Image: "Woman Suffrage in the Wyoming Territory. - Scene at the Polls in Cheyenne/from a photo. By Kirkland (Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c06109/)
In the very first Saint Maggie book, Eli makes mention to Maggie about the “chains of custom” used to keep women in their place. As I’ve said many times before, in mid-1800s America, women were not afforded the same rights as men. The chains of custom used to bind them were spread across the spectrum of life: economics, education, law, dress, employment, and politics. How severely these things were imposed differed according to socio-economic status and race. In the mid-century, the idea of “woman’s sphere” emerged. The belief was that men had the stuff to participate in the rough-and-tumble, if not corrupt, worlds of business and politics, while women, due to their more delicate nature, needed to stay in the safety of the home and attend to the microcosm of family, child-rearing, and family faith. And yet this paradigm did not apply to agrarian women, females in lower classes, or women of color. They, by “virtue” of their status, were thrown into the world outside the home in a desperate attempt to keep themselves and their loved ones alive. They also were more likely to be abused not only by the men in their lives, but also by the men they encountered beyond their homes. They had little, if any, recourse to legal or social actions to punish their aggressors.
At the same time, the mid-1800s is the era of the first wave of American feminism. The early feminists were ridiculed by those intent on maintaining the status quo. It was an uphill slog for them. Feminism is still ridiculed today. Terms like “feminism” and “feminist” have been hijacked. Women often refuse to identify as feminists, stating that they are not ravenous, wild-eyed women hungry for total dominance over males. This myth is further enhanced by a healthy dose of homophobia (all feminists are lesbians or trans, or at least want to blur the line between male and female) and biblical interpretations supporting the idea that women hold a secondary place in the created order.
Maggie lives in a culture in which women must know their “place.” While her daughters, Lydia and Frankie, early feminists that they are, are striking out on journeys that defy societal norms. Maggie, however, is not as bold. Throughout the series, though, she learns to speak for herself, defend her beliefs, and – perhaps even more importantly – stand up for the vulnerable people in her community.
Maggie’s big heart and her firm faith that she is called to love God and love others time and again pull her out of her comfort zone. She faces disapproval in Saint Maggie when she decides to forgive a man who has committed murder. She protects the people of color and hides Union soldiers in Walk by Faith. In that same novel, she and Emily fight off an attacker. A Time to Heal finds Maggie speaking out at a hearing to protect Eli, who had been wrongly arrested of treasonous activities. In Seeing the Elephant, she has the courage to recognize that her husband suffers from emotional distress (technically, PTSD) and supports him when he seeks treatment at the Hospital for the Insane. Maggie also is the fearful, but courageous mother chasing after a runaway daughter in The Enlistment. She compassionately takes Emily and Nate Johnson into her home in The Dundee Cake. She struggles with letting her oldest daughters go (The Great Central Fair). Maggie even entertains angels (The Christmas Eve Visitor).
But in my work-in-progress (I’m now completing revision #3), Maggie has started moving in a new direction. In truth, it wasn’t until I was well into the story when I realized where the plot would be taking her after A Good Community. So, I want to address her future while avoiding spoilers. The best I can do is offer the excerpt below. It illustrates what I think is a turning point in Maggie’s character development. She is growing, moving with the more radical impulses of her time, and, although she doesn’t quite know it, preparing herself to break new ground. All this happens because she and her female friends are shocked to learn that the children who live in the little black community of Water Street are not receiving an education.
Maggie’s Call to Create a Better Society
My heart desires a more just society. Oh, I know that all people cannot be wealthy, but cannot most be comfortable? Must so many bear the heavy weight of poverty on their shoulders without hope of doing better? Of ever doing better? How grinding, how disheartening that is. I know what it was like trying to keep my boarding house afloat after John and Aunty Letty’s deaths. I feared I would not be able to feed my boarders or my daughters. Poverty is a burden that sticks one’s feet in a deep mire of muck so deep that one cannot move. Sometimes faith in God and hope in the future are destroyed by it.
Oh, that I had the power to persuade and move people toward love rather than hate, jealousy, greed, and suspicion! But alas! I feel small and insufficient to the task, despite Eli’s faith in me. If I am powerful, as he says I am, then I simply do not feel it.
Eli, of course, has tried to help by giving me opportunity to write for The Register, but I never will attain his voice in our community. Whether he is admired or deplored, he is still a force to be reckoned with, while I - I am perceived as “Smith’s wife.” I am a woman and I fear that I am not seen as who I really am.
But I must be brave and strong and confident now. Despite my fears, I am called do something to help my community. Giving space in our home for the children from Water Street will, God willing, change their lives. I hunger for them to learn and then leave us and move on to better lives. If I could but see this happen, then I will be content, knowing that I have done my part to change the world for the better.
Obviously, the response of Maggie, Emily, Abigail, and other women is this: “Hey, girls, if the town won’t educate the black children, let’s start a school and do it ourselves!”
This decision is empowering. They want to give children part of what they need to rise in life – but in so doing are empowering themselves as well. And this action may be leading Maggie beyond the stated female sphere and into a larger role in Blaineton.
See you Wednesday!
In the meantime, enjoy this video of Aretha Franklin, Annie Lenox, and Dave Stewart performing “The Sisters Are Doin’ for Themselves.”
(Note: I think today we can add, that not only does a woman still love a man, but a woman can love a woman. In honor of my awesome sister and her partner.)
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder