Thursday, September 9, 2010

78: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear Followers,

Today's blog is slightly different in nature, however, it continues my perpetual theme of Philogyny (i.e., admiration for women).

As many of you know, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was made into a movie this summer that starred Julia Roberts. The film may not have been a huge success, but the book has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for close to 200 weeks! Gilbert is a mesmerizing writer who has won a variety of awards for her magazine articles, which is not all that surprising in light of the fact that she grew up on a rural Christmas tree farm in a home that had no record player or television. Reading and writing little books and plays was the primary source of entertainment for Gilbert and her older sister.

Because I loved the book, I could hardly wait to get my hands on Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, her next book. I thought I'd be learning about her relationship with Felipe, which I did. But I didn't expect to be given (as a bonus) a history lesson as well as a mini-memoir.

Gilbert needed to get rid of her gun-shy feelings about marriage in order to build a new life with the man she loved, and her research (which is every bit as valuable and informative as Gail Collins') helped her do just that.

As with so many developments today, being a wife in the 21st Century is a piece of cake compared to what women experienced hundreds of years ago. Gilbert write about the European system of Coverture, which was the belief that a woman's individual civil existence is erased the moment she marries. Gilbert writes that "If there is one word, by the way, that triggers all the inherent terrors I have ever felt about the institution of marriage, it is coverture...It wasn't until the year 1975, for instance, that the married women of Connecticut - including my own mother - were legally allowed to take out loans or open checking accounts without the written permission of their husbands."

Gilbert also writes about the "Marital freedom movement," where people began to marry whom and how they chose, regardless of what society thought. She tells of Lillian Harman (a suffragette) and Edwin Walker (a journalist) who fell in love in Kansas in 1887. They created an "autonomistic marriage" with their own wedding vows, but without a judge or minister or license. As a consequence, they were arrested on their wedding night because "...what they wanted was the liberty to define their own relationship based on their personal interpretation of love."

Gilbert writes touchingly about her remarkably selfless grandmother and the other women in her family: "They cut up the finest and proudest parts of themselves and gave it all away. They repatterned what was theirs and shaped it for others. They went without. They were the last ones to eat at supper, and they were the first ones to get up every morning, warming the cold kitchen for another day spent caring for everyone else. This was the only thing they knew how to do. This was their guiding verb and their defining principle: they gave...And if I were to tell you that this...has not shaped forever my feelings about marriage, or that it has not forged within me a small, quiet sorrow about what the matrimonial institution can take away from good women, I would be lying to you."

Happily, Gilbert and Felipe survived all the "issues" addressed in Committed, and had a real, albeit casual, wedding (including a flower girl). I'm willing to bet that Hollywood won't be interested in turning this book into a movie, but Gilbert has given us a priceless, multilayered look into both the institution of marriage and the evolution of her own heart.

Looking forward to your comments...

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