When Women’s History Comes Alive

Studying, understanding and honoring women of the past, whether in America or across the globe, most commonly follows two themes.

First, the rediscovery of women’s lives and contributions can be summed up in the image described at a recent Women’s History Month luncheon I attended:  We stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, and we should know and honor who they were, what they achieved, and how much we owe to their courage. And, we need to remember: Others will need our shoulders to stand upon.

The second theme, captured by the Virginia Slims cigarettes late 1960s’ advertising slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” recognizes the journey to get to where we are today, and that the journey is far from over.

But sometimes, in the effort over the last four decades to reinsert women into the history books, we have looked so hard at the big picture that we have rushed past the tender, small discoveries of the heart.

For me, history is most poignant when I can feel myself in the presence of a women, famous or not, who lived in the past.  I felt it, for instance, when I was doing research on 19th century photography at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and as I turned the page of an album holding unmounted albumen prints from the early 1850s, one image lifted off the page and floated for a second.  Suddenly I was looking into the eyes of a long forgotten woman, momentarily alive before me.  What was she thinking as she stared into the camera? What was her life really like? She looked back at me, I swear.

Recently, that feeling came over me again as I was discussing a poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) with the poetry class I teach.  Lady Mary was quite a character: Born to the aristocracy but denied a classical education because she was a woman, she taught herself Latin, mastered the art of satire and earned  the dubious honor of being attacked by Alexander Pope in his Dunciad. She traveled with her ambassador husband to Constantinople, where she wore elaborate Turkish dress and wrote a series of letters about her experiences. Having contracted smallpox there, which led to her disfigurement, upon her return to England she advocated for inoculation against the disease, and she developed relationships with the leading literary figures of her day before moving to Italy.

The poem, “The Lover: A Ballad,” offers one side of a conversation between friends in heroic couplets–a popular form considered too forceful for most women’s writing of the time. The speaker argues that her own refusal to take just any lover “Is not owing to nature, to fear, or to shame:/I am not as cold as a virgin in lead,/Nor is Sunday’s sermon so strong in my head….” Rather, she “hate(s) to be cheated” and will not sacrifice her honor or even her time to the wrong man.  She explains,

Oh! was there a man (but where shall I find
Good sense and good nature so equally join’d?)
Would value his pleasure, contribute to mine;
Not meanly would boast, nor would lewdly design;
Not over severe, yet not stupidly vain,
For I would have the power, tho’ not give the pain.

No pedant, yet learned; no rake-helly gay*,
Or laughing, because he has nothing to say;
To all my whole sex obliging and free,
Yet never be fond of any but me;
In public preserve the decorum that’s just,
And shew in his eyes he is true to his trust;
Then rarely approach, and respectfully bow,
But not fulsomely pert, nor yet foppishly low.

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May ev’ry fond pleasure that moment endear;
Be banish’d afar both discretion and fear!
Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd,
He may cease to be formal, and I to be proud.
Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live,
And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.

And that my delight may be solidly fix’d,
Let the friend and the lover be handsomely mix’d;
In whose tender bosom my soul may confide,
Whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel can guide.
From such a dear lover as here I describe,
No danger should fright me, no millions should bribe;
But till this astonishing creature I know,
As I long have liv’d chaste, I will keep myself so.

She had me at the champagne and chicken! Here is a woman who sought, as I did, a man who recognized and appreciated that she was on equal standing with him, who was smart and fun and trustworthy and in whom “the friend and the lover be handsomely mix’d.” I immediately recognized a woman like me, with desires like mine, with a sense of self I admire—despite her aristocrat breeding and despite the fact that this poem was written 300 years ago.

A moment like this goes beyond a simple “aha!” It helps me know that what I want is as natural as air and has been a part of a woman’s desires for centuries.  We are not alone.  To me, discovering that is the best reward of women’s history.  Period.

*A rake stirs up trouble; this one rakes hell, so even worse. The early meaning of “gay” was fun-loving or promiscuous.

Image from Wikimedia Commons


Melissa Kort teaches literature and composition at Santa Rosa (CA) Junior College. She writes on topics ranging from Charles Dickens and photography to women’s history.