Women are different and yet the same - always growing from the position we have been placed in for centuries. China’s women. America’s women. We're all struggling toward the same empowerment.
Happy to republish this article on the comparison for your contemplation. - Leslie
What do a banned young adult novel about a teenage Chinese-American woman with a secret identity in late nineteenth century Atlanta, Georgia and an academic journal article about a real European-American woman with a partial secret identity in late eighteenth century Plymouth, Massachusetts have in common? Both profile American women who found their own voices to champion ideas, promote social change, and be true to themselves.
American Women’s Voices from the Past
Earlier this summer, I came across a post about Stacey Lee’s The Downstairs Girl being banned in Texas. Ms. Lee was perplexed at this turn of events since her book is not overly violent, sexual or profane. In responding to the banning, she wrote that “It is a sad and painful thing to happen to an author, many of us who go out on a limb to write things that make the ‘majority’ uncomfortable so that the ‘minority’ can be seen” (emphasis in original).
And that is what this historical novel does. The story explores the secrets, privileges, and facades of the White American South, discrimination against Blacks and Asians, and the push for voting and civic rights. The story documents the struggle and drive to be heard and seen.
The setting is 1890 Atlanta. Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American local, is an intelligent, talented young woman who is chastised as a “sauce-box” who “can’t keep her opinions to herself.” This causes her all sorts of personal and employment grief, but also leads her to secretly become Miss Sweetie, a mysterious newspaper columnist who tackles gender and race as energetically as discussions of love, looks, manners, health, and family life. She gives voice to women of multiple races (all of whom must presume, at least initially, that she is white). Her candid and cutting opinions ruffle and excite her tradition-bound city.
Shortly after reading The Downstairs Girl, I also read an essay by Lewis A. Taylor II, entitled, “America’s Forgotten Patriot: Mercy Otis Warren and the Writings that Fanned the Flames of Revolution.” Mercy Otis Warren (a Cape Cod native like me) was a poet, satirist, playwright, political pundit, and historian before, during, and after the United States came into being during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She used her well-educated and well-connected platform in part to “…voice her opinion, and her ‘vehicle for political participation [was] through anonymous publication, producing both tragedies and satires on current affairs without revealing herself.’”
Yes, one woman is fictional, a character in the words of the author who is an amalgam of many women, and one lived and breathed. Yet I was struck by the similarities between them and their responses to the times in which they lived. The parallels cannot be perfect in their arguments for women’s rights, for minority rights, and to improve the country, but they do not need to be. They each give voice to that which drives them and as such are connected through time.
Jo Kuan/Miss Sweetie lives hidden away in long-forgotten abolitionist rooms accessed by tunnels beneath a house containing the living quarters, offices, and printing press of an unsuspecting local newspaper publisher family. By day she loses jobs, is ostracized, and suffers the animosity of her fellow Atlantans because she is Asian and female. Giving voice to her “sauce-box opinions,” she leverages her unique perch and surreptitious access to become the struggling newspaper’s economic savoir with what quickly becomes a popular advice and opinion column for women.
Mercy Otis Warren grew up among the cream of British-American society. She had access to a tutor as a youngster and entrée into social gatherings and the discussions of the wealthy and powerful as an adult. While “…she did not display a feminist mentality struggling to escape the bounds placed on her by society” and welcomed marriage, raising a family, and keeping a home, she also used her unique perch and active access to powerfully and effectively give voice to her intellect and opinions through her writings and counsel.
Ms. Sweetie answers letters about everyday life. She writes columns supporting the propriety of women contesting custom and engaging in the present. Women should assert themselves to ask men out to an upcoming horse race. Women should be able to openly ride the new fad safeties (bicycles). Women should break with (“setting free from their cages”) long-held gender and racial norms. Women should consider saying no to, or delaying, marriage. She chastises and challenges segregation, while living as a feared and misunderstood Asian in a White world, a position both more and less than that of Blacks in the American South.
Warren’s writing of plays, poems, and letters touched on family and political issues and argued for independence, matters at the forefront of her day. After the American Revolution, she wrote one of the first histories of the American Revolution, a first-person account in three volumes and almost 1,300-pages, and her voice was prominent in the adoption of a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. She called for educational reform to allow young women to obtain not only an education, but an education free of "artificial restraints."
Both women appreciated and understood the power of words, the ability to reach the masses to think (and hopefully act) on matters of import. From the inside and outside, respectively, they also discovered that keeping secrets is hard. Warren relied on her "idea of public virtue" as her "political compass." "She passed judgment on people based on their ability to abandon private ambition in favor of the long-term goals of the nation.” Virtue and morality were key. Jo Kuan would be a full-throated supporter of this state of mind.
Both women also harbor their doubts and fears. When her “father” is assaulted and a white friend offers to file a police report, Jo Kuan asks him not to
“‘[b]ecause we do not trust certain things.’ His face asks more, but it is difficult to explain a lifetime of wariness. Justice and fairness are for other people, umbrellas that open only for certain heads. The Chinese just try to stay out of the rain, and if we are caught in a downpour, we make do, knowing that the rain will not last forever.”
When Warren doubts her authority as a woman to write on meaningful topics, two leading men encourage her. Her friend, John Adams (a future President of the new United States), "'assured her that her work had an immediate and urgent purpose.'" Her husband, James Warren, told her that "'God has given you great abilities. You have improved them in great Acquirements....They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, the good of your friends, for the promotion of Virtue and Patriotism.'"
I can picture Jo Kuan nodding in seasoned, if not bittersweet, acknowledgment of the three fundamental conflicts of history that drove Mercy Otis Warren: a "'political conflict between liberty and arbitrary power; an ethical conflict between virtue and avarice; and a philosophical conflict between reason and passion.'" In late nineteenth century Atlanta, White women were challenging men for the right to vote, while excluding Black women who sought the same right. Asians were not even part of the conversation.
When pacing before the crowd in a horse race that is the top of the social calendar (her power of persuasion that got her into the race being worthy in its own right), Jo Kuan thinks “…[w]hether I win back that [peach-shaped, jade snuff] bottle or not, something has cleared my view. Millinery gave me a way to be seen; Miss Sweetie gave me a voice to be heard. But maybe what I needed most of all was simply the freedom to walk out of the shadows of my hat. Somehow, Old Gin [her “father”] and I have managed to fit ourselves into a society that, like a newspaper, rarely comes in colors other than black and white. There will always be those who keep their distance. But there will also be those who don’t mind riding their safeties in my lane. I spent my whole life worried that the sound of my own voice might give me away, but I was wrong about that. If I hadn’t used my voice, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The centuries pass. The struggles for voice remain.