Let’s put it this way, last week didn’t go as planned.
If anyone else woke up on November 9th with a headache that felt like the cursed love child of a family death and an unexpected breakup, then I feel you. If you woke up feeling...not like that...well, I envy your optimism, and I’m trying to find it.
We had a family vacation planned in Newport for the day after the election results came in. I was expecting to be in much lighter spirits. Celebratory spirits, in fact. Touring the preserved gilded age mansions is one of our favorite things to do, but this time, standing beneath portrait after massive portrait of old, wealthy white men felt particularly gross.
Then we got to Marble House.
Standing in front of Alva Belmont’s opulent lilac bedroom, I listened to the audio tour explain how she had bravely divorced her wealthy and unfaithful husband (a Vanderbilt), something that was unheard of in 1895. She later became a staunch proponent for women’s suffrage, founded the Political Equality League, and hosted rallies for the cause on the lawn at Marble House. Preserved in her kitchen pantry are china cups and plates emblazoned with the words “Votes for Women.”
Although we are yet to have our first female president, seeing these things gave me hope. Women have been striving for centuries to gain equality. Why stop now?
Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” fits nicely into this complicated narrative of women's rights. She also happens to be my favorite writer.
Born into a wealthy family, Wharton spent her summers among the mansions in Newport. With little support from society and at first even her family, she struggled to establish herself as a writer, publishing under male pseudonyms because at the time (wait for it) it wasn’t proper for a woman’s name to appear in print for anything other than wedding, birth, and death announcements.
Wharton didn't stop writing, and she went on to become the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. (mic drop)
“The Age of Innocence,” her Pulitzer Prize winning work, artfully criticized the societal conventions of the elite, especially in terms of the treatment of women. Her character, Countess Olenska, is a captivating portrait of a woman who defied the conventions of her time but ultimately was still limited by them.
A pretty apropos theme, don't you think, for this week - a woman who beats all the odds and yet, somehow, still comes up short?
Although sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, we are getting there. Wharton's novel was published in 1920 - the same year that women won the right to vote. It may be almost a hundred years in the making, but we just had the first female presidential candidate who, although she didn't win the election, won the popular vote by a million, and counting.
Just as Alva's "Votes for Women" china is now a touching reminder of how far we've come, someday the term "Madam President" will be, too.