I’ve been taking a class on Hamilton the musical versus what was really happening back then, and I learned a new term: coverture. Those Skyler sisters from Hamilton weren’t really very free at all. Thanks goodness, I thought at the lecture, that women have come so far in 2018, and they now can speak out, saying "TimesUp." Then I found a cookbook I helped to create back in 1972 when I had a baby and my husband was a medical resident. A Doctor’s wife Prescribes. Really. That was my identity back then?
Was I really as removed from the women of 18th century America as I imagined? During every war in our history that required most men to fight, women had to step up, Rosie the Riveter style, to keep our country running smoothly. The time depicted in Hamilton was no exception. Despite the many contributions women made during the American Revolution, once the fighting was over women returned to being the property of their husbands. English common law regarding marriage and property kept women from having a legal existence separate from their husbands. Once married, a woman surrendered her civil and property rights. In a sense, her ownership was transferred from her father to her husband. The only exception was a widow who, as a dowager, could retain some property rights (think Downton Abbey).
Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, was not allowed to divorce her abusive husband from her loveless first marriage when she was a teen. Even though she left her first husband and married James Hamilton, Alexander was considered illegitimate and her first husband stood to inherit everything when she died. Thus, the line from the show in which Hamilton calls himself the “bastard orphan son of a whore” describes his mother’s legal standing at the time.
Hugo Black, United States Supreme Court Justice from 1937 to 1971, shared a thought in 1947 that had been expressed by others before him, "the old common-law fiction that the husband and wife are one...has worked out in reality to mean...the one is the husband." Well, that explains a few things. I was a two-year-old girl when Black said that, and I grew up in a household in which my father was the one.
My mother relegated all important decisions to my father, who was the bread-winner of the family. Her role was that of caregiver for us kids and cheerleader for all of my father’s business and financial decisions. No way was I going to be like her. I was determined to belong to no one but myself. When I first married back in 1968, I was the breadwinner while my new husband attended medical school. And then something happened. He became a doctor and I became a mother. And in my new role of mother/doctor’s wife, I helped write the following introduction to that cookbook I recently found:
“A Doctor’s Wife Prescribes...plenty of good food, Q.D. (every day!) This cookbook represents the work of the IRF Wives Group, an association of the wives of interns, residents, and fellows of Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center. These are the group’s favorite recipes. They have stood the test of company dinners, quick and easy dinners, and reheated dinners for husbands who say they’ll be home from the hospital at 6:00 p.m. and arrive at 9:30!”
While the proceeds of book sales went to a good cause, OMG, who did we think we were? My friends, now all fiercely independent women, contributed countless recipes to this project. My recipes for pepper steak, chocolate fondue, grasshopper pie, sweet & sour pork, broiled grapefruit, and magic marshmallow crescent puffs had disappeared from my repertoire by the time I had two more kids. But it was humbling to find this book and remember that, despite my college protesting days and teaching career, I lived through my own period of coverture. Like my mother before me, once I had children and my husband was bringing home the bacon, I was fine describing myself as a doctor’s wife. In time, that changed. Women were pursuing careers and being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t on the list of important jobs. I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to take ten years away from working outside the home to be with my kids when they were young, an opportunity my daughters did not have. But when my youngest started kindergarten, I was ready to begin my journey to belong to myself once again.
I went back to school to earn a master’s in early childhood education, became a preschool director, started Cherry Preschool, a program that is still thriving after 25 years, and tried to raise my daughters to be independent women capable of owning their own property, supporting themselves, and being partners with whomever they chose to marry. If they chose to marry. I tried to lead by example, showing them that even I, the woman who once called herself “a doctor’s wife,” could be the founding director of a preschool that served over 200 children each year.
But here’s the thing. I never expected to earn anything close to what my husband earned. I worked as many hours as he did, but felt fairly compensated because the school was a not-for-profit. Like the amazingly talented educators who were my colleagues, it was a given that women who worked in an early childhood program would not make very much money or receive health benefits. We were proud of the hard work we did and parents appreciated all that we gave to their children. We just accepted that the compensation was pride in our accomplishment rather than monetary.
A professional woman I know just discovered that, while she brings the most money into the business, the men who are her colleagues earn far more. It doesn’t matter that her salary is just as important as the salaries of her male colleagues to the family income. So, despite having come a long way since the days of the American Revolution, full equity remains elusive.
I’m retired now, and in case you didn’t know this, most bloggers and authors earn nothing. Once again, I am working for my personal pride in what I accomplish. But my daughters and granddaughters expect to be compensated on a par with their male colleagues. And that’s a good thing. TimesUp.