Stories of Female Initiation:

Two 19th Century Examples of Female Professional Success

Ina Bergmann

Stories of Female Initiation have been almost completely neglected by scholars of American Literature for a very long period. While Hemingway's Nick Adams and other well-known male adolescents in American short stories were thoroughly discussed, it was only just a bit more than a decade ago that the second wave of feminist literary criticism finally washed a few female texts ashore, but these remained, as Klaus Lubbers has recently called them, "hagiographisch umschrittene Kulttexte"(Freese 1998, 7). I presume Katherine Anne Porter’s "The Grave," Sarah Orne Jewett’s "A White Heron" and a few others were recognized as examples of stories of female initiation mainly because they shared at least one aspect with the so-called "male pattern" (Freese 1986, 33) of initiation, namely features like the circle of life, violence, a journey or an adventure, wilderness and hunting. Stories with other themes were not included in the canon of American Stories of Initiation.

The most substantiated and influential definition of the story of initiation (Freese 1986, 52) by Peter Freese generally assumed – with only a few of the above mentioned "assimilated" exceptions - a young male to be the prototype of an initiate. This cannot be a universally valid definition mostly for one reason: a journey or an adventure is usually considered elemental. Since the female sphere in the 19th century could not be the outside world, such wanderings were not possible for young females, women remained in the "drawing room" as Virginia Woolf has put it (Woolf 1949, 110f.). And scholars relying on those theories failed to notice stories of female adolescents and their homely initiations. It seems that the neglect of the female adolescent is a question of method depending on the criteria that have been chosen to define the concept of initiation.

The only attempt to frame a definition exclusively true for female initiation was undergone by Elaine Ginsberg:

First, unlike some of their male counterparts, the young girls are always introduced to a heterosexual world, a world in which relationships between men and women, males and females, are the most important, if not the only, relationships which need to be understood. Second, whereas to the young men their newfound roles in the world may mean many different things, the young girls seem to see their future roles as women almost always in relation to men. Third, though the seduction-punishment pattern changes considerably in the twentieth century, the initiation process for females is still more often than not seen in terms of sexual experience either explicitly or implicitly. Fourth, there is an interesting anomaly in the fact that so many of the young girls depicted in these initiation stories are, at first, dressed in boys' clothing or bear boys' names, attributes they drop as the stories progress. They begin, it would seem, as little androgynous creatures, changing their names and their clothing only as they become more aware of their approaching womanhood. Fifth, whereas the young male initiates often have a male companion or mentor to aid or guide them [...], the young girls seem never to be aided or guided by an older female who serves as a teacher. More commonly they are accompanied or even initiated by a boy or a man (Ginsberg 1975, 31).

Unfortunately, Ginsberg bases her definition only on very few texts. Her main point is that initiation, or "the loss of innocence and acquisition of knowledge are all too often regrettable."(Ginsberg 1975, 30) She overlooks and excludes stories that are successful initiation stories centered around young girls who are not passive victims of patriarchy but take action which leads them to a life of independence and self-realization, contrary to the accepted role models of their times. She, as well as her male colleagues, is biased and only looks for texts that emphasize one of the key issues of feminist criticism, oppression and (sexual) victimization of the female.

I want to bring to light two long-neglected stories by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844-1911) and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). They are "The Girl Who Could Not Write a Composition", first published in 1871 in the Magazine Our Young Folks and "Farmer Finch", published 1885 in Harper’s Magazine. The chosen stories center around two girls’ initiations occurring while they have to decide on whether to actively take a profession or remain in passive endurance.

Both protagonists are "young girls,"(Ginsberg 1975, 31) female adolescents. Polly Finch of Jewett’s story is a "girl about twenty"(2), Jemima Jasper is 16 years old at the beginning of Phelps’ text. The girls are not setting out on a journey, on the contrary they are returning home from school. Both of them have been sent there to become teachers. While Polly has been successful and left school the "head of her class"(3), Jemima flunks composition writing and is turned out. But the situation soon equals, when Polly’s expectations to secure a job as a teacher also fail. Both girls then cannot become teachers, and surely this marks a new beginning for both of them.

Jemima is granted two years of joy, helping her father in his furniture shop, before her life changes with his sudden death. Polly’s father is getting weak and ill, the financial situation of the family and farm is devastating. Both girls’ college/boarding school education does not help them. Both of them suddenly stand alone and have nobody but themselves to depend on and they realize the inevitability to earn money for themselves and their family. But the sudden recognition of the possibility of being self-dependent is a revealing one for them.

The circumstances in which these initiations occur in each story differ only slightly. When Polly realizes that her father can’t afford to hire a (male) help he desperately needs for the survival of the farm, she decides in a rage to be the help herself: "she made up her mind to be son and daughter both" (7). Intuitively she senses that the work on the farm will suit her more than teaching, because "her ambitions [...] had never flown with free wings up an imaginary career of school-teaching"(6). And her decision is followed by a considerable change in her life, "a distinct change of direction"(6).

After her father’s death, Jemima gets "a fit of impatient grief almost like vexation" (21). She knows that the responsibility for the welfare of her mother and her little brother rests upon her shoulders now: "‘What becomes of me becomes of us all,‘ she said to herself, [...] ‚I’m father now.‘" (21). Her notion of the social norms and her acceptance of them hinder her to recognize at first the only possible solution for her problem: "‘What shall I do?‘ [...] If I had only been a boy!‘" (22). It is not until a customer arrives and simply asks her to do the work she has already done for two years under the guidance of her father that she realizes the possibility of self-dependence. Finally she, like Polly, suddenly feels a strong change in her life:

‚I am going to carry on the business myself,‘ [...] It seemed to Jem as if, with that single and simple remark of hers, all the ordinary world fell through and tipped over. (24)

And while she always felt "as if [she] were in prison, and going to be hung" (18) when she tried to become a teacher, she is now happy with her new work.

The girls don’t decide coolly and deliberately to take a man’s profession. For both the decision comes with an emotional outrage. They don’t hesitate to take action and it seems that they have finally found an occupation that gives them a feeling of freedom and pleasure other than the prospective school-teaching career.

Doing men’s work is a rebellion against the commonly accepted social rules of the 19th century. If Jemima and Polly had been boys, it would have been only natural for them to take over their father’s work. But being girls they have to fight the prejudices of society and the prevailing norms presented by various persons. I will call those tempter-figures, following Freese, since they try to put the girls off their plan and back to conformity and therefore "tempt" them to take the easy path. On the other hand there are mentor-figures, as Ginsberg and Freese both call them, people who encourage the girls to carry out their extraordinary plan and offer them guidance.

In Jewett's story it is Polly's own father who objects to her plan: "’I shall be glad to have you help your mother,’ said John Finch, disconsolately, ‘and we’ll manage to get along somehow.’" (6). But by and by he is finally persuaded by Polly’s skillfulness and far-sightedness.

Polly’s mother objects to her doing men’s work as well.

‘I want you to be somebody, Polly, and take your right place in the world.’" (5)

Polly’s mother here shows her own disappointment with life, she feels herself not being somebody, not being in the right place. She sees her own life as a failure and now she projects her hopes onto her daughter’s success – but her, the mother’s idea of success. She wants Polly not to repeat her mistakes and therefore hoped for a career as school teacher. She can’t see that the right place for Polly is the farm.

Jewett, contrary to Phelps, draws the profession/career versus marriage/love-conflict into her story introducing Jerry Minton, another tempter-figure. Polly becomes angry with Jerry when she meets him. It seems that there is some connection to her decision earlier that evening to stand on her own feet and support herself and her family. Somehow Jerry interferes with that plan. And when Jerry offers his help, Polly, who knows that "[b]efore her father’s illness she would have turned most naturally to Jerry Minton for help and sympathy" (12) now thinks him patronizing. She knows she is able to go her way alone, although life at his side promises to be safe and easy. Polly’s behavior is an "unmistakable repulse. Her quick instinct had detected an assumption of condescension and patronage on his part [...] fondness [...] turns to [...] dislike" (12). Marriage and dependence are not quite Polly’s dream of her future life and so she instinctively decides against Jerry.

The community thinks Polly’s work queer as well, they consider her profession not suitable for a young woman and think it not respectable enough.

Jemima’s relatives and seemingly the whole community, when they hear of the girl’s running her father’s business herself, try to hinder her. In their eyes she should have taken to a more "womanly," "lady-like" and "suitable" occupation, such as "sewing" or "teach[ing]" (24),for which she obviously is not skilled enough.

And Jemima’s mother is no role model for her daughter, she is against her going into the furniture business and would rather have her stupidly "wait" for Poppet to grow up and support the family. She parallels Polly’s mother in so far as she as well is described as dissatisfied with her situation as woman, mother and housewife.

Jemima’s father, on the other hand, is a mentor-figure. He helps and guides his daughter after her failure in school. He encourages her while praising her talent for the work in the store and her skillfulness and ability. Dying, he wants to leave his shop under the care of his daughter.

Another kind of mentor for Jemima is the customer. By simply asking her if she is running the shop he shows her that there is such a possibility as being a businesswoman.

Polly’s main mentor is the doctor. It becomes clear that he is full of admiration for her unusual skills, for example tightening the horse’s harness. Polly is talking to him about her further plans and by posing questions, the doctor helps her to focus on specific ideas. This is a role similar to the customer’s in Phelps story.

Furthermore, the doctor assures her of his help as well as of the soundness of her plans. He makes her "feeling already that she had become a business woman" (10) which again evokes a parallel to Jemima’s sudden displaying of business-like airs with her customer.

Another (indirect) mentor for Polly is the old Mrs. Wall. Indirect insofar as she only talks about the life of a female relative:

’There was my own first cousin Serena Allen, her husband was killed in the last war, and she was left with two children when she wasn’t a great deal older than you be, and she run the farm, and lived well, and laid up a handsome property. [...] She’d plow a piece of ground as well as a man. They used to call her Farmer Allen. ‘ (13)

The neighbor’s story shows Polly that there is already a female tradition and that it is not altogether new for women to try farming as a woman and to succeed in it. And Polly decides: "’I am going to be renowned as Farmer Finch.’" (13).

To finally return to Ginsberg’s definition, one can generally agree with her fifth point, that the girls usually receive no guidance from other females. Serena Allen’s example comes late for Polly, it does not help her with her initial decision, but it encourages her to go on. The girls’ mothers are no role models. They want their daughters to be successful, but only in commonly accepted, womanly spheres. It is mostly the men that function as mentors. In Jemima’s case it is her father and the customer, in Phelp’s story the role is taken by the doctor. The majority of the elder women cling to the traditions while the men react more openly towards female professional activity. What Ginsberg calls an "interesting anomaly" (Ginsberg 1975, 31) in her fourth point, the feminizing of former tomboys, only partly holds true for Jemima and Polly. They do not dress like boys, but Jemima shortens her name to "Jem" (17ff.), which sounds at least androgynous. Later on she is characterized as "furniture dealer" (26) or even as "the firm" (25). Polly wants to be known as "Farmer Finch" (13) – an expression behind which one would usually expect a man and the title of the story indicates that she succeeds in it. Theirs is therefore not a feminizing but a "masculinizing." In these two stories, sexuality and the seduction-punishment pattern play almost no or, in the case of Jewett’s story, only a minor, implicit part. For Polly it is a temptation to take the easy path and lead a secure life marrying Jerry Minton. But she shies away from the dependence that this step would also have in store for her. These girls do not depend on men and they do not have to plan their future, as stated in Ginsberg’s point two, in relation or even according to men. And finally Ginsberg’s first point is totally wrong for these two texts. The girls are not introduced to a heterosexual world. It becomes quite clear that they enter the men’s world, the world of profession. In the end, Polly and Jemima are free to chose their own way and it does not seem as if they have lost something. On the contrary, they have gained freedom and self-reliance and their own (new) identity. They have tried, as Jewett puts it, a "new thing" (10) and now experience a "certain pleasure" (6) and "great satisfaction" (6). They seem to be very talented and skilled and very successful, also financially. Polly and Jemima have finally found their right place in society. Their new life surely is no cause of regret.

Concerning Elaine Ginsberg’s definition I finally conclude that it is only valid for the one type of female initiation stories from which she chose her very small body of texts. The examples I have chosen for my paper constitute another type of female initiation story. And they show almost no correspondences with most of Ginsberg’s points. As I have mentioned above, she as well as others before her, is biased. But if one takes a good look, a number of initiation stories about extraordinary women that have command over their own life can be found. Other 19th century examples of stories about professional successful young women are i.e. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s "More Ways than One" (1871), Kate Chopin’s "Wiser than a God" (1889) or Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s "Louisa" (1891).

 

 

Works Cited

Freese, Peter. The American Short Story I: Initiation: Teacher’s Book. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1986.

—. Die Initiationsreise: Studien zum jugendlichen Helden im modernen amerikanischen Roman. Tübingen: Stauffenburg,1998.

Ginsberg, Elaine. "The Female Initiation Theme in American Fiction." Studies in American Fiction 3 (1975): 27-38.

Jewett, Sarah Orne, "Farmer Finch". http://www.public.coe.edu/theller/soj/awh/finch.htm,1-16.

Phelps Ward, Elizabeth Stuart. "The Girl Who Could Not Write a Composition." Companions of Our Youth: Stories by Women for Young People’s Magazines, 1865-1900. eds. Jane Benardete and Phyllis Moe. New York: Ungar, 1980.

White, Barbara A. Growing Up Female: Adolescent Girlhood in American Fiction. Westport/London: Greenwood, 1985.

Wittke, Gabriele. Female Initiation in the American Novel. Frankfurt a.M.: Lang, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 11th ed. London: Hogarth, 1949.

 

 

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