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





Get off the porch


There is an old American image.

You know it.

Angelic, white face. Eyes cast down to look upon delicate female hands, gently holding a book. This book is read aloud in a birdsong voice while it is gently cradled among lithe white feminine fingers.

There are rosebud lips, parted to impart wisdom, a particular knowledge, to little children who sit around she who reads the book.

She who reads, reads to dark, small children who sit on a wide wooden porch.

The porch is usually white-washed, columned as an ancient grand temple. The porch, the invitation to sit, is meant as a temporary welcome. Dark little children surround their demi-goddess: that is the idea, spoken through these and other rosebud lips.

Those little children. The book, the knowledge imparted, believe that this female owns them, same as she owns the book. One for the other. Perhaps she values more than the others.

Safe and secure. Only the threat of freedom rising is imagined to be powerful enough to shake its foundation. Such a threat is kept at bay by words held in books, held in hands, held in minds, spoken through rosebud-lipped generations, all from a porch.

And when the children who are read to, when they and their families choose to leave? When they are not dismissed back to commanded duties, but venture beyond the wooden floors that have been the rock of their lives? What happens to the rosebud-lipped generations they leave on the porch?


Some may find it odd, on having learned of the fate of her childhood home of Arlington and the emancipation of the many enslaved people whose work sustained it, that the Lady of Arlington degraded Arlington’s enslaved people as “ungrateful” men, women, and children, “beguiled off by the Yankees” into free lives.

Wouldn’t these enslaved men, women, and children choose to stay with her after their emancipation? Surely she thought that they would not leave her home, surely they would not leave Arlington. If Arlington was the lady’s home, wasn’t it their home, too?

Surely they would not abandon her kindness that was shown through their bondage. She read to them, “done all [she] could” for them. Her daughters taught their children on the grounds surrounding Arlington’s monumental porch, sitting together in a room covered in the shadow of its monumental walls.

She and her family had found freedom at Arlington. Couldn’t the enslaved stay and find their freedom at Arlington with her family?

The ‘she’ of whom I write is Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. She is fascinating to me because I don’t know what to do with her. I read about her personality and recognize similar traits in myself. I read her words and am repulsed.

In reading descriptions of her harvested from those who knew her and preserved in my favorite biography of her husband Robert Edward Lee [the biography is Reading the Man by the late and truly great Elizabeth Brown Pryor], I discover that she and I share “[an] artist temperament.”

“She [and I] spoke whatever [temper] came in her mind- but it was over in a moment.”

“She [and I] has wit & satire too, when they are required.”

These words are taken from letters written in 1823 and 1824 by contemporaries of Mary A.R.C. Lee.

Reading the words of Mary A.R.C. Lee reveals something more to me:

“a set of lazy idle negroes who roam about by day marking what they may steal at night & are kept  attending political harangues of which they understand about as much as the African Gorilla.”

These words are taken from a letter written by Mary A.R.C. Lee in the spring of 1867 .

Revelation: I would not like Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. She and I deeply disagree on very basic beliefs of decency and humanity.

But we share the same “artist temperament” and “wit & satire too, when they are required.” We pray to the same Savior. If we share the same personality, the same spirituality, are we the same? As much as I sit in judgement, if thrown in her circumstances what shades of myself would appear?

After all, I, too, have been bewitched into believing my own gold-star superiority; my own sort of Blind Kindness.

Blind Kindness is not true kindness. Blind Kindness smoothers [as in]: “All will be well if I can drown your sorrows,” “All will be well if I say so.”


“All will be well because even though my ancestors kept yours in bondage, I respect and listen to Pac and Kendrick.”

“All will be well because while I quote the Declaration of Independence, I admit that Jefferson fathered kids with Sally Hemmings.”

“All will be well because I know what ‘woke’ is.”

“All will be well because I can Google things on Urban Dictionary.”

“All will be well because I saw Black Panther. Twice. And I saw Crazy Rich Asians, twice. AND I can hum three songs produced by A Tribe Called Red, AND I have more than one non-white, non-Protestant friend.”

“All will be well because when my ancestors kept yours in bondage they saved your souls and taught you your words, all from our own family’s porch.”

Blind Kindness is done to you, but for me, so that I and my ancestors may sleep in peace, and I have to wonder: how much am I the same as my ancestors and their contemporaries? How much of our present history, that is daily made around me do I choose not to see?

How much can I understand about our world if my mind has never gone “off the porch” to see our history not as I think it is, but how it is?

So I need to get off the porch. It’s time. It’s done past time.

Welcome.  Let’s step off.

copyright Off The Porch History 2018