'ama­zon' meant any woman rebel -- 5/15/17

Today's selection -- from The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. In the early-to-mid 1800s, female education in America was still a novelty. But the effort by some women to gain equality soon gained traction, and the women's suffrage movement began:

"[In the 1800s,] female education was, as yet, a novelty. Until the end of the eigh­teenth century, girls had not typically been taught even how to write. In the new nation, ideas about educating girls began to change; in a republic, women had to know enough of the world to raise sons who could be virtuous citizens. Mount Holyoke [an all-women's college and the first of the 'Seven Sisters' colleges] was founded in 1837. Plenty of critics were on hand to warn its students not to get carried away with any fancy ideas about equality. On July 4, 1851, during a celebration marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, C. Hartwell, from a nearby boys' theological semi­nary, read to the assembled Mount Holyoke girls a parody he'd writ­ten of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 'Declaration of Sentiments.' He called it an 'Amazonian Declaration of Independence.'

" 'We hold these truths to be intuitive and indisputable, that all men and women are created free and equal,' Hartwell read aloud, finding that very funny.

"Suffragists, though, didn't think Amazons were preposterous; they thought they were amazing. From the time of Homer, an Amazon had meant a member of a mythic ancient Greek race of women warriors who lived apart from men. By the end of the nineteenth century, some suffragists, following the work of male anthropologists, had come to believe that a land of Amazons -- an ancient matriarchy that pre­dated the rise of patriarchy -- had, in fact, once existed. 'The period of woman's supremacy lasted through many centuries -- undisputed, accepted as natural and proper wherever it existed, and was called the matriarchate, or mother-age,' Elizabeth Cady Stanton explained in 1891.

"American girls started going to college in significant numbers only at the end of the nineteenth century. Many, like Sadie Holloway, went to women's colleges, one of the 'Seven Sisters' founded before 1889: Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. Others went to coeducational schools. In 1910, 4 percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one went to college; by 1920, that number had risen to 8 percent, 40 percent of which were women.

"By ... 1911, an 'Ama­zon' meant any woman rebel -- which, to a lot of people, meant any girl who left home and went to college. 'New Women,' they were called, and they meant to be as free as men: Amazons, all."

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Jill Lepore


The Secret History of Wonder Woman




Copyright 2014 by Jill Lepore


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