Quick Read: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)

Most of our blog posts and reading discussions focus on scholarly works, and books that relate directly to our research. This one however is a book that I read for fun (it can happen in Grad school). I am starting a new section on the blog, which hopefully we can update semi-regularly, called “Quick Read” that will feature books that we read outside of our usual workload. These books shouldn’t take too long to read, and we will give you our opinion on them with less in-depth analysis than our usual posts/discussions.

I picked up a copy o Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale through my Kindle Unlimited subscription (not an advertisement) because it offered free audio with it, and I was supposed to not read anything until I was cleared by my doctor after a major car accident. The story is set in a dystopian America, where women are essentially divided by class and procreative ability. Atwood successfully created a fictional, yet poignant exploration of female power and empowerment, through the account of “Offred” and her placement as a Handmaid- essentially a concubine- in the home of a prominent member of the ruling party. The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of The Giver (Lois Lowry), 1984 (George Orwell), and Aeon Flux (Peter Chung). The protagonist, Offred, struggles to cope with the collapse of 1980s America, and her new position as a femme covert in the new theocracy. One cannot read this without thinking about how Atwood was influenced by Nazi Germany and the idea of an Aryan race. Perhaps most frighteningly is the relevance to modern discussions of separation of church and state, xenophobia, women’s rights, and religious freedom.

In a world where women must be covered head to toe in appropriate colors to display their rank and role in society; where women must act only to please God and the head of their household, Offred is able to find glimpses of happiness. This makes her question if her life as a femme covert is better than her life of “freedom”, responsibility, and worry that accompany modern life. I think that this is the most important part of the book for our purposes on this blog. Oftentimes as historians, or modern Americans, we look at societies that have cultural practices similar to those described in The Handmaid’s Tale and we wonder why women would stay in a world like that, a world where they cannot ow property, be allowed to read, and must by covered from the eyes of men. Atwood successfully, I think, examines some of the temptation to stay in a life like that. Though in the end Offred attempts to escape her life as Handmaid so that she can exercise control over her own body.

This was a quick (311 pages) and interesting read that I think helps expand our understanding of women’s rights and empowerment. It is no wonder that this book has resurfaced as a must-read.

 

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Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

Captain Ahab Had A Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Lisa Norling (2000)

In her lengthy examination of New England women and their lives in the whaling community, Lisa Norling argues that these women thrived within the whaling world by embracing the Victorian ideals of female domesticity.  Norling is faced with a difficult task, attempting to find a path to understanding women in a historically “man’s world”.  To rise to the challenge, Norling utilizes diaries, correspondence, and ledgers to find the women who inhabited this world. The problem with this approach, and one which I struggle with in much of my research, is that the historical records only allow us to examine women through the men to whom they were attached. I cannot claim to have an alternative approach to studying women during this period, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge this shortfall in the historical record within the analysis of the materials. Indeed, this approach further limited Norling’s study to “prominent” Quaker and then New England families, a group more likely than poor families to want to project the ideals of Domesticity.

Wrestling with the ways that Victoria domesticity could work within a whaling community results in Norling tracing the New England whaling economy nearly from inception on colonial Nantucket through the 19th century. I thought that the organization of the book, while important to laying the foundation for an understanding of New England Whaling practices and economy that shaped the world in which these women lived was separate from the main argument about domesticity. In fact, this exposition shifts the focus of much of the book onto the practice of Paternalism within New England and Fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Understanding that women, and communities, depended on paternalism to survive when such a large part of the population was gone for increasing lengths of time is crucial to understanding the roles that women had to step into, but almost half of each chapter is devoted to reviewing the state of paternalism at that point in time. The relevance to Norling’s overarching argument that Victorian ideals of domesticity were successful, are confused by the extensive discussion of paternalism and its intricacies. As Norling’s study goes further into the 19th century and the paternalism system continues to break down, women were forced to expand their roles as substitute husbands and breadwinners, at a time when Victorian Domesticity were at an all time high. The new ideals of femininity and masculinity become subverted according to Norling during this time:

For centuries a supply of firewood had been a basic necessity of life, one of the essentials granted by New England towns to their indigent and often specified as part of widows’ portions. Henry Beetle’s inability to provide his wife [who was according to her letters chopping wood herself] and child with the means to acquire wood seemed to stand for his failure as his family’s sole support and thereby, with the new definition of masculinity and femininity, challenged his very manhood. The image of Eliza outside, swinging an ax and hewing wood, seems to have upset Henry’s notions of female delicacy and dependence. (Norling 163)

This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?

Norling’s argument continues to become muddied with her consideration of the many ways that women were forced to find employment or income during the absences of their men. Norling suggests that this is offset by the romantic symbolism and epistolary writings found in the correspondence between whaling men and their wives. Norling’s use of select letters, I believe, romanticizes the relationships of these individuals. I appreciated her inclusion of letters from women detailing their struggles, and their frustrations with being left ashore with families to care and provide for, but would have liked to hear more about how frequently these letters are found in the trove of letters that Norling has explored. This frustration seems to provide a more realistic glimpse of Victorian life (as a mother today I could relate), but I think she could have used more analysis on them to reveal the reality of the world of a Whaling Wife, rather than reinforcing the Victorian idea that women wanted to be perceived as the center of romance and the home.

I don’t want to deter from the overall importance of Norling’s work. I think it is a crucial book and a fascinating read. My task for this post was to look at the success of Norling’s argument, and I am unsure that I can answer definitively that it was a successful argument. I keep returning to questions posed on Amber and Michelle’s posts for Captain Ahab Had A Wife,  How does this reliance on domesticity and separate sphere hamper Norling’s argument, and Does reading backwards preordain the conclusion? I think that Norling utilized the ideal of separate spheres for men and women, and domesticity to propel her historical narrative, but the reliance on these two (now) shaky foundational ideas of 18th and 19th century life reveal a conclusion that I don’t think fully can withstand further research or analysis.

Postscript: This is the first analysis (and even extensive writing) that I have done since I sustained a mild brain injury ending my semester early and unexpectedly. I will be posting several more posts in the next few weeks as I attempt to finish my semester work.

Summer Reading List!

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun and a summer reading list!

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (Sarah)

Martha Hodes, A Sea Captain’s Wife (Amber)

Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins (Michelle)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Amber)

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Michelle)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Sarah)

Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies: Narratives in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and My Bondage and my Freedom (1855)

All three of us will be reading:

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz, The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Be on the lookout for our reviews and possibly a discussion or two soon.

We would love more reading recommendations, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email.

Hope you have a safe and wonderful summer!

Big Kings & Little Castles: Yeoman Farmers and their Family Relations

In her book, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, Stephanie McCurry explores the lives of small farm living in South Carolina in the years leading up to the Civil War. Though it is a fairly limited study in this book, geographically speaking, the area is largely representative of most southern antebellum era areas. One idea she covers that we have seen in many of the books is the idea of coverture. In her study, McCurry, points out that during this time and in this place, coverture was more like slavery for these wives. They were expected to work alongside their husbands, in the fields if need be, and along side the slaves, if they had any. They were simply expected to follow their husband’s dictates. Those who refused or spoke out against their husband, especially in instances of abuse, were vilified alongside their husbands. McCurry states that to the men of South Carolina, the “real offense was the erosion of male authority within the family and community when coverture was cracked and wife elevated, even morally, over husband”(132). Without the ideology of coverture and the coverture laws that were still in place at the time, these communities and households would crumble because of slavery, inequality, and the important politics of all white men being equal. It was absolutely necessary, according to their own ideas, that women remain bound to their husbands and not allowed any freedoms, aside from those he chose to grant her. McCurry showcases, in her book that “On family farms, children were ‘flesh, blood, and labor supply.’ So, in an even more literal sense, were wives, for few kinds of labor were more important to the yeoman household economy than women’s reproductive labor…In the yeoman households of South Carolina Low Country, the reproductive labor of wives…paved the route to household independence”(59). These women were seen as little more than property under coverture laws and financial gain due to their reproduction capabilities. The more children a man had, the less he had to pay out for working labor. Only as their families grew would these yeoman farmers buy more acreage and expand their farms. When they got too old, the land was divided, and the next generation would take wives and begin the reproductive/land grab cycle all over again (60).

Building the Glass Ceiling: Women, Work, and Wages in the Early American Republic

Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic is a must read for anyone studying the glass ceiling, gender based wage disputes, or the economic gender gap. This book implicitly covers the idea of gender and labor roles. Boydston shows how women, despite their class, economics, or geography, always helped to supply the needs of the household. She states that though many people look at the Women’s Rights Movement and mid-twentieth century as the time when women were finally “going to work” to provide for their families as a complete myth. She shows that women were working, even before they were being paid for it. Similar to what Brown states about the colonial era, Boydston shows how women provided financially for their families, just as men. Sometimes they it was by producing a surplus of materials, food, or product that could be traded or sold. Sometimes it was by producing the items the home needed without having to rely on the marketplace at all. It definitely saves money, if you can spin your own yarn, weave your own cloth, and sew your own clothes, rather than paying for the materials and someone else to do it for you (40). This places a very distinct value on housework. However, Boydston, does not stop there. As she moves into the first industrialization period in US history, she shows that women began to work more and more outside the home as factories began to grow. Women, while seen as “unskilled” workers, were payed less than men in these jobs, and so often had an easier time finding work. Even in factories that revolved around women’s work, such as sewing, women were seen as less skilled than men. Boydston firmly illustrates the struggles between women and men in trying to delineate the gender and labor boundaries of the time, within households as well as in the workplace. Despite their skill and craftsmanship, society always seemed to see women as mothers and homemakers first and everything else second. Boydston states, “Even when women did enter paid work, their preeminent social identity as “mothers” (in distinct contrast to “workers”) made their status as producers in the economy suspect” (158). Regardless of their accomplishments or resourcefulness, women were viewed as being fit only or caring for the home and children.

Women’s Rights in Antebellum America

Nancy Isenberg’s Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America is an interesting, but fairly heavy read. While this book could be combined with many of the others that we have read over the last fourteen weeks in a discussion of politics, most of the other books showcase the political role of women as quiet gestures, charitable gatherings, secondhand movements as a part of something bigger, like motherhood and morality. Isenberg’s book is vastly different. It is a perfect bridge to the second half of this course (which we will begin in January of 2018), wherein women begin to speak out more. The great thing about Isenberg’s book is that it allows the reader to see that women’s activism and appeal for rights did not begin in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Like Kerber, she shows how women began challenging the role after the Revolution, especially during the antebellum years. Though many of their campaigns and rallies revolved around abolition, they were already beginning to question their role in society, politics, family, and the church. In essence, this book has something to offer each of the aforementioned themes. However, Isenberg’s book is different in that it is not attempting to place politics as a byproduct of something else. Here, the identity of women within the American political, legal, and social strata are the spotlight of the discussion. While this book is a little hard to read because of the theory and feminist language, if one is not familiar with it, it tells the story of early ideologies of citizenship and the women’s rights in a way that prepares the way for readers to understand the concepts and books of twentieth century feminists. I highly recommend listening to our podcast on this book if you are interested in hearing other points of view. This is a book we actually disagreed quite a lot on.

Three Bodies of Slavery: How Slaves stayed Free while in Bondage

Stephanie Camp’s book, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Restistance in the Plantation South, makes an interesting study of southern slave women using ideas of space and time. Before she goes into these ideas she discusses a little about the gender roles and treatment of slave men and women. Men had more freedoms to move about than women did, based on the jobs they were given. Men were mostly field workers and sometimes sent on errands to neighboring plantations or to town. They were given papers on these trips to give to patrols that might stop them to prove they were about their master’s business. Women were rarely given these privileges, so they had less opportunities to attempt to runaway. Furthermore, slave women, just like their white counterparts, were seen as the homemakers and mothers. After putting in long hours of work, just like the men, they were expected to return to their homes to cook for their family, mend and clean clothes, and keep their quarters neat. If they were lucky, they had a husband or other women who would help them, but it was not the others’ responsibility to ensure it got done. It was theirs. In addition, slave women also had to suffer the sexual humiliations forced upon them by the men around them. Not only did they deal with rape, from both white men and black, but most punishments were exacted to be sexually degrading with the women stripped bare, tied down, and whipped over all their body. Men were usually just stripped to the waist and their backs were whipped.

After making these comparisons, Camp moves into a discussion of space. She looks at all the different ways in which women manipulated and rebelled against their slave status. Sometimes it was a slipping off the master’s property, just over the border to meet with other slaves. Many women would not runaway if they had children, because it was seen as disgraceful to leave her children behind in order to free herself. Fathers were not seen as such. Sometimes these women would rebel by hanging abolition papers in their quarters, or stealing things from the master to make their living space nicer. Sometimes they used their space to hide other runaways. Whatever they did, it was a way to show that even though they were seen as someone’s property and were expected to abide by many rules and restrictions, they were masters of themselves, and ultimately in control of their own lives.

One of the most interesting points that Camp makes in regards to this is that the slaves had three bodies. “The first served as a site of domination, it was the body acted upon by slaveholders” (66). This is the body that took the punishments. “The second body was the subjective experience of this process. It was the body as vehicle of feelings of terror, humiliation, and pain” (67). These first two bodies, the master had control over and could influence. They could inflict physical harm and cause a slave to feel pain and any number of emotions. “The slave’s third body was a thing to be claimed and enjoyed, a site of pleasure and resistance…Women’s third body was a source of pleasure, pride, and self-expression” (68). This third body was why women rebelled. They gained great satisfaction from their small rebellions, even if they were punished for them after the fact. This third body could not be touched unless these slave women gave another permission to access them. These third bodies were not owned.

Camp’s argument is both enlightening and fresh. She takes a subject that has been studied for years, and looks at it through an interesting and exciting lens. In comparison to the other books for this segment, it lacks more information and greater explanation of the lives of slave women. However, as a stand alone read it is quick, easy, and very informative.