06 July 2016

A Big Wave Knocked Her Over


I. What we now think of as swimming was an invention of the new urban middle class  during the second half of the 19th century.  It was not that no one swam before that time of course; it was that swimming had  not been  a structured activity with lessons and styles and rules – and bathing suits.  Country people had enjoyed ‘natural swimming’ as it was dubbed in retrospect, an activity that could include any  and all members of a family and friends - in the nude.  


As the newly prosperous vacationers flocked to the shore to relax and escape the summer heat they brought with them a sense of bourgeois decorum that required a new, more structured regimen to what had been an informal pleasure.
A consensus was reached in polite circles that the sexes be segregated  on the shore as much as possible when not formally dressed and that swimming was reserved for males,  with females relegated  to such oddities as walking into the water while hanging onto anchored towlines or confined to little huts in the water (talk about confinement) known as “bathing machines.”  Boys were encouraged to learn to swim to avoid drowning but it would take the advent of urban WMCAs and WYCAs for girls to receive the same  life preserving instruction.


In article that appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in July of 1890 the aptly named Duffield Osborne enumerated the reasons that women should not swim: their hair might get wet or a wave might knock them over.  And this nonsense was not limited to men; writing that same year in Ladies’ Home Journal,  Felicia Holt titled her article on the problem  “Promiscuous Bathing.”

Warning of  the effect that bare toes on the beach would have on public morality, Holt wrote, “I fear the girl will soon begin to calculate the effect of what someone late called 'artistic bareness' on the mind of masculinity.  It would take an imagination of an entirely different order of magnitude to understand that the revolutionary potential of swimming for women lay not in self-display but in the experience of strength and self-assertion.

 

II.  She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” 

With that sentence Kate Chopin signaled her readers that for Edna Pontellier, protagonist of The Awakening (1899), learning to swim would become the means to her personal declaration of independence, an act that resulted in social ostracism, and finally, disaster.  Radical as her depiction of a woman's search for an authentic self was,   Chopin found it difficult to imagine a heroine escaping Divine wrath much less  the wrath of men.    Herself the daughter of a successful Irish businessman and a French mother, Katherine O'Flaherty  had grown up in a family of self-reliant women; her father died when she was just five years old.   At age twenty she married Oscar Chopin and the couple moved to New Orleans.  With the move from St. Louis to the deep south and the birth of six children in eight years, Chopin absorbed the shocks of a myriad of social expectations that diminished a woman's sense of autonomy.  In the novel Chopin drew adroit tableaux of Victorian social life that, to contemporary critics, only made Edna's increasingly desperate attempts  at self-assertion seem the more irrational as well as selfish.  Swedish writer Per Seyerstad, to write the first modern biography of Kate Chopin (Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969) to resurrect The Awakening for generations of grateful readers who have grown  up with it.  John R. Stilgoe, a Harvard historian who really ought to know better, cannot resist categorizing Chopin's revelation  of a woman's inner emancipation as a story that  “borders on the pornographic.”  It must be the combination of female self-assertion and feminine pulchritude that has male minds bollixed.


 
Image: Louis Valtat - Bicyclette, c.1895, Musee de la voiture, Compiegne.

2 comments:

Hels said...

I almost understand why Victorian parents wanted their daughters protected on the beach, from destructive waves and the unwanted advances of semi naked men. But some of the fears were so ridiculous, you have to assume that parents went along with the nonsense simply to avoid public criticism. A "more structured regimen" was code for nasty restrictions, not for sensible protection.

Jane said...

Hels, I tried to suggest here, without being overly didactic, that there was more at stake than appearances. Edna Pontellier did not commit suicide because of restrictions on attire or because she wanted to swim with men. Strength and self-determination can be made visible through appearance but are ultimately more important to our struggle.
For a humorous take on the subject, visit the twitter feed "Man Who Has It All." He's Australian, too, by the way.