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Emily Dickinson and The Modern Woman

Updated on January 23, 2010

"I have my books and my poetry to protect me"

To inhabit the mind of the reader...
To inhabit the mind of the reader...

Who Was Emily Dickinson?

"I am nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too? There is a pair of us, don't tell! They'd banish us, you know."

This is how I got to know Emily Dickinson. She spoke to me in the 10th grade about being the weirdo...the outsider...the nobody. She was born on December 10, 1830 and in a time when women's roles were set in starched lace, she had the audacity to be a different kind of woman.

We are so accustomed to having choices where woman is not synonymous with frailty. We are authority figures, politicians, protectors of the weak and infirm...like Woddy Allen and Pee Wee Herman. We can now be anything that we can imagine, much the same freedom that men have enjoyed for most of human existence...like Woody Allen and Pee Wee Herman. Yet we are in the infancy of our equality. Less than 100 years ago in 1919 Congress approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that provided "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged the the United States or by any State on account of sex..." However, 91 years is not enough time to change the mindsets that were formed over thousands of years.

During Dickinson's lifetime the accepted career for women was marriage. Women's education was geared to creating the perfect wife. The qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed were to be innocent, virtuous, dutiful and ignorant of intellectual opinion.

The choice to remain single in Dickinson's time was so outrageous that she decided to go into self-inflicted seclusion. Most women of the time would never have chosen the single life because their choices of livelihood were so limited. Women who could not catch a husband were seen as useless by Victorian society. Dickinson was lucky, she had the financial support of her family to back her passion for creating a form of art that has never been particularly marketable.

Even into the 1960's the Victorian approach to gender was considered the norm. The definition of a Lady interfered with the fulfillment and liberation of being simply a Woman. Dickinson, although she concealed herself from her contemporaries, was a passionate, intelligent and thoroughly modern woman. When we look back, she seems desperately old fashioned and an anachronism in a society such as ours. However, by remaining single she perpetrated a thrilling act of rebellion not unlike a modern female sports announcer's pluck in entering a locker-room full of mostly naked men.

Men throughout history wrote the rules. Status quo restricted women to the service of men and how can you blame men for wanting to stay on top of the food chain? They had it made. If I had my druthers I too would like a Victorian wife to make my world comfortable, bring me my slippers and close her eyes to my infidelities. If modern women would only think about it for a moment they would realize that a Wife would be more appropriate to their needs than a traditional Husband. I'd like my dinner when I get home at 5:30. I'd like someone to do my laundry. I'd like someone to shop for my clothes, pick up my dry cleaning and be at my service sexually if and when I am inclined. I work hard and if someone was running a tight ship at home I could afford to support one more person on my salary. Especially, if my wife did not need her own car or an extravagant wardrobe to go off to work. Hell...I might even taker her out for a nice dinner once a week and a movie! If you think about this from a male perspective you can understand why the thought of equality was so frightening to them.

But they are not the only big losers. Sure, we get the right to work as we see fit but because the Victorian standards are still in place we also get to be the suitable wife. We get it all, but if you ask me...All is way too much. Eight hours at the office, or the firehouse, or at the shop then eight more taking care of all the traditional Women's Work whether we want it that way or not. Even enlightened men who do not feel they are above household responsibility view it as Helping their wives not as Doing Their Part in an otherwise egalitarian marriage. So, maybe in another 100 years things will even out. In the meantime, I'll tip my hat to Emily Dickinson for her unabashed clash with conformity. I imagine her all in white, in her room filled with light and watch her lower a basket of gingerbread out her window by rope to other women's children. I believe she knew what she was doing in carving a niche out of a society that so stringently defined the role she should have played. A role that may have precluded all the wonderful insightful wisdom she left us with her poetry. I give you Emily Dickinson's Gingerbread Cookie Recipe:

4 cups of flour; 1/2 cup softened butter; 1/2 cup heavy cream; 1 tbls ginger; 1 tps baking soda; 1 tsp salt; 1 cup molasses. - preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheet. Combine ingredients in a mixing bowl. Shape heaping tablespoons of dough into flattened ovals about 3 inches long. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Makes two dozen cookies.

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