A few days ago I mentioned an Ursula Le Guin commencement address that Rebecca Solnit quotes: “We are volcanoes,” Ursula K. Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”
In Gilligan’s framework, it was here that I wanted to see this ethic of care as a place where both women and men could declare autonomy of self, but that they could work to leave a legacy of care behind.
In many places on our trip, it’s been difficult to mourn the places where we’ve elevated women to angels or cast them out as demons, not allowed to sit at the table, or silenced by oppression. This isn’t just for “female voice” though, it’s for the voice of care. At Versailles we didn’t see men celebrated for benevolence or care of people, we saw a monument to a man who elevated himself as a god. In Rome we saw men who gave their lives to widows and orphans remembered with opulent shrines and memorials that’s cost could care for how many more widows and orphans. And in all of art museums we’ve seen painting after painting of power as oppression and the “ideal beauty”- often artists showing each other what they can get female models to do for them, what they could do to the female body. (Courbet is the absolute worst at this. THE WORST. Remember the meat cleaver suffragette I mentioned in the last post? I’d totally do that to all of Courbet’s work.)
It’s true that while the stories of women have been silenced in the years, many stories of care have, or they’ve been dressed up and memorialized to be sexier than perceived, always untrue to the center of the story.
In Amsterdam I began reading Alison Weir’s biography on Elizabeth I to prep for the Tower of London visit yesterday. Elizabeth spent her early life imprisoned at the Tower, spent days walking by the Tower Green where her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded, and later two other queens before her ascent to the throne. In her reign, Elizabeth famously never married, continually dodging marriage proposals and suitors while working to keep peace after each rejection. She was constantly hounded by Parliament and the court about this as well as naming a successor. However, having lived through the executions of three queens (including Lady Jane Grey who was manipulated into the throne after the death of Elizabeth’s brother) she had no desire to put herself in any sort of similar position. She tried to maintain peace over war (though wasn’t always successful on this front) and she could be cruel to those who crossed her. She was a woman in a man’s position and world, and she was expected to rise to the expectations of both roles, be both sovereign and a lady.
It was surreal- and enormous- to see the Tower of London yesterday. We saw the Traitor’s Gate that she was paraded through as a princess, the layout of a fortress where she was kept prisoner, the lawn where her mother was killed, the tower where Jane was also kept before her execution. Also, the ravens! Again, we see a place where power is king, a place of oppression and wealth (the Crown Jewels are nuts) and a place where a narrative of care is difficult to find.
Before we went to the Tower, we stopped first at the Museum of London to learn a little more about our friends, the Suffragettes. There were photos of Sophia Duleep Singh, who I wrote about before he trip started, and film footage of Emily Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby where she ran out in front of a horse. Before the suffragette exhibit, the museum highlighted the plight of the poor and of children: most kids in industrial Britain didn’t live to adulthood; people worked hours a day without break; houses were overcrowded and disease thrived. (Basically, Charles Dickens got it right in case we had any doubts.) So much of these conditions and lack of care from the government pushed Emmeline Pankhurst and company to start the WSPU and begin campaigning for votes for women. And they were militant to do so: they took meat cleavers to paintings multiple times and bombed post offices and chapels. They felt that war and violence was the only language that men would understand; it was the only way to be taken seriously. It was the only way to get the vote so that they could care for the poor and children.
I don’t know if this is necessarily the case, but this is the way history has happened. They marched, they were beaten, they went to prison, they refused to eat. Their children were taken away from them and husbands left, embarrassed and angry with these women. Some, like Emily Davison, died. It’s all very complicated. And continues to be in places where the vote is still new and uncharted for so many women.
We are volcanoes. We erupt and change the landscape; we offer our experience as part of the human experience, too. We juggle power and care and justice. As I said yesterday, London is full of these markers of women remembered across the spectrum, and so many times we happened across them both finding them intentionally and serendipitously: the home of Dorothy Sayers, the Women in War Monument, a memorial to Agatha Christie, the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, the church of Emily Davison’s memorial service in 1913. New mountains emerging, maps literally changing. I am more and more excited to tell my OLA kiddos about these women, and ask them these questions about care, too.
Our last stop is the Brontë Parsonage that we’ll hit up tomorrow, symbolically brooding over the moors as we ponder where we go from here. (How’s that for a final leg?!) Anddd if my heart could take anymore love for London, we boarded a train this morning at King’s Cross station to get there, just like one of my favorite British ladies, JK Rowling, has written about for years. (And all the Harry Potter fans clapped their hands and rejoiced!)