Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Virginia Woolf was on to something.....

You probably know the famous line from Virginia Woolf: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." In a break from my usual reading fare, I recently finished a non-fiction work called A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom. After following the history of wives from ancient Jewish and Greek civilizations to modern times, I think Virginia Woolf had it right, and I'm going to offer this paraphrase of her statement: "A woman must have money of her own and control of her own decisions before she can be truly productive."

As I was reading Yalom's book, I kept thinking of the other books I've read this year that featured women who were married, or who were trying to get married, and one in which the girl was trying to avoid getting married. With this post, I'd like to try to pull together some of those thoughts.

First, I'll talk about A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. To be honest with you, it wasn't really my kind of book - I'm not a fan of the "man (or girl) against nature" type of story in which a girl has to struggle alone to survive against every kind of natural phenomenon you can imagine (think Julie of the Wolves or Island of the Blue Dolphins. Award-winning, but just not my thing). This particular version of that story is set in Africa, with the girl (Nhamo) running away to escape a forced marriage to a cruel older man with two other wives. Nhamo's grandmother comes up with the escape plan and gives Nhamo some gold nuggets to wear in a little package around her neck. The gold nuggets then disappear from the story until the very end, when the people who have rescued Nhamo from the wilderness find them. The character who tells Nhamo about finding the gold is a woman who is a scientist, and she advises Nhamo to start a bank account with the gold. She tells Nhamo her grandmother gave the gold to help Nhamo avoid the fate of every other girl in the village. The grandmother's wish is that Nhamo will not marry young and become a virtual slave, but that she will have a chance to get education and develop her mind so she can have choices in life.

As I was reading that, I realized how important a gift her grandmother had given Nhamo; by giving her money, she made it possible for Nhamo to have some control over what happened to her, instead of having to relinquish control to a husband in exchange for him supplying the food and shelter she needed to live.

That leads me to think about Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles. Hannah finds herself in the opposite position to Nhamo. Hannah's father has died, leaving her in the Kentucky wilderness with nothing more than a few household goods. While Hannah is a big, strong woman who is probably capable of staking out her own claim and being successful in raising crops, she gives in to the social pressure that tells her a woman shouldn't even try to do that. Faced with a string of potential suitors who recognize the value of a woman's help in taming the wilderness, Hannah bows to the pressure - but on her own terms. She searches out the man who helped her and her father in the wilderness and, in a break with social tradition, asks him to marry her. Fortunately for Hannah, she's made a good choice, and Tice Fowler turns out to be exactly the kind of companion, lover, partner that women are looking for in marriage.

Those two cases would seem to give credibility to my paraphrase of Woolf's axiom - at least for the lower classes. Ironically, though, the more money a woman (or her birth family) had, the less likely she was to have control over who she would marry, for most of human history. Yalom's book gives a number of examples of upper-class women who were part of a marriage that was more an economic or political arrangement than a love match. It wasn't until the 18th century that the concept of romantic love and a heart's desire became factors in allowing people to choose marriage partners.

I hope this post doesn't come off as cynical. I think most women, like Hannah Fowler, are willing or even glad to give up some of their self-determination to gain the benefits of marriage (myself included). But I also admire Nhamo's grandmother for providing the means to help put Nhamo in a position where she could choose to marry at some point in the future -- or not.

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