The Age of Arsenic

There’s little in history more depressing than the collapse of the first wave of feminism after about 1820. It is one sort of shock that the “civilized” mask of a culture can fall, revealing men who possess wristwatches and radios but who are prepared to send their neighbors to a gas chamber. It is a different shock, perhaps more insidious, to realize that an achievement of the mind in the modern era can be lost as surely and totally as an achievement like the building of metaled highways was lost in the European Dark Ages. The demand for women’s rights was plainly and splendidly formulated in the years of the French Revolution, and came to the attention of literate women and men all over Europe and North America. But then, after the execution of the king and the long wars against France, the very idea of the rights of women came to be identified as “French” and subversive. (How ironic that it was the moderate Girondins and their intellectual friends who took such an interest in feminism, while the radical revolutionaries of the Montagne who overthrew them regarded the cause as a sick deviation typical of the leisured classes! The story is well told in Claire Tomalin’s life of Mary Wollstonecraft.* )

There followed for the middle-class woman a century of regression. As that class established its ascendancy over the decrepit restoration regimes of the early nineteenth century, so its ethic turned against the feminist pioneers who had given the middle class brave intellectual support in its revolt against “irrational” feudalism. Enough was enough. Yesterday’s heroine of reason and feeling was today’s termagant and psychopath. A barrage of reactionary abuse, much of it written by lady authors, drove women back from the barricade and the lecture hall to the kitchen, the nursery, and the pious hypocrisies of Victorian family life. The clever, sharp faces of women in turn-of-the-century portraits are replaced by the silly nymphs of Ingres and Etty who seem to carry their brains, as Brontosauri did, in their buttocks.

The early male fashion in Victorian women was for girlishness and infantility—for Dora, in David Copperfield. As the century passed, this passive ideal gave way to something less mushy but even harder to attain: the woman of active virtue who maintained and propagated a saintly purity which mere men—by their natures, of course—couldn’t easily reach by themselves. The greater the wealth and confidence of the Victorian bourgeoisie, the more elaborate and restrictive became the theatrical part which women were expected to play.

The laborer’s woman, who probably went out to work herself, had the very concrete horrors of poverty, filth, and violence to deal with: enemies well enough known to women throughout history. But the grocer’s wife, the fiancée of the elderly cotton broker, the daughter of the Inspector of Factories were fighting not for survival but for esteem. All around them stood fathers, husbands, lovers, and neighbors demanding “womanly” behavior on grounds which owed singularly little…

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