Thursday, June 11, 2009

Way Before the “F” Word: An Early Feminist Tea Party, #1

- Audrey Bilger -

Jane Austen’s young heroine Catherine Morland doesn’t like reading history. She wishes she did, as she explains to future sister-in-law Eleanor Tilney:

But history,
real solemn history, I cannot be interested in….I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all--it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs—the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books. Northanger Abbey (1818)

Eleanor responds by defending the “little embellishments” of the men who write and figure in history. She doesn’t respond to Catherine’s point about the absence of women. But what if she did? Or, to go even further, what if—since novels are certainly at even more liberty to invent than history—Eleanor were to say to Catherine, “Come with me. I have some friends I’d like you to meet”?

* * *

Catherine foll
owed dutifully, eager to expand her circle of acquaintances and certain that any friends of Eleanor’s would be delightful indeed. Nothing could have prepared her for the scene that met her eyes when Eleanor pushed open the doors to the drawing room. The noise was deafening, for gathered within was a large group of formidable women, talking in groups and pairs and apparently enjoying afternoon tea. They were dressed in a variety of styles from the past, recent and distant.

All talk ceased as Eleanor escorted her young charge into the room. The women turned from their conversations and looked up expectantly. A woman in a simple, unadorned gown stepped forward, and took Eleanor’s hands.

Eleanor made the introductions. “Mary Wollstonecraft, this is Catherine Morland. Catherine wants to know why women don’t make it into the history books”

Mary laughed at this.
Then turning to Catherine, “Welcome! Always room for one more! Let me take you around.”

Catherine found herself b
eing escorted deeper into the room. She turned back to look for Eleanor, but her friend was already engaged in a lively discussion with a woman who looked vaguely familiar to Catherine. She overheard the woman saying, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

“Anne Elliot,” Mary explained, “I believe she’s related to you in some way through the Austen line.”

They paused, an
d Mary looked around, “Whom shall we talk with first? Ah, there’s Christine.” She gestured toward a woman in antique clothing. In response to Catherine’s puzzled look, Mary added, “Christine de Pizan. fourteenth and fifteenth century French. Maybe you’ve heard of her Book of the City of Ladies?”

Catherine shook her head, wondering where one could even find such a book. Certainly not in her father’s library.

“You wrote a book?” she ventured.

“Don’t be so easily impressed,” Mary quipped. “Most of these women have written books—or been featured in them. Christine, tell our young friend how you came to take part in the querelle des femmes.” When she saw Catherine’s furrowed brow, she added, “A debate about the status of women that took place during the medieval period.”

“One day as I was sitting alone in my study,” Christine began, “surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time.”

Mary interjected, “This was when you found a book that talked about wom
en with respect, and it surprised you, right?”

“Yes, just the sight of this book, even though it was of no authority, made me wonder how it happened that so many different men—and learned men among them—have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior”

“I’ve wondered about that too,” said Catherine. “The women I know are all quite nice, really.”

Christine smiled, “My point exactly! Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts, hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true.”

Catherine leaned closer. “What did you find out?”

“To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realize how their claims could be true when compared with the natural behavior and cha
racter of women. Yet I still argued vehemently against women, saying that it would be impossible that so many famous men—such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed—could have spoken falsely on so many occasions that I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was.”

Mary interposed, “I’m sorry to say, that’s still very much the case. Men seem to enjoy railing at women and blaming them for the very qualities a faulty education breeds.”

“If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons….[T]here is no doubt that Nature provided them with the qualities of body and
mind found in the wisest and most learned men.”

“I wish my brothers could hear you,” Catherine said. “They’re always making fun of girls and bragging about being able to go to university.”

At this point, M
ary guided her toward two women, engaged in a lively conversation. “Judith Drake and Mary Astell,” she said. “Two of our own countrywomen, from the seventeenth century.”

“[A] Man ought no more to value himself upon being Wiser than a Woman,” Judith was saying, “if he owe his Advantage to a better Education, and greater means of Information, than he ought to boast of his Courage, for beating a Man when his Hands were bound.”

Her companion spoke up, “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?”

“Fetters of Gold,” rejoined Judith, “are still Fetters, and the softest Lining can never make ‘em so easy, as Liberty.”

Catherine stood shocked, “I never thought about it like that. I was just curious about history being so dull.”

Judith smiled, “[I]f any Histories were anciently written by Women, Time, and the Malice o
f Men have effectually conspir’d to suppress ‘em; and it is not reasonable to think that Men shou’d transmit, or suffer to be transmitted to Posterity, any thing that might shew the weakness and illegality of their Title to a Power they still exercise so arbitrarily, and are so fond of.”

“Maybe that would explain why I’ve never heard of you,” Catherine murmured. Then, worrying lest she seem impolite, she added, “I didn’t know there were so many women who had written on this topic.”

At this point, her guide stepped in once more to steer her toward an outrageously dressed figure who had been holding court among a group of younger women.

“Aphra Behn,” said Mary to Catherine, “She’s something of a celebrity here. And a scandal in the world at large.” As they approached, she added quickly, “but don’t mind that. She’s a delightful writer. I just wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard of her.”

Aphra heard the tail end of this and leapt to her feet, “I make a Challenge to any Person of common Sense and Reason—that is not willfully bent on ill Nature, and will in spight of Sense wrest a double Entendre from everything…but any unprejudiced Person that knows not the Author, to read any of my Comedys and compare ‘em with others of this Age, and if they find one Word that can offend the chastest Ear, I will submit to all their peevish Cavills.”

Her voice was rising during this speech, and the room fell silent as she concluded: “And this one thing I will venture to say, though against my Nature because it has a Vanity in it: That had the Plays I have write come forth under any Mans Name, and never been known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on’t the Woman damns the Poet.”

Applause broke out on all sides. Catherine found herself joining in, although she was more than a bit startled by what she was hearing.

Aphra motioned for silence: “All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well….I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickly Favours.”

More clapping ensued. Several women wept openly. Catherine, too, was deeply moved, but couldn’t have said exactly why.

As Aphra took a seat once more, her entourage plied her with cups of tea and plates of pastries. One woman produced a large powder puff and began touching up Aphra’s make-up.

“She’s in good hands,” Mary said, taking Catherine’s elbow and leading her to a chair. A girl brought a tray with tea and cakes.

Once they were settled, Mary explained, “Aphra wrote for the stage during one of the bawdiest period’s of our nation’s history. And she was a success. She also produced novels and poetry. She’s not widely read today—because of frivolous ideas about decency and female delicacy. But something tells me she’ll have her day once more.”

Audrey Bilger
© 2007-2009

[Be sure to come back to the party tomorrow for part 2!]

submit to reddit


  1. What a fascinating concept! Don't you imagine that there must have been some opportunity for discussions of this sort? I'd love to read of a Suffragettes' Tea Party, perhaps.

    I really enjoyed Charlotte Bronte's character of "Shirley". In university we were given to believe this was one of the first feminist novels(you may have far more information on that subject than I). I did admire the character's strength and refusal to marry just any character who came along and proposed.

    I shall look forward to part II.

    Thank you for sharing this piece.


  2. Hi Kat:

    You're welcome-- I was so happy Audrey sent it in, & the good news is you should be seeing more of Audrey's writing! I think you'll be interested in Part II for sure-- that's when the poets take the floor.

  3. It brings to mind the scene in Howard's End when the Schlegel sisters meet once a week with a discussion group of this sort.

    I love "a serious proposal to the ladies, for the advancement of their true and greatest interest by a lover of her sex"!

  4. {to Quote Churchill.a bloke of course!!!!}“History is written by the victors.” .I wonder if anything has really changed today?

  5. What a great party, and what a shame that so many of the ladies present are strangers to me.

    Tomorrow? Same time, same place? I'll bring a cake.

  6. What an interesting post. It's got me wanting to read some Aphra Behn. A quick google tells me there's loads of it on the internet.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful comments! I love Poetikat's idea about a Suffragettes' Tea Party--I'll let that one steep (sorry, couldn't resist). Dominic, I highly recommend starting with Behn's plays. The Rover and The Lucky Chance are fun to rea--with strong female protagonists and fast-moving stories. Behn's poetry is also quite good. See you tomorrow at the party. Sandra, I'm glad there will be cake!

  8. Hi Willow & Tony & Sandra & Dominic & TFE & Audrey:

    Thanks all for stopping by, & Audrey, thanks for making this wonderful essay available.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.