It’s a nice thought, this prompt. An invitation to view history with unfiltered eyes. To say, ‘Who would you be back then, based on your personality?’
At first I smiled and thought, Knight. Bold, charming, strong. I would spar with enemies just as easily as I spar with my siblings, guard a coldly-smiling queen and fight alongside a prince with curls of golden hair.
But my focus shifted; writer. What else could I be? It’s a definition that’s been thrumming in my soul since I was six years old and the word wavered cautiously in my mind for the first time, an association that’s come to define half my personality rather than encompass it.
I would, I think, write long, rambling prose by candlelight, in a nightgown, my hair in a silk braid, rain battering the Victorian windows and candle wax oozing down to the table like drops of my blood that I turned into ink. I would be published, like Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, maybe even change the world a little bit.
The thing that I realized, though, is that my fantasy of being a writer would almost certainly be a fantasy; and my ideas of being a knight would be nothing more than a fever dream. Let’s face it. History is not made of fantasies and fever dreams. I would be a wife.
I think we’re harder on the women of history than we realize. I think we give them far less credit than they deserve. Every modern woman and mother knows the difficulties of trying to create a home, an environment for their family, even with iPads and air conditioning and long-winded, slightly smug treatises on raising children properly crowding bookstore shelves.
We’re so desperate to make sure that our lives aren’t boring, that we end up contributing something to the world, we fuss and talk and fixate on tiny details over and over until they become problems-- though at least these problems are almost always manageable with a support system behind us.
But what about ‘way-back-when’? The complications and associations that came with being Woman? You had men in the 14th century forcing their wives to push out baby after baby, only to watch the little forms crumple with disease. You had aristocrats in the 17th century fanning themselves as they sweat out poisoned makeup, trying to discuss Enlightened ideas around their constricted, corseted diaphragms, nudging aside pudgy little boys who would grow up just as spoiled and proud as their fathers.
Don’t even get me started on housewives of the 20th century: a hundred years of women pushed into a role they no longer fully understood, some struggling, some content to stay afloat, feeling the trapping definition of womanhood interwoven into their lives as no longer just a role, but an idea; an idea not all of them were willing to follow.
We look at the standouts in class. We talk about the women who broke out of their roles proudly and went to march in the streets, but those stories are still far and few and usually occur with a husband safely beside her, clutching her wrist with every step forwards she takes. No one knows about the women whose Vietnam was just getting up every morning to feed their families. No one thinks about the stories of the many because the stories of the few is all we need to get an A on an assignment.
I would be a wife. I repeat: I would be a wife. I wouldn’t have a choice. I wouldn’t have an option. What dreams would I have when the only door open to me was one of marry me, love me, bear my babies? What dreams could exist when my husband would bind us together, tie me to the kitchen and my children while he reads the paper?
When I picture the past-- any past-- I see a pair of chains around a woman’s hands that connect her to the rest of the household: her husband, each kid, her duties. I picture her being yanked from one to the next until her hair gets messier and the bags under her eyes grow bigger and she begins to sigh, tiny sounds that seem like they come from rage when they really just come from the desire for an ending.
I know that those chains used to be okay. I know that this majority I keep talking about were happy, that they believed in those chains, and put them on themselves. But I also know that the fact that I would accept those chains too scares the shit out of me.
What good is a world where one gender is subservient to the other? Where one side is expected to slave away at the duties of making a home, of being a servant to her husband, while the other trots out into the world every day and experiences intellectually stimulating chances to make an impact on the world? I would have this as my reality. What would my words and writings do for me then, if they’re covered by kitchen suds and the greasy hands of my children?
It's not that I feel as though being a wife and mother isn't a worthwhile choice. It isn't that women of history and women of today aren't contributing something deep and meaningful to society and finding happiness out of it. It's the fact that this role is an expectation, something a lot of people still believe it's all we're fit for-- you see men going on TV and talking about how women can't be content without husband and children, watch old movies with small slights hidden in there towards girls that make you grind your teeth.
That's the part that drives me crazy. The idea that if I was born in, basically, any other time period, I wouldn't be valued as anything more than a body that can bring children and that can pleasure a man's ego.
In all of my friends, I feel this same rebellion. The more they teach us about women’s rights-- or the lack thereof-- in history, the more I feel the girls of the classroom shrink farther and farther into their chairs. You hear girls say the same thing at my school: “I hate kids.” “I’m bisexual/lesbian.” “I’m going to adopt.” “I just want a job that makes money.”
It’s our rebellion creeping in. The day that girls find out our bodies are made to bear children, that our presidents have always been male, that we have to worry about what men will do to us as we get older, is the day we begin to address this seed of womanhood growing and wriggling inside of us; and to decide what we want to do with it. All we want is to be nothing like our past, and I wouldn’t so broadly suggest this idea if I didn’t see it echoed in every girl my age who I meet.
So I’ll say it again. I would be a wife. I would clutch my mother’s hand and watch the world shape itself around me, and recognize early on the only room for my place in it. I would marry young, and have children young, and begin and end my life young before I’m bound to Sundays with a graying man and cooking for hours, and clutching children to me with less love than desperation.
I’m so terrified of who I would be in the past I can barely breathe. I know I wouldn’t live in fantasies. I know that odds are, I would be one of the majority, one of the women no one writes about because they weren’t interesting enough to warrant a footnote in humanity’s history. Men have laid claim to the footnotes for decades now. The world is fucking changing, though. It’ll be our turn soon.
I repeat this like a refrain in my bitterest moments: It’ll be our turn soon.
To hell with hundreds of years of women with the same present, past, and future. To hell with standards and conformity and preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman when all those notions are born of men trying to keep us in the subservient position they prefer. Fuck who I would’ve been, and thank God I am who I am now.
I am woman. Hear me roar.