful demand a balance of feminine and masculine energies as Fuller describes them? Writing this exhibit, learning about Margaret Fuller, I am appreciating my own femininity more as a component of my humanity rather than as a definition of it that I need to accept as a limit or deny and overcome.

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