Eve Merriam is a poet and writer who lectured extensively on the rights of women. In editing Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives (Doubleday, 1971), she extends her activism by allowing the voices of ten very different women to draw out for us what it was like to live in America as a woman during the 1800′s.
In the four years it took her to put together this book, Merriam claims that her ultimate goal was to find the experiences of women’s lives in America from their own authentic voices. Biographies of their lives, written by other writers, were not an option. Her research was centered strictly on autobiographies, diaries, and archived letters. This was an important factor for her because in the time frame of these women’s lives—between 1780 and the early 1900′s—women’s voices were either misrepresented or missing completely:
Men wrote the history books, men assigned themselves not merely center stage and the central roles, but all the roles…Women, like children in the adage, were not to be heard.(9)
Among a few obscure names, Merriam includes the voices of famous women like the founder of women’s suffrage movement Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Astronomer Maria Mitchell, and Labor Organizer “Mother” Mary Jones. In their own voices, we hear the struggle they endured in their attempts at equality and being regarded as human beings with desires that extended further than cooking and baby-making.
In a letter written to one of her friends, we hear the disgust straight from Abigail Adams, who upon discussing the matter of women being given the same rights as men with her husband, John Adams, she is insulted and laughed at. Instead, he says that women may have certain disadvantages, but they have men’s hearts and they should continue to “charm by accepting, by submitting sway” (11).
As a result of this attitude fostered by men, including men in power like John Adams, it became important for women to become educated. It is interesting to see, from the voices of these women who fought to educate themselves, how they were treated when they attempted to assume a place in Universities.
It wasn’t until 1837 that Mary Lyons raised enough money to open a college for women. This college did not insist that women learn embroidery or cooking, but rather, the same subjects men were learning in their colleges, such as geometry, Latin, and the sciences. When the first three women were admitted to Obelin College in Ohio at the same time period, everyone mocked them—men and women both—on the streets, in the homes, and especially in the papers. The prevailing opinion regarding women and education was this:
All the higher mathematics any girl had to know was how many places to set at table. And no mother needed trigonometry to count twelve to fourteen children…Chemistry enough to keep the pot boiling, and geography enough to know the location of different rooms in her house. (13)
With attitudes like these, it is amazing that women found the will to trudge forward into colleges and acquire degrees that went beyond “MPM—Mistress of Pudding Making—and RW—Respectable Wife” (13).
Interestingly, decades later, America has proven itself to have the same attitude towards girls and STEM fields. With the latest trends in fashion that sell shirts telling girls they don’t need Math when they have breasts to get ahead in life, we see the not-so-subtle ways our society continues to derail the efforts of girls and women as they attempt to empower themselves. Although research claims that many girls attend college today and do considerably better than boys, even going as far as acquiring PhD’s in STEM fields, women do not stay long in their careers. These fields are still male-dominated, and despite the fact that women make it into them, the working conditions—long hours, lack of female mentors, and sexist attitudes—prevent them from remaining to do the work they worked so hard for.
The attitudes remain the same, sexism runs rampant even today, but the voices of the women who had more to battle against for just a taste of equality, remind us that what we fight for is good, empowering, and rightfully ours. We should also remember that the battle has yet to be won. In many ways, their voices represent our own—even today