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All Educated Up and No Place To Go

July 12, 2013

This is my 100th post.  I find I have strayed some from my original mission to make health care more understandable to the average reader.  I have ventured into policy, technology, history, and a little motherhood.  Today I landed on my topic through health care into the issues of womanhood and motherhood.  Perhaps it’s fitting.  In my research for my biography of Freeman Allen, an early anesthetist at MGH, I have been reading a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was Freeman’s grandmother.  Written by Joan Hedrick, who was short-listed for an LA Times book prize for the biography, it is an exhaustive history and a good read as well.  Everyone knows about HBS and how she was a great writer, a great abolitionist, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin etc.  What I didn’t know about her is that she did all this while being a religious victorian female with seven children.

Harriet grew up in a home with a father who thought girls and boys were equally smart and equally educable.  She was educated as extensively as any man, albeit in a girls school (Hartford Seminary for Women).  So far so good, especially for the early 1800’s.  Then the poor thing got married and had sex.  Next thing she knew she had three kids under the age of 18 months.  Four kids in three years. Calvin and Harriet had to practice sexual abstinence or it would have been even worse.  The household was also hampered by a chronic lack of funds exacerbated by Harriet’s erratic and vague accounting practices and indifferent housekeeping. At one point Harriet had to take in boarders and hire a live-in housekeeper who was as erratic as she.  Here’s a woman who grew up being encouraged to think and read now surrounded by children and strangers and chaos and noise and disorganization.  No wonder she was often ill.

Now, Harriet married a nice guy who also valued her mind and with whom she had great conversations and learned a lot.  She was, unfortunately, extremely fertile. And she was, for better or worse, extremely religious.  And she lived in Victorian Connecticut.  The religious requirements laid on top of the expectations of behavior for Victorian women must have made a potent brew for illness and frustration for someone like Harriet.  Twice she tried to carve out a “room of her own” in which to write but never really got past the planning stages.  It’s amazing she wrote anything at all.

At one point when she had suffered from Cholera, the death of her brother, and a few miscarriages, she tried the “water cure” or Hydrotherapy, all the rage in 1846.  The water cure involved washing, drinking, soaking, douching and splashing along the road to healthy living.  It was all the rage, and Harriet indeed was much improved from the therapy.  And while it’s always good to be clean and well-hydrated, the was another reason the water cure worked so well for her and, I suspect, for many others: no husband, no kids, no household responsibilities.  You see, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a victim of a sort of incomplete progressivism.  Having been exposed to the wider world of thought and ideas, she was then subdued by her own biology and the expectations of her society.  She had core personal projects, without a doubt, but no refuge.  Her life did not provide the respite from responsibility and duty and constant motion that her personality required.  She was all educated up with no place to go.  Her success is all the more extraordinary, and all the more inspirational, within this context.  Today we women have more choices, but the biology and expectations remain, subdued but not extinguished.  Just a thought.

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