I am always concerned when I write about women’s issues. While I am a student of both Woolf and Coleridge and try to use my androgynous mind, I worry I am writing how a man would see empowered women, blinded by my Weltanschauung. I can only hope that my awareness of my inherently male point of view ameliorates Woolf’s “Shadow of I,” my ego.
This column stirred up some uncomfortable emotions within me. I know I spent several hours afterward being an unhappy camper. Twenty-four hours later, I feel better but have decided to leave well enough alone. This post, I think, shows an authenticity which I try to achieve in all my work.
“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”
At some point in my pre-teen years, my mother told me the story of her betrothal. The regret that rang out as she spoke has stuck with me for sixty years. Her sadness in telling the story goes a long way to explain why female rescue stories were trendy in the 1950s.
In World War II, like at Austen’s Meryton assembly, there were few men to go around on the home front. To keep their doors open—as there were not enough 4-Fs to fill the seats—colleges began admitting women in more significant numbers. American International College in Springfield, MA, was one such place.
There my mother enrolled in the Fall of 1944 as an eighteen-year-old “co-ed.” A special word—a contraction of co-educational as in “not real students”—was created to identify women paying tuition and taking classes.The eldest child of a telephone company executive (serving as a major in the US Army’s Signal Corps with General Patton), my mother took as many business classes as she could. She planned to follow her father’s footsteps into business.
After two years of dating my father (a lifelong diabetic and, thus, 4-F) and upon his graduation in June 1947, she said ‘yes’ when he asked. When she told her joy to her father, he said she was done with college as he would not pay any further tuition (my dad, to his credit, offered to keep her in school, but his pay as an entry-level chemist was $45/week). The reason: any more education would be wasted on her as she would be having children and needed to tend to her husband. In the forty years after that, my mother never held a job in a management capacity: bank teller, yes—secretary, yes—grocery store checker, yes. But, never her dream.
She thought she could have it all but had been born twenty-five years too soon.
Her resentment and pain metastasized into lifelong clinical depression. That, in turn, impacted both of her children. Whether this confers any authority on me is not germane. Her depression led to my own, which influenced my writing.
My grandfather’s attitudes in many corners still are currency. Such views are peddled by men and their acolytes who would make women “submissive.” Their authority rises from books written by other men to justify oppressive behavior.
How different the 2020s are from the 1970s. Fifty years after Title IX forced colleges and universities to treat women’s academics and sports equally, the landscape for women’s opportunities is different. To be sure, some bastions cling to their privilege—the coding and gaming worlds seem to be the worst for toxic masculinity. However, the scare tactics of universities closing their men’s football programs have faded into history’s dusty corridors.
(Whisper) You see, administrators like the trophies women’s sports bring to the school: particularly women’s basketball, although gymnastics, track, and golf work well, too, when impressing alums.
Trailbreakers like Cheryl Swopes, Lisa Leslie, Billie Jean King, and Wilma Rudolph found their niche and made their fields their own.
They were akin to Jane Austen: a woman trapped in a male-controlled realm who found a crack through which she could navigate. We all know her difficulties in publishing, but working as a novelist, albeit anonymous, was an acceptable occupation for a lady sitting in her cottage. Can we imagine any world, let alone a literary one, without the creative brilliance that Jane Austen was able to bring to life?
A question for another day and time: Would Jane Austen have been Jane Austen if she had not been living in a time circumscribed by the patriarchal culture in which she lived?
Today’s women have a full array of lives from which they can choose: They are not limited to being novelists writing under pseudonyms.
My wife and I avidly follow college and professional women’s basketball. The first week of March 2023 was tournament week, and we attended eleven games in the PAC12 Women’s basketball tournament. Yes, we did walk in with a favorite—Stanford—but UCLA and Washington State captured our hearts leaving the Cardinal in the dust.
These women play basketball with the verve and vision with which Austen wrote. While the uniforms would have scandalized the Lady, I believe that she would have admired their dedication to the game: its forms (seriously, folks, if you want to see basketball played the way Naismith designed it, go to a woman’s game or catch one on TV) and its strategy.
They are playing for the joy of the game. In every match, I saw ten Elizabeth Bennets on the floor: full of joy and excitement, crossing Hertfordshire’s fields. For all but the very few who will make it into the WNBA, their reward will be victories through four years followed by a graduation that will see them “settling well.” Yet, that “settling” now means they will have a whole panoply of opportunities and lives from which they can choose and not have their choices dictated (which is why I like Austenesque moderns).
Lest you think they were unsupported, I also imagined Mrs. Bennet in baseline seats, clapping at the play and yelling at the refs. She was thrilled that her girl was playing on the big stage. Yes, her Lizzy is short, but point guards only need to call the plays for her bigger teammates and distribute the ball. But she does have a killer three-point shot!
And, if Miss Austen were alive today, I imagine she would have stood cheering as the tournament underdogs, the Washington State Cougars, closed out UCLA for the PAC12 championship. She would recognize these women’s vitality and agency, much like that in herself and her heroines. Austen wrote for the love of it, to release the words locked up inside her. Every woman playing in every game I watched was there because she loved basketball and found it best expressed her inner essence.
What we saw on the court at Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas a few weeks ago was nothing less. When joy is unharnessed, not oppressed, it explodes like the greatest aurorae.
Empowered women navigate their way through my work. From Mary Bennet in Volume 1 of The Bennet Wardrobe, The Keeper: Mary Bennet’s Extraordinary Journey, to Anne Elliot, Elizabeth Bennet, Sarah Small, and Annie Reynolds in my latest book, The Sailor’s Rest. Please enjoy this excerpt from The Sailor’s Rest. https://www.amazon.com/Sailors-Rest-Pride-Prejudice-Variation-ebook/dp/B0BX5STS67
This excerpt is ©2023 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction is prohibited.
Croft shot his cuffs and rounded on the unfortunate slumped before him. His growl nearly rattled the windows. “Now, Nate: what is your last name? I cannot keep saying Nate-Nate-Nate. I will sound like some fey bird yelling at the ship’s cat.”
Nate owned he was a Wilkinson from north of the Humber.
“All right, Nate Wilkinson from north of the Humber, tell me of three sennights ago, February 9, when two gentlemen ate dinner in this room.
The man, befuddled by drink and mean intelligence, offered a story that echoed that of both Green and Small. However, as with most men who have a low sense of their worth, he embellished it and had him serving them dinner—and after dinner port—before seeing them off to bed.
Again Mrs. Wilson stepped in, using the fact that she was a woman to defang Nate’s wariness. “Interesting. You saw them to bed? And where may that have been? Upstairs or out of the house?
“Over the years in this business, I have learned that experienced liars like you find it easiest to weave your prevarication around a kernel of truth. I do not doubt that you served them dinner and drink. Likewise, I do not doubt that you knew that your efforts would help the two gentlemen sleep soundly. However, that is where the truth of your story ends.
“What we now must discover—and Mr. Foote is quite experienced in peeling a man like a delicious onion—is what you did to ensure that rest and how much you were paid.”
She turned her focus on the hostler. “Mr. Green, thank you for your assistance. Oh, one more item: do you have a tarpaulin we could spread on the floor? After that, might we order dinner to be served in about an hour and a half? The room should be habitable by then.
“Might I also ask the ladies to accompany me into the common room? Since it is vacant, I am certain that we will find a cozy corner. Perhaps Miss Small could chivvy the cook to assemble a small tea.”
As she passed behind Nate, she leaned over and whispered. “Once I get the maidens settled in Mrs. Croft’s care, I will return. You know, Nate, it is said that the female of the species is the deadliest. Mr. Foote tends to disagree but is too polite to say so to me.
“I imagine we will test the proposition in short order.”
Nate shivered, tipped sideways in the chair, and cast up his accounts. Annie Wilson adroitly sidestepped the splash. “Brigadier and admiral: I think he is ready.”
Leaving a dog’s breakfast on the floorboards was the minimum outcome of Wilkinson’s interrogation. However, the room had to be set to rights before he could offer other than retching heaves and bilious deposits. Wilson and Tomkins, along with Mrs. Wilson and Miss Small, leaped forward while Sir Walter hied his green-hued countenance through the door and into the outer room to “protect the ladies.” The admiral and brigadier, more accustomed to human leavings, wisely stepped back.
Sarah immediately gathered that the two large subalterns were out-to-sea—an idea which caused her to giggle in Wilson’s case and blush when she considered Tomkins—when faced with that which usually found its way to the barroom floor before closing time. “Cleaning up sick is all part of a day’s work here at The Sailor’s Rest.
“Quickly now: Mr. Wilson, point yourself to the stables and bring back the coal shovel the grooms use to clean the stalls. You’ll ken it on sight, being a dragoon brigadier’s sergeant.
“As for you, Mr. Tomkins, go to the taproom and bring back the bucket of sawdust I keep behind the bar. You can’t miss the scent of ground juniper I’ve mixed in. Oh, be sure to grab the empty pail next to it!
“I’m afraid that it’s sprinkle-scrape-shovel for the two of you. We h’aint’t neither got baggage train dogs to lap it up nor a seawater pump to sluice the mess into the scuppers. We’re ’twixt and between army and navy.”
Orders given, the two men hurried off. Foote remained at Nate’s shoulder. The compact agent watched the man of all work as if he was a mongoose hungrily considering a hooded serpent. For his part, Nate was mesmerized by James Foote. He did not move a major muscle. He did twitch each time Wilson’s shovel ground its lip on a knot or caught a nail head. Wilkinson was primed to illuminate what had been seen only darkly until now.
The streetside window was thrown open and caused the room’s temperature to drop. Wilkinson’s tale unspooled through shivering lips. Little enough was new, but that was a rare treasure. He told of the fearsome man who offered him a month’s wages if he would hand him the port decanter before bringing it to the private dining room.
“He ne’er said more ’n that, yer honors.”
“Did he ask you anything about the men in the room?”
“Ye mean like whut they looked laik?”
“Yes…and how many men there were and so forth.”
Nate’s monosyllabic reply did not impress. “Foote!”
A gleaming boning knife glimmered, as did James Foote’s smile. A dark stain spread across Wilkinson’s drop. “Nay, masters, nay. ’e di’nt ask anythin’, ’n ’e di’nt say any more ta me. I gi’e ’im the flask. ’e turned ’is back on me, ’n ’e turned back ta me jest swirlin’ the port laik some gents do right afore they sniff it. Tho, don’t know why ye’d waste time sloshin’ good grog jest ta sniff it.
“I’se know how ta snort a tankard I do!”
Annie wrinkled her nose at his sour scent, sweat leavened by urine, but knelt by the shaken man. “I can protect you, Mr. Wilkinson, but you must be completely truthful right now.
“How did you come by the wallet Sarah found?”
His unthinking and immediate answer—so relieved to be questioned by the woman instead of the roaring barrel-chested man or the silent ferret-like one—saved his life. “Found t’it under this ’ere table, I did, when I come back ta take the dishes ’’n such ta th’ kitchen—N’body’ere. Fire wuz dead. Figured th’ gents ’ad gone ta their rooms.”
Her feminine purr lulled his suspicious spirit. “And what was in the purse? Do not fear behind sent to the Assizes for theft. We only need to know what you found.”
“A five-pound note an’ a few shillin’s. Found a calling card, but couldn’a read t’it, so’s I tossed t’it in the kitchen fire. I would’a tossed the leather in, too, but I feared that Cook’d ask questions. So’s I dumped t’it in the ‘all. Guess’n that’s where Sary found t’it.”
Wilkinson subsided, a hopeful look reshaping his features. Annie stood, nodded at her husband, and addressed the room at large. “Gentlemen: this fellow has told us as much as he can. I would suggest that his only crime is to seek to better his situation by doing something servants have been doing since the dawn of time: trading their access to the betters for silver. For what is to us a pittance, for them is as great as the Pergamum Inheritance.”
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