Strong Women In History

I have read or watched several historical works lately that I’ve been wanting to showcase but haven’t gotten around to it.  Once I started thinking about them all at the same time I realized they had some things in common, so I’m going to lump them together in one huge post.

A few weeks ago now I read finished The Poker Bride by Christopher  Corbett.  The book examines the lives of the largely forgotten and ignored Chinese in the American West during the gold rush years.  It does so, however, by using Polly Bemis as sort of a case study and exception to the normal lives of American Chinese during the period.

Chinese came to the United States to quickly make their fortunes either mining for gold or providing services to other miners and then return to China.  It was a man’s world, and the relatively small number of Chinese women who came to American arrived through sexual slavery.  It was an incredibly harsh lifestyle, and most women died in just a few short years.  Polly was no different at first, except she was won in a poker game.  Her new “owner” eventually married her, and they lived in the isolated wilderness of Idaho for over half a century.  She spoke very little English and rarely came out of the mountains until she died.  Pure luck and happenstance allowed Polly to live a long life in the US rather than die from venereal disease or starvation months after arriving in the country.

I have to say that even as a historian who focused on the American West for my thesis, I didn’t think about Chinese in the West much past the stereotypical image of railroad workers from the movies.  Many, many more Chinese came to mine for gold than ever worked on the railroad however.  The poor situation of Chinese women was deplorable, and Corbett does an excellent job to illustrating their plight.  It was an entertaining read from start to finish.

I borrowed The Duchess from the library before my trip to school thinking I’d need something to keep my busy.  Since I didn’t get a chance to watch it then, I curled up a few days ago to watch it.  The movie features Keira Knightly and Ralph Fiennes, and takes place in late 18th century England.  I’m a sucker for European history during this time, and the costumes alone made me swoon, but it was a heart wrenching film.

The Duchess marries the Duke in her teens.  His only goal is to produce a male heir, and she is quickly disillusioned by her marriage.  She is active in supporting politics, is incredibly famous for her fashion, and has a fairly good life away from her husband.  She makes a friend who the Duke ends up taking as his blatant live in mistress.  The Duke blackmails the Duchess into staying in the marriage for image sake alone, and she has to choose between her children and her love.  During this time period, woman had absolutely no rights or voice.  She was stuck.  The film is based on a true English Duchess, which hurt my heart even more.  This poor woman was doomed to be unhappy either way she chose.

Finally, I’m currently reading The Women of the House:  How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty by Jean Zimmerman.  The book discusses how Margaret Hardenbroeck immigrated to the US from Amsterdam in the 17th century and became a shipping mogul.  In the Netherlands during this time, women could own property, conduct business, had legal rights, and options in life that women in other parts of the world wouldn’t have for centuries.  Margaret lived in New Amsterdam, which would become New York once the British took over, and started her business by shipping beaver furs back to Europe before she branched out to shipping sugar among other things.  Along with the town’s name, women’s power went out with the change in ruler.  Margaret’s then second husband took over the business on paper even though she continued to be the economic powerhouse behind it all.  The book continues on to include Margaret’s descendents, who also become strong business women, although I haven’t gotten quite that far.

It seems so unfair that Margaret had to give up everything she built, but it is a testament to her character and sharp mind that she found a way around British laws and customs to continue her business behind the scenes. 

These women had very different circumstances, but they all were without a personal voice.  They had very little means to accomplish their goals, but they made the best of what they were given.  Sound familiar?  We mil spouses are certainly better off than these three women.  I am not saying we’re the same in any way, but I do see parallels.  The military takes away our voice.  We have no say in where we live or what our schedules are.  We live by a traditional set of military customs that seem outdated to many civilians.  We suck it up and deal with it.

No wonder I was attracted to these three stories.


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