Freedom and struggle


The descriptions of how women’s lives were controlled by Victorian men and any deviance from limited ‘norms’ deemed as insanity that required extreme, punishing treatments make for grim reading in Elaine Showalter’s book The Female Malady.

Amid the painful accounts of the methods male mind doctors employed to police the borders of acceptable behaviour among women, Florence Nightingale’s plea that women should be allowed to “suffer” shone out.

Give us back our suffering, we cry to heaven in our hearts – suffering rather than indifferentism; for out of nothing comes nothing. But out of suffering may come the cure. Better have pain than paralysis! A hundred may struggle and drown in the breakers. One discovers the new world. But rather, ten times rather, die in the surf, heralding the way to that new world, than stand idly on the shore!

The plea is the fulcrum of the lengthy essay titled Cassandra that Nightingale wrote in the 1850s that Showalter describes as a

scathing analysis of the stresses and conventions that drove Victorian middle-class womente> to silence, depression, illness, even lunatic asylums and death.

Women must be able to suffer if they are to grow. Experiencing frustration and discontent to its fullest, suffering all its pangs, is the price of adulthood, a “privilege” that may lead to action. To deny, suppress and stupefy these emotions leads to madness, the hysteria and mental deterioration Nightingale saw everywhere in the lives of well-to-do English women.

The suffering Nightingale envisaged as an antidote to the mental paralysis of women’s lives, didn’t only include the private, but had social and political dimensions, including contact with “the practical reality of life – sickness and crime, and poverty in masses”.

There are numerous strands of thought that could be picked up in Nightingale’s plea for suffering, not least the privilege of her position within English society. But the issue of agency, of the importance of struggle struck me because I’ve experienced how transformative it has been to experience pain head on these last three years and find a way through. It also resonated with some reading I did some years ago now about the Judea Capta, a figure of womanhood that emerged briefly in the seventeenth century.

In The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi describes how the belief in spiritual equality before God among Puritan settlers in America briefly opened up a new space for women in the seventeenth century. Due to the proliferation of printing presses, this period was marked by the unprecedented publication of accounts of women’s psychological and spiritual struggles during periods of captivity following raids by American Indian tribes during King Philip’s War which lasted from 1675 to 1678.

The captivity experience provided a constant reminder to the settlers of what Faludi describes as the “struggle-toward-submission ideal” that bound both men and women together.

And by championing that experience, Puritan society wound up championing a vision of femininity in which the rigours of the frontier were confronted by a woman who, however humble and dependent on God, was active, enterprising, and rigorous in her pursuit of that humility and dependency.

The Judea Capta was a complex figure, not least because of the context of war and the fight to conquer the continent that she emerged in. The space for women’s voices and experience that opened up with the publication of A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson in 1682 was one that was also closely monitored and controlled. And it was quickly closed down notions of male authority and superior strength were threatened by accounts of resilient, determined women. There were also concerns that some women evidently preferred living among their “captors” and were reluctant to return to their old lives.

A pivotal story was that of Hannah Duston who was seized by Abenaki warriors who killed her five-day old baby. Dustin escaped after killing nine of her captors, shocking her community when she returned with 10 scalps with the intention of collecting the £50 bounty offered for each. The Judea Capta story not only highlights the role that struggle plays in women’s lives, but also is a means by which we can examine the type of power that women draw upon and utilise.

While interviewing three women who were part of the Durham teaching assistant’s campaign against significant wage cuts I was struck by the degree to which, despite a lack of confidence and feelings of being overwhelmed, they all felt the need to push back and struggle against what was happening to them. In doing so they became vocal activists prepared to speak out even when they were terrified. In refusing to be “victims” they found their voices and no longer felt that they were “asleep” as one of them put it.

Although the contexts and eras are very different, there’s a common thread that suggests a different space in which femininity can be explored and constituted – in confronting that context and struggling towards change. In this sense, Nightingale’s plea is not a call for suffering for its own sake, but for the freedom to engage with life and face the challenge of responding. But as Dustan’s experience almost 200 years earlier shows, there are important questions to consider about the nature of the power women choose to exercise and the methods they use in that struggle.