Offstage, But in the Spotlight
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Offstage, But in the Spotlight

Culture, feminism and food

Out of the Shadow of Men: Women in History Who Deserve Their Own Spotlight

When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” she couldn’t have been more accurate. But, it seems, sometimes even the less well-behaved ones don’t receive their moment in the spotlight – something the presidential election proved all too poignantly as a dedicated public servant who happened to be female was denied entrance to an office she desperately wanted.

One woman who was notorious for her decidedly not good behavior, Zelda Fitzgerald, is the subject of a new TV series, “The Beginning of Everything,” which has premiered on Amazon. Zelda, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, has long been the subject of fascination thanks to her daringly unconventional life. But Zelda is hardly the only woman in a famous man’s life who helped a man shape his own place in history. It’s time to shine some light on a few other women who, perhaps a bit more well-behaved, deserve their own chapter in history books.

1) Corretta Scott King

Martin Luther King’s widow recently returned to public awareness when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senator Mitch McConnell after attempting to read a letter written by King about Jeff Sessions as a form of opposition to Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General. McConnell’s silencing of Warren inspired a fresh wave of political outrage as well as a new interest in King’s words.

But King’s independent and progressive spirit was apparent long before that one letter. When the two married in 1953, she asked that the word “obey” be removed from their vows, and she accompanied her husband during important events in the Civil Rights Movement right up until his death in 1968. She continued working long after his death and worked to include women and the LGBTQ community in the movement.

Just a few of King’s accomplishments include founding the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta and the Coalition of Conscience, which consisted of more than 800 human rights groups. She was the recipient of more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees as well as a CEO, author, columnist and TV personality. And, if that wasn’t enough, she also worked to establish a national holiday honoring the work of the Civil Rights Movement.

2) Edie Kerouac-Parker

Imagine if Jack Kerouac had been stuck in jail and hadn’t been able to go on the road? The Beat Generation writer’s first wife has been unfairly characterized as an uptight young woman who wanted her husband to settle down rather than live the unconventional, wild life he has romanticized throughout his writing. Kerouac-Parker has written the story of her life with Kerouac, detailing how they met at Columbia University, their young marriage and the scandalous murder that was depicted in the film “Kill Your Darlings” —– a move that, unfortunately, portrays her in an extremely different light, especially given that she and Jack were married so she could bail him out of prison. Jack wrote Edie (giving her a different name) into the books “The Town and the Country” and the “Vanity of Duluoz,” and the two separated but she said she still loved him after their marriage ended.

3) Abigail Adams

The wife of Founding Father and later President John Adams was contemptuously called, “Mrs. President,” a nickname inspired out of resentment for her influence on her husband. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Her influence was apparent in the letters the two wrote each other, especially one penned in March 1776 that read, in part, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Credited as the first First Lady to demonstrate that a wife could be more than domestic hostess, Adams contributed greatly to the fight for equality for women that continues today. Laura Linney played in the acclaimed HBO miniseries, but that was titled “John Adams.” It’s about time for one simply called, “Abigail.”

4) Virginia Clemm Poe

The famously moody poet and writer was devoted to his young wife, who married him when she was only 13 years old. She was devoted to her husband, who was her first cousin and 14 years older than her, and remained with him when they moved from home to home due to his professional and financial instability. She was only 19 when she began showing signs of tuberculosis, the illness that killed many of Poe’s loved ones. The two, who called each other “Eddy” and “Sissy,” were known for the domestic contentment despite their constant poverty and instability.

As her illness worsened, Virginia became an invalid, homebound but determined to help keep her husband happy until her death. She told her friend Elizabeth Oakes Smith, “I know I shall die soon; I know I can’t get well; but I want to be as happy as possible and make Edgar happy.” After her death, she told her husband, she would be his guardian angel. Seemingly selfless, she even encouraged Edgar to nurture relationships with other women hoping they would help him professionally as well as personally.

Devoted to his wife until her death, Poe told her, “I should have lost my courage but for you —– my darling little wife —– you are my greatest and only stimulus now to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life.”

This unsung hero of literature is rumored to have inspired and was portrayed in some of Poe’s stories. It’s time she had her own.

5) Angelica Schuyler

Technically not a wife, but rumored to have a close relationship with Alexander Hamilton, the founding father’s sister-in-law gets some literal time in the spotlight —– and a great solo —– in the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” But the musical has taken some liberties with history, especially regarding Angelica’s relationship with Alexander. And while the role of Angelica is undoubtedly a great one, winning original cast member Renee Elise Goldsberry a Tony Award, there is much more to learn about this intriguing woman who, Goldsberry said confidently, would have been President if she had been a man.

Do "The Rules" Apply?: Dating in 2017

Apple got it wrong. When the company aired its controversial “Lemmings” commercial back in 1985, showing people grimly marching off a cliff to their death, whistling “Heigh-Ho,” it was 10 years too early and featured the incorrect gender. They should have waited until 1995 and timed this commercial with the release of the book “The Rules,” a guide to dating seemingly determined to turn women into heteronormative obedient robots obsessed with men, marriage and motherhood through brainwashing and psychological abuse.

First published in 1995, this book, written by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, was quickly established as a bestseller while women throughout the world fell prey to its promise of "time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.” Seemingly written as a guide to playing hard to get and thus ensure men would always be in hot pursuit, “The Rules” was forcefully encouraged to me by a complete stranger with whom I was making small talk at an event. Once she learned I was single and rapidly appraised my physical appearance, she told me that I’m pretty enough, so I must be doing something wrong. I wasn’t following “The Rules.”

I had heard of the controversial book in passing but had never read it. Now I have, but I wish I hadn’t. Often criticized for being outdated, “The Rules” is more than just that: It’s a disturbing and dangerous piece of propaganda intent on enforcing gender stereotypes and promoting traditional gender roles and the purity myth, and, above all, it is belittling and insulting to men. And it achieves all of this by abusing women by way of insults, isolation and obedience.

Consider the Source

I was looking for the copyright of “The Rules” when I saw, in tiny font, an Authors' Note that states “we are not licensed to practice psychology, psychiatry or social work.” Rather than be buried in the front of the book, this should be printed in the largest font physically possible so readers without my own built-in skepticism can keep it in mind as they progress through “The Rules.”

It’s ironic that the #1 rule is to be “a creature unlike any other,” because the book seems to want all women to behave the exact same way: as a creature waiting to be possessed. Or, as the book breezily states, “The purpose of ‘The Rules’ is to make Mr. Right obsessed with having you as his by making yourself seem unattainable.” The theme of “The Rules” that was repeated again and again was the idea that love equates possession. I lost track of how many times the book equated a relationship to “getting” a man or a man loving a woman as “wanting her to be only his.” Given that the book considers marriage as the ultimate goal for women, and marriage was once a way of possessing and owning a woman and her assets, this might be understandable — if the book had been written a few hundred years ago. But it wasn’t; it was written in 1995.

To “get” a man and make him want to own — I mean, love — you, you are never supposed to tell him how much you like him. Instead, you’re supposed to make him think you’re unavailable by dating other people and almost always so “busy and happy,” you can barely fit him into your schedule. The book recommends screening and not answering calls so he will think you’re not at home and turning down dates, even when you’re free, if he doesn’t ask an appropriate number of days in advance. All of the effort put into this masquerade is to achieve the end goal the book assumes from page one: marriage. In other words, women are supposed to pretend to be someone else so they can manipulate men into buying politically incorrect pieces of jewelry so they can spend the rest of their lives pretending to be an ideal of the male gaze rather than an actual person.

Build Your Life Around a Man, But Don’t Respect Him

If I were a man and I read “The Rules,” I would be insulted. Even though the book views a marriage to a man as the ultimate prize, it also gives them very little credit. Rather than viewing a man as an equal with whom women want to build a life, it views them as little more than cavemen: primal, narcissistic and easily manipulated. A few examples:

“A woman must pace a relationship slowly. Don’t expect a man to do it.” – p. 73

“It’s common knowledge that men want as much they can get on the first date.” – p. 76

“Men must be conditioned that if they want to see you seven days a week, they must marry you.” – p. 74

“The Rules” also views men as disposable. The book frequently urges women to date other people, even when they are actually interested in one man, simply so the one they really like will view them as unavailable and unattainable. Never mind that any of the other men might also be interested in you and hurt by your actions; they are simply props in your game. And if one man doesn’t fall in love with you (which MUST be your fault because you weren’t “doing ‘The Rules’”), just do “The Rules” until “someone better” comes along.

Gender Roles From Previous Generations

Another often-repeated rule in the book is to not ask the man out. In fact, don’t express any interest in him at all. If you see him at an event, don’t make eye contact or initiate a conversation. Act aloof and disinterested. Because if you act like you can’t be bothered to give him the time of day, he’ll want you more. That sounds like a healthy start to a relationship, doesn’t it?

But never forget that you’re a woman, so you must act like you have no power in the relationship. He decides everything, including what you look and act like. According to “The Rules,” that means long hair, a slender figure and a wardrobe consisting of dresses and skirts. As the book says, “Remember, you’re dressing for men, not other women, so always strive to look feminine.” President Donald Trump would approve.

But it’s not just physical. Rather than being a person, you should be a (clean and shiny) surface onto which he projects all of his thoughts, feelings and emotions and have none of your own. In other words, leave your thoughts and opinions in your makeup bag, because he’ll never see that — he thinks you woke up like this! When he asks you out, “let him do all the thinking, the talking… all the work” and, once you’re on a date, don’t talk too much because “men find chatty women annoying.” After all, “Remember, men fall in love with your essence, not anything in particular you say” and don’t tell him that much about you, because “he should be an open book, you should be a mystery.” And once you are in a relationship with him, don’t ever have any thoughts, opinions or problems, because “being with you should not be difficult or demanding.” OK?

Just Put the Book Down. Or, Better Yet, Burn it.

And if being with you is “difficult or demanding,” and he gets “angry,” then it’s your fault for having the audacity to disagree with something he says or does, which brings me to the most disturbing aspect of “The Rules,” which is how it presents abusive relationships. At first, this theme seemed to sneak up on the reader, but, after some consideration, I realized “The Rules” are extremely, but not surprisingly, abusive.

One of the first signs of an abusive partner is that he/she isolates the victim from his/her friends and loved ones, and that is what “The Rules” says to do. Rule #31 orders readers to not discuss the book with her therapist and it urges her to only spend time and talk about dating with other Rules-minded women. By alienating women from anyone who might encourage them to think or act contrary to the program, “The Rules” ensures women’s dependency on it — and the other, expensive “coaching” offered by Fein and Schneider. Dating becomes the one and only focus of a woman’s life. Other important aspects, such as friends, family, work and volunteering, are merely hobbies to fill the time in between dates until he calls again.

Sadly, it’s not a surprise that “The Rules” portray men as are primal, possessive creatures who get angry if “their women” go out without them — and “The Rules” considers that a success. The fleeting mentions it makes of abuse in relationships is disrespectful and — again, no surprise — sexist. According to “The Rules,” “When you do ‘The Rules’, he treats you like a delicate, fragile flower. He cups your face, rubs your back when you’ve had a hard day, strokes your hair as if it were silk. You don’t have to worry about being battered.” This fleeting, disrespectful and dismissive reference to domestic abuse is appalling on so many levels that one article can’t begin to address it. According to “The Rules,” the only way to prevent abuse is to pretend to be someone that you’re not.

But, according to “The Rules,” the woman you were before picking up that book, doesn’t matter. You are not enough – not good enough, smart enough attractive enough or interesting enough – to be an exception to “The Rules.” It’s not you that a man wants; it’s the pursuit of you. As the book states, “Men often want something more just because they can’t have it.” It’s not a life with you that he will build if he proposes marriage; it’s a life with the person he thinks you are. And, if you followed “The Rules,” he has no idea who you really are. And if you follow “The Rules” to a T, you probably don’t any more, either.

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