Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hey, Girls, Be Glad It's the 21st Century

My 11-year-old daughter has recently decided she wants to be a zoologist and work with big cats. She also wants to be a chef, thanks to too much time spent watching the Food Network with her dad. Whether her goals will stay the same over the next ten years or not, I don't know. But I do know she at least has a chance to be those things, which is more than could have been said had she been born in a different time.

I'm reading Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende right now, and I just can't keep from thinking about how restricted women's lives used to be. (Warning: There may be spoilers below!) The part of the book that got me started thinking about this theme was when Eliza turned 16 and her guardian/mother figure, Rose Sommers, begins to try to set up a "proper" marriage for Eliza. That's what girls did for most of human history - get married, whether it's really what they wanted to do or not. I think about Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman that I read last summer - Birdy isn't even old enough (only 13) to really have any idea of what she might want to do (assuming she had the choice), and yet her father is already searching around for a husband for her. Even women who were capable of taking care of themselves in a lot of ways, like Hannah in Hannah Fowler, realized that the world was stacked against single women. Eliza's guardian, Rose, is a good example of that. She never married, but she still had to be attached to a man's household in order to have any social standing. Luckily, she had an unmarried brother for whom she could serve as mistress of the household. Otherwise, she would have had a very sad, marginalized life.

I'm also struck by how much marriage has been used as an economic tool throughout history. Birdy's father isn't concerned with whether Birdy will like her new husband, but whether her marriage will add to the family's prestige and wealth. Mary Hoffman's The Falconer's Tale has at least two examples of a young woman who was married off to an older man to enhance her family's economic position. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise to me, but the practice really reduced a daughter to a commodity.

I suppose it's even more specific - it's the young woman's virginity that is a commodity. In Alice Turnbull's Alice in Love and War, Alice realized she had "lowered her market value" as soon as she slept with Robin. In Daughter of Fortune, there are three women who are seduced by lovers and face the consequences of lowered market value: Rose, who never marries and gets to/has to serve as housekeeper and hostess for a brother who silently but most definitely holds her "fallen" status over her head; Joaquin Andrieta's mother, who is thrown out of her family when she becomes pregnant and who is forced to raise her son in abject poverty; and Eliza, who actually gets off easiest, I think. I'm not sure what would have happened had she stayed in Valapraiso rather than running away to follow Joaquin to California. She might have faced a fate similar to Rose's, or she might have been tossed out, like Joaquin's mother. But because she broke the accepted social norms and found a way to follow Joaquin, she gets to have a satisfying relationship with Tao Chi'en (I think - I'm not completely finished yet, but I've read ahead a little, and it looks like that's where things are going). She gets a happy ending - though people at the time wouldn't have thought so, since she married outside her race. I guess they would have thought that fate was more disgraceful than either of the others.

One last thing strikes me as I read this. How unfair is it that the women have to pay for their lack of sexual self-control, but the men get a free pass, so to speak? Rose is put in a very restricted social role that could be blown apart if the story of her past was revealed. Joaquin's mother is sentenced to a life of desperate poverty and an early death from disease because she got pregnant out of wedlock. Eliza takes drastic action to get to the father of her baby, even if it means the danger of stowing away on a ship to a place she's never been before. Yet Joaquin and Eliza's father, John Sommers, get to go on their merry ways, pursuing their dreams of gold and their lives without another thought of the circumstances faced by the lover they left behind. Unfair!

I'm not trying to argue that girls should get a free pass for a lack of self-control, any more than boys should. These stories just make me reflect on what limited lives women used to have, and to feel fortunate that the world has changed in ways that allowed me to marry for love, not economics, and that give my daughter the chance to be a zoologist chef who feeds her leftovers to the tigers.

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