Beyond the gentlemen’s agreement

This is a long and kind of circular post about events in Albany past and present. It’s probably going to be the least-linked-to post of my blogging career, but now is the perfect time to post it.

First of all, I’d like to thank Gov. Paterson for his speech in Rochester the other day, where he (as I expected he might) drew a parallel between Upstate and Harlem. I would also like to note some appreciation, if not outright “thanks,” for the regretful and certainly politically expedient (although that may just be “possibly politically expedient”) press conference he gave in Albany on Tuesday. Perhaps even more than former Gov. Spitzer’s personal problems spilling into his political life, Gov. Paterson’s press conference has made stories like Michael Gormley’s report on Albany nookie possible (although heck, it’s not like Gormley just learned about all this, is it?) This story produced a very lively conversation thread at TAP.

I also have my own parallel to draw about Upstate New York. I don’t believe that too many men in Albany (not just the Governor) would feel much like reading it right about now, but here it is, for what it’s worth.

I found myself wondering who is the most powerful female politician in Albany. (Remember, we’re talking about Albany, so Hillary doesn’t count.) What name pops into your head? Liz Krueger maybe? That’s the only one that comes to my mind at all as a female politician in New York who gets occasionally taken semi-seriously. So, is it really all just interns and lobbyists who are players in the Capitol? Albany gals, won’t you come out tonight?

One side of me isn’t exactly shocked at the details of stuff that grownups already all know about. Then again, if this was Florida or California I’d be more inclined to shrug. However, New York is still allegedly the birthplace of women’s rights in this country. Somehow, I don’t think that going to Albany in hopes of being selected in a cattle call was what Susan B. and Elizabeth C. had in mind when it came to asserting more power for New York’s daughters. Are these the only options available for women to advance in Albany? Perhaps what we have here is a simple failure in education. New York women have apparently forgotten who they are; haven’t taught it to their daughters. Maybe some steps have to be retraced here.

It was 160 years ago this April that the legislature in Albany was the first in the nation to affirm one of the most important rights that American women were ever guaranteed. Maybe even more important than the right to vote. On April 7, 1848, the state legislature passed the law that affirmed the right of married women to control their property independently of their husbands. (Here is the text of the law, and more about its place in American legal history.)

What this new law did was to give women an unprecedented double advantage. No longer would they have to, in essence, choose between remaining single (meaning lower-status) and propertied, and married and potentially property-deprived. They could securely enjoy and dispose of both the power that came with owning property, and the power that came with social status derived through marriage. Because a woman did not stand to lose control of her property upon marriage, she had further incentive to increase her property in her single years — to have a career that might earn her her own money. Even more importantly, no husband could stand in the way of a woman giving her own inherited property to her daughter (or another woman) instead of a son, if she so chose.

In my not-yet-Compleat History of Fairmount (I knew there must have been some reason it would someday come in handy again) there is a fascinating personal account by State Sen. George Geddes, as communicated to Matilda Joslyn Gage, about how and why the law came to pass (scroll down this page a bit for the story). As you can read in his account, male legislators in Albany (the only kind back then, of course) were very much aware of the radical step they were taking and how it stood to shake the foundations of society as they knew it.

That’s what a “gentlemen’s agreement” was in 1848. Today? It’s the Bear Mountain Compact.

Why am I revisiting this old piece of history at this time? Because maybe New York women need to be re-educated about their inheritance. Maybe they need to be re-educated, not so much about “women’s rights” as about “women’s power.” I’m presuming to start a new conversation.

It is disheartening to have to read about “all this crap” and wonder which political wind will blow where in Albany these days; it’s even more disheartening to sense how many women have tried to work in Albany’s system and who seem resigned to it. As personal relationships are complicated, I hesitate to pass judgment on ethics, exploitation and who’s zoomin’ who. But personally I wonder if in matter-of-fact talk about men, women, sex and power (in Albany or elsewhere), New York women are misunderstanding the basic underpinnings of American feminism and American women’s power as it was newly conceived in the 19th century.

We have been very much encouraged in the last 20 years or so to believe that the only “property” we have is our bodies and/or what they produce. Well, that’s part of who we are and what we can use to get along; how fortunate when we can afford to be selective about how and when. But every “women’s question” has somehow become about sex or reproduction, though in the earliest days when New York women debated their future, it was about much more. It began with property rights, which are not only inheritable woman to woman (making the protection of women’s power a collective, not competitive, enterprise), but which are still the key to real and lasting political power for all women — in Albany or elsewhere.

Too many women in New York have no real, free-and-clear property and no secure and independent base of operations. They are not able to leave anything to their daughters. Another reason why the recent subprime debacle has been so appalling, with predatory lenders victimizing a lot of would-be female property owners. (I give a hat tip right now to two women bloggers who blog about their land and property, Northview Diary and the indefatigable Invisible Flood Blog.)

This issue is also why I want to get to the bottom of the Onondaga LRA. Land rights are very important and it has to be sorted out who has a legal and cultural right to what, or else peace is not secure.

(Ironically Gov. Paterson understands this very well as he has been concerned with eminent domain and its use and misuse in the gentrification of Harlem, not to mention the reclamation of sacred ground in lower Manhattan. For this reason I choose, at this point, to look on him as a potential ally in many issues that concern women of all colors in our state.)

It is sad that we are at this point where New York women are depicted mainly as rapacious sex objects, as prey for bored legislators, or as loyal (or crazy) trophy wives. This has been, in part, brought on by a bizarre forgetfulness of our birthright and a lack of candor on our part. It has been quiet, too quiet. Upstate New York women in particular should make an agreement not to forget these things.

8 thoughts on “Beyond the gentlemen’s agreement

  1. Phil

    While admittedly limited, my connections to Albany are due to housing issues. The two persons with the most power over both funding and policy development on housing are both women: Priscilla Almodovar, President and CEO of the Housing Finance Agency, and Deborah VanAmerongen, Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Renewal.

    Who knows how long they’ll be there, since both were Spitzer appointees.

  2. Robinia

    Maybe this won’t be linked-to, but, you have my thanks. We do, indeed, owe it to our foremothers to understand what they were working for– which was sometimes an unusual mixture of power for women, emancipation for slaves, and temperance. I often think of Susan B. Anthony, and her famous quote (which I have a framed version of) “Failure is Impossible.” And yet, success can take a long, long time. Carry on!

  3. borisworf

    It’s funny that you write about this subject now. Lately I have been on a rant with one of my sisters about the appalling fact that I am dealing with mothers who have young girls in elementary school who are doing badly in math. If I had a dime for every time I heard one of these mothers dismiss the importance of math to their daughters by simply saying ” I was never good at math”. I’d be rich. It just get’s my dander up, because what I think it does to these girls is give them this built in excuse to use and also re-enforces the idea that woman are not as intelligent as men. Mind you we are talking about 3-5th grade math which deals with fractions and angles etc.
    When I tell these woman that of course they can do fractions, since you need them when baking and doubling a recipe etc, I have actually had them tell me that no they don’t, they just measure it out twice, as the recipe calls for.

    So we have lost our way with the younger generations of woman. It’s all too easy to say “I Can’t, instead of saying, yes I can.

  4. Ellen Post author

    I have a confession: I really disliked math! or maybe I just disliked math homework, but for whatever reason, I wound up in the “A2” math track after 7th grade (where I went to class with students who weren’t interested in math or, indeed, in much of anything at all except talking). I never did get out of A2. (was there even a way to get out of A2?)

    The really odd thing is that I loved science and did very well in it, and was in the Regents classes, etc. Although clearly, with no liking or aptitude (?) for math, there was not much of a future for me in science beyond 12th grade physics. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a meteorologist (not the TV kind, but the kind that made maps), but I didn’t really enjoy physics specifically. Anything that involved calculations, I didn’t have much confidence in. Though that doesn’t explain why I adored chemistry, which DID involve calculations…

    Then again I was also placed in “A2” social studies and here I am writing about some obscure bit of feminist history. I’m trying to remember how I wound up in that track in that subject (which I liked) but can’t fathom. I must have had a bad test or something.

  5. Robinia

    OK– my confession is that I was the only girl in the gifted and talented math program in the whole elementary school. Which, I guess, explains a lot of how I came to be reviled as a misfit who likes economics. It’s not like they teach you how to be a tall alpha male or anything. Understanding without power is, well, not all that much fun. So the power (property ownership, votes) does really matter.

  6. Mrs. Mecomber

    1. I HATED math.
    2. I did very poorly in math.
    3. I did poorly because I was bad with math, not because I hated it.
    4. I excelled in writing, grammar, literature, and art.
    5. It is not sexist to say, in general, boys are better at some things than girls, and vice versa.
    6. Of course, that should never be a deterrent to stifle individual accomplishment.
    7. Perhaps part of the “Cosmopolitan” magazine culture today can best be summed up in a t-shirt I saw: “Who needs brains when you have these?” That’s the message our girls are getting? well, not my girls… I’m raising them differently…

  7. Mrs. Mecomber

    Ellen, your statement, “Then again I was also placed in ‘A2’ social studies and here I am writing about some obscure bit of feminist history” reminds me of something Mark Twain once said:

    “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

    Mark Twain, as you probably recall from A2, wrote “Tom Sawyer.” hee ;) Ah, but he was much more than that; he was a deep fountain of untapped American sagacity…

  8. Ellen Post author

    Well I was the geek who eagerly read nearly every story in the literature textbook instead of just the ones that were assigned… (including Soul on Ice! yeah, we read that – AND I read the unassigned pages, quite an eye opener) I hear about people reminiscing about fabulous teachers who changed their lives, and I’m wondering, where were they all in my school? I mean, that would have been a nice experience to have, but when did you ever get the time to interact personally with a teacher? I don’t remember any such thing. My memory is that unless you were great in sports or heavily involved in extracurriculars, or unless you were a “troubled youth,” you were pretty much unnoticed by the adults. Maybe that is still true.

    As for not encouraging girls to do well in math, that is a problem; but then again, it’s also a problem that things that girls are often particularly good in (writing, lit, foreign languages, art) still don’t seem as highly valued as math.

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