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Women's History Month: Faye Ringel

My home town of Norwich, in Eastern Connecticut, has been home to many talented women whose prose and poetry have gone on to national and international fame. I recently spoke on this subject to the local chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma International, an honor society for women educators. Even this audience of retired teachers and residents barely recognized most of my subjects. The most recent of the group is Greer Gilman, who won the Tiptree Award for Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales. But for this celebration of Women’s History Month, I’ll focus on two native daughters: Lydia Huntly Sigourney and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (no relation to Greer, by the way).

Neither is appreciated, honored, or even remembered in Norwich. Perkins Gilman (I will refer to her as CPG) has undergone a resurgence of interest (two biographies in two years!), but Sigourney today is mainly known as the source of the actor Sigourney Weaver’s name. Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865) was a pioneering educator, a poet, one of America’s first best-sellers, and arguably the first American to make a living by her pen. Her books are long out of print, but thanks to the magic of googlebooks, you can read her work for free. Among these is her memoir, Letters of Life published the year after her death. It is 400 pages long, but it exemplified the best of women’s history, bringing to life a side of American history not found in textbooks—or even revisionist history.

Her poems show concern for the plight of the First Peoples: Not merely Romantic elegies to “The Last Indian” but condemnation of those who were killing them and taking their lands for profit. She was an early Abolitionist, and wrote much occasional poetry. But she wrote prolifically in many verse genres; quite a few will repay your time in reading.

No plaque marks the house in which she was raised, a house with a history worthy of a novel. Earlier in the 18th century, Benedict Arnold lived there as an apprentice pharmacist, mistreated, according to legend, by the Lathrops who then conducted their business on its premises. Sigourney’s autobiography contains her memories of other legends about Benedict Arnold—that he was a rebellious boy who tortured small animals and birds—but she offers real evidence: one of her early schoolbooks had been the property of Arnold, who defaced it. Horrors!

The Wikipedia article on Sigourney, while reasonably accurate, omits some relevant local history, saying only "After conducting a private school for young ladies in Norwich, she conducted a similar school in Hartford from 1814 until 1819." What an understatement! Lydia Huntley (her birth name) was essentially driven out of Norwich because in that "private school for young ladies" whose location stands today, though unmarked by any historical plaque, she dared to teach them mathematics. The school lasted through two seasons, but by the second year, no parents could be found brave enough to patronize this radical enterprise.

Deprived of this small income, she moved back with her parents and began to teach poor children—including African-Americans, then a considerable population. She tends in her autobiography to gloss over unpleasant occurrences, which according to local legend were frequent, and notes only that “with me the habit of teaching seemed to have become an essential element of happiness. Therefore I procured a large room at a neighboring house, and opened a gratuitous school twice a week for poor children. My principal object was to impart religious instruction, Sunday schools not having then commenced in our country. It being understood that books, and also articles of clothing, were sometimes distributed, my apartment was thronged. As the comfort of a teacher does not wholly depend on the high erudition of the pupils, I found much gratification in this humble sphere of action.

One of my favorite classes was of sable hue. My dark-browed people were obviously grateful for common attentions, and being most of them quite young, and intellectually untrained, I felt no little pride in their progress.”

There is no historical record of overt acts of violence, but the Negro Sunday School experiment ended swiftly, and Lydia Huntly removed herself to Hartford, where she found more enlightened patronage for her progressive school. She married Charles Sigourney in Hartford in 1819, retired from teaching and began writing professionally, the income being necessary after her husband suffered financial reverses (a common pattern for women writers in America). She became known as “The Sweet Singer of Hartford.”

Charlotte Perkins [Stetson] Gilman

I'll be brief, since information on the life and work of CPG is once more easy to obtain, though such was not the case when I began learning about her in the 1960s. Since the publication by the Feminist Press in 1973 of her most famous work of fiction, "The Yellow Wall-paper,” the story has become one of the most frequently-assigned subjects in secondary and post-secondary literature courses in the United States. Yet few readers of Gilman--even scholars!--know--that she lived for many years in Norwich, visited here frequently as a young girl, and that (this is my theory) the house in which her (mostly) autobiographical story takes place is a real house in Norwich. Or as she said in the autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), about the visits she had made nearly 50 years earlier to her cousins, including Houghton Gilman, whom she eventually married: "Nice people, nice house. Little did I think I should come to live in it!" As you’ve probably guessed by now—it’s the same house that Benedict Arnold and Lydia Sigourney occupied, the one without the plaque.

Back to "The Yellow Wall-paper": I'm assuming that LJ readers won't need a plot summary. Originally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine as a ghost story, the dominant--almost exclusive--reading of the story today is not supernatural, but a realistic account of women's fate in the late 19th century, trapped into domesticity and subject to repressive medical and psychiatric treatment if they rebel. I believe that both readings are correct, but that the story depends equally for its power and emotional charge on the possibility of the supernatural (the unexplained Gothic) and its realistic autobiographical elements. Rationalize away the supernatural, and it's a tract (as was much of Gilman's later writing).

I draw the curtain here on “The Yellow Wall-paper” and skip forward to 1920. Between the post-partum depression memorialized in the story, her divorce in 1893 from the husband who “enabled” the nervous breakdown, her escape with the child to California, and her marriage to her first cousin, Houghton Gilman in 1900, she sealed her bad reputation in Norwich by something more shocking even than divorce, feminism, or fiction-writing. She arranged for her best friend Grace Channing to marry her ex-husband--and shipped her daughter Katherine back from California to live with them. This sensible arrangement was so profoundly shocking that all the living Gilman relatives warned Houghton about what a scarlet woman he was marrying, and may have contributed to the local shunning of Charlotte, even in her "respectable" old age. Though Houghton Gilman inherited the “ancestral mansion” and he and CPG moved there permanently in 1920, they did not live happily ever after. Instead, CPG’s brand of utopian and economic feminism was deemed “old-fashioned” in the Roaring 20s, her books fell swiftly out of print, her lecture income dried up, and the Crash took all their wealth except for the house. CPG particularly resented being ignored by local educational institutions, including Connecticut College for Women in nearby New London. She finally left Norwich in 1933 to spend her last years in California near her daughter: when the breast cancer she had been fighting became acute, she committed suicide in 1935.

Dr. Faye Ringel was meant to be a guest at Aussiecon 4, but a broken elbow prevented that from happening. In 2006, she was a scholar in residence at the University of Canberra, where she was warmly welcomed by Gillian and Kaaron Warren. She hopes to return someday! She recently was honored with the title of Professor Emerita of Humanities by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, CT. She resides in the house in which she grew up in Norwich, Connecticut and lectures on New England literature, history, and legend. She regularly guides graveyard tours.
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