Feminism As Portrayed Through Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It?
Feminism As Portrayed Through Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? I think the sooner we give over to women the management of public business, the better it will be….
What a contemptible, hardheaded brute man is! How I despise my sex! For I am behind the scenes with him, and know what he really is. No woman can ever fathom the dark depths of man’s heart; and it is well she cannot, the poor thing! (Ruiz de Burton 277). Despite a rage of sexist antagonism, the dastardly Rev. John Hackwell, delivers this diatribe during one of the most captivating scenes from Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel Who Would Have Thought It?, which is a story that fights for women’s rights during the late 1800s. Who Would Have Thought It? is a cry out for women’s rights because it exposes the hypocrisy and constraining nature of women’s roles in society. Who Would of Thought It? follows Lola Medina’s story from Indian captivity to her adoption into an aristocratic New England House.
Lola is coveted by many members of the Norval household; some want her money, and some want her body. In 1832, Ruiz de Burton was born into a wealthy Mexican family in Baja, California. While Captain Henry Stanton Burton of the United States Army was occupying Baja, California, during the Mexican-American War, he met and married Maria Ruiz who, after moving with him to Washington D.C., grew accustomed to a prominent lifestyle due to her husband’s position. After the death of the Captain, Ruiz de Burton was left with debt and land claim issues with no income to pay them off.
Thus she wrote her first novel in 1872, Who Would Have Thought It? to make money to support her family, but also to show how women were treated in the “pure” New England territory of the United States. Publishing the book anonymously, and touting race as the book’s grand theme, Ruiz de Burton used racial discourse as a way to make her book popular during the Reconstruction era of the United States. Most of the scholarly discussion on this novel so far has focused on race. But I want to point out that the feminist strain in Who Would Have Thought It? is at least as important as the racial tension, if not more so. Jesse Aleman and Anne Goldman have both discussed racism in the novel.
Trevor Thornton has discussed it as both racist and feminist when he talks about Lucinda, the quadroon prostitute. By being his personal escort, Lucinda is “held captive” by the northern senator, the Honorable Le Grand Gunn. Lucinda is a second-class citizen due to her non-white background. She is controlled not only because of her occupation, but also because of her race and because she is a female. One could argue she is “held captive” because of her race or because of her gender. Men in this novel desire to possess women, regardless of their race.
I’m going to argue that the theme of race in the novel is merely a platform for the more subversive conversation about feminism. The fact that Lavinia is white, but also loses in this world is vital to my point. She comes from an upper class family, is white, and is an attractive woman, yet is still disregarded by those in power because of her gender. Lavinia also fails because she is un-married, thus making her of a lower status than a married woman like Mrs. Norval. In her TED talk, the novelist Elif Shafak uses circles as a metaphor for boundaries of cultural and personal identity.
“Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls, and through those holes we can get a glimpse of the other and sometimes even like what we see (Elif Shafak).” These circles are what define communities, cultures, countries, etc., and they are sometimes hard to break. Shafak challenges her audience to break through these circles so that they may have a better understanding of other circles and how those circles work so that they can gain knowledge outside of their own circle. Who Would Have Thought It? is attempting to break the patriarchal circle placed around American Society.
Ruiz de Burton’s assertion that American men in power are incompetent is reflected through Lavinia when she travels to the Secretary of the War’s office to try to convince the government to work with the Confederate Army to free her brother from the Prisoners of War camp. As Lavinia enters the office, she is not offered a chair to sit in while waiting for the Secretary of War to return. She then is allowed to see the Secretary for a brief moment, where whatever the Secretary said to her behind the closed office door causes her to convulsively cry as she departs. This suggests a number of scenarios that could have occurred in the office. The worst of these possibilities is that Secretary took advantage of Lavinia and raped her. Lavinia is a powerless in a hostile situation that is subject to the more powerful Secretary.
There is no way of proving that the Secretary forced himself upon Lavinia, but it can be concluded that the Secretary took advantage of her in some way by Lavinia’s reaction. Men in this novel, with the exception of Dr. Norval, have no regard for women; they treat them as inferiors, even if they were of the same race. “What a miserable, powerless thing woman is, even in this, our country of glorious equality! Here I have been sitting up at night, toiling, and tending disgusting sicknesses, and dressing loathsome wounds, all for the dear love of our country, and now, the first time I come to ask a favor, -a favor, do I say? No. I come to demand a right, -see how I am received (Ruiz de Burton 100)!” Ruiz de Burton shows here through Lavinia what everyday life is like for a woman in this novel. They have no power: they can’t vote or have a public job and they are relegated to the house to raise children.
A lot of literature perpetuated female stereotypes of the time. She’s not only fighting against society, she is also fighting against other novels of the time like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Consider this seemingly feminist passage from Stowe’s novel, South as well as north, there are women who have an extraordinary talent for command, and tact in educating. Such are enabled, with apparent ease, and without severity, to subject to their will, and bring into harmonious and systematic order, the various members of their small estate, – to regulate their peculiarities, and so balance and compensate the deficiencies of one by the excess of another, as to produce a harmonious and orderly system (Stowe 308-309). Stowe shows us here that housekeeping is one of the most important duties for women during this time period. Although women are clearly argued to possess the strength and skill to bring harmony to their world – that world is only acceptable within the confines of the home.
Lavinia’s attempt to leave her home and seek justice in the public sphere critiques that idea. Whether they live in the North or in the South, they managed household duties to give their family a peaceful place in which they could retreat. This idea confines women to their own house. Stowe’s novel shows concerning racial issues, but conservative sexist views are still present. Ruiz de Burton takes the extra step to bring subverted issues to light that Stowe does not. She is trying to create a new image for women and what they can do in life.
She attempts to break the circle of the “true womanhood” in a personal letter to her friend, Don Guadalupe. Well now I am both father and mother of my children; I am surrounded by difficulties, with God knows what for support, and even though God is good and powerful, the human heart always searches and yearns for some other support here on earth (Ruiz de Burton 328). Ruiz de Burton was forced to work after the death of her husband, a new scenario for a woman living during the late 1800s. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we see Stowe describe the conservative approach to a woman in society while Ruiz de Burton describes the liberal idea that women can work. Ruiz de Burton argues in one of her letters to Guadalupe, that a woman cannot live in this world that antagonizes women in the public sector.
In order for women to fit into the American society at this point in history, they would have to be married, and Mrs. Norval embodies women who have perpetuated the novel’s patriarchal dynamic by living into it. Mrs. Norval is married to a prominent white male, who is in touch with the local government, and her exercise of power mostly occurs behind the closed doors of their bedroom. Ruiz de Burton writes to Don Guadalupe after the passing of her husband during 1869, “Remember that I am a woman . .
. and Mexican . . . with my soul enclosed in an iron cage.
In this manner Society confines us as soon as we are born, like the Chinese and the feet of their women (Ruiz de Burton 328).” The fact that Ruiz de Burton published the novel anonymously suggests she knew American society would not listen to what she had to say. But she hoped that, through her novel and its female characters like Lola, Lavinia, Lucinda, and Mrs. Norval, some might take action on the ideas that were discussed throughout her story. In both Who Would Have Thought It? and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, married women only succeed in exercising societal change but only by talking to their husbands in their domestic sphere. Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not show that this is a societal flaw as deliberately as Who Would Have Thought It? In each of these instances, Ruiz de Burton is trying to show to her readers that the circle placed around the women at this time needs to be broken.
Lola, another important character in Who Would Have Thought It? is a young and beautiful Mexican girl who is taken captive by Mohave Indian “savages.” A prominent, white man, Dr. Norval, rescues her – and her gold – and brings them both back to New England to live with him and his family. One might argue that her treatment in New England is worse than it was in her Indian Captivity. Lola is the ultimate possession in Who Would Have Thought It?.
She is the perfect wife that everyone wants because of her pristine body and her fabulous riches. Rev. Hackwell, who is much older than she, realizes the wealth that he would gain by marrying into the family. He tries to win by first marrying the corrupt Mrs. Norval. Eventually, he is overcome by the sex appeal of Lola and completely disregards Mrs.
Norval so he can possess Lola, further showing the worthlessness of the female characters in the story. Lola is not interested; she is in love with the young Julian Norval, a young army officer who has his own dubious attractions to Lola. This shows that men in this novel thought they controlled all aspects of a woman’s life including their bodies. Rev. Hackwell tries to control the women in his life, “This is becoming interesting,” thought the Presbyterian divine.
“It seems that kisses are better than cold water for fainting maidens;” and he changed his position slightly, kneeling on one knee to approach Lavinia closer. But, in doing so, he turned his head a little, and perceived Lola standing by him (Ruiz de Burton 82). In this scene, the perverted Rev. Hackwell attempts to rape an unconscious Lavinia. This is the first time the corrupt Rev. Hackwell is caught red-handed taking advantage of a woman in the story, when Lola walks into the room.
He truly doesn’t have any respect or concern for the well being of the opposite sex and Lavinia is not his only victim. Lola also receives Hackwell’s unsolicited attention when he uses a legal loophole to force her into marriage, thus possessing her. After a traumatic experience at the end of the story, Lola is reunited with her lover Julian. But even Julian could be argued to be totally patriarchal and misogynistic. A few days after he arrived, the roses and dimples which had fled when she went to Mexico returned with the Yankee lover. The coral lips parted in merry laughter again, showing the pearly teeth; and the lustrous black eyes were once more brilliant with happiness or languid with love (Ruiz de Burton 292).
This passage shows us that he is in this relationship more for Lola’s physical attributes, not her actual personality of person as a whole. In addition, he departs to the war right after their marriage, showing that he moves on to more important things in life after officially possessing her. This disregard must be similar to the way Ruiz de Burton felt after the passing of her husband. In this satirical way, Ruiz de Burton’s novel successfully addresses an American flaw. We see how women were treated in the “pure” American northeast.
She thoroughly discusses women’s rights throughout the novel, showing the audience what it is like to live as a powerless woman in a world filled with powerful men. Works Cited: Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? Penguin Books, New York. 2009. Shafak, Elif. “The Politics of Fiction” Ted Global, July 2010, “Available:”[http://www.
ted.com/talks/elif_shafak_the_politics_of_fiction], 2/25/15. Web. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Penguin Books, New York.
1981. Thornton, Trevor. Dr. Norval’s Clandestine Remove: The Captivity Narrative’sCultural Design In Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have ThoughtIt? Unpublished. Open Source.
Available on Schoology, 2013. 2/26/15.Web.