+ Edited to correct typos and to add this link to Sheldon Cohen on Divorce in Providence County, 1749-1809.
I’ve been at a conference the latter half of this week, peering inside the workings of Cambridge and Boston cultural institutions, and most enjoyably, hearing about authenticity and disruption at the Bostonian Society: let’s get this party started!
Except: there I was in the elegantly and intelligently* done “Seat of Power” exhibition in the Council Chamber, pulling the label out from the chair seat to read about a Boston woman shopkeeper in the 18th century when a man had to explain it to me, with a special “feminist” bent that was supposed to, somehow, make this disruption of my visit okay.
I had been telling a young woman next to me, also part of the conference, that I wasn’t sure if this woman was the Boston woman who had been widowed three times and accumulated a great deal of wealth despite the interference of her husbands, and despite the property laws of the time.
The man, not part of the conference, needed to tell me that of course the woman had owned nothing herself, that being the regrettable law of the time, but in balance it was okay, because men were required to care for, and pay for the keep of, their wives and children.
Reader, this is where I made my mistake: I engaged.
“Not always,” I said. “There are certainly examples of divorce and bigamy, and women unable to get their bigamist husbands to pay heir children’s keep.”
“Oh, those were the exceptions. Men were even imprisoned and beaten for not neglecting their families.”
“Except when they advertised that they would not be a responsible for their wife’s debts, and forswore them; we see that in newspapers of the time. So it’s not universal.”
Do you hear the warning klaxon here? Because I surely missed it.
“I’m a history teacher, and I know. You cannot use the extreme exceptions of 1% of the population to justify your absolutist argument. You can’t make statements like that.”
Well, obviously I can: any of us can be as wrong as we care to be, whenever and wherever we like, if our skins are thick enough.
I replied that I thought I was trying to qualify his statement, and nothing more: that he had taken the absolutist position and I was interested in sticking up for the “predominately” and “mostly by not always” corners of history.
It devolved from there until I finally thanked him, told him he’d surely shown me the error of my ways, and I appreciated his comments.
He reemphasized his point that our forefathers had been wrong; I said they’d been right by their lights and in their time, and that it was important to remember that.
His rejoinder was that it was wrong, of course, and women should have rights, etc. etc.
Gentlemen: let me tell you now that this approach will not endear you to the ladies. These are bad pick up lines.
So there it was, mansplained in the museum, by a feminist history teacher.
It’s enough to make me stop talking to people. And best of all: I think he was a reenactor I’ve met before, unable to recognize me because I am a woman, and not a soldier. Also, no bonnet.
May your day be amused by this anecdote, even as I puzzle over it. References to divorce articles later– I am in a cafe before another session.
*thanks to T. S. Eliot for binding these words together in my mind for ever