The Separate Sphere Advantage: Lizzie Borden

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I love historical true crime and I love family crimes. That’s one of the reasons why Book 3 of my series uses one of the staples of mystery fiction: The family gathering at the family mansion for the holidays (though usually, the mansion is haunted, which isn’t the case in my book). So it’s no surprise that I, along with many other people, have always been fascinated by Lizzie Borden and the Borden family murder. 

There have been countless films, TV shows, and mini-series devoted to unraveling the Lizzie Borden case. I dug up an older movie recently, a made-for-TV film dating back to the 1970s. The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) stars Elizabeth Montgomery (aka, Samantha in the 1960s Bewitched series) and follows the events of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden (Lizzie’s father and stepmother) and trial and acquittal pretty much as many sources report them. The film adds another element, though — it gives a theory (that has been accepted by many) of how the crimes were committed.

Photo Credit: (Elizabeth Montgomery (as Lizzie) and Katherine Helmond (as Emma, Lizzie’s older sister) from a scene from The Legend of Lizzie Borden, where women are picketing in front of the courthouse in support of Lizzie. 10 Feb 1975, Paramount Television: 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The film also takes a definite stance as to whether Lizzie was guilty or not. Keep in mind that, technically, the case is still unsolved. There’s also a lot of controversy over whether the evidence really shows Lizzie’s guilt. This film takes the stance that Lizzie was guilty because she had all the necessary requirements that point toward guilt: means, motive, and opportunity.

But this film brings in also another element to the motive piece I found especially interesting. It didn’t really surprise me, considering the film was made at the height of the second-wave women’s movement in the 1970s. Part of the movement’s purpose was to bring awareness to women’s oppression in the past. We already know the 19th century was not exactly a time of freedom for most women. They were dominated by the ideology of the separate spheres which kept them confined to certain areas of life (home, family, children, church), and venturing outside of that was considered transgressive. 

For a young woman of Lizzie’s social standing (small town high society), those confines were present and oppressive. She and her older sister often complained to their father about not being able to go where they liked or do what they liked and of being chained to the house. Both unmarried, they lived with their strict father and stepmother with little or no money of their own and were expected to fulfill household duties assigned to them. The film doesn’t fail to bring this out in some scenes between the family and also in one interesting scene between the prosecuting attorney (who is dead-set on convicting Lizzie) and his own wife (who, much to his chagrin, shows sympathy for Lizzie’s situation).

But could it be the separate spheres actually worked in Lizzie’s favor during the trial? This is a theory many sources put forth and the one the film supports. Since Lizzie was a well-respected, well-to-do young woman, active in her church and high society, and, of course, a woman, she couldn’t possibly have committed such horrendous crimes as to chop up her father and stepmother. Many believe Lizzie was acquitted not based on the evidence but based on who and what she was and the jury’s refusal to believe such a woman could commit murder.

If you want to know the ins and outs of the Lizzie Borden case and weigh in on your opinion on whether she did or did not commit the crimes, I invite you to join my mailing list. In honor of the release of Book 3 of my series, Death At Will, I’ll be talking all next month about the Borden case, bringing forth the details like the crime itself, the victims, the perpetrator, and the trial. But you only get access to those emails if you’re on my list.

Oh, and did I mention you also get a free book if you sign up? If you don’t want to miss out, you can join here

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Feminist Consciousness-Raising in the 1960s and 1970s

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Photo Credit: Image of civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama with quote “Remember that consciousness is power”, uploaded 18 October 2016 by dignidadrebelde: dignidadrebelde/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When we think of the 1960s and 1970s, some of the images that come to mind might be tie-dye t-shirts, LSD, civil rights, and The Brady Bunch. Second-wave feminism is also high on the list (like the one of feminists burning their bras which, incidentally, never happened). And additional cliche associated with this movement is the feminist consciousness-raising group.

Consciousness raising (or C-R) is closely linked to the argument “the personal is political”. It was a way for women to connect to one another and to the issues they were facing in the mid-20th century. These groups created a safe space for women to discuss problems that were personal to them, many of them for the very first time. Bear in mind that in the previous era, the Occupation “Housewife” era of the 1950s, women were supposed to have been happy just being housewife and mothers, living in the suburbs, having enough money for luxuries, and focus on serving those around them — they were not supposed to be gathering to talk about what frustrated, angered, and annoyed them. They were not supposed to talk about taboo subjects like sexual satisfaction, abortion, rape, and infertility. But a decade and two decades later, the women’s movement was encouraging them to do just that, and in doing so, pointed toward a bigger picture of oppression for women on a political, social and psychological scale that was much greater than they realized (and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the third-wave feminist movement would realize even greater issues by going global). 

As British feminist Jalna Hamner points out in a short interview here, the C-R groups were really the crux of the women’s movement. In fact, if a woman wanted to be involved in the movement, it was imperative that she be a part of one of these groups. In addition, many groups required that all women speak for a reason. Many women felt isolated and confused about how they felt and what was troubling them, and it was only hearing other women speak of the same problems that they realized their issues were valid and, in fact, stemmed from a much larger framework of oppression. Once women were aware, they could then work toward solutions to these problems.

There was backlash against these groups as well. Hamner mentions the idea of exposing her personal problems to a group of women did not appeal to her, and this was true for some women who preferred their private world remain private. Others pointed out that talking about personal problems was not going to make any political headway. One way of thinking about it is by using the analogy of psychology. I remember when I was in a master’s program at an alternative school in California where the approach to therapy was psychoanalysis (think: Freud), or, “talk therapy”. At the time (the early 2000s), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) was huge and many CBT psychologists jeered at psychoanalysis because of the same reason people criticized the C-R groups: It was talking, not taking action. A great illustration of this is a scene from the 1975 dark comedy The Stepford Wives. Joanna (Katharine Ross) is anxious to get a C-R group started among the suburban housewives of her new community. But when she arranges for a meeting, the results are hardly what she expects because these women are so embedded in the feminine mystique that their “consciousness raising” turns out the exact opposite of what second-wave feminists would have wished!

The protagonists of the stories in my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life are sort of in between the Stepford wives and the consciousness-raised feminists. They are on the apex of discovering the lives that were supposed to be perfect and fulfilling for them aren’t and are looking toward the future when the women’s movement and C-R groups could free them from the loneliness of having to deal with their issues by themselves. The stories begin with women caught in the net of the feminine mystique and end with their own revelations about where they want to go with their lives and who they want to be. While the stories take place before second-wave feminism got off the ground, they are already looking toward a brighter horizon and a way to consolidate their “something isn’t quite right” feelings.       

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The Personal is Political

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Photo Credit: Feminist symbol (Venus symbol with clenched fist, first used in the 1960s), created 8 August 2006, author unknown: Hill~common-swiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD Ineligible

In one of my recent blog posts, I brought up one of the slogans associated with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s: “The personal is political.” But what does this slogan really mean and why was it so important to the movement at that time?

These words weren’t just a catchy phrase but a political argument. If we recall, the goal of 19th and early 20th centuries suffragism, women were specifically fighting for their right to vote. They had a very specific agenda. By the time the 1960s rolled around, the issues surrounding women’s rights were much more complex and needed to expand. Women weren’t fighting for just their political right to influence laws and policies. These things were often very closely related to their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They touched upon very personal issues, such as reproductive rights, rape, domestic violence, and abortion. Feminists argued these issues should not be kept out of the public sphere, as they affected not only the women personally involved, but other women and future generations. In other words, these weren’t just the problems belonging to one individual woman or group of women. They were problems relating to a world that sanctioned sexual oppression and discrimination. To solve them took fixing the whole system, one woman at a time.

Exactly where the phrase “the personal is political” came from is difficult to pinpoint. Some identify its origin in an article written in 1969 by activist and writer Carol Hanisch for a book of feminist writings published a year later. But Hanisch herself denies the phrase came from her and, instead, credits the editors of the book, Shulamit Firestone and Anne Koedt for coming up with the slogan. But these women also denied that the phrase originated from them. They insisted it really belonged to the thousands of women in consciousness-raising groups who used the term to describe their own revelations regarding their personal and collective oppression.

As I was writing (or, rather, rewriting) the stories of my latest book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which touch upon themes of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique and the crumbling of the happy and fulfilled American housewife ideal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it struck me how the slogan “the personal is political” is almost a slap in the face to the separate spheres of the 19th century. A new generation of women were insisting that, rather than two separate arenas in life, the private (for women) and the public (for men), one was enmeshed in the other, and the problems of the private were the problems of the public and vice versa. The walls that had kept 19th century women pent up in their own world without a voice were crumbling and continue to crumble even today.

If you would like to know more about the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, you can find out about them and order your copy of the book here.      

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