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