Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Male Entitlement, c. 1800, Philadelphia
During the first years of the nineteenth century, when Rebecca was beginning her charitable endeavors with the Female Association, she was part of the literary set which had formed in 1801 around the new Philadelphia periodical, the Port Folio. The Female Association brought her into contact with the matrons who had founded the organization; her social life, with the young literati of Philadelphia. There was virtually no overlap between these two groups.
However, in the Port Folio issue dated May 22, 1802, someone who calls himself "Quixote" reports that the women he knows have a lively curiosity about the Tuesday Club, an informal group of young male contributors to the periodical who were spending more time with each other than with the ladies. He presents himself as a defender of the women's interests, having suggested that the Club elect a secretary who could then provide its minutes to each meeting of the "Philadelphia Female Association." Unfortunately, he says, he was voted down, but promises to encourage the club members to spend their leisure in female company. For this he requires no reward, "and in return we will not ask, or even wish, to be admitted at the meetings of the Philadelphia Female Association."
Well, that's patronizing but not at all unusual. Misogyny has always been a theme of satire (because most satirists have been male). It would have been more remarkable if the young men of Philadelphia had written of women with respect. But it is interesting in two regards: that the first nonsectarian charity organized by women is picked out is a worthy object for male disdain, and that the only person in the Female Association who was also part of the coterie around the Port Folio was Rebecca Gratz.
This suggests that the writer was Samuel Ewing, one of the Port Folio's most prolific contributors and a man who certainly seems (based on other evidence) to have loved and admired Rebecca. Here though, he is up to something else. He chooses curiosity, a failing traditionally ascribed to women, as the problem which he seeks to allay although the women would much rather have the men's company again than receive information about their club activities. Implicit in Quixote's "helpfulness" is the message that the men are not about to make themselves more available. At the same time, he belittles the Female Association, the one interest which Samuel Ewing did not share with Rebecca and which may have been making her less available to him. The point of view here is men will do as they please; women should not allow interests which men find boring to interfere with their availability. If a woman was less than enchanted with the perspective revealed here -- hey, it was just a little light humor. Any woman who objected was likely to be labelled a prig or a bluestocking.
I am not trying to blacken Samuel Ewing's character by speculating on his authorship. Whoever wrote it shows no more arrogance than the average man of the time. The insidious and casual entitlement displayed by the author was so pervasive among men that the writer probably would have had no sense of his own bias.
Rebecca chafed under the men's prevailing attitudes. Although she rarely criticized classes of people, she wrote to a friend in 1800, "As all men claim a superiority, tis proper they should possess it and I believe those who have least to boast, are not the most sensible of their deficiency." Here it sounds as though she may be willing to consider that some men might have a claim to superiority although she knows many who do not. But in 1804, she wrote in exasperation that she had heard so much about "woman's whim" (another traditional female failing) but would "not again reject a woman's word for any lord of the creation." It doesn't sound as though she was about to cede anything to any man.
The male attitudes were hard to bear in repartee, but they were infinitely more onerous as institutionalized in law. Married women, although they may have brought wealth into their marriage, and inherited wealth afterwards, owned nothing. Everything belonged to the husband who could do with it as he wished. Many women's charities (including the Female Association) would require that their treasurer be a single woman, spinster or widow, so that a husband could not commandeer for himself the money she was holding for the organization. This rule was often honored in the breach but it was nonetheless on the books. Similarly, the children of a marriage, in the event of a divorce, were the husband's as they were seen as part of his goods and chattels. The feminist movement from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century is usually remembered as a struggle for women's suffrage, but early on it had other very serious issues to address.
(Rebecca's letter from 1800 is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress; the 1804 letter is in the Verplanck Collection at the New York Historical Society.)