Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Good Wyfe

I mentioned to a friend a few days ago, by email, that I thought this had become the Wife of Bath election--what is it women want?  I've finally had time to refresh my memory on her particulars.  Like the primary season to the general election, the prologue is longer than the tale.  

The Wife's prologue begins:

"Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage . . . "

She then proceeds to twist the definitions and interpretations of Church marriage doctrine (1 wife to 1 husband for life), virginity, and more.  She goes on at length about the excellence of her "quoniam" despite her advanced age and loss of youthful looks.  She is riotously hypocritical.  She is the very definition of 'a pig in lipstick.' 

"What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren"?

The image this morning in the Post of various Republican women, the one most in frame in her 70s, with her hands clasped in joy and a look of bliss on her face, contemplating the McCain/Palin ticket, while beneath, the caption talked about these women flocking to Palin because they detested male dominance, but did not consider themselves 'feminist' reminded me of the good Wife. 

On the one hand, I know how they feel, as for them, Feminist with a capital 'F' equates with a cluster of liberal views that they do not share.  I'm having the same problem, trying to figure out where I sit, no longer being quite pro-choice in a "choice" feminism or NARAL establishment feminism kind of way, yet not wanting to be tarred with the pro-life label, as that represents a complete world view that differs radically from mine.  I, myself, am unmoored from things that seem familiar and the guideposts that mark the way of conventional political thought, which is all DC can understand.

Yet, still, they are feminists--with a small 'f'.  Or else they are the Wife of Bath:

"Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above."

At the end of the Wife's actual tale, the old hag of a Queen, married to the beautiful young man through an act of coercion, offers him the choice of having her "foul and old" but true and humble, or young and fair at the risk of her unfaithfulness.  He refuses to choose, and asks her to decide her own fate and future.  Delighting in the fact that she has been handed "maistrie," she immediately turns young and fair, pledging eternal devotion to her husband and agreeing to obey him in everything.  

And I was hoping for a watershed moment in feminism--for women to find some kind of common ground.  How will this story end?

4 comments:

Sara said...

As someone who is a self-declared "feminist" but who knows I could never have an abortion, who grew up with a sibling with special needs, and who is yet terrified by the Wife of Bath's "choice" to obey her husband (as if all women want is to be given the choice of slavery, or being chattel, and if given the choice we'll gladly revert to our true nature, submissive, shallow, devoted.) None of the options we have as women, mothers, wives, are true 'choices'--and if you happen to live in a world that is NOT black and white, that involves difficult decisions,--both the little f feminist and big F feminist leave one out in the cold.

You are a refreshing voice to read, Jeneva!

Special Needs Mama said...

What's sort of stunning to me is that Chaucer could contemplate such a modern character in his day. It makes me see how backwards we truly have become: philosophically, spiritually, metaphysically.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, special needs mama. I myself have been contemplating Jonathan Swift's satire of his own day. Gulliver's Travels, the Wife of Bath, perhaps we're working back to Cain and Abel?

jeneva said...

Hi everyone--thanks for your wisdom tonight. What a wild world--trying to have a conversation about feminism and abortion on one listserv and screwing that up royally because the line between "normal" life and special needs life keeps collapsing on me. Every once in a while I forget that very few people out there really understand the nuances of this and how they can twist conversations with regular people around in strange ways. Maybe you know what I'm talking about, maybe not! At any rate, glad to be home on my own blog after a long, long day away.

Elizabeth, thanks for the link to Monsters with Rubber Swords. A former work colleague emailed me asking me what I thought about Palin's child with Down Syndrome, and I tried to be as thoughtful as I could. I find I can't condemn her for trying to push forward with her life, but, clearly, she's got a lot of hard facts coming up at her soon. She doesn't seem like a person who's ever known "constraint." Now she'll know.

As for Chaucer: there is a quality to his characters that enables them to transcend time, for sure. He complicates the stock characterizations and stereotypes of his day to bring a person off the page. I like the Wife. I like her contradictions.

And, Sara, welcome to this little special needs clubhouse!