Monday, June 2, 2014

We Must Cultivate Our Gardens -- With Help, Of Course

Another easy one.  A friend (who I know knows better) shared this today, from the National Women's History Museum wishing Martha Custis Washington a happy 283rd birthday.  She doesn't look a day over 273, does she?

I commented that I can never read well-to-do white people saying this sort of thing without gagging a little. (Or uber-wealthy African-Americans, for that matter.)  Yes, it's a truism; I can even agree with it to a point, having known numerous people who were materially comfortable and were surrounded by people who cared about them, but still were melancholic.  Yes, even rich people have problems.  Martha Dandridge Custis was already a widow when she married the slightly younger George Washington, two of her four children by her first husband died in childhood, and one of the survivors was killed during the Revolutionary War; her life had its share of misery.  (She and George had no children together.)

But she was privileged and lived comfortably, especially compared to the 100 "dower slaves" she brought with her to Mount Vernon.  "Martha was less ambivalent [about slavery] than her husband and never seems to have questioned the system ... [M]ost of the slaves on Mount Vernon were dower slaves, in whom Martha Custis's descendants had a financial interest." I'm sure she'd have held that her slaves' happiness depended on their dispositions, not on their circumstances. Or the greater part of their happiness, anyway.

With more time to think about it, I thought: Really, Martha Washington as a significant figure in Women's History?  As the first FLOTUS?  Forty years ago Gore Vidal remarked that "there was no phrase in our language which so sets the teeth on edge as 'First Lady.'"'  "FLOTUS" wasn't in use at the time; I'd say it's even more annoying.  As a role model for young women, being a President's wife is right down there with Disney princesses: all of its glamour comes from being attached to a man.  Yes, I know that some presidents' wives carved out their own careers, most notably Hillary Rodham Clinton, but 1) they're the exceptions and 2) they were reacting to the limitations of the role.  I have a lot of sympathy for Presidents' families, as for all politicians' families, thrust under a scorching spotlight of publicity because of somebody's political ambitions.  But those who fetishize First Ladies seem to like having them in that uncomfortable spot.  I've expressed before my sympathy for Michelle Obama, but living in the White House seems not to have improved her character.  (To be fair, it doesn't seem to improve anyone's.)

In Martha Washington's case, the Museum of Women's History sees her significance purely in terms of being satellite to her husband, and the only thing they could attribute to her on her own was this awful platitude.  The comments under the original post are fascinating, too.  A few people wrote the same kind of things I've written here, and the responses to them are predictable. "Just because she wasn't a slave doesn't mean she didn't endure difficult trials." "But, Martha Washington was a product of her times...and I think that attitude definitely makes a difference on how the rest of us handle what life throws at us. So, quit pointing your finger when you know 3 more are pointing back at you." "I'm pretty sure this quote must have come from a private letter or something because she's not known for speeches so lighten up! The fact remains that there is some truth to this quote regardless of who said it." "Instead of ragging on Martha - not here to defend herself - take the sentiment and apply it without baggage. Wake up, smile that you're here, your children (families) are with you, put a smile on your face and Choose to be positive in your daily interactions. Don't be a victim, be proactive and do everything you can to have a great day / life. Random acts of kindness help others but do a great deal to uplift the doer - give it a whirl!"

But the prize must go to this one:
Good grief. Why does EVERYTHING have to be politicized and turned into an argument? Just take the quote for what it is. As a person with a degree in history, it's never fair to judge historial figures by modern norms. In every era, there were a few extraordinary, forward-thinking people. But then, as now, the majority just went with the flow and lived their lives. I think everyone here agrees that slavery is one of the most evil institutions ever established and was a harrowing experience for the enslaved. But you have to put people and their lifestyles in context. I'm sure 250 years from now, there will be people judging our society, too. Just let it be and take the quote for what it is - a personal thought likely meant to comfort someone. Why was the slavery issue even injected into this to begin with? The only goal in doing that was to create a controversy and put a negative spin on things. Why? Should the history be ignored? No. But it also doesn't have to be exploited in order to spark tangential arguments and spread negativity and discord.
First of all, putting Custis's picture on a women's history page, reducing her to her derivative status as a wife, politicizes the matter from the start.  Adding this quotation, stripped from its original personal and social context, also politicizes it.   She was a First Lady!  (She did nothing on her own!  Her status depended entirely on the man she married!)  She uttered this platitude!  (She was a nice good-hearted inoffensive lady, like First Ladies should be!)

Second, the commenter pretends that she only objects because this isn't the time or place to "inject" the slavery issue into this.  But there never seems to be a correct time or place for such discussions.  I don't see how the history is being "exploited" by bringing it up -- on a history page, of all places, how dare we!   Clearly the commenter would prefer that it be "ignored" altogether.  But then, so would most white Americans.