Gender and the law

I visited my friend at law school last weekend, and he made me read the article they were discussing in his contracts class. It’s pretty long and dense, but basically it’s about this specific British case Lumley v. Wagner from 1852. An opera singer made a contract to sing exclusively with one theater for a season, but another theater offered her more money to sing with them. She agreed, and then the original theater sued. The judge ruled that she couldn’t be forced to sing at the theater because of issues with involuntary servitude/enforcing specific performance (I don’t fully understand the legalese), but he did enforce an injunction to prevent her from singing anywhere else. This makes sense, because she shouldn’t have broken her contract and so on, but the issue is that men in similar situations did not receive the injunction. They only had to pay damages for breaking the contract, but their ability to perform was not stilted in any way. The author of this article, Lea S. VanderVelde, argues that this reflects the “gendered context in which the rule was examined at the time.” It’s an interesting perspective on how the law, which I’ve always considered to be some higher, impartial force, can be dictated by a few individuals.

I was going to attach the article, but I’m not sure how… If you’re interested, I can email it to you.

Edit: VanderVelde

Hope that works!


Aiming for the ideal

Every text we’ve encountered has dealt, implicitly or explicitly, with the concept of the ideal. Whether it is the ideal family, the ideal man, the ideal wife (and the list goes on), all the characters are compared to it, and inevitably, they almost always fall flat. In the cases where they don’t, they’re held up as an example for others, perpetuating the concept of the “ideal.”

For example, in Moynihan, the discussion of the “absent father” and the lack of masculinity implies a deviance from some sort of ideal. Stack describes kinship in comparison to some implicit ideal. This ideal is present in Tuesday’s readings in a variety of ways. Darcy initially appears as an ideal character, given his appearance and his wealth, but that idea is quickly overturned by his personality. Jane is ideal in her gentle demeanor and beauty, but she lacks Elizabeth’s wit. Characters are compared to the ideal, but they always fall short.

The concept of ideal also plays a role in the relationships found in the book. Chapter XIX of Volume II begins:

Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. (180)

Within that line, there seems to be an implication that there is something a family should be, and whatever it is, her family is not. She accepts her father’s shortcomings (or, rather, “endeavour[s] to forget what she could not overlook”), but she is aware of “the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage” (181). This deviance from the ideal carries consequences beyond the present. The ideal is also present in the reasons for marriage: love is not the right reason, neither is an economic motive. The question of what the ideal reason for marriage is is never actually answered, but the romanticism of the book lies in the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. It is held up as an ideal, which is, perhaps, part of the reason for its enduring popularity.

I want to mention “Polygyny” briefly because in some senses, Gateefa is held up as the ideal. However, Azza is the one who is favored the most (in the beginning at least). In addition, despite this “ideal” quality, Gateefa seems unhappy in her role. (This is debatable.)

Finally, returning to last Tuesday’s readings, Ruilang/Ruiniang’s role as a mother to Chengxian can be considered exemplary, but there is the added tension of the role of biological sex in motherhood. Can a man be a mother? The critique at the end holds the relationship between Ruilang and Jifang as ideal, but also one-of-a-kind. This raises even more questions about the nature of the “ideal.” Is it something that is attainable? Is it supposed to be attainable? Does it actually exist?

Does Pride and Prejudice Hate Women?

In response to “Lizzy Bennet as unlike ‘Other Girls'”.

Margeaux’s post on Elizabeth being unlike “other girls”  was more or less how I felt after our last discussion. Why is it that Elizabeth gets to be unlike “other girls” and praised for it, while Mary is unlike “other girls” and cast off as a socially inept loner? While Pride and Prejudice is a book primarily about women, Elizabeth seems to be the only full-fledged, developed main female character in it. Mrs. Bennet is motivated only by her desire to climb the social ladder, Jane by some inexplicable innate good will toward all, Lydia by her libido, Kitty by her devotion to Lydia, Mary by her study, etc.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, gets to “have it all” and seems to be a character motivated by conflicts, but is she actually a full-fledged character? She says, “‘I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,’ cried Elizabeth; ‘ I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things'” (27), yet we ascribe to Elizabeth intelligence and bookishness (maybe we’re just conflating her with Belle from Beauty and the Beast?). What we do know about Elizabeth, though, is that she seems to like quite a bit: dancing, taking walks with others and by herself, having an opinion, making her sister happy, reading, writing—and this may perhaps be the genius of her character. She allows readers to project themselves onto her character. Elizabeth is at once not the “other girl” and a girl for all girls.

Elizabeth puts herself in direct opposition to Lydia as tells her father:

“Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character…If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits…her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous. A flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite…can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

While Elizabeth is from a different time and place than our own where the actions of one’s relations directly affected one’s own esteem, what Elizabeth does here is still slut-shaming. That Dumb Slut, Elizabeth says, is going to ruin our family (something brings to mind the Madonna/Whore complex mentioned in this article, among many other things mentioned in the article). Mr Bennet responds in kind, “Let us hope, therefore, that her being there [at Brighton] may teach her her own insignificance” (177), and the topic is dropped. Lydia and her desires have to be shamed into insignificance so that all may be right.

This interpretation of Elizabeth shines a different light on the irony of Caroline Bingley’s comment about Elizabeth: “‘Eliza Bennet,’ said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, ‘is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds'” (29). While it may not be that Elizabeth herself explicitly undervalues those of her own sex (as Miss Bingley does), it is rather the way she is portrayed in light of the other women in Pride and Prejudice that is even more subversive in undervaluing “other girls.”

Note: an argument could be made, too, that there is something problematic about how Darcy is unlike “other guys” as Mrs Reynolds says he is “Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves…Some people call him proud…To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men” (188).

the instability of identity– gendered? and to what extent?

Our readings for the Kinship, Marriage, Sex, and Reproduction thematic cluster provide interesting perspectives on the instability of identity. In this post, I hope to draw attention to a particular moment of identity construction in Abu-Lughod’s Bedouin Stories. 

Abu-Lughod describes an instance in which Gateefa, the chief wife of Haj Sagr, experienced the anxiety of an unstable identity. The third wife of the Haj, Azza, had insulted Gateefa by saying, “You who don’t have any kin” (113). The attack cut deep into Gateefa since it rang as partially true: she had no father and no brothers and was isolated in the women’s community. Abu-Lughod describes the nature of Gateefa’s anxiety as follows:

What had incensed Gateefa was the charge that she had no kin. To have no kin is to be vulnerable and isolated, since the family is such a crucial source of identity and support. For a woman, having brothers allows you to stand tall in the world, and especially in your husband’s community (113).

Here, we learn that Gateefa’s identity is crafted in relation to others– and the others that are particularly important are the brothers and husbands. At this point, I am unsure of whether to describe this unstable identity as intersubjective, mutually constituting, or embedded in a system of subject-object relations.

It is unclear if Abu-Lughod describes this form of identity construction for women in general or Bedouin women in particular, but it seems most likely the latter (as this is an ethnography on the Bedouin population). But this ambiguity raises a question: to what extent can the experience of identity construction as mediated by kinship relations in Bedouin tribes be generalized? Does this form of mediation extend to all women? Can the work of intersubjective identity construction be reconciled with the notion of women as Objects in a Subject-Object relationship between men and women, as DeBeauvoir described? Or, pushing even further, can such claims ring true for identity construction in all individuals, irrespective of gender, as a theorist such as Durkheim may have it?

In the interest of space, I won’t elaborate on examples from other texts– but I will enumerate them here so we can spur discussion via comments or in class discussion, if you are interested. Please forgive the underdevelopment of the following thoughts!

-Pride and Prejudice:  How is Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy’s identity  constituted and reconstituted through the perceptions that others have of Darcy? In what ways is her own identity influenced by her understanding of Darcy?

-Moynihan: Gender as mutually constituting– what does it mean for femininity when the category of male is pathologized?

-Bedouin Stories: Abu-Lughod’s uncertainty about her own identity as a function of positionality (insider/outsider)– “I felt caught in between: i knew how to live in such a house and they did not, but I also knew how to read such a house as the tasteless display…” (120).  Also, what to make of the Haj’s identity as constituted in relation to his wives?


Lizzie Bennet as unlike “Other Girls”

So first of all, here’s a link to the article I was telling you guys about in class:

What’s so interesting is how this concept of being unlike “other girls” has been a staple in literature surrounding female heroines for quite some time, as we can tell with Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennet describes Lizzie as separate from her sisters, for, “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzie has something more of quickness than her sisters” (2).

So the question is, why must the female heroine be different from other girls? What’s so wrong with the rest of the female population that one is applauded for straying from the rest of her sex? Lizzie is special for although she is different from other girls, she is also not so different that she is unattractive. All of Lizzie sisters have one set of attributes designated to them, Catherine and Lydia are girlish and immature, Jane is beautiful and gentle, Mary is a pedantic book-worm.

Mary, one could argue, would be a good example of being unlike other girls. She is a book-worm who likes to show off her accomplishments. She’s moderately anti-social for she likes to practice her music and read in order to achieve more knowledge and talent. She is written as having no genius, yet she strives to gain intelligence. Because of her anti-social nature and lack of outer beauty, she cannot be unlike “other girls” in the way that Lizzie is.

Lizzie is a vast array of conflicting attributes, some positive, some negative: she’s pretty, sensible, sharp-tongued, intelligent, witty, and bookish. Because she has more positive than negative attributes, she is worthy of love and affection. Because she is social in nature and because her wit comes naturally to her, and she does not have to practice it like Mary, she is truly unlike the other girls, because being unlike other girls enhances her value rather than dampens it like Mary. Due to her possession of just the right degree of difference from the rest of her sex, she gets to have a happy ending. She gets to still be feminine and beautiful, like a woman should be, but she is witty and clever, like not all women are. Because she is a complex human being with conflicting emotions and attributes, she is different, unlike all of the one-dimensional females that exist in her universe. She gets to have the happily ever after because she hit the jackpot of being unlike other girls. Just the right degree of standing out from the rest of the crowd, but also blending into it.