Tuesday, June 6, 1893, Boston, Massachusetts
As luck would have it, the speaker at Tremont House that afternoon was a woman. I use the term loosely. Her name was Verdana Jones, and her topic, “The Dangers of Irrational Dress.” I had never considered the complex maze of corsets, petticoats, and bustles “Irrational,” but apparently others of my gender did and the sentiment had blossomed into a full-fledged Movement. Some of these undergarments were encumbrances, but they were all perfectly logical. Moreover, every woman in the world wore them.
Like me, Verdana had red hair, but she wore it cropped in a mannish fashion that was most unbecoming to her otherwise fine features. She had a square chin and large, childlike eyes, and in a Boston fog I’d be willing to bet that she was often confused with a young boy. Her outfit contributed to this confusion. It was outlandish by modern standards and excessively unladylike. She sported a loose white tunic worn over ankle-length trousers, known as “bloomers,” and big, chunky boots instead of shoes.
A small rectangular wooden platform rimmed the front of the spare lecture hall. Twenty hard-bitten women and three scraggly men dotted the aisles. The women, many sporting bonnets, looked dour and preoccupied as if they were gearing up for a contest of who could show the least expression on their faces. Verdana clomped up to a wooden lectern to deliver her tirade. I couldn’t help feeling that, by her dress anyway, she was a poor advertisement for her cause.
“Those who would keep women down argue that ‘ladylike dress’ symbolizes discipline, thrift, respectability, and beauty,” Verdana bellowed in her giant bloomers. Her voice sounded throaty from too many cigarettes. “But any dress that requires corsets and tight-lacing is degrading and dangerous to a woman’s health,” she boomed. “Corsets and tight-lacing are designed to make our waists look tiny and our bosoms look large. Our undergarments are crafted to make us resemble ornaments. We women, outfitted like hourglasses, are ornaments in our own homes. And we spend all day inside our homes trying to struggle into our corsets, laced petticoats, complicated boned lining, and bustles, all so that we may decorate them on the outside with frills, ribbons, and lace. We are so pampered—or are we?”
Her voice, thick with meaning, rose a horsey octave. “Instead of fretting over whether we have twenty-inch waists, we would be better served worrying about why we must depend on men to dress us up in these outrageous, unhealthy outfits. Why can’t we earn our own keep and decide for ourselves what we should wear?”
One or two women applauded. Others silently knitted: some knitted clothing; others knitted their brows. All in all it was a sullen group. Mother was right about this Movement. It was filled with hardened, bitter women. I didn’t want any part of it.
After Verdana’s harangue I rose to leave, in dire need of fresh air. I had never
heard so much drivel about the evils of ladylike dress and the positive attributes of horrible bloomers. But Lucinda looked up at me like a sorrowful, brown-haired puppy dog that could not be wrested from her spot anytime soon. Her dark face wrinkled into an accordion fan of disappointment. I hesitated, not wanting to let down my friend.
“Hallo there. The lady in the bustle!” Verdana cheerily called toward my buttressed behind. Recognizing that I was one of the few women in the hall outfitted in the very clothes she’d just lambasted, I intuited that she must be talking to me.
“Excuse me?” I asked, turning around to face her. I felt twenty pairs of women’s eyes and three pairs of men’s riveted upon my rear.
“Yes, you,” she called out from where she still stood on the stage. “Tell us. What do you think about Rational Dress?”
“I-I-I’m not certain you want to hear.” Where oh where was the exit?
“Obviously she prefers Irrational dress,” Lucinda playfully called out from her seat. She cupped her hands to her mouth like a speaking trumpet. “Just look at what she’s wearing.”
I heard laughter from the crowd directed at me, even though Lucinda’s dress was not markedly different than my own.
“This isn’t supposed to be a lecture,” Verdana announced. “It’s supposed to be a
conversation. So, instead of leaving the fold before we’ve been properly introduced, why don’t you join me up here on the dais and defend what you’re wearing to the group.”
Everyone in the room laughed.
“Because I hate speaking in public,” I said, to even more laughter.
What was it that my little sister had once said in the heat of an argument? You’re quite good at boring your class to death.
“Then, don’t think of it as public speaking,” Verdana shouted. “Just come up here, and tell me how you feel.”
I sighed. How did I feel? I felt betrayed. I felt that my parents should not have asked me to support them. They should have protected me instead of trying to send me to New York. I missed my home and my horse. I even missed Lydia a tiny bit. I was nowhere near old enough to be living on my own in a strange city. Verdana wanted my opinion? Then very well, she would get it. I liked corsets and petticoats and bustles. They offered some support in a world that was mostly unsupportive.
I stared at Verdana. Did I want to dress like her? Not in a lifetime of Sundays. How would I feel if corsets were forbidden? As if the last domain over which I exerted any control had been taken away from me. They could take away my home. They could take away my fiancé. But I’d be damned if I’d let them take away my corsets.
I silently prayed to God that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. Then I took a deep breath and strode up to the small wooden platform. I opened my mouth to speak. But if I had a thought, it flew out of my head.
My mouth hung open. No words came out. I was speechless.
“Just speak from the heart,” Verdana urged quietly. “It’s always best. You’ll see. So, I take it you like corsets?” she asked me in a normal speaking voice.
“Uh—yes,” I said to her.
Verdana nodded. Under her breath she said, “Good. Now, just explain why. Pretend there’s no audience and that you’re just talking to me.”
“Fine,” I answered, frustrated at how small my voice sounded.
She smiled. “Believe me, it’s a knack that develops with time. Just breathe.” She continued to slowly nod her head, silently willing the reluctant words from my mouth.
I took another deep breath and felt my lungs expand. “Hello, my name is Penelope.” I exhaled. Phew. That was hard.
“Your last name?” she asked.
“What is your last name, dear?” she coaxed.
“Uh—Stanton.” I felt my face get hot. Little wisps of hair stuck to my face.
“Any relation to Elizabeth Cady Stanton?”
“No.” I felt like I had to think about each word, almost like a foreigner struggling to speak English.
“Good,” she said, continuing to nod her head. “You see? It’s not so very difficult. Keep going.”
I pushed the wet hair up off my face and turned to the crowd. “I enjoy the prevailing fashions, as you can see.” Thank God. A whole sentence.
“I can,” she said, with a broad wink at the audience. “Tell us more.”
I pointed to my light pink gown. I twirled around to model it for the group. Some tepid applause followed, which surprised me. Two women set aside their knitting.
Emboldened, I continued. “But I came to Boston to escape from the advances of a particular man, not all men, and do hope that what I’m wearing today won’t prevent me from socializing with the men, or more importantly, the women of Boston.”
A few women clapped. I thrust back my shoulders, lifted my chin, and met Lucinda’s eyes. “To me, it matters not if a woman’s waist is twenty inches, twenty-one inches, or even twenty-six inches—as long as it doesn’t prevent her from keeping her mind open.”
A burst of light applause followed, and I only wished that my sister had been there to witness it.
“Corsetsand petticoats offer some structure,” I pressed, “in a world that unravels as I speak.” My voice was strong, and the words were coming readily. “Every day, another bank fails. Our institutions falter. As women, we can fall to pieces or we can stay strong.” I pointed to my torso and looked about the audience, meeting one woman’s eyes and then another. “Structure, shape, support. I will wear my corset proudly, as I face another day.”
Verdana bowed her boyish head at me and stretched out her arms diagonally, one below her hip, the other high above her head. “And that, ladies and gents, is the other side of the argument,” Verdana boomed to heartfelt applause.
“Sorry I didn’t let you finish,” she whispered, as the audience applauded. “For a
novice, you were brilliant.” Verdana clapped her arm around my shoulder. “But speaking in public is also a matter of knowing when to stop. You always want to leave your audience wanting more.”
“And do you think the audience did?”
She squeezed my shoulder. “Of course they did. They clapped, didn’t they? Boston audiences are difficult to rouse, believe me. But you did, and now they want more.”
I nodded. Perhaps that had been the problem with my French classes. No student had ever wanted more.
“And how does it feel?” she pressed. “To leave them wanting more.”
Here on stage I’d felt almost like a different person. Brave, gutsy, and confident. I wouldn’t mind feeling that way every day. What was it about this stage that had caused me to throw caution aside and just express my feelings?
Her eyes widened as we both waited for me to put words to my emotions.
“Liberating,” I said.
(C) 2017 Excerpt from copyrighted Mistress Suffragette by Diana Forbes (Penmore Press, 2017)