August 15, 2011

Fern: In the name of Adam and Eve


Under the pseudonym "Fanny Fern," Sarah Willis often wrote about the difficulty of being a woman in the 19th century. The traditional woman's dress, for example, was not often practical during the hottest period of the summer. On August 15, 1857, her weekly column for the New York Tribune was titled "A Hot Day":

Not a breath of air stirring, and mine almost gone. Fans enough, but no nerve to wield 'em... Chairs hot; sofa hotter, beds hottest... Every thing sticky, and flabby, and limpsey. Can't read; can't sew; can't write; can't talk; can't walk; can't even sleep... "Lady down stairs wishes to see me?" In the name of Adam and Eve, take all my dresses off the pegs and show her — but never believe I'd be so mad as to get into them for any body living.

Of course, Fern was often criticized for her directness in the face of the expected conventions (here, she implies that she was naked). Interestingly, this boldness was what also drew some of her greatest supporters, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. Calling Fern the exception to the "damned mob of scribbling women," he praised Fern as the only one willing to "throw off the restraints of decency, and come before the public stark naked, as it were."

It was not the only time Fern would rail against the need for women to follow accepted practices over function. The first evidence that Fern occasionally dressed in men's clothing is from the year before the above article. In 1856, she told a friend she had worn her husband James Parton's clothes. The friend didn't seem to mind, so long as she stayed indoors.

But, a year after "A Hot Day," she wrote another column in which she revealed an excursion into town with her husband. Dressed as a man, she felt a unique freedom: "But, oh, the delicious freedom of that walk... No skirts to hold up, or to draggle their wet folds against my ankles; no stifling veil flapping in my face, and blinding my eyes..." More easily avoiding puddles, stepping over obstacles, she realized that dresses (and the underlying petticoats) were much more of a burden than they were worth. "I want to do such a quantity of 'improper' things," she wrote.

1 comment:

  1. Fanny sounds wonderful--I'm adding her to my list of 19th women I would like to meet. Kit

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