Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, September 29, 2017

Mrs. Gaskell and Mothers of the Novel

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (born 29 September 1810)

Among nineteenth-century women novelists (aside from the Brontë sisters, of course) Elizabeth Gaskell may be one of the best known to modern readers, if for no other reason than several of her works of fiction have been made into television series--in 1999, the BBC aired a four-part adaptation of Wives and Daughters; in 2004, the BBC produced a four-episode mini-series of North and South; and a 2007-2008 BBC adaptation of Cranford, starring Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, earned BAFTA, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards. All three productions aired in the US on PBS.

Born on 20 September 1810 in Chelsea, Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was the daughter of William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, treasury official, and journalist, and Elizabeth Holland, whose family also had strong Unitarian connections.

Elizabeth was the youngest of their eight children (only two of whom would survive infancy). Her mother died in 1811, just months after giving birth to Elizabeth, who at thirteen months old was sent to live with her mother's sister, Hannah Lumb, whom Elizabeth would later describe as "more than a mother."

The young Elizabeth Stevenson,
miniature portrait by
William John Thompson
William Stevenson remarried, raising a second family with his second wife, Catherine Thompson, while Elizabeth remained with her maternal family in Cheshire throughout most of her childhood. The Cheshire market town of Knutsford, where Elizabeth lived with her aunt, was transformed by fiction into the town of Cranford.

(Catherine Thompson Stevenson's brother, the miniaturist William John Thompson, would later paint the portrait of Elizabeth as a young woman I've included on this entry.)

In 1832, Elizabeth Stevenson married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister associated with the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester.

As the Gaskell Society describes it, Manchester in the early nineteenth century "was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was at the forefront of the new industrial age, but this rapid growth, as well as generating much wealth, also led to uncontrolled urban development and appalling squalor."

In her new life in the city, Elizabeth Gaskell worked with her husband to offer aid and support for the poor and to teach reading and writing, in addition to Scripture, in the Unitarian Sunday school. She observed the radical politics and social tensions of the city--as she would write in the preface to her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), "I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want."

During the first years of her marriage, Gaskell gave birth to three daughters (1834, 1837, 1842), and she began writing, publishing several stories. But after the death of her son, who died of scarlet fever in 1845, just nine months old, Gaskell began writing a novel, at her husband's suggestion, as a way of distracting herself from her profound grief. 

That novel, Mary Barton, depicted the dire circumstances of industrial workers in the city of Manchester, profoundly affecting the public conscience. It also brought Gaskell to the attention of Charles Dickens, who included her work in his publications and helped her to become one of the most popular authors of her day.

Gaskell did not avoid controversy. Her novel Ruth, published in 1855, tells the story of a young seamstress who works in a sweatshop; seduced and betrayed by her lover, she attempts suicide and gives birth to an illegitimate child. Although the "fallen" woman ultimately redeems herself, she is never allowed to be happy or fully reintegrated into society--though after her death she is praised by those who knew her.

North and South (1855) is an example of what is now called a "social novel," focusing on the tensions between employers and workers from the perspective of a young woman who moves from her home in the rural south of England to live in the industrial town of Milton, a fictionalized Manchester.

Sylvia's Lovers (1863) is set during the Napoleonic period, and unlike her more well-known work, is a story of obsessive love, enforced military service (the notorious press gangs), dutiful marriage, and the eventual realization that an unloved husband is loved after all.

Gaskell's last novelWives and Daughters, was published in serial installments from August 1864 to January 1865, but Gaskell died before she completed the coming-of-age story of Molly Gibson, whose father remarries, bringing into the young girl's life a pretty but dangerous stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick.

Gaskell was also a friend of the novelist Charlotte Brontë, whom she met in 1850, and she wrote the first biography of Charlotte, who died in 1855, based on their shared correspondence. The biography was published in 1857, and it provoked controversy--in her work, Gaskell suppressed some aspects of her friend's passion for the married Constantin Heger, while emphasizing the dissolute nature of Charlotte's brother Branwell and overemphasizing the Brontë sisters' isolation. Gaskell faced the prospect of lawsuits for her depictions of many Brontë friends and acquaintances who objected to Gaskell's depiction of them in the biography. 

Elizabeth Gaskell,
a photograph from c. 1860
Gaskell died suddenly of a heart attack on 12 November 1865 in Hampshire, where she was buying a home that was to be for her retirement. She was just fifty-five years old. Her last novel, North and South, was unfinished.

For an excellent account of Gaskell's life and work, access Jenny Linglow's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography by clicking here. (If you have trouble, this British Library essay on Gaskell provides a direct link, at the end, to the DNB entry.) 

If you enjoy podcasts, you will want to listen to this episode of In Our Time, "Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South" (click here).

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lift Us Up Where We Belong? Women and Public Monuments

Putting Women on Pedestals: Are Monuments for Women Needed?

In her 4 September 2017 New York Times op-ed, Julia Baird makes the case for "why we should put women on pedestals."

Of course she begins her column by acknowledging that it is "a perilous time to be a statue," adding, "not that it has ever been a particularly secure occupation."

Perilous times indeed. Statues erected to commemorate famous men seem to be coming down quickly these days. In the last few months, Confederate statues have been removed from public display in California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, while states in which cities are considering their removal include Alabama, Georgia, and Washington.

(It's also a perilous time to be a piece of stained glass--just one day after Baird's piece was published, the congregation of the Washington National Cathedral voted to remove two windows, installed in 1953, depicting "painful, distracting, and one-sided" stories of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and the removal was begun the very next day.)

With so many statues of men coming down, should monuments to women be going up?

Queen Victoria,
sculpture by her daughter,
Princess Louise,
Kensington Palac
Should we, as Baird suggests, be putting women on pedestals? Assuming, of course, that we mean it literally--that is, if we mean raising bronze or stone public monuments in honor of notable women and their achievements.

(I think we can all agree we've had enough of the tired, old fantasies that metaphorically put women on pedestals, idealizing them as romantic objects of desire, to be admired and worshipped. How many really bad boyfriends have complained, after they are dumped, that their treatment is unjust because, after all, they put their girlfriends up on pedestals and idolized them?!!!) 

And more than just agreeing with Baird, should we do all we can to help create more public sculptures of women on pedestals? Baird believes that we should: "if women are on those pedestals," she argues, then we "will know women can matter and make history. Or simply that women are history."

As soon as I saw the title of Baird's essay, I thought immediately of a paper one of my students had written long ago, back in the 1980s. Our seminar had been on Arthurian romance--our reading started with the origins of the Arthurian myth in the "historical" works of Gildas and Nennius, and the Cambrian Annals, but we spent most of our semester with Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.

Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristan and Isolde. Knights and "their" ladies, worshipped, desired, served, saved, placed on pedestals. (Or, sometimes, imprisoned in towers--but that's another story . . . )

Although it was years before G.R.R. Martin published the first volume of his Song of Ice and Fire, many of the students who had enrolled in that seminar had come to King Arthur through their reading of fantasy fiction. And most of them, regardless of their interests in medieval romance literature, had Disney-like fantasies of knights, dragons, chivalry, courtly love, and, of course, fair damsels and maidens who were adored and "idolized" by men who served them.

My student was having none of it, and although today I struggle to remember her name, I remember her paper--and its title--clearly. They are what Baird's op-ed brought most immediately to mind. The title of my student's paper, was "Pedestals Are Dangerous Places." In it, she analyzed the role of women in so many medieval (and more contemporary) romances.

Being placed on a pedestal isn't comfortable, my student argued. It isn't a place anyone should want to be. It's dangerous. It doesn't allow for any freedom of movement. And it's never a place that a woman chooses to be--she has no agency when it comes to pedestal-standing. A pedestal is where she is put, whether she likes it or not. Short of being imprisoned in a small dungeon (or tall tower), being placed on a pedestal is one of the most restrictive and perilous and lonely fates anyone can suffer.

Not that Baird ignores the dangers of pedestals in her piece--statues are, as she observes, "exposed" to "the elements, bird droppings and political winds."

Ahhhh. The shifting winds of politics can blow anyone down. And thus the fate of statues of Lenin, Cecil Rhodes, Saddam Hussein, Joe Paterno, all vainglorious men whose public monuments have been pulled down after their fall and disgrace.

And thus the fate of Confederate generals and politicians whose bronzed effigies (and stained glass windows) are now being pulled down as shameful commemorations of the institution of slavery, of white supremacy, and of treason rather than as reminders of a glorious and romantic "lost cause."

(As a note on the unpredictability of pedestals: USA Today reports that, just as the statues of men who fought to retain the institution of slavery are coming down in the U.S., statues honoring Josef Stalin are going up in a Russia now nostalgic for its own lost cause.)

So the answer to the question of whether we should put women on pedestals really isn't all that clear to me, the more I consider it. The truth is, I've never been fond of the public monuments in stone and bronze honoring "great" men and their achievements--to be honest, I don't think many of these statues are great works of art, and I can't recall any trip I've made where I've paid much attention to them, whether it's Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square or Napoleon on his in the Place Vendôme. (Now that I come to think of it, however, I did visit the Lincoln Memorial once--it was on a group tour, and I had to get off the bus with everyone else and spend an obligatory five minutes.)

But whether or not you love Mt. Rushmore and think women need a giant carved mountain plunked down in the middle of nowhere too, what Baird's op-ed makes clear is that, when it comes to the vicissitudes of public sculpture, women haven't had the same opportunities to rise or fall as men.

Sure, we seem to be comfortable enough with some female statues. Allegorical figures are always safe. Who doesn't love Lady Liberty, out there in New York harbor, on her plinth? A robed female form, representing the Roman goddess of Libertas. Yeah, okay, safe enough. And just to make certain no human woman gets too uppity or inspired by this imposing female role model, let's make sure she's not only confined to her pedestal, but let's stick her on an island too (and restrict public access while we're at it).

Justice, Dublin Castle
And then there's Justice, famously figured at the Supreme Court Building. We often "remember" soaring, free-standing figures like the one to the right. But be careful! True, that is  a sculpture of Justice on a pedestal, but this representation of justice is found in Dublin, high above the Cork Hill entrance to Dublin Castle.

While the allegorical Justice is actually figured in three separate places at the United States Supreme Court, the most notable figure is alongside the steps of the main entrance to the court. But in this sculpture, The Contemplation of Justice, she's not on a pedestal (however risky a place that might be).

Instead, she's clutched in the hand of a seated female figure, who herself is firmly attached to a 50-ton marble block. Justice is certainly not going to fall. But neither will she soar and inspire: in fact, she's so tiny she is hard to see, while the stolid figure gripping her is not going to rouse anyone to great accomplishments. The seated figure's "action" is reduced to sitting. And looking. Although the title of James Earl Fraser's piece suggests the seated figure is thoughtfully considering Justice, she seems instead to be placidly staring off into space. 

James Earl Frasier,
Contemplation of Justice,
Supreme Court, Washington D. C.

Fraser himself described Contemplation as having a head and body "expressive" of "beauty" and "intelligence," while the companion figure in The Guardian of Law, seated on the other side of the steps--a male figure--is "powerful, erect, and vigilant. He waits with concentrated attention, holding in his left hand the tablet of laws, backed by the sheathed sword, symbolic of enforcement through law.” (The other two representations of justice are solidly captured and contained in a bas-relief on the base of lamppost and in a frieze inside the courtroom.)

Allegorical figures may be one thing, but real, actual, human women are quite another when it comes to commemoration and remembrance. I know, I know--there are lots of Virgin Marys and plenty of female saints out there too, but it seems to me it would be even harder to become a mother of god than to become the embodiment of justice or victory or liberty or the three graces . . . 

Aside from allegorical and religious female sculptures, the figures are pretty bleak. In 2011, Cari Shane reported these astonishing numbers: 
Of the 5,193 public outdoor sculptures of individuals in the United States, only 394, or less than 8 percent, are of women, compared with 4,799 of men, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog, considered the most up-to-date catalogue of such works. And none of the 44 national memorials managed by the National Park Service (such as the Lincoln Memorial) specifically focuses on women and their accomplishments.
A more recent study shows the situation has improved--of more than 6,900 recorded works, 9 percent of the outdoor sculptures are female. A whole one percent increase! Still, only a "grand total of nine national park sites are dedicated to women’s history--out of 411."

The figures for New York's Central Park are representative. Simply put, there are no statues honoring women in Central Park (unless you count Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Shakespeare's Juliet--though she's with Romeo--and a scattering of angels, nymphs and allegorical figures.) But there are 23 sculptures of men, including a fourteenth-century Polish king, the Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven.

Across the country, in San Francisco, the situation is much the same. Of the 87 public statues in the city, only two women are represented: Florence Nightingale and Senator Diane Feinstein. (In her piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight describes the city's public artwork as "monuments to male supremacy.")

In the U.K., it's a similar disheartening story. As Caroline Criado-Perez reports, "I sorted the UK’s statues by gender--a mere 2.7 per cent are of historical, non-royal women." By her reckoning, based on the U.K. database of the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association, there are some 925 public statues, only 158 of them female. 

In her March 2016 piece in The New Statesman, she notes that your best bet for being placed on a pedestal, if you're female, is to be "a mythical or allegorical figure, a famous virgin, royal or nude." Of the 158 female sculptures, the overwhelming majority are of allegorical figures. If you're an actual human woman, you don't stand much of a chance: 
By far the least likely route to having a statue erected of you . . . is to have been a woman who actually existed and achieved something in the past. Only 71 statues . . . of historical women are listed in the database. Forty-six of those are of royalty--over 50 per cent. Twenty-nine alone are of Queen Victoria.
That leaves us with 25 statues of historical, non-royal women (one of whom is a ghost and only there because she’s looking for the spirit of her murdered husband).

Thomas Thornycraft's magnificent bronze sculpture
of the historical Queen Boudica and her daughters,
Westminster Bridge, London

The question isn't just one of numbers, though. As Baird observes, "Since statues tell us who society deems important, more female figures are in order." And she's undoubtedly right, or at least partly right.  

The comments responding to Baird's op-ed are filled with such ignorance that it makes me think we need statues of women on every corner, if for no other reason than to see these guys' heads explode. As one boob angrily observes, "The women who should be on pedestals are those that stay in their domestic spheres of influence. It's more important for them to rear and raise the next generation than go out and compete with men." 

Writing from Paris (where there are obviously no sculptures of male dumbasses, embarrassments, or mediocrities), another guy writes, "Yes, let's create bogus statues of third-rate 'historical' figures, just because they're women, that'll promote 'equality,' right?" Clearly he assumes no women are "first-rate" historical figures. Ever. 

Another considered, thoughtful comment, this time from Norway: "I cannot stop laughing at this new example of me, me, me, me, me, [sic] feminism. How about we put women on statues when they DO something like men."

And Spain is represented as well, the writer offering this analogy: erecting statues of women is "the equivalent of fighting a high school failure rate by giving everyone an A regardless of test results."

And if the writers' names are any indication, it's not just men, unfortunately. "Dottie" dismisses Baird's essay as "silliness" that is written only because of "the pay offered for this sort of filler."

In response to the overwhelming maleness of public sculpture (and in defiance of people who think like those who commented on Baird's suggestion), there are efforts to erect monuments to notable women. Three new sculptures are being planned in the U.K., all of them funded by private donation and honoring historical women not mythological female abstractions: the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, and comedian Victoria Wood.

In the U.S., the all-volunteer, nonprofit Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund (now MonumentalWomen) is organizing their #MonumentalWomen campaign in order to "break the bronze ceiling," funding a monument dedicated to these two extraordinary American women to be placed in Central Park. 

I'm particularly intrigued by the work of The Whole Story Project, a crowd-sourced "augmented reality" app that "allows artists, coders, historians and everybody else to build, place and celebrate women who’ve changed the world." (Creating virtual monuments of notable women and "placing them" in the real world is surely as worthwhile as catching Pokémon isn't it? Isn't it???) 

In the end, whatever my reservations about public sculptures commemorating famous people, I think I can support the effort to create monuments to women. As I've tried to show in the hundreds of essays in this blog, there are notable women who have been successful in many fields. 

Whether we celebrate them in words or stone, recognizing them is important.

And it is a matter of equality. Real women have done remarkable things. And real women--like real men--are an incredible, improbable mix of good and bad. Women should be placed on pedestals--if for no other reason than, at some point, we may choose to topple them, just as we are removing men like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson from exalted heights and bringing them back down to earth.

Update, 19 September 2017: Turner-prize winning artist Gillian Wearing has just received conditional planning permission for the construction of her design for a sculpture of the suffrage leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett to be constructed in Parliament Square (London). Wearing will be the first female artist to have her work in the Square, and Fawcett will be the first female subject of a public sculpture to be erected there.

According to the report in The Guardian:
A detailed model of the monument shows Fawcett holding a sign that reads “Courage calls to courage everywhere,” taken from a speech she gave after the death of fellow campaigner Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby.
The aim is to have the sculpture completed by the time of the centenary passage of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 in February (the act granted some women over the age of thirty the right to vote for the first time in the U.K.).

Update, 6 March 2019: In New York City, five new statues honoring significant women will be commissioned and installed, thanks to the efforts of She Built NYC, "a campaign launched to honor women who have shaped New York City while addressing the absence of female statues in our public spaces."

The sculptures will be placed in the borough that each woman called home: in Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American elected to serve in the House of Representatives; in Manhattan, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who refused to move to the back of the bus in 1854; in Queens, legendary singer Billie Holiday; in the Bronx, activist and physician Helen Rodríguez Trías; and in Staten Island, Katherine Walker, a lighthouse keeper who saved scores of lives.

On the subject of women's lack of representation in public art, you may appreciate Gail Collins's reflections in her 29 March 2019 op-ed, "Where the Girls Aren't."

Update, 26 August 2020: On the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, Meredith Bergmann's sculpture, the Women's Rights Pioneers Monument, will be unveiled in Central Park.

The nonprofit organization Monumental Women campaigned to place the sculpture in the Park and raised the funds for its creation. You can learn more about "the unveiling" at the Monumental Women website (click here).

Update, 21 October 2020: An interesting new piece in the New York Times on the subject of placing women on public monuments, "Placing Women on a Different Pedestal," makes the claim that "Public monuments, and the artists who create them, are beginning to represent women and their achievements" (click here).

Update, 11 November 2020: Two hundred years after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft and after ten years of fundraising, this happened: 

Detail of Maggi Hambling's new sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft,
Newington Green, north London

The work caused immediate outrage, prompting one opinion writer for The Guardian to ask, "Was a tiny, silver, ripped nude really the correct way to honour ‘the mother of feminism’?" Her answer to her own question is a column titled "Why I Hate the Mary Wollstonecraft Statue."

Update, 18 February 2021: And yet another piece, Megan O'Grady's "Why Are There So Few Monuments That Successfully Depict Women?" Surely by now we don't need one more essay asking the very same question one more time, but here we are.

Update, 12 March 2023: After 125 years, the staircase in New York's capitol is finally getting a new addition--Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On this, see Grace Ashford's "'Million-Dollar Staircase' Adds a New Face," New York Times (click here). Of course, there's this: “'Anything like this really could be seen as a slippery slope, and who’s to say what comes next?' said Jay DiStefano, the president of the Preservation League of New York, which opposes the addition." Fuck you, Jay DiStefano.