Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When Wearing Pants was Radical: The Feminist Writings of Fanny Fern

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton) was born in Portland, Maine in 1811.  Her personal life was marked by domestic tragedy and struggle which would shape her later feminist writings.  In 1846, he first husband died, leaving her to struggle to support herself and two daughters.  In the 19th century, few professions were open to women.  She tried, unsuccessfully, to support her family by sewing, but found this impossible.  She re-married in 1849, but her second husband turned out to be, in her words, "jealous, tyrannical, and sexually repulsive".  In 1851, she made the radical choice to leave her husband, which left her (for a time) impoverished and socially ostracized.

It was this same year, 1851, that Fern began her career as a writer, using her experiences as a woman in the 19th century to express her ideas about the rights of women.  Her writings in the Boston publication Olive Branch made her a literary celebrity, and "an embodiment of the new American woman."  In 1854, she published the novel Ruth Hall: a Domestic Tale of the Present Time, which became "a sensation because readers knew it was in large part autobiographical and because it involved a new feminist heroine who struggled successfully for opportunities in a society where laws gave husbands rights over their wives' property."

By 1855, Fanny Fern was a household name and she secured a contract with the New York Ledger where she earned $100 per column--a huge sum, especially for a woman.  It was as a writer that Fern finally found the economic and social freedom she had struggled for.  In these columns, Fern used humor and satire to criticize the male-dominated society of her day, and to inspire women to not be silent about social inequality.

In an 1857 column entitled "Male Criticism of Ladies' Books," Fern begins with a quote from the New York Times which she finds particularly repulsive: "Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman's thoughts and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation.  We have no right to expect anything else in a woman's book."  With her signature combination of humor and outrage, Fern blasts this sexist and condescending quote.  First, she argues, marriage and family are the topics of most novels, even by such esteemed male authors as Charles Dickens and Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray.  Second, she mocks the writer as someone "who knows as much about reviewing a woman's book as I do about navigating a ship."  She ends with a challenge to the critic-- "Write a better book!"

In a column entitled "Fresh Leaves, by Fanny Fern," she parodies the tone and content of a male reviewer of one of her own books.  "When we take up a woman's book," she writes, mockingly, "we expect to find gentleness, timidity, and that lovely reliance on the patronage of our sex which constitutes a woman's greatest charm."  Fern states directly what was a commonly-held belief, showing the absurdity of it.  The mock-critics are horrified by Fern's forthrightness: "We have a conservative horror of this pop-gun torpedo female."  Literary art, Fern believes, is meant to rattle people out of complacency, not to fit neatly into cultural/gender stereotypes.  Fern takes serious issue with critics who prefer books that "lull one to sleep like a stream of gentle music."  Her bold and frank writing defied these stereotypes.

Keep those ankles covered!

In another column entitled "A Law More Nice Than Just." Fern criticizes the ways in which women of her day are confined, not just in matters of literature, but in matters of life.  She begins by quoting a news article: "Emma Wilson was arrested yesterday for wearing man's apparel."  It is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine, but in the 19th century, women's clotting was strictly regulated by both law and custom.  A woman wearing pants was a "radical."  Fern's argument against such restrictions is a very mundane one--such laws prevent women from taking walks on rainy days:

"Everybody knows what an everlasting drizzle of rain we have had lately, but nobody but a woman, and a woman who lives on fresh air and out-door exercise, knows the thraldom of taking her daily walk through three weeks' rain, with skirts to hold up, and umbrella to hold down, and puddles to skip over, and gutters to walk round, and all the time in a fright lest, in an unguarded moment, her calves should become visible to some one of those rainy-day philanthropists who are interested in the public scrutiny of female anatomy."

When it comes to rainy day walks, men have it much easier.  Fern describes a scenario in which she decided to wear her husband's trousers on a walk: "Oh, the delicious freedom of that walk…No skirts to hold up, or to draggle their wet folds against my ankles; no stifling veil flapping in my face, and blinding my eyes; no umbrella to turn inside out, but instead, the cool rain driving slap into my face, and the resurrectionized blood coursing through my veins, and tingling in my cheeks."  Fern concludes with this statement on the rights of women to dress as they wish: "I've as good a right to preserve the healthy body God gave me, as if I were not a woman."

Through writings like this, Fanny Fern sought to show the world, particularly the world of men, all the ways (big and small) in which women were not equal in American society.  She focused her writer's gaze unflinchingly and courageously on the the inequality of women, and she sought, through writing, to open peoples' eyes to new, and freer, ways of thinking.

As I write this, I'm sitting on a bench on Birch Street in Brea, outside Ann Taylor Loft, a fairly conservative women's clothing store.  In the windows stand female mannequins wearing pants and skirts cut above the knee.  I'm struck by the fact that, if this was 1850, Ann Taylor Loft would be closed down by the authorities for being "radical."  It suppose this shows that what we consider "radical" changes drastically over time.  What was radical in Fanny Fern's day became, over time, normal modes of thinking.  I suppose the lesson is--don't dismiss the "radical" thinkers of today, for they may be the prophets of tomorrow.


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