It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.
Karen Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.
Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.
The legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.
Ah, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6, 2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.
In both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.
However, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.
But, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.