Dec122009

A Bunch of Mannish Hussies

Here’s the offending paragraph from Cross Creek:

Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village an country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.

From Marjorie’s testimony during the trial:

I had to sit down and think now how do you describe Zelma? What is she? She is not a married woman, I could not describe her as an old maid, because I think of an old maid as a woman who is not married because she has not had an opportunity. Zelma had always had admiration from men and opportunities to marry. So I thought “spinster” was the only term. I noticed the other day when one of Woodrow Wilson’s daughters died it described her as a “spinster.” And Zelma’s age didn’t enter into it in my mind, I thought, “How does she look?” Ever since I have known her she hadn’t changed much. She was a woman who didn’t grow old. I think it answers the description exactly, “ageless spinster”. “Resembling an angry and efficient canary”. Mother Rawlings was always very always very fond of Zelma and Zelma’s hair was very golden and she has blue eyes, and she was small and quick, and Mother used to call her, “Blue and gold”, so “resembling an angry and efficient canary”. Mother Rawlings was always very fond of Zelma and Zelma’s hair was very golden and she has blue eyes, and she was small and quick, and Mother used to call her, “Blue and gold”…. [Objection made and overruled, testimony continued -- ed.] …so “resembling and angry and efficient canary”. Angry, yes, on occasions, and efficient at all times. “She manages her orange grove”. At that time I thought it was hers, but it seems it was her brother’s; but that was my best information at the time. “She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother”. In my mind there was no thought of describing her as mannish. By that I simply meant that her abilities were more or less wasted. If she had been a man she would have been an executive; she might have gone into law; might have been a doctor; but she had had great talents and great ability that a man could have done more with. — “Should have been a man or a mother”. I have never known anyone who loved children, black and white. She is devoted to them. And I could just see her with a family of a dozen. “She combines the more violent characteristics of both–”. “The more violent characteristics of a mother” was to me possessiveness and extreme maternal feeling. You don’t have to have children to have a strong maternal feeling. “–those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles”. That was what was in my mind as I can express it.”

Also from Marjorie’s testimony, her recollection of what Zelma said to her in response to her portrayal in Cross Creek. Zelma’s own account is very similar:

Well, you have made a hussy out of me and a lady out of a hussy.

From Patricia Acton’s “Invasion of Privacy”:

Even the entrance of the lawyers was dramatic. J.V. Walton arrived wearing an English safari helmet. He was accompanied by his daughter, Kate, who was nearly the same height as her diminutive father. “Her general appearance was mannish, her countenance, resolute,” one eyewitness recalled.

One of my favorite of Marjorie’s letters to Norton concerns her good friend Dessie Smith’s visit to Cross Creek in August of 1943 with five members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in tow. Wrote Marjorie:

I had invited Dessie to come over yesterday with “another” Wac, and she brought five! They were a tough bunch of pistol-packing’ Mamas. They were definitely in undress–shorts or slacks, and their hair every which-a-way. Two of them had long straight hair and it just strung down their backs. They were high and very noisy. They seemed to be, though all quite different, of a type. [emphasis hers -- ed.] Only one of them actually mannish, yet none of them really feminine. [emphasis hers -- ed.] I suppose it is that self-sufficient sort who would go into the Wac’s in the first place.

In another later, dated July 1943, Marjorie is discussing books with Norton and has this to say about one of them:

Dorothy Baker’s (Young Man with a Horn) new book is brilliant technically but the Lesbian subject-matter is repulsive. Can’t recommend it.

Feminine. Mannish. Man. Self-sufficient. Of a type. Hussy. Lesbian. Look at all these linguistic labels of female taxonomy for which we have no accompanying clear contextual definitions and which do not appear, at the time of their use, synonymous. It’s bewildering. All except lesbian seem to have dropped from non-ironic usage in today’s world. But clearly, at the time the trial played out, people commonly assessed and described femininity through a sort of masculine prism or, maybe assessed feminity in its oppositeness of masculinity, which I guess is the same thing. I’m not going solve it here, in fact, I’m floundering, but I want to start to think about it and ask for help from any of the thousands of linguistic anthropologists who hang on my every word.

And then there’s this, a small excerpt from a talk with my grandmother, Lois Ann Walton Townsend, which I recorded in May of 2009, about three months before she died. She was JV’s Walton’s youngest child, the youngest of four girls. Kate Walton was second. Sophie Walton was the eldest. Lois was the last of the children still living when she and I had this exchange:

…I thought Sophie was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life. She had a lot of evening dresses and all that kind of thing. And loved for mother to sew for her. She was pretty; she had a good figure. She was real popular and went to dances… Things were really very different then, the way that people did, chaperones and things like that.

I guess what I was trying to say was, Katie, I think always felt like Daddy had wanted her to be a boy. And…

Me: Her specifically, or wanted to have a boy.

Grandma: Wanted to have a boy. But wanted to have her for a boy.

To me, these questions of femininity form a sort of twinned core of the case, both separate and related to the questions of privacy and power, or the limits of “self-sovereignty,” as Aunt Katie put it in her written arguments. Obviously, Marjorie’s perceived insult of Zelma revolves around the type of woman she perceived Zelma to be. But what was that type? What did Zelma think Marjorie said? And what did Marjorie actually say? Those are different questions than “Did Marjorie have the right to publish what she published?” But they’re no less important or fascinating. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to stop and let these questions of sex identity – what we call gender today – and sexual identity, which are not the same thing, ferment a bit in my head.

To be continued.

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