Last May, I began an essay on gender norms and my daughter this way:
When the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died in March, The New York Times celebrated her as the maker of a “mean beef stroganoff” and “the world’s best mother.” When my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, a wildly creative and interesting girl, finished a year of preschool last week, her teachers gave her an award for being the best dressed.
I am interested in the ways that women have a hard time escaping gender labels so that no matter their accomplishments, “mom” or “wife” or “daughter” have to provide the lede or at least the qualifier – especially mom. The modern entangling of identities for women, and the challenges for men who’d to entangle (or perhaps integrate) their domestic and professional identities, remain a significant issue in contemporary discourse.
As a historian, of course, I like seeing ways in which some of these issues also functioned in the past. Here’s a recent op-ed on Queen Victoria and the mangling of historical memory so that her maternal nature was first diminished and later maligned.
We interrogate powerful and successful women about their families, and are swift to judge, evident in headlines like “Margaret Thatcher: ‘A Great Prime Minister But an Awful Mother”’ and “Golda Meir: Mother of a Nation, But Not Much of a Mother.”
The Germans call them “Rabenmütter”: a pejorative term for mothers who act like ravens, abandoning their young in nests while they flitter off to work.
She then turns to Queen Victoria, on whom she is currently writing a biography:
In the 113 years since her death, a powerful myth has taken root: that Queen Victoria disliked her children — even, some say, all children…
Now a remarkable and clever new book, “Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon,” by Yvonne M. Ward, documents how the historical record was warped by the two men who edited Victoria’s official letters and defined her as subordinate queen — in the words of her biographer Lytton Strachey, a “mere accessory” to the men who surrounded her…
The man given the task was Viscount Esher, an adviser to King Edward VII; he hired the Eton housemaster Arthur Benson to edit it. Both were gay. Both found the editing experience overwhelming and onerous.
Both also, crucially, viewed Victoria as ancillary to the men around her. They wrote in their introduction: “Confident, in a sense, as she was, she had the feminine instinct strongly developed of dependence upon some manly adviser.”
Only 40 percent of the letters in the volumes of her letters are actually hers: Most of the others are written to her by prominent men, and the correspondence with female relatives and friends is scant.
“The small number of women’s letters in the published volumes,” writes Ms. Ward, “cannot be attributed to the editor’s ignorance of their existence.”
There’s more and it sounds like Ward’s book is one I should read. Here’s a review from The Guardian that is worth a read. The reviewer writes:
This isn’t just biographical gossip, says Yvonne Ward, it actually matters. It is her contention that Benson and Esher’s shared attachment to a particular kind of male pedagogy had a striking effect on how they fashioned the young Victoria for readers. In their selection of her letters from accession in 1837 until marriage in 1841, they turn the plump, plain Miss into a lovely young boy in need of tutelage from an older man. Step forward her prime minister, Lord Melbourne (yet another Etonian), whom, by diligent editing, they turn into a sort of sexy housemaster. “I am so glad that you like Lord M. I adore him,” trilled Benson to Esher early in the project as they set about making their man-crush the most important person in Victoria’s life.
Before reading these reviews, my image of Victoria was of a stern, unamused, un-maternal, and distant queen. I should have known that the mother vs worker dichotomy is a false one, imposed by a patriarchal society that pushes women into the domestic sphere and de-feminizes the women who choose other paths.
And it’s not that Benson and Esher set out to reinforce patriarchy intentionally, but that’s the result on historical memory of their predilections, biases, boredoms, and infatuations.
And that’s why I study the shaping of historical memory. Because it distorts and it matters.