Remember, remember the 6th of November

Women’s Representation: it’s not just for widows anymore.

“The doctrine of representation is a large subject…Perhaps ’twas thought rather out of character for Women to press into those tumultuous Assemblies of Men where the business of choosing Representative is conducted. And it might also have been considered as not so necessary, seeing, that the representatives themselves as well as their immediate Constituents, must suffer the Tax imposed in exact proportion…This then is the Widows security as well as the never married Women who have lands in their own right, for both of whom I have the greatest respect, and would at any time give my consent to establish their right of Voting, altho I am persuaded that it would not give them greater security, nor alter the mode of Taxation you complain of.”

-Richard Henry Lee to elder sister Hannah Lee Corbin, 17 March 1778

 

Hannah Lee Corbin may have been an 18th century Virginia anomaly, but she was certainly ahead of her time.

The letter that she wrote to her younger brother Richard Henry Lee does not survive though from his response [above] to this lost letter we can infer that Hannah was proposing [or as Richard so fraternally puts it: “complain(ing)”] that women who held property and had to pay taxes on their property, should have had direct representation in how such taxation was managed on the government level.

Women who owned and managed property in Hannah’s 18th century world were most likely widows, or femme soles [i.e., unmarried women who perhaps inherited property, or most likely owned and managed a professional business in their own right].

Hannah may not have advocated for universal women’s representation or universal women’s suffrage. Her letter is lost [at this time, although I do have a Culper-esque hope that it will be found in an attic somewhere] and if it is truly lost, so are the answers to what precisely she was proposing to her brother. She may have simply advocated for what was in her best interest and pushed only for the representation and suffrage of women like herself: gentry, upper-class, educated, well-connected, mother, widow.

And yet, it is amazing how she has become a smaller-scale women’s rights figure in the tradition of Abigail Adams.

The same way that Abigail Adams and her quote of “Remember the ladies” has become a rallying cry for women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements, Hannah Lee Corbin’s quest for direct representation is slowly but surely turning her into a symbol of women’s rights, a symbol that she may not have intended, or dreamed of becoming.

For better, turning Hannah Lee Corbin into a symbol places her back into our national conversation, shedding light on her life, and the lives and world of those around her.

For worse, turning her into a symbol may conveniently shade over the true nature of her proposal of representation, and perhaps other parts of her life and the lives of those around her.

Hannah may have advocated for women’s representation and suffrage, but in her world, in an age of enslavement where women of color were deemed property under the law, the bold lines of this issue suddenly become blurred.  In order to identify women’s representation, you first have to identify those who society identifies to be women. And if society also identifies its people as equal to its property. Often such society will not regard how its citizens within identify themselves.

I am sure that the enslaved women of Hannah’s world and on Hannah’s earthen property did not identify themselves as living property, though that was how society would label them. I am sure that they would rightly identify themselves as educated [yes, many enslaved women in 18th century Virginia could read. and write. and work mathematical problems. and think for themselves.], they were mothers, widows, wives, lovers, sisters, friends.

Within the society that bound them, here I find another parallel, another lesson of the past to apply to our issues of the present. Though the institution of slavery has been banned out in the open of our present society, the physical hierarchy and mental abuse brought about by a society arbitrarily putting others above others still winds its way through our daily lives. And like Hannah’s lost proposal, I’m not sure of the truth. I don’t have all the answers.

But whether you identify as a woman, a female, a sister, a wife, a mother, a widow, a widower, a man, a male, a friend, a lover, whether you live as she, he, they, or simply use your own name as the best descriptor of your identity: I hope you vote today and represent yourself.

copyright Off the Porch History 2018

 

 

 

 

A 355’s work is never done.

Deceit. Sacrifice. Bravery masquerading as stupidity. A lady‘s work is never done.

Nor is the work of the Culper Ring.

If you don’t know The Culper Ring, have never heard of Nathan Hale, George Washington, John Andre, Benedict Arnold, black petticoats, or TURN: Washington’s Spies [which AMC created and now streams its four seasons on Netflix], click “lady” above. Read on below.

The Culper Ring was Washington’s needed intelligence network. An intelligence network needed to combat the spies and double agents Britain sprinkled throughout its theatres of war as it battled the Americans for their independence.

The Culper Ring was not commonly known until [as I understand it] an attic in Long Island was being cleared out in the 1920s and 1930s and a discovery was made of an old, odd book with numbers matched to words: The Culper Ring’s cypher book, orchestrated by a New York 25-ish year old named Benjamin Tallmadge in 1779.

Tallmadge and others of the Culper Ring matched the subject needed to be communicated to Washington, to the subject’s number in their cypher book.

[i.e., Write the number, not the word.]

So then, if these numbered letters were intercepted by British spies [paging James Bond’s 5th great-grandfather], so long as British intelligence never discovered the Culper’s cypher book and distributed such valuable findings to their individual agents, the cypher would never be undone and the Americans would buy themselves at least one more month of rebellion.

In the Culper’s cypher book you find the numerical equivalent of everything from “my” [“379”], to “infantry” [“309”], “ignorant” [“304”], and “ear” [“159”]. I think even “love” is written in as “348.” And there is “355,” simply meaning “lady.”

                 “I intend to visit 727 [“New York”] before long and think by the assistance of a 355 [“lady”] of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all.”

– August 15, 1779. Abraham Woodhull [“Samuel Culper” or “722”]  to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Sheldon’s Horse, 2nd Regiment, Continental Light Dragoons [“John Bolton” or “721”].

Rumors have been tossed around since the cypher book’s discovery as to whether “355” was a specific lady, devoted to this American fellowship of the Ring, or if this was a lady who was doing a one-time sting for the Ring.

Rumors still abound.

In our 21st century the words lady and woman are nearly interchangeable in daily conversation. In the 18th century, i.e. 1779 when Benjamin Tallmadge crafts the Culper Ring’s cypher, one never dares to call a lady a woman. You did not dare, and neither did the cypher.

A “woman,” as written “701” in the Culper’s cypher book, would be a female who we may classify as middle-class or lower-class. Since Culper writes not “701,” but “355,” I assume the Ring means a lady, a female who we would classify as upper-class: either wealthy in power or in resources, and if she’s trusted by the Ring, rich with valuable information.

Regardless of who she was, she is presently one of the many nameless who we owe our present and future to; one of the many nameless who were braver and stupider than we, and so put themselves through horrible dangers to gain what is never absolutely defined, but what absolutely none of us can survive without: liberty.

Stupid for putting herself in such horrors, likely ending her days rotting aboard a British prison ship. Effectively floating in a cesspit of disease and dead men that bobbed along in New York harbor until the British evacuated New York, November 25 of 1783; four years after Benjamin Tallmadge and The Culper Ring launched their cypher book into their closely watched circulation.

Brave and daring that she would end her days rotting for us who have no hope of knowing who she was or why she lied and deceived for 304 [“ignorant”] and ungrateful posterity.

May we all be so stupid if it means we are also brave.

Our freedom, our future dies in fear. A lady and a Ring would not accept fear.  But to “outwit them” who would spread fear, they instead spread much-needed and far more valuable information, and information sustained America’s rebellion.

Rule “355”: “Outwit them all.”

Dear 355, whoever you be, we 348 you. And the Culper Ring.

copyright Off The Porch History 2018