Why the Smart Woman Plays Dumb: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Women, wake up; the tocsin of reason sounds throughout the universe; recognize your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The torch of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation. Enslaved man has multiplied his force and needs yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust toward his companion. Oh women! Women, when will you cease to be blind? What advantages have you gathered in the Revolution? A scorn more marked, a disdain more conspicuous. During the centuries of corruption you only reigned over the weakness of men. Your empire is destroyed; what is left to you then? Firm belief in the injustices of men. The reclaiming of your patrimony founded on the wise decrees of nature; why should you fear such a beautiful enterprise? . . . Whatever the barriers set up against you, it is in your power to overcome them; you only have to want it. Let us pass now to the appalling account of what you have been in society; and since national education is an issue at this moment, let us see if our wise legislators will think sanely about the education of women.

Excerpt from Declaration of the Right of Women and the Female Citizen, by Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges – martyr to the Feminist cause.

Being a non-conforming, intelligent woman can be dangerous, particularly in times of political turmoil. No one knew this better than Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright and keen observer of people and society. Olympe is best known as an early feminist and abolitionist, who demanded that French women be given the same rights as French men, and was also a supporter of freeing slaves. Her greatest achievement as a feminist was her Declaration of the Right of Women and the Female Citizen, directly based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Though this drew the ire of the ruling party, this wasn’t what got her into her fatal trouble. Her fate was sealed when she wrote The Three Urns, or the Salvation of the Fatherland, By An Aerial Traveller, when she was arrested for treason and sedition. She spent three months in jail without legal representation, so she forced to defend herself. It is tragically ironic that presiding judge denied De Gouges her legal right to legal representation, on the grounds that she was more than capable of representing herself, when her real crime was being clever and opinionated woman.Olympe was sentenced to death on the 2nd of November, 1793, and was guillotined the following day.

So much for the hopes and aspirations of the women who fought alongside their men in the revolution.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain.

Elizabeth Garret Anderson wasn’t ever going to lose her head, literally or figuratively. Though from a middle class background, and without the benefit of a privileged education, Elizabeth was committed to becoming a doctor. Her decision was influenced by reading about her namesake, Elizabeth Blackwell who had become the first female doctor in the United States in 1849. She read Blackwell’s articles and attended her lectures when she toured London. Elizabeth Garret Anderson first worked as a surgical nurse at Middlesex Hospital School, trained with the hospital’s apothecary, did classes with the male students. The male students were unhappy with her presence and finally they requested the school’s administration that she be obliged to leave (do you get the sneaking feeling she was showing them up?). Elizabeth applied to many universities with medical schools and was refused admission by all of them. These setbacks didn’t discourage her ambitions. Using a loophole, in 1865 she finally took her exam and obtained a medical licence from the Society of Apothecaries. She set up her own practice, and went from strength to strength, while finding the time to be a wife and mother, and supporting the Suffragist cause.

Elizabeth must have had a core of pure steel, as she was constantly opposed in both her education and subsequent career, including opposition by her family.

Re her father’s opposition: At first he was very discouraging, to my astonishment then, but now I fancy he did it as a forlorn hope to check me he said the whole idea was so disgusting that he could not entertain it for a moment.

When I felt rather overcome with my father’s opposition, I said as firmly as I could, that I must have this or something else, that I could not live without some real work.

I think he will probably come round in time, I mean to renew the subject pretty often.
Re her mother’s opposition: My mother speaks of my step being a source of life-long pain to her, that it is a living death, etc. By the same post I had several letters from anxious relatives, telling me that it was my duty to come home and thus ease my mother’s anxiety.

You can understand why an intelligent woman might pretend to be less intelligent. Not everyone is as strong and brave as these two women. In fact, you could argue that the truly smart woman is the one that hides her genius for the sake of self preservation. But smart women would make for boring Steampunk protagonists…

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Filed under Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre

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