from Lillian Faderman, To Believe in Women
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Such desires demanded that they break into of the "masculine" public sphere, claim it for their own, and thereby neuter the notion of gender-appropriate spheres. However, many one leaders who were particularly effective in the nineteenth century strategically disguised the fact that gender was a concept with which they wished to dispense. If, as Judith Butler has argued, all gender is performance, most of the heroes of this book can be said would be to have performed the role of "woman" while conducting their battles to invade the public spaces belonging to men.
These women also recognized that the category of gender was artificial and ''as changeable as dress," as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg phrased it with regard to modernist women. But they were quite the reverse of certain female inverts of the working class in their day, who claimed men's privileges by literally changing their dress and traversing the world in men's drag. By donning women's drag (both literally and figuratively), many of the pioneers concealed their intent to claim male privileges. They believed that they must perform "woman" publicly in order to change what "woman" meant. Yet in private, traditional gender notions had little meaning for them.
It was in fact these women's secret understanding of the sham of gender roles that fueled the movements that eventually gave women the vote, the right to a higher education and a profession and the power of influence over public policy. But because most of them believed -with justification -that their society was not ready for unalloyed radical approaches, they often argued that changes in woman's sphere were necessary not because women were just like men and gender was an absurd notion, but precise1y because women were different from men. With essentialist arguments - which their own lives patently contradicted - their strategy was to proclaim that women's special gifts were desperatley needed in the muddle of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century society. For example, they claimed a place for females in politics by insisting that women should have more say in public policy because they were "morally superior" to men.
Protests were predictable and were generally meant to dissuade and mortify. One critic, for example, claimed in The Ladies' Companion that the only women who would want a serious education were "mental hermaphrodites" and "semi-women." Another declared in The Religious Magazine that the "principles and design of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary" were deplorable because the
institution would create "characters expressly formed for acting a manly <sic> part upon the theatre of life. ...Under such influences the female character is fast becoming masculine." Gender inversion was consistently the great fear of those who abjured serious education for women.
Wenkebach's gender inversion was accompanied by a rejection of men as romantic objects. As a student, she was "the center of an adoring crowd of enthusiastic girls." As a professor at Wellesley her loves included Alice Freeman, who was Wellesley's president.
When Freeman married, Wenckebach's biographer observes, "the blow was a bitter one. [Wenckebach] was irreconcilable and went ding as to the wedding as if to a funeral," though in later years she formed a dyad with Margarethe Muller, a colleague in Wellesley's German department which lasted until Wenckebach's death, in 1902.
Pioneering academic women knew that they were accused of gender inversion by those who opposed higher education for females yet since they deplored femininity; they saw its opposite masculinity; not as undesirable but rather as consisting of attributes that permitted the freedoms they coveted. In "The Womanly Woman," a one-act nineteenth-century satire that made fun of those who feared the educated woman, Rose Chamberlin presents a university student, Thomasina (or "tomboy"), who comes onstage wearing a "neat cut-away coat; her billy-cock hat askew, smoking a short pipe, and cracking a whip." When Tomasina offers to help the silly, feminine Angelina adjust to university life, Angelina responds, "You surely cannot think Thomasina that I could condescend to receive information and instruction to my conduct from an amphibious -at least -no not amphibious, I mean carnivorous -no -I don't –dear me what is the Word? [hermaphrodite?] -oh I know -from a she maleish creature like yourself?" Thomasina responds, with only partial sarcasm: “Many thanks for the compliment my love."
There is no question about whose side Rose Chamberlin is on. She concludes with a disgusted narrative explaining that the dainty Angelina manages to Continue at school though "she maintains the character of a most womanly woman –throughout her college career – by carefully eschewing even the pretence of study – and keeping up her admiration of the male sex. “The true Womanly Woman” illustrates that for commited college women of Chamberlin’s generation, not only was higher education an escape from the limitations of womanhood , but a rejection of attributes that were considered feminine – that is, an “unsexing” was seen as being crucial to the success of their academic endeavors.
For several decades women like Thomasina were generally not called lesbians or homosexuals, though their critics sometimes hinted at abnormality. In an article in The American Journal of Heredity in the 1890’s for instance such women were accused of “being more or less lacking in normal sex instincts.”
Smashes between female students were encouraged by the rituals romance in which they engaged. For example, women's college dances in the late nineteenth century did not include men,but they did include dates. One student (usually an upperclassman) would call for her date with flowers or candy in hand; sometimes she would wear a tuxedo and her date would wear a gown, and always she would take the lead in dancing and would act the part of a gentleman. Letters and diaries of students of the era often suggest the practice between them of a kind of amour courtois, as Taiana Rota describes it in her work on Mount Holyoke College,
Much more significant than these romantic rituals, however, was the fact that these students shared the excitement of their pioneering endeavors in education. In the absence of male distractions, they could dare to see one another as heroes and objects of intense admiration rather than as rivals. At coeducational colleges also, female students in the nineteenth century were likely to fall in love with each other. They took each other seriously, while the male Students were often hostile to them, as a popular Cornell song of 1890’s shows: "I'm glad all the girls are not like Comell women; /they’re as ugly as sin and there is no good within `em”
To prefer dissecting animals to hemming skirts meant not only that Thomas was refusing to act like a young woman, but also that she was not a woman in the era's conception of the term. Women would "naturally" prefer domestic occupations. Yet if she was not a woman, what was she? A new answer to that question, based precisely on a female's refusal to accept her society's construction of womanhood, was being devised by the sexologists at just that time; but for now, Minnie did not have to be locked into any identity.' She could thus exuberantly advise herself in her 1872 journal, "Go ahead! Have fun! Stop short of nothing but what [is] wrong and not always that)! Never mind if people call you 'wild,' 'tomboyish' 'unladylike,' 'masculine.' They like you all the better for it end." More important, she had discovered what men of her class valued among themselves -what brought the kind of respect too deemed worth having. Her "one aim & concentrated purpose: she decided with excited determination, would be to show that a woman "can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature & science & conjecture that open before the nineteenth century."
Thomas vehemently rejected the role of woman, yet she felt that she must achieve success at least partly for the sake of womankind. Only through professional success could she change the meaning of "womankind" to something grander than what it seemed to her.