I think a lot about that obliteration. Or rather that obliteration keeps
showing up. I have a friend whose family tree has been traced back a
thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she
herself did not exist, but her brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor
did her father’s mother. Or her mother’s father. There were no
grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes,
with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the
more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, greatgrandmothers,
a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history.
There are other ways women have been made to disappear. There is the
business of naming. In some cultures women keep their names, but in most
their children take the father’s name, and in the English-speaking world
until very recently, married women were addressed by their husbands’
names, prefaced by Mrs. You stopped, for example, being Charlotte Brontë
and became Mrs. Arthur Nicholls. Names erased a woman’s genealogy and
even her existence. This corresponded to English law, as Blackstone
enunciated it in 1765:
By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal
existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and
consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she
performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a femme-covert . . . or
under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition
during her marriage is called her coverture. For this reason, a man cannot grant
anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose
her separate existence.
He covered her like a sheet, like a shroud, like a screen. She had no separate existence.
Not all of them aspire to do so or succeed. Nonfiction has crept closer to
fiction in our time in ways that are not flattering to fiction, in part because
too many writers cannot come to terms with the ways in which the past, like
the future, is dark. There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully
about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a
crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of
darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us
that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting
with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the
absence of exact information.
Thinking Out of the Box
What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are,
most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights,
as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the
majority of women that they should have no right to control their own
bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind.
Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon
those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters.
We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come
can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and
unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a
few decades ago. Though it now generates a significant percentage of the
calls to police, enforcement has been crummy in most places—but the ideas
that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter are
not returning anytime soon. The genies are not going back into their bottles.
And this is, really, how revolution works. Revolutions are first of all of
The new feminism is making the problems visible in new ways, perhaps
in ways that are only possible now that so much has changed.