Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Okay, we gotta talk about rape
Does anyone even know who Cokie Roberts is anymore? She was a somewhat familiar figure for me as a child because she popped up on TV a lot and therefore was occasionally made fun of in Mad Magazine. Supposedly she's wrapped up in some shady shit politically, but appears to have been somewhat inactive in the last decade or so.
Anyway, she wrote a book about the Revolutionary War that I found for a dollar so I read it.
Founding Mothers isn't quite insipid. It's not as inspirational as it wants to be, but it also isn't quite as stupid as could reasonably be expected. It's a totally middle-of-the-road history that places specific emphasis on the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the American founders. By and large it is kind to its female subjects and a bit snappish towards the male subjects, but in a really weird way. Like, there's not a hell of a lot of criticism directed toward slave owners for, you know, owning slaves but she makes sure to call out every dude who made assumptions about his wife's ability to run a business.
Which is odd, right? Roberts tosses in these little you-go-girl asides with phrases like "I'll say!" tacked on to the end of paragraphs about Abigail Adams rising above John Adams' pig-headedness (and she puts A LOT of emphasis on how much Abigail could have used a love-letter from John) but barely mentions the Southern founders' slave ownership (and especially neglects to discuss AT ALL Jefferson's institutional and statutory rape of his slave and his dead wife's half-sister Sally Hemings). There are some skewed priorities is what I'm saying. Throughout the book you feel that Roberts has a very strong need to portray the "founding mothers" as sympathetic and kind and participating in a great work that was uniformly good. Buuuuut she only mentions slavery a couple of times, only discusses the freeing of one slave, completely leaves Native Americans out of the discussion, and really hammers home the great sacrifice that all these women were making by having just shitloads of babies. It actually kind of becomes a running joke that Kitty Greene is always pregnant when she shows up on the scene that Roberts is setting. How great and noble, Kitty Greene gets knocked up for the revolution and still shows up to dance with General Washington to improve troop morale. What?
I don't really know how I feel about this book. On the one hand it's a decent history that looks at the stories of people who frequently get left out of history or are banished to the footnotes, on the other hand for someone who appears to be vocally against sexism it's a weird kind of feminism that Roberts is showcasing here. It's okay, not great, and leaves a lot unsaid that I think really needs to be said.
Like the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man who raped his slave and freed their children while OWNING A PERSON he was fucking until his death. That, I think, should have come up. Maybe around the time that Abigail Adams was sending Patsy and Sally to Thomas in France, when he likely started his decades-long "affair"/incidence of repeated rapes with a minor. That might have been a good time to mention that detail.
Okay I guess I'm off on a rant. Look, it's not as though Jefferson's rape(s) of Hemings invalidate every other thing that he did - he was a brilliant inventor and statesman but it's SO important to acknowledge that people who are in some ways admirable are ALSO in some ways repugnant and need to be held to account for it. Ignoring this sort of thing is how we end up believing that "nice guys" can't be rapists and seeing situations like Brock Turner's ridiculous sentence in the news. Until we can discuss that we're going to keep ignoring the suffering of victims out of fear of harming their attackers. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant inventor and statesman who was also a rapist. David Bowie was a brilliant musician who was also, at least once, a rapist. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby - all brilliant people, all apparently rapists, and all people who should be punished for their actions. But we barely fucking talk about it because "what about his career" "what about his work" "what about all that he COULD do" an we never stop to ask what his next potential victim COULD do if they didn't have a rape hanging over their heads.
Anyway. Yeah. Talk about rape.
Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women who Raised our Nation. William Morrow.
New York: New York. 2004.