Slut-shaming in the 1770s

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The air in my lungs felt like fresh cold water after hours of thirst. The sky was a powerful blue over the painful white of the ski hills, the sun reflecting off it strongly enough to make my eyes hurt. Tall evergreens cascaded haphazardly over the hills as the tiny skiers sent tufts of powder among them on their descents down the hills.

The sun was surprisingly warm in the Alta area east of Salt Lake City. I had driven here this morning with a purpose, needing to clear my head from the inversion in the valley, an atmospheric condition that hits Utah in the lowest and highest temperatures, pollution and smog gathering in the valley, trapped there as if there was a lid over the whole of it. The smog had been growing worse by the day as I eagerly awaited a pressure system to come in and wipe the valley clean again, fresh winds and moisture the exact remedy required.

I had awakened this morning, my head clogged with invisible cotton, my throat constricted, my lungs aching. I always forget how sensitive I am to the inversion here on the bad air days. Where some others seem to not be at all impacted, my system reacts violently and makes me feel part sinus-infection and part allergy-attack.

But now, amid the blue and white, between the hot sun and the cold snow, my thoughts cleared and my brain came alive again, and so I sat to write.

My brain turned immediately to Georgianna Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. A remarkable woman, a revolutionary if there ever was one. I had picked her book up off the library shelf at random. The book showed Keira Knightley the actress dressed in an ornate gown, her hair piled upon her head, surrounded by royalty, advertising the movie the Duchess, which had been based on this biography. I waited to see the film until after I finished the book. I watched it with a few friends, and throughout the movie, I pushed pause, providing commentary on the parts of Georgianna’s life the movie didn’t capture well, I was that annoying nerd with the running fact checks. But overall, the movie had done a good job. Georgianna was, after all, an intensely complex woman.

Georgianna’s biographer must have spent countless hours looking through ancient correspondence, newspaper articles, and journals, all hundreds of years old. Born in 1757, Georgianna was married on her 17th birthday to the 25 year old Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who had strong connections to British Royalty and the Whig Party. The Duke was a philanderer, a man with exacting expectations and often very little patience. Georgianna was anything but a typical woman. She involved herself in the affairs of others regularly, arranging marriages and hosting political rallies and fundraisers for preferred Whig candidates.

As the United States of America won its freedom overseas, Georgianna set the trends of fashion in the United Kingdom with elaborate dresses, many she designed herself, and ever more garish hairstyles, some so high she had to sit on the floor of the carriage to fit inside it for transportation. He hair would be wound tightly, with horse hair and feathers intertwined to give it more height, and every woman in the region sought to emulate her as the newspapers reported on her fashion choices with pride.

Georgianna was berated by her husband for being politically involved, and the men she helped promote in politics were publicly ridiculed for treating a woman as an equal. The papers ran political cartoons, rather racy for the time they were in, showing Georgianna lifting her skirts and luring common men, like butchers, in for a kiss, making them promise to vote for her candidate. Rumors abounded of affairs and the public whispered and titered behind her back, even when some of the affairs (purportedly with both men and women) were true.

Georgianna raised her husband’s illegitimate child as her own and gave birth to two daughters as her husband kept pressuring her for a son, blaming her for the birth of the girls as if it had been a choice, while William continued having his own affairs, something that was apparently very common so long as it was never discussed. She finally had a son, giving William an heir, also named William, though that heir went deaf at a young age and never married, reportedly gay.

Georgianna reportedly only fell in love once, to Charles Grey (later the Prime Minister of England), and when she became pregnant with her last child by Grey, the Duke sent her into exile, shaming her for her affair, despite his own, and he required her to give the daughter, Eliza, up for adoption.

Georgianna was courageous, but she was far from perfect, spending a lifetime racking up tremendous gambling debts and lying to her husband about them, leaving many debts behind after she died tragically before hitting fifty. She was an extraordinary woman and mother, with a large ego and a hunger to be in the center of the action. She set trends in feminism that would take many women another century and a half to realize. Georgianna was strong, stubborn, unflinching, and often uncompromising, and she left behind one powerful legacy.

And perhaps most relevant to the readers in today’s generation, she was an ancestor of Princess Diana.

With thoughts on human existence in my head, I drove out of the deep blue skies and through the blinding snow, back toward the valley and smog. All of the individual pains and heartbreaks, joys and triumphs of one woman in one family in one place, each moment lived by her, now hundreds of years past, stories only preserved in the printed word, and most of her life forgotten, only to be pieced together by the the printed words and stories that remain from her time. Her life and the lives of her children and theirs and theirs, all of them past now.

And as I drove back down into the swiftly thickening fog, I realized this was one more moment of mine, soon to be past to the next.

How to Dress on South Beach

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“Amanda, listen, that is a work dress, not a South Beach dress. Trust me.”

I sat at the airport gate with an hour to go before my flight. The woman behind me wore a red knee-length skirt, a pleasant floral top—yellow with a white floral pattern, and sunglasses. Her obviously dyed red hair looked a bit more orange to me. Her arms and legs were perfectly tan, her feet slipped sockless into a pair of fashionable white pumps. She was clearly a careful dresser, and clearly wanted her daughter to pick up on this trait of hers as she loudly instructed her over her cell phone in front of a group of assembled strangers.

“Amanda, sweetie, listen, if you think you can get away with a dress like that, you’ve got deep psychological issues. You know what, never mind, it is clear you have psychological issues. A dress like that is like your best winter woolen. You wear it to a place like South Beach, and you are clearly going to embarrass yourself. No one cares if you embarrass yourself at work, but in South Beach, trust me, honey, they are going to care.”

The woman barely moves as she speaks. I would expect her to be gesturing animatedly with her hands, or flipping her pump on her foot, or picking at her nails, but this process of yelling at her daughter seems to be something routine, something so common that she doesn’t even move.

“Wait, he’s wearing what? Oh, sweetie, you can’t be seen with him if he is going to wear something like that to South Beach. No, no, no. You tell him, get a nice pastel colored shirt and a pair of white pants. That is what they want at South Beach. It won’t go with your dress, but then nothing would, not if you insist on wearing that one. On South Beach, they are looking for a particular type of thing. If he wears that, they’ll be looking for him. They still won’t be looking for you.”

I look around the people nearby, wondering if anyone is finding either amusement or cruelty in this overheard conversation, but no one seems to be reacting at all, just reading or talking or playing cards or texting. I think about mothers and the pressures they put on their daughters to be a certain way. Growing up in a Mormon household, I watched my mom raise five daughters, teaching them to dress modestly and wear only light makeup and to have only one pair of earrings in their ears. Never did I hear my mom go on a critical tirade like this. Then I wonder, what if it isn’t her daughter? What if it’s a co-worker, a sister, or a friend. I kind of wish I could hear the other end of the conversation, but mostly I’m glad that I can’t. I continue listening, fascinated.

“No, you may not wear one of my dresses. No. No! That one is one of my favorites and you would sweat in it. Frankly I don’t want to pay to have it cleaned. No, not that one either. The last time you wore that dress, you got a stain on it.. You shouldn’t be so sloppy. No. You’ll just have to wear—oh, honey, not the purple-black. Maybe the black-black. That could at least qualify as a South Beach. Try that. Wear the black-black. Now look, I’m tired of this conversation. I only have an hour before I bored, I need some peace. Mm-hmm, love you, honey. Go have some fun.”

The woman clicked her phone closed, packed it into her red leather purse, slipped her shoes back on her feet tightly, and walked away. I smiled, curious at this small glimpse I’d gotten into this woman’s life, and felt satisfied that, while I never wanted to go to South Beach, at least if I did I knew what to wear.