Why do young women fall for older men?

You don’t hear much about May-December romances these days. But history is full couples made of young women with older men, especially in centuries when so many women died in childbirth.

That was the case in the family of Anna Osborn. Her father was twice a widower, and his third wife (Annie’s stepmother) was 13 years younger than he. Each wife bore him several children, bringing the total number of Osborn offspring to eleven.

Varying Explanations for Women’s Choices

According to an article in The Guardian, women are genetically programmed to recognize a man with genes strong enough to be attractive and display wealth at an advanced age. According to this theory, evolution favors a strong older man over a younger one.

Or is it more than that? Perhaps it is because older men have more sophisticated tastes, seem more sure of themselves, and are looking for serious relationships, as this more recent article suggests.

In the chapters of The Truth About Daniel concerning  Annie Osborn’s courtship, she evades the clumsy pursuits of Richie, a man her age. Richie doesn’t know enough to douse his cigar in a lady’s presence and still appears boyishly lanky. He dances badly, works for his father, and has done nothing heroic. How can he measure up to Daniel Read Anthony with his war-hardened physique, strong profile, and willingness to save people in a burning building?

When Annie learns that Daniel has also committed himself to the same risky undertaking as she, she falls in love with a man twenty years older her senior. She senses Daniel’s value to society in contrast to Richie’s lightweight existence.

Neither can Richie match Daniel’s experience as a mayor and postmaster. He lacks Daniel’s acquaintance with influential people, notably his sister Susan B. Anthony and her cohort—people that Annie has only read about before.

Unlike Richie and Annie, who have lived their entire lives on an island, Daniel has traveled halfway across the continent. Perhaps the best thing of all is that he’s willing and able to take Annie there.

Happily Ever After

No novice at the game of courtship, Daniel keeps his wealth to himself until after he is engaged to Annie. As mayor, he may have known too many women who wanted to marry a man for his money. Fortunately, Annie reacts with pleasant surprise, showing that not all young women are looking for sugar daddies.

 

 

Penning a (Love) Letter

Valentine’s Day’s coming up, and I will be on Rochester’s WHAMTV31 at 8:50 AM to discuss The Truth About Daniel, which is among other things, a love story. (Plese note: earlier, the channel was listed as 13. The correct channel is actually 31)

Let’s consider this romantic painting, which I love for for many reasons. First of all, my husband and I nurtured our long-distance romance with letters for two years. Snail mail made for difficult delays in hearing from my heart-throb, especially since the post office near my Toronto residence often went on strike for a couple weeks. Now, though, I consider myself fortunate to have corresponded with Jon before email because I still have every letter he sent me tied up with a neat bow.

The second reason I love this painting is that the woman looks the way I picture Annie Osborn, heroine of my book, right down to the strawberry blond hair that won’t stay put. And the inkwell reminds me of one I saw in an Anthony collection somewhere. Memory fails me at the moment.

And my third reason is that the letters of Annie and Daniel play a pivotal part in the novel. Like my husband and me, these lovers sometimes experienced lapses in snail mail—and their lapses almost led to romantic disaster.

Just for fun, here’s a picture I took of post office boxes at Alley’s Store on Martha’s Vineyard, near the 19th century home of Annie Osborn.

I highly recommend this post on letters in literature. And don’t forget to watch the news at 8:50 on TV13 WHAM on Valentine’s Day!

Post office box photo by Jeanne Gehret

Three-Way Courting Chair–Really?

Courtship in the nineteenth century was a carefully-controlled affair, especially among the upper classes like the sphere where  Annie Osborn lived. Unmarried women were carefully chaperoned, as this three-way chair in St. Augustine’s Lightner Museum demonstrates.

Here is a wonderful excerpt from a book I bought in that museum gift store; this is from a chapter entitled “Professor Hill’s Guide to Love and Marriage.”

Any gentleman who may continuously give special, undivided attention to a certain lady is presumed to do so because he prefers her to others. It is reasonable to suppose that others will observe his action. It is also reasonable to be expected that the lady will herself appreciate the fact, and her feelings are likely to become engaged.

 

Should she allow an intimacy thus to ripen upon the part of the gentleman, and to continue, it is to be expected that he will be encouraged to hope for her hand; and hence it is the duty of both lady and gentleman, if neither intends marriage, to discourage an undue intimacy which may ripen into love, as it is in the highest degree dishonorable to trifle with the affections of another.”

 

p. 109, The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette, by Professor Thomas E. Hill.

Suppose a man from Kansas were to travel all the way to Martha’s Vineyard to visit a woman who had encouraged him, only to find that she did not trust him with her affections?

Photo by Jeanne Gehret

Tracking Women’s Rights

world of inquiry 800Recently I had the pleasure of presenting Susan B. Anthony in costume at the World of Inquiry School in the Rochester City School District. Approximately 100 seventh-graders, in groups of 20, cycled through several costumed speakers who introduced students to a variety of 19th century issues, including temperance, antislavery, physical abuse, unequal access to education, child labor, and women’s rights.

We like to think ourselves well-advanced beyond Americans of the 1900s, but are we, really? We still have problems with alcoholism, racism, abuse, and women’s rights. And today, children as young as eight years being trafficked in the sex trade, a form of child labor that is even more appalling than the factory work of 19th century youngsters .

Some of the World of Inquiry classes were all girls, others all boys. Presenting Miss Anthony’s impassioned plea for women’s rights to seventh-grade boys presented a unique opportunity. Why should young males, at the beginning of their adult years, voluntarily rescind some of their natural rights to girls? “Miss Anthony” drew upon her Quaker upbringing to challenge those teenagers to respect themselves and accord the same respect to the females in their lives. She asked them to consider what happens to women who are dependent on men when the men must leave their women, in situations such as military service or death. Would a respectful man want to put a woman he loves at risk for a life of poor education and poor wages just so he can act superior to her when he is present?

We costumed presenters kicked off a curriculum unit entitled “Fighting for Change.” Following our appearances, the teachers have helped students work through some of the nuances of these social problems and take them from the common teenage refrain of “It’s not fair” to “What am I going to do about it?” Sounds to me like a worthy goal.

In the above photo from that event are pictured David Anderson as Frederick Douglass, Victoria Schmidt as an Erie Canal cook, Jeanne Gehret as Susan B. Anthony, Christine Ridarski (historian, City of Rochester), and Jeffrey Ludwig as an early temperance advocate.

Dressing for the Weather

North Water Street winter 800As Martha’s Vineyard, along with the rest of the northeast, braces itself for another mass of cold and ice this week, I can’t help but think how much easier we have it now than in the 1860s when Anna Osborn lived on that island. We who dash to our cars and crank up the heater can hardly imagine traveling in an uninsulated carriage warmed only by lap robes.

Many of Martha’s Vineyard’s narrow side streets were more suited to foot traffic than carriage, anyway. Living only a couple blocks away from Edgartown’s shopping district, Anna must have frequently bundled herself up to walk a couple blocks to meet a friend for tea, post a letter, or buy piano music for the latest tune. The current photo above pictures North Water Street, just a few blocks away from where Anna lived, during a storm similar to the one we’re experiencing now.*

Bundling up in the 1860s was a much different affair for women than it is today. Tucking my pant legs into my boots this afternoon, I have a fighting chance of traveling sure-footed. Not so for a 19th-century woman encumbered by sweeping skirts and petticoats. Everywhere she went, the long-skirted woman had to keep a hand free to manage yards of cloth swirling around her ankles. The early 1860s fashions also featured the mixed blessing of hooped skirts. Although they swayed gracefully when a woman walked, they also totally obscured her feet from her own view.

I frequently get calls to portray Susan B. Anthony in costume during her birth month (February) and women’s history month (March). These excursions give me ample opportunity to appreciate how much needed were the dress reforms of the 1850s, when Miss Anthony and her friend Mrs. Stanton experimented with shorter skirts over trousers. This bloomer costume, as it was called, kept one’s skirts out of the kind of slush that’s predicted during this winter storm. Being able to actually see her own feet gave a woman much less chance of falling on the ice that covered the rutted, unpaved streets of yesteryear.

Unless Anna Osborn had Susan Anthony’s thick skin in the face of ridicule, she would not have worn the bloomer costume on the streets of Edgartown. The bloomer’s practicality and safety were no match for the jeers that accompanied women who dared to sport that revolutionary fashion. But as Anna gazed at snowy scenes similar to the one above, she may have secretly longed for some of the freedoms and comforts that we take for granted today.

*Photo used with permission by Point B Realty, Martha’s Vineyard.

A Christmas Tale

The Rochester Anthonys were not in the habit of celebrating Christmas until the end of the 19th century. “We Quakers don’t make much of Christmas,” Susan said as late as 1899.

It should come as no surprise, then, that on Christmas Day in 1860 Susan became embroiled in one of the most unpopular causes of her life. To make matters even worse, the situation was filled with cruel irony.

Ever since 1850, Susan had worked tirelessly with a group of abolitionists to free African-Americans from slavery. Along with her family and friends, she had personally assisted runaways on the Underground Railroad. For this reason, she probably assumed that her associates would spring to her aid when she tried to help a white woman and daughter who were fleeing an abusive husband—a situation with many parallels to a life of slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from my book *Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All:

“Phoebe Phelps was the wealthy mother of three children, married to a member of the Massachusetts Senate. She suspected him of loving another woman, and one day she told him so. He became so angry that he threw her down the stairs. Fearing that people would hear about his affair and his terrible temper, Senator Phelps had his wife locked up in an asylum. For a year and a half, she lived like a prisoner, away from the children she loved.”

Finally, she was released into her brother’s custody and allowed to have her children visit one at a time. On one of these occasions, she fled with her 13 year-old daughter Delia to Quaker friends, who introduced them both to Susan in Syracuse, NY.

Thus Susan marked that Christmas by boarding a train headed for New York City with the two fugitives. But as in the original Christmas story, there was no room at the inn.

“Because it was late at night when they arrived, Susan tried to get a hotel room for the night. However, the clerk refused to rent them a room [because they were not accompanied by a man]. After Susan threatened to sleep in the lobby, he gave in. The whole next day Susan took Mrs. Phelps and Delia from one friend’s home to another, but none would help them for fear of breaking the law.”

At that time, Massachusetts law viewed children and married women as property of the man of the house. Among others, Susan’s abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison demanded that she return the women to Senator Phelps rather than sully the antislavery movement with law-breaking on behalf of the Phelpses. Susan retorted, “Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.”

Susan’s father affirmed that she had made the right moral choice. Most likely, she also had the support of her brother D.R. in Kansas, who two years later as a Civil War colonel would face a court martial rather than return fugitive slaves to their masters. He frequently supported Susan’s travels on behalf of women’s rights.

Senator Phelps eventually kidnapped Delia, who was never re-united with Phoebe. In 1876, the Phelps failure probably returned to haunt Susan: when D.R.’s wife Anna needed assistance on a female issue, she turned to someone other than her famous sister-in-law.

(*Verbal Images Press, 1994)