This is a special post for International Women’s Day.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, in a land not far from this one, there lived a girl called Rose. She was the oldest daughter of a farming family and was a beautiful bud on the verge of blossoming into a vibrant young woman. We would say she was a teenager, and nowadays she would enjoy years of delicious freedom, finish her education and discover her own world between childhood and womanhood.
Alas, not then. She was not educated at school, for that would be a waste of time and money. She spent her days cleaning, cooking and helping her mother to look after her brothers and sisters. Any free time she might have had, was taken up with making and mending clothes, baking bread or helping with the running of the farm.
One day, a very average man, rode into the village on a white horse. Once he saw how hard-working Rose was, he decided she would make a very suitable wife for him to replace the one who had recently died in childbirth. He asked her father for her hand in marriage and a good price was agreed. It was all arranged and would make good business sense to have another farmer in the family. Plus those eight poor children would have a mother. Rose did not care for this man for she had never even spoken to him. Aside from him being nearly as old as her own father, he was not at all appealing to look at and she knew nothing about him. However, she was not consulted, and would have had no choice in the matter in any case.
The next day Rose was to be married. As she was her father’s property, she was given away by him to the man, who was to own her from that day forward. She wore a white dress to prove she was a virgin, and at the ceremony she had to promise to do whatever her new husband wanted her to do and obey his every command.
From working on the farm, Rose had some idea what her husband was going to do to her on their wedding night, but she was not looking forward to it. Her mother had told her that it would be painful and that she might bleed. She was not even allowed to ever touch herself there because she was unclean. But she was one of the lucky girls who had not had a knife taken to that part of her body when she was a child and no man had ever forced himself on her. Even if a man had used his power and strength to overcome her and take what he wanted, it would always have been entirely her fault. That was the way things were. Her choice was not an option.
Rose knew that if she did what she was told, worked hard, knew her place and kept her mouth shut, she would have as life as good as every other woman she had ever heard of. She knew that to be seen as a good wife, there would be lots of babies and although having them would hurt like hell, she would fulfil the reason she was here for. Women who talked or knew too much were often possessed by the devil and needed to be punished.
So she began her new life with her new name. She missed her family dreadfully at first and began to wonder what it would be like to go out every day and see the world like her brothers did. If she did not keep the house and increasing brood of children clean, and her husband well fed and satisfied, he might beat her, leave her or throw her into the asylum. If she was disowned or shunned, she had no way of earning a living, and what would be the point anyway? Even if she worked harder than any man she could not earn as much as they did. How could she provide for her family when she could not have a bank account or rent anywhere for them to live? A man could easily earn enough to provide for a wife to look after his children whilst he was out at work. A fallen or spoiled woman could barely earn enough to feed herself, let alone pay for anyone else she cared for. She could not own property and she was not allowed to vote to change the law so she could buy. No, she was better off staying where she was to try and make the best of things. Even if she hated her husband and he was cruel, the law would not permit her to take her children with her if she left. She had responsibilities now.
Her husband was too old to go to the war, and she had far too many children to leave at home to fend for themselves for even a moment, so Rose was not one of the fortunate ones who was permitted to take a man’s job whilst he was away fighting for his country. Of the men who did return, some were disfigured, gave their wives diseases or had nightmares and dark moods.
It occurred to Rose whether any woman had ever achieved in life anything other than wife and mother, but she had never heard anyone ever tell her tales of the past from something called HIS STORY. She could not read and had no other way of finding anything out other than what other people told her. She wanted her own daughters to have more than she had. As they were not allowed to inherit money or property, then they should have more knowledge to make their way in the world. Rose would make sure they knew about all the things she wished she had known before she was married.
She did as much farming as her husband, but he was known as the farmer and she was the farmer’s wife. She had contributed easily as much to the family as her husband did, as well but he owned all the money. She knew how to run the farm and manage on whatever money he gave her, so when he suddenly died, Rose decided that there would be some changes around the place. With the upheaval of the war, she decided not to tell the authorities that her husband was dead, for they may interfere. Instead, if anyone asked, she would say he was away. Later on, she would say he died in the war and no-one ever pressed her further. Few people ever came to the farm and the sheer number of children meant that they did not need any extra paid labour. Hardly anyone ever asked where the master was, and over time, he was forgotten.
Working on a farm, having ten of her own babies as well as the eight she inherited plus a couple of waifs and strays that had found their way to her, had prepared her well. Rose decided that she and all of her children would learn to read and write. Her daughters could become midwives or nurses, if they were so inclined. They could help other women to have babies and provide support for them before and after the birth. She knew men would not interfere in this idea or try to take over, as it was seen as woman’s work.
Her sons were capable of running the farm and their future wives could decide for themselves what they wanted to do with their time.
This made Rose feel both free and in control for the first time in her life. No man would want to take her on as her youthful bloom had long since faded and her body was weary. Her spirit shone on. She invited her elderly parents to live at the farm and rest out their days watching their grandchildren grow. The work was shared; this village raised the children, and there was plenty of love and food for all.
As the wise, gentle matriarch of this flourishing community, Rose lived happily ever after.