Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ramblings About Ancestors, The Lot of Women in History and Such

As I add ancestors to my family tree, it becomes more and more clear to me why the women in decades and centuries long past have not made more of a mark on history.
Let me rephrase becomes clearer why our female ancestors have not made more of a mark in the big historical events of history.
As a whole, they were not out exploring, discovering, building, running, creating in the big ways of history.
Like being the first person to found a town, creating a railroad, exploring a new passage somewhere, discovering a new scientific process to make civilized life better for all, etc.
They were contributing to the Progress of Civilization in the smaller, embedded, quiet ways that don't leave the big marks in the history books.

It's not that our foremothers weren't as smart as their forefather counterparts.
They were running the homes and raising the children, the children who would grow up to leave their footprints prominently in the Sands of Time if they were male OR be the next generation of females to be mostly invisible while they rocked the cradles, fed the family and keep the human race chugging forward.

Men left big loud "Look at me!" marks on the events of civilization's timeline while Women for the most part left their marks almost invisibly on the hearts of the people they knew in their corner of the human race.
The old saying, "The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world." is so true.

So I get to thinking, why was it that way for so many centuries?
Men aren't any smarter(many of my female readers will say that THAT is so true!), and while men are raised and accepted in society as being louder, why are there so few women in past generations who passed through life not making their presence more noticeable to those who came after them?

And then it hit me......Sex!
Or rather the lack of choice in controlling the outcome of sex impacted their lives greatly.

Then I think about if women had been given the tools to be the masters of their own fertility in earlier times in our history, what could have resulted from this knowledge and power.

Women up until very recently in history had to make a choice in life.
Up until the 20th century, they either had to stay unmarried and then rely upon their male relatives for support, or marry and endure a life with a never ending string of pregnancies forced upon them until the menopause kicked in.
Without birth control of any kind, women faced 20 or more years of giving birth, even if it was deemed unsafe in the face of their health, medical condition or age.
And the staying single and chaste thing?  Remember that a woman(single OR married)had few rights in life.  If a husband wasn't controlling her destiny, then a male relative was.

The few women through history who have left specific marks on our society were mostly women freed from the pregnancy child-rearing cycle due to organic infertility or abstention from copulation(remaining unmarried).
Like these women.....

Catherine de Medici
Queen Elizabeth I
Dorothy Parker
Araminta Harriet Ross(Harriet Tubman)
Clara Barton
Phoebe Ann Moses(Annie Oakley)
Amelia Earhart
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Susan B. Anothny
Emily Dickinson
Rosa Parks
Georgia O'Keefe
Eva Peron

All barren or remained single throughout their lfe.
All freed from domesticity and pregnancy perils, and  because of their spirits, smarts and timing, accomplished amazing things!

But I digress.....

As I turn up more ancestors I find more and more like this one.....

This is Carrie Holmes Elder.

She married Henry Hugh Harper, the brother of my Great Grandfather Robert William Harper.
She was born in 1886 and married at age 19 in 1905.
She lived on a farmer in a rural area of south central Virginia.
Over the course of the next 15 years, she gave birth to 8 children, from 1906 to 1920.
Though I don't have proof, I suspect she died from complications in childbirth, as her last child was born the year she died.
She was only 34 years old.
She left 8 children, aged from 14 yrs. through infant motherless when she passed.
Her husband remarried within 2 years and went on to have 7 more children with his new wife.

In that time and place in history, Carrie Holmes Elder Harper had few options in life.
Imagine if there had been more medical education, sanitation, enlightenment and tools in healthcare in Carrie's day.
She might have opted to have had fewer and/or better pregnancies or have been able to plan them out better for her family's well being and her own.

Maybe she always dreamed of writing a book, or had a sharp mind and always wanted to go to college or travel the world and see the great sights in the world.
Being born in her time, life was often an "either/or" proposition.  There was no having it all.

Having children is a special kind of joy but there should be more to a woman's life than raising children if that is what she wants.
You can have it all to a degree in this era but you can't have it all at the same time.

I am grateful in this way that I am alive now in this time and don't have to live a life of reduced expectations.

I mourn for the women in my past who didn't get to fulfill their dreams.



  1. Let me add a bit to why women seemed to have left no marks. Often, women were not educated, so they could not write their thoughts. Even when women were semi-educated or fully educated, their writing was cut up and used as the spine in book-binding. (It has been found.) Women's writing was mostly in the form of diaries or recipes (receipts). Neither were of value, often to males or females. In ages when paper was valuable, other uses for the paper of women's writing were found. Sometimes, relatives record destroying women's writings when the woman died.

    I could look it up (forgot her name), but one woman artist only only was allowed to attend art school because her father owned the studio and he could watch over her actions and those of the males in the studio. So, laws and customs did not even allow the young and yet unmarried to study what they wanted to study, even when the father was famous.

    Women did write novels that were ridiculed and only discovered years later. The first woman to support herself by writing was Aphra Behn (1640 in Restoration England). I read History of Bacon in Virgina of my own volition, not assigned or suggested by a professor. Her best line was telling Bacon (I thing it was Bacon), "I want to fall on your sword" or some such sexual language. No, she had no children and was only married for about four years.

    Fathers were actually ashamed of daughters with aspirations. When Edith Wharton was a child, she was denied paper on which to write. Servants gave her brown wrapping paper surreptitiously. She had to read books belonging to her brothers. Edith Wharton's father published her poetry when she was about 16 6o embarrass her.

    Studying the art of nuns, art historians discovered nuns in convents often had to paint on patched canvas. There are records of their spending hours to have a canvas worthy of using for painting. Males had no such problems and none of them regularly had to paint on patched canvas.

    Women are discouraged before the age of puberty from being explorers. A group of ten-year-old boys playing after dark on a sidewalk would be told to stay out of trouble. A girl or girls would be hauled to the police station or taken home to parents. The girls might have gained a police record or be sent to homes. Boys were free to have a small adventure. The girls committed a status offence.

    Thoreau complained that women never walked! Well, they were home slaving over a stove, pregnant, or rearing children--all you described. However, boys from walking age got leather shoe, often boots. Girls only had cloth shoes. Even as adults, women often were not supplied with shoes fit to work, have a walk in the woods, or even to have proper foot protection. This ties in to the barefoot and pregnant theme. However, it was in the nature of women, then as now, to want to do things that involved having foot protection.

    Okay, I will quit with this sampling learned from my Women's Studies degree, not the only degree I earned. I always have to add that bit about other degrees so I will be appreciated as an educated woman, not just a bitch who hates men. Then, I have to loudly pronounce I am a committed heterosexual so I won't be seen as a real man hater.

    All WS courses were taught and cross-listed with the other disciplines--Art Historians, Criminal Justice, English, all PhDs and some men. I always feel on the defensive since I have heard disparaging remarks about us WS majors. We are not man haters or lesbians, well, not all of us, not even most of us, especially not me! Women just recognize injustice and unfairness in choices and opportunities.

    Great post!

  2. I just made a donation to Planned Parenthood in honor of all the women who didn't get to follow their dreams.

  3. This is precisely the reason I am staunchly pro-choice. And as a woman who is fertile but not capable of carrying a pregnancy to term without really bad results, conservative policies and misconceptions about female reproduction scare the hell out of me. Great post!


Hey there! Thanks for leaving a comment. Though I moderate it's partly to keep spam out but also partly so that I read every comment. I don't often respond to comments so if you need me to answer you please write me at my email addy posted on my "About Me" page, linked on the side bar.