Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Helpful Instructions - Lesson Two

In 1902, my great-grandfather George gave my great-grandmother Fanny a little red-leather bound book for her 48th birthday.

This little book, by Mrs. Emma F. Angell Drake, M.D., titled "What A Woman of Forty-Five Ought to Know" was intended to fill my great-grandmother in on the upcoming changes she would soon experience in her life as a woman. Mrs. Drake called this change "the climacteric" - we call it menopause.

Mrs. Drake concurred with the conventional wisdom of the time that a woman's primary purpose in life was to bring children into the world. She believed that women's lives had three stages - carefree girlhood, followed by fruitful years of motherhood, followed by her later years. Mrs. Drake, like most people at the time, believed that at the end of her childbearing years, a woman had no further use for sexuality.

But unlike her contemporaries, Mrs. Drake believed that a woman's post-sexual years were rich with possibility and potential. Her mission was to inspire older women to be active and productive members of society.

Mrs. Drake had a refreshing view of the physical aspects of menopause - for her time. She believed that menopause was a natural process, rather than one of ill health, and that a woman should experience no physical discomfort - that is, as long as she had lived her life properly and fulfilled her womanly duty.

In 1902, my great-grandmother Fanny was the best possible example of the kind of woman Mrs. Drake was talking about.

She had, after all, had started her family at the age of 22. By 1902, she had successfully produced six children. She was married to an accomplished man. She was healthy. She had made her contribution, and was now poised to gracefully enter into the next phase of her life.

Mrs. Drake writes:

"Nothing is more important to a woman of this age, than to disabuse her mind of the thought that her usefulness is passed, and that henceforth, she may perhaps do some little thing in the line of comfort...but may not attempt any great or important work. Her life is but at its meridian, and some of the best, if not the very best work is waiting to be done... Possess yourselves of this thought, dear sisters, and take up your work with renewed vigor and painstaking...Are there things that you have longed to do in the days when your hands and heart were full? Then believe that God gives you opportunity now to do them, and go about them with a determination."

I can just imagine Fanny reading this, satisfied that she had been fruitful and brought forth the next generation, wondering what to do next.

What, I wonder, is more lasting or more important - the works that we do or the children we bring into the world?

How did it turn out for Fanny? Well, that's interesting.

Four of her six children had no children of their own. She only had two grandchildren, and only one of them - my Dad - went on to have children of his own. Her only son died in 1921 without passing on the family name.

Yet her childless daughters accomplished many things. Her second daughter served her church and brought benefits to the poor of her city. Her third daughter taught music. Her fourth daughter served as a nurse to soldiers of the First World War. More about them later.

This is a daguerreotype of Fanny as a child in South Carolina, sometime in the 1860s. She's probably 8 or 10 years old. Do you see in her face the woman she became in the portrait above?


Mingus said...

By "post-sexual," you don't mean "completely stops having sex," do you?

g said...

Yeah, that's what Mrs. Drake thinks it should be.