Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Those Uppity Feminists ... Bless 'em!

Women have had a long and hard struggle to gain, among other things, educational equality, or parity, with men. Patriarchal authoritarianism, with all of its ingrained intolerance, was an everyday reality for all women in the Nineteenth Century. Women like Emma Willard pushed the boundaries, challenging male authority, not through marches and denunciations, but through positive action, personal endeavor and undeniable force of character. Emma Willard founded the first Female Academy for higher learning, The Troy Female Seminary, later renamed the Emma Willard School. I am not going to go into the fascinating history of this wonderfully gifted woman and her contributions. But the following review in Burton's Magazine for February of 1839 gives an indication of the obstacles to be sirmounted (pun intended): A Letter, Addressed as a Circular to the Members of the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers. by Emma Willard, Principle of the Troy Female Seminary, and President of the Association. "We are informed by Coleridge, that it was the practice of his teacher, Dr. Bowyer, to allow the thesis of each of his pupils to accumulate, as if through inadvertence, to the number of some half dozen. he would then call in the writer; and spreading the several productions on the table abreast together, read them over in connexion, and institute a most searching examination into their structure and merits. Whenever, in the progress of this scrutiny, he came to a sentence that seemed irrelevant, he would say to the pupil, 'Why would not this sentence do just as well in this other thesis, as in the one where it now stands?' If a satisfactory answer could not be given, the inexorable doom was that the thesis must be burned, and a new one produced upon the same subject. "If this wholesome, though, it must be confessed, somewhat stern principle, were applied to the works of Mrs. Willard, we fear there is scarcely one of them that would escape the flames. This may be thought a harsh judgment, and wanting in the gallantry due by common consent of well bred gentlemen to the female sex. In reference to the first charge, if ti is preferred by any sensible persons, we have only to say, Read and judge for yourselves. In reference to the second, we admit that it would be valid in the majority of cases, but we deny that in the present instance it has any proper force; for Mrs. Willard has voluntarily surrendered all the immunities peculiar to her sex, by fairly doffing the simple and graceful attire of feminine modesty, and substituting in its place the flaunting robes of a more masculine self-complacency." Take that you uppity female ingrate! You forget your place!! You ... you ... you feminist! The writer of the review had never heard or imagined of the word feminist. It did not yet exist. Emma Willard's genius was as an administrator, as a social thinker, as an iconic beacon, and as a foundress. Under review here was not a mere text book (which things abounded, even then) but, among other issues economic and organizational, her written delineations of the right of women to be educated, to teach, to organize in order to educate themselves, and to have all the prerequisite bounties of a higher education. Emma Willard's name is now honored; the reviewer's name sunk into historical obscurity and irrelevancy. View BOOKS FOR SALE

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