Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lucia McMahon's "Mere Equals"

Lucia McMahon is Associate Professor of History at William Paterson University. She is coeditor of To Read My Heart: The Journal of Rachel Van Dyke, 1810–1811.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic, and reported the following:
Mere Equals uses the subject of women’s education to explore a paradox at the heart of the early American republic: How does a society committed to equality maintain what are perceived as necessary differences? Early national Americans expressed an enlightened faith in women’s intellectual equality, but they also continued to believe that men and women were fundamentally dissimilar beings. The book’s organizing concept --“mere equality”-- reflects the era’s imperfect, often contradictory, attempts to make sense of these competing notions of gender roles and identity.

Mere Equals is organized around a series of case studies that reveal educated women’s experiences with particular life stages and relationship arcs: friendship, family, courtship, marriage, and motherhood. Page 99 is part of chapter 4, which tells the story of Benjamin Ward and Linda Raymond’s courtship. Throughout their long engagement, Benjamin and Linda sought the “union of reason and love” – an egalitarian relationship rooted in both emotional and intellectual affinity. Inspired by the emerging “companionate ideal,” the couple eagerly—although at times, painstakingly—crafted a model of love and friendship rooted in expressions of mere equality.

From Page 99:
As Benjamin wrote in November 1818, “I anticipate in you, Linda, a friend on whom the most unbounded confidence may ever be placed without the least danger of infidelity!” Uncompromising in his emotional standards, Benjamin set high expectations for their relationship: “If you tell me, ‘that is too much to anticipate of any one’—Then with bleeding sorrow I shall exclaim, Leave me, to float among the stream of time a solitary visit convinced that the boasted name of Friendship is but a phantom, performing a life of ‘single blessedness’ to the false shew of Matrimony and Love.” Benjamin claimed that he would rather live a solitary existence than enter into a marriage lacking fidelity, confidence, and mutuality. His strong demands for fidelity may have seemed overwhelming, but Linda wholeheartedly shared Benjamin’s convictions, asserting that “unbounded confidence without infidelity etc.” was not “too much to expect” from one’s “partner for life.” Indeed, she continued, “it is not enough.” Linda agreed that she would rather “exclude myself entirely from society and its charms than bestow my heart on one whose every wish was not for the happiness of his friend, and for his fellow creatures.” Benjamin and Linda insisted that they were equally committed to the same ideals—and agreed that these ideals required mutual efforts. As Benjamin noted, couples who failed to uphold this mutuality of effort often faced disappointment in married life: “Look into the domiciles of many who are young and have families, and how much do they appear to have enhanced their enjoyments by matrimony? Do we find any who probably fancied a world of bliss before them on tying the nuptial knot, discover ... disappointment? What do their internal dwellings prove?—the very contrast of their probable expectations!”

The companionate marriage promised a “world of bliss,” but couples who entered into marriage with unrealistic expectations perhaps inevitability experienced disappointment. It may seem odd that Linda and Benjamin repeatedly wrote about betrayal and heartbreak in their love letters to each other. But by offering examples of other couples’ mistakes, Benjamin and Linda hoped to apply the lessons found in various cautionary tales to their own relationship. Against real-life examples of false friendship, the couple increasingly turned to literary sources to help craft a union of reason and love.
What happened to Benjamin and Linda? Find out at the Mere Equals page at the Cornell University Press website.
--Marshal Zeringue