Monday, July 12, 2010

Strong Enough to Stand Alone

"You have given your idol a heart, but no head. An affectionate or accomplished idiot is not my ideal of a woman. I would have her strong eough to stand alone, and give, not ask, support. Brave enough to think and act as well as feel. Keen-eyed enough to see her own and others' faults, and wise enough to find a cure for them. I would have her humble, though self-reliant, gentle, though strong; man's companion, not his plaything; able and willing to face storms, as well as sunshines, and share life's burdens as they come." ~ from "The Lady and the Woman" by Louisa May Alcott

I spent another amazing day in the company of fascinating women at the Concord School of Philosophy. This time, we had three separate presentations--two before lunch, one after. Debra Ryals from Pensacola State College spoke first on "The Condition of Women: Literature of the 19th and 20th Centuries." She focused on six authors--including Alcott--to demonstrate who women viewed themselves in terms of employment. She also talked about the importance of understanding context before you can appreciate and understand the literature. One piece of context that she shared stirred up some discussion: The suicide rate for unmarried women in the mid to late 19th century was 40% because there were so few options for them. Most often, they'd jump off low bridges into shallow water, breaking their necks. Even Louis May once thought about going over a bridge but was "saved" by a passerby. Jobs for women then weren't great or plentiful. There was no outlet for too many. They'd get depressed at the seeming dead end. This was before Freud, before psychology, before there was any helplines... This was staggering to think about.

The second "conversation" began with a presentation by Cathlin Davis from California State University-Stanislaus who talked about "Louisa May Alcott's Advice to Young Women." She used four little-known short stories to demonstrate the message that Louisa shared over and over--primarily that one person is all it takes to make a difference...and that has a ripple effect One person changes one thing for one person and they change one thing for another and they change one thing, and so on and on.. Alcott, through her sometimes subtle and other times not so subtle stories shows that the sphere of women is greater than what's been told to them and that one person absolutely can change the world. She also encourages young women to reach out with kindness, do what's right, don't give in to peer pressure, be brave enough to think and act on your beliefs, and to step out of the box that others had created for them. She not only tells them to do this, she shows them how to do it with her likable, realistic role models. Louisa has advice for young men, too. She encourages them to respect women and even to help them, work with them as equals... My oh my!

Between conversations, I had a conversation of my own with Debra Ryals mother. That was delightful as she clearly took joy in hearing her daughter's presentation. She told me about the fun they've had reading and learning together. I enjoyed meeting her. During lunch, I had a conversation with Caroline Davis and a couple other participants. We somehow found our way to talking about Anne of Green Gables which is a great favorite with many young people, but isn't often studied in academic circles, but certainly in this context could easily compete...

The afternoon conversation was spurred on by a presentation by Lisa Stepanski from Emmanuel College on "The Friendship of Bronson Alcott and Mary Baker Eddy." Turns out Eddy sent an early copy of her Christian Science manifesto, Health and Science, to Bronson Alcott hoping that he'd read and publicize it--which he did. They corresponded back and forth briefly about it, and this information led to a discussion about mid-19th century religion and spirituality which I found most interesting, and which may well lead to some independent research of my own in the near future. If I get to it, I'll share it here!

In all, it was a stimulating 6 hours in a very warm School of Philosophy building (although much more comfortable than yesterday afternoon).

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