You are this day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreable Lovers … surely it must be at such a time of Life — Isabel to Laura, Austen’s Love and Freindship, Letter 1)
Dear friends and readers,
I regret to say that Austen’s Isabel is dead wrong. Older women are sexually harassed.
As I wrote a few days ago, while away at the Williamsburg ASECS I thought about how widows have been depicted in literature and art and their grief dismissed, how little empathy focused on their lives. Well, before, during and since that time I’ve had some experiences that connects the widow’s experience to an extension of the rape paradigm in our culture which presents women as wanting to be raped, as wanting violence as a thrill; a development of the parallel I’ve seen in the way raped women are treated and I’ve been treated by the DMV.
They’ve also reconfirmed my sense that the hatred of feminism that arose around 1970s was the second phase of feminism’s uncovery that the core reason for imprisoning women from within and by a myriad of laws and customs over the centuries has been the male desire to control and shape a woman’s sexuality to his needs, desires, ego and the same feminism’s demand for liberation from male myths about women.
You will recall the way the DMV has treated my personal statement and medical documents is directly parallel to the way agencies treat raped women’s personal statements and medical documents (when not ignored, treated as dubious, lies, irrelevant), with one result that the women is punished for whatever she did; I’ve now experienced the reality that depictions of widows as lascivious, as eager for sex, as ripe for say cruises (I now receive ads to join cruises in my snail mail — how they discovered my name I know not), such older depictions are today current among people in a new more muted modernized form: I’ve learned it’s expected that a widow will trade sex for company because she wants the sex (that’s what she’s there for), and if she doesn’t agree, she’s a prude; if she feels analogous to the way Clarissa did with Lovelace (feeling a strong distaste, shame, sickened), she’s either “not ready” or “not normal” (the eternal ploy).
Also common is the idea is that somewhat younger men (say 40s to 50s) want to go out with older women as knowing and sophisticated and women enjoy such a relationship. The flattery of these myths might amuse the Admiral were he here, for he used to say (comically, ironically) he could never understand why so many male characters in novels have such trouble with women chasing them, trying to trap them, sneaking about to manipulate and in general organizing their lives about the males as he never experienced this.
What’s pernicious about this is (and I’ve discovered this by women confiding in me) some women are led to think they must’ve invited this kind of expectant sexual aggression. And to blame themselves. Sound familiar?
I’m reminded of Andrea Dworkin’s thoughts about the results of the 1970s movement for women sexually: with men still holding the reigns of power and media, making the big money, and thus calling the terms of the perspective, new sexual liberation for many, nay most is but old exploitation writ large. Another analogy is the insistence that women like to be abused (else why do not they leave the man?); this theory goes by the name of masochism; its converse is the stupidity that leads some to argue films where women enact gross and sexual violence are somehow feminist: forsooth, are not these women pro-active? strong?
I found it egregiously ironic that Lupita Nyong’o, the black actress who played the slave who was so humiliated, beaten, reaped, deprived of all security and humanity in 12 Years a Slave should be so praised over-the-top for her extravagantly sexy and expensive dress and hair-do; The Butler was the superior movie, and Oprah Winfrey as brilliant as a supporting actress, but she was genuinely strong, independent, iconoclastic (she has an affair). I did feel it was as if “we” were making it for what she had played, had decided not to let it be discussed. Cate Blanchett too — she gets top award as the Blanche Dubois of our era — to get these younger woman roles she’s had to lose 20 and more pounds and is take a bag of bones in comparison to herself of 20 years ago. Gloria Steinem is back in the news: for looking good at 80, ever mainstream, even now used to re-sexualize the movement in mainstream ways.
These observed parallels have to some extent freed me from my deep past, the past of my teens — and would have given me emotional relief had I seen this years ago. I look back on the self-loathing I felt as a teenager as myself being somehow singularly pathetic, mean, when I would face up to my having given sex for company or faked affection. Well, I am now thinking a lot of women do that for life, upon and for marriage, and some again when they are widowed. I know from Victorian and earlier novels and history that women were coerced into marriage and thus sold sexually but did not make the analogy when the coercion in the 20th century becomes not so direct or obvious.
I was very lucky to have spent nearly half a century with a gentleman who was not a typical American heterosexual male at all and might be said to have led a protected life once I married him. Many women marry for such protection.
These paradigms — the widow who wants sex, the woman who wants to be raped, the liar who pretends to have been raped, the incompetent driver who lies about what happened — all work to empower males to degrade and denigrate women, to rob them of power and use them for their self-interest. The patriarchy is more invisible but there — just about all the people I’ve met since my car accident with power over what I can do, to sign forms, have been males. They were just more overt before the 20th century, unashamed, justified, but they are today there as strongly as ever (now buttressed by Freudian and other constructions) — as Ellen Willis was among the first of the 1970s feminists to demonstrate so eloquently.
I did write a call for papers for next fall’s EC/ASECS, but not one which dwells on the widow as such. It’s hard to find material which gets anywhere near the inner life, the pain and loneliness of the widow’s condition, or conversely, if she was coerced and led a miserable or wretched or ambivalent existence subject to her husband, what she really felt about that. Unless you go to women’s lyric poetry starting in the Renaissance (then there’s not a lot of it, and it’s presented in ways consonant with the cultural demands on the woman, i.e. as a defense of herself for not remarrying), the first texts are found in the later 19th century in novels or from the pragmatic perspective of a public document or statistic, or very occasionally the insightful lyric.
Rise and stand up
And tackle your plough team.
Plough a five inch furrow.
Look at me, my treasure.
With no-body to help me
When I go reaping or cutting.
Who will do my business at market?
Who will go to the Mass
As you lie stretched from now on
Och ochon — Anonymous Irish keening song
I have gathered a list of books and essays and will be reading them over the next months, but in the meantime I chose a perspective I could sketch out now, that of the single adult woman living alone, that is, not with a male peer. I had in mind Anne Murray Halkett: when she tried to live alone in Edinburgh in the later 17th century, she found she was soon the target of thugs and had to sneak stealthily into her flat, was disrespected and finally retreated to become another woman’s (in effect) paid companion. Funnily (but not atypical for me and perhaps for others) I did not cite her as one of my examples.
I called the topic: “The Anomaly: the single unmarried adult woman living alone, spinsters, divorced and widowed women,” and began with irony: “According to Mrs. Peachum [of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera fame), “The comfortable estate of widowhood, is the only hope that keeps up a wife’s spirits.” According to [Mary Lady] Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies,” the most frequently reprinted poem of the period, the only way to know any pleasure or liberty is to “Shun that wretched state,” i.e., marriage.”
Here’s the poem:
Wife and Servant are the same,
But only differ in the Name:
For when that fatal Knot is ty’d,
Which nothing, nothing can divide:
When she the word obey has said, 
And Man by Law supreme has made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but State and Pride:
Fierce as an Eastern Prince he grows,
And all his innate Rigor shows: 
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the Nuptial Contract break.
Like Mutes she Signs alone must make,
And never any Freedom take:
But still be govern’d by a Nod, 
And fear her Husband as her God:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty Lord thinks fit,
Who with the Pow’r, has all the Wit. 
Then shun, oh! shun that wretched State,
And all the fawning Flatt’rers hate:
Value your selves, and Men despise,
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise
I thought of Lady Bellair in Elizabeth Cooper’s The Rival Widows; or the Fair Libertine, determined not to remarry to put herself (and her body though this is not emphasized) into the power of a man again.
But (wrote I) “notwithstanding the misogynistic infamous type of the frustrated unhappy lascivious or power-hungry widow and a real woman’s ability to own property (through her jointure) once she is widowed, and some well-known examples of (usually independently) wealthy women who throve (Mary Delany, Lady Granville; Hester Thrale Piozzi); like other women of the era who might end up or try living on their own without a man of their class and type (when respectable kin), modern studies suggest spinsters (lesbian or not), separated and divorced and widowed women had a hard time of it financially, socially and psychologically.” What is it Austen says over and over again in her letters and trots out forthrightly in discussing marriage with her niece, Fanny Knight (13 March 1817):
‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor…which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’
I thought of Austen’s depiction of widows, but especially Mrs Dashwood in Austen’s S&S who has no legal document to protect her, the widow of a man whose estate for life was left to the child of a son by a previous marriage (her stepson). She does have her jointure of £500 (a legal settlement) and is offered a cottage on the grounds of a cousin to live in (as Mrs Austen was finally offered a cottage on her son’s grounds to live in). Not everyone is like Lady Russell (of Persuasion) “extremely well-provided for,” choosing not to remarry. Many more were like Miss and Mrs Bates, the daughter and wife of a dead clergyman whose living went elsewhere. (Again recalling Mrs Austen’s case in 1805 and how she and her daughters, Jane’s friend, Martha Lloyd landed in Trim Street, Bath (still very undesirable, closed in).
So I called for papers exploring and discussing depictions of women from the 17th through the early 19th century who lived on their own or with another woman or women. Salonnières, bluestockings, businesswomen, actresses, brothel madams, to widows: the down and out and vengeful — as seen from the fictional Moll Flanders and Roxana, “’Tis better to whore than to starve,” to Mrs Dashwood’s lack of adequate resources to Madame de Merteuil’s rage (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). All widows. Women who never quite recovered from marriage and made the experience central to their writing, for example, the happily widowed Francoise de Graffigny, a victim of continual beatings, which she could not escape: write letters as she did not one person would rescue her from when a wife. (Where could she have run away? What would happen to her children?) Then women without families to take them in, governesses, companions without vows, housekeepers, agricultural and cityworkers. How were they depicted and how did they depict themselves, how did they survive, create viable existences for themselves, find pleasure, when they chose not to re-marry or marry in the first place.
I went off on a mainstream, socially acceptable train of thought, a tangent. Study can produce papers based on ferreted out statistics on which widows remarried (usually younger woman) and why (usually with children) but really what I am interested in is the private sexual and social treatment of older widows, previously married women, and their real thoughts about this treatment, especially at the poorer and middling of the economic spectrum. I can find plenty of pictures of actresses as sad or pathetic widows (Mrs Siddons does it nobly) or as caricatures of leering widows, but nothing to the real case and heart of the widow’s full experience.