Forward-thinking Women and a Delicate Balance

A surprise discovery about Emilie Loring was when I learned that she was born right after the Civil War. I thought that was a time when girls were raised to be less independent, to accept subservient roles in marriage, and only to work outside their homes when finances absolutely required it. That didn’t fit with Emilie Loring’s heroines, who are decidedly independent, have jobs and ambitions, and find themselves equal partners to marry.

But wait! Not so fast there. Thoughts and ideas in the mid-1800s were more modern than we give them credit for.

I read a charming play this weekend that illustrates the point. Ella Cheever Thayer was born in Portland, Maine in 1849, so she was about the same age as Emilie’s big sister, Rachel. Ella trained as a telegraph operater and eventually took a telegraph operator’s job at a Boston hotel.

1880 Census, Ella Cheever Thayer in Boston

When Emilie was thirteen, Ella wrote a play called “Wired Love” (1879) that remained a top-seller for the next ten years. That’s a lot of enthusiasm for a novice play!

“‘The old, old story,’—in a new, new way.”

“Ah! blissful lovers of the future!”

Ella’s play revolves around telegraph operators who get to know each other and eventually develop a romance through the dots and dashes of Morse Code, just as we do now through text, direct message, or email.

“There certainly is something romantic in talking to a mysterious person, unseen, and miles away!” thought Nattie, as she put on her hat. “But I would really like to know whether my new friend employs a tailor or a dressmaker!”.

Their communications have short-cut codes like modern texts: “B m—X n” defined the caller and receiver–“B m” at one station to “X n” at another station. If they were interrupted, “G.A.-the” meant “Go ahead from the word ‘the.'” And like today, no one else in the room usually had any idea what they were saying to one another.

A century later, Ella’s technology ideas might have taken her to Silicon Valley:

“Isn’t there a—a something—a fac-simile arrangement?”

“I believe there is, but it is not yet perfected,” replied Nattie.

“Ah, well! then the young woman was only in advance of the age,” said Miss Archer; “and what with that and the telephone, and that dreadful phonograph that bottles up all one says and disgorges at inconvenient times, we will soon be able to do everything by electricity; who knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? something, for instance, to carry in their pockets, so when they are far away from each other, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice,’ they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, put it to their ears, and be happy. Ah! blissful lovers of the future!”

Wired Love, 1879

Nattie (B m) and Clem (X n) travel a humorous, circuitous route to acquaintance and, after much mistaken identity and misdirection, to romance. (I recommend the play for a light read on a happy afternoon. You will find it at Gutenberg.org.)

Ella’s character Nattie spoke for her as Emilie Loring’s characters often do, and we sense that she will not long remain at the telegraph desk:

“I am ambitious for fame! I want to be a writer; but when I think of the obstacles in my way to an opening, even, in that direction, I am daunted. I have attacks of energy, it is true, but I fear it is fitful; it comes and goes.”

Wired Love, 1879
Ella Cheever Thayer, 1900 Census: “Author”

Emilie’s father, George Baker, published Ella’s next work. “Lords of Creation” (1883) was an early suffragette play that anticipated another change–the balance of power between the sexes.

Kate Grovenor’s family says the kinds of things I associated with the time period:

Brother: “That’s right, doctor, shake hands with her, but after that keep at a discreet distance, for she hates men, you know. Wants to vote and smoke cigars, and wear bloomers and all that sort of thing, you know.”

Mother: “And she actually wants to vote. I am sure I cannot conceive where she obtained such thoughts. Certainly not from me.”

Father: “There, there, Kate, you are a good girl, and if you was only a boy I would make something of you; but as you are not, the best advice I can give you is to go and marry some good man and forget these foolish ideas of yours about voting and all that stuff.”

Jennie the chambermaid, and Jim the coachman are the first to stand up for Kate:

Jim: “Miss Kate has been, as it were, the head of the family. ‘There’s a woman for you!’ says Jennie, ‘and do you dare tell me you have any business to go and vote and Miss Kate stay at home?’ says Jennie, and what can I say, sir? It’s not for me to set myself up above Miss Kate!”

Ella Cheever Thayer’s character Kate could have waited another fifty years and stepped right into an Emilie Loring novel. She is determined not to be dependent financially upon a man:

“I am not afraid to say to any one that I had rather earn my money than have it doled out to me as a favor grudgingly bestowed.”

And like Emilie’s characters, she is also enthusiastic about marriage and homemaking:

“I know well that the deepest and truest happiness in life is in love and marriage. It is against making marriage a trade, degrading it to a means of support, that I protest, with all my soul!”

She wants a marriage of equals, and that is a delicate balance.

“Oh! mother, can you not see how much of the misery in the world is caused by the way girls are educated, in helpless dependence, often obliged to sell themselves to the first man who offers, because they cannot support themselves? Do not condemn me to such a fate. Give me a chance to be independent of all such considerations in my choice of a husband.”

“Is it strange to wish to exercise the talents and energy God has given you instead of allowing them to rust out in darkness? Does the fact of my being a woman make me content to drift along aimlessly, in a stream that leads nowhere? No! a thousand times, no!”

Fortunately, Dr. Endicott is of a like mind.

Kate: “But what can I do? Father and mother object to my doing anything that is real. Because I seek some aim in life, because I seek an independent position, they call me unwomanly and strange.”

Dr. E: “Is it indeed so? Alas that these old prejudices of a by-gone age should trammel a woman now!”

Kate: “I just frightened Mr. Douglass away with my strange ideas.”

Dr. E: (laughing). “Poor Harold! But you cannot frighten me away, Miss Grovenor. It is just this free, untrammelled, independent woman we need in the world now.”

Lords of Creation, 1883

When Kate’s father falls ill, and her brother mires family in debt, Kate uses her savings to pay off the debts and takes over her father’s business. She falls in love with Dr. Endicott, of course, who values and isn’t threatened by her capabilities and independence.

Kate: “And I wish to every woman in the land might come equal rights, independence, and last, but not least, love.”

Lords of Creation, 1883
Emilie Loring, girl and author

Emilie Loring’s formal education ended the same year that “Lords of Creation” was published, and there were many additional empowering voices in the books and magazines that her father promoted. Her characters are still, alas, ahead of their times, and they had plenty of company in the 19th Century.

She was passionately grateful to him for his help but he must be made to understand that her gratitude did not carry with it a right-of-way across her independence. 

Here Comes the Sun!

She dimpled adorably.  “The dominant male.  Surprising as it may be to you, though only a woman, I read the papers, tune in on the radio to follow this country’s problems, and the most terrific fight for freedom this old world has ever staged, and, on occasion, think, just when I can’t help it, mind you.”

Where Beauty Dwells

I’m headed soon to Maine and brand new Emilie Loring adventures. Stay tuned, and also, since typing and driving are not wholly compatible, if you’ve been thinking about writing a guest post, this would be a good time for it.

Write to me at contact@pattibender.com and let’s get your ideas into print.

Blue Hill, Maine

Happy Landings!


6 thoughts on “Forward-thinking Women and a Delicate Balance

  1. How very interesting to point out this context! It was particularly striking for me right now as I’m currently reading a book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s articles for the Ruralist newspaper. She too was born right after the Civil War and one section of this book talks about women’s roles opening up – “As women become more interested in other things; as the world opened up to them its storehouse of activities and absorbing interests; when the fact that a woman was a doctor, a lawyer, a farmer or what not; when her work in and for the world became of more importance than her private life, the fact of whether or not she were married did not receive the emphasis that it formerly did.” Fascinating to get these insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment—food for thought. I have a shelf of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, those by her and about her. It’s hard to imagine they were contemporaries, as I picture Laura like her books and Emilie like hers. Their upbringings were different, but both developed strong inner lights and wrote strong women characters.

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  2. What an interesting post and so fun to learn about this author. My grandmother, born in 1896, was a teacher, but mostly worked at home-farmed, cows, sewed, kids, etc. Her hubby died when my mom was five. With six kids in the depression life was hard.

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    1. These plays were fun to read! My grandmother was born around the same time as yours, 1894, and she, too was a teacher. It takes a real mental shift for me to remember that Emilie was old enough to be our grandmothers’ mother. So easily, I paint that generation with an “old-timey” brush, and then I read Emilie or Miss Thayer, and I have to revise my assumptions.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Aloha! A very thought provoking experience. Thank you for sharing that. I learned a little Morse code when in Girl Scouts as a child. I only recall SOS now. I never imagined a romance in Morse code. I will have to look up that story. Thank you for bringing your readers such good research. Aloha pam

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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