Why You Should Watch Mary Woodhull & The Women of Period Pieces

I love stories of women who fight systems of oppression. I love my Joan of Arc, my Harriet Tubman. However, I don’t think enough credit is given to the stories of ordinary women in more stringent times, the ones who found ways to live within an unjust system. I often think of the lost brilliance of women who were not allowed to take their place in the world. Women then were no less varied and human than women now, and I think it is a mistake to judge the daughter who accepted an arranged marriage, the wife who aired her opinion in ways that didn’t cause uproar, as weak. It’s something I’ve taken to think about when I watch period pieces.

Cast of Reign. Image courtesy of the CW

There are two sorts of historical dramas. First, the trashy ones. You know the kind: the characters speak terrible “BBC” English, ride horses, and attract an audience mostly there for boobs burgeoning above corsets and maybe Megan Follows (dash it, Reign!) But for nerds like me, there are shows that really commit to bringing you into another time. These shows strive to loyally represent an era while still being accessible to a modern audience. This can be sticky when it comes to the portrayal of women. What often happens is, the female leads on these shows are written to struggle against the systematic oppression of their era in the way a modern woman would. They may be wearing a bodice, but gosh darn it father, they are going to see the world and marry the unsuitable man they love, to hell with propriety and consequences! They are “high spirited.” Which brings me to Turn.

Turn centers around the first American spy ring during the Revolutionary War, and follows the misadventures of Abe Woodhull, a humble farmer turned secret agent. Helping him along are two very different women: Anna Strong and Mary Woodhull. Abe is married, but his main love interest is actually Anna Strong, his ex-fiance and fellow spy. I actually like Anna, but she is a strong, modern woman in period costume. It’s actually Abe’s wife, Mary Woodhull, who catches my interest. She engages in no less acts of daring and intrigue than Anna does, but she does so while being governed by the limitations of an 18th century woman. She is outspoken only in private, she dedicates her life to her husband and child, she understands the politics of a sewing circle. Yet this is a woman who directly tells her own husband’s mistress to be sneakier about it so people won’t gossip. When Abe freaks out about accidentally killing an English soldier in their home, she gently hushes him, saying “I know how to clean up messes.” Then she burns their house down. She is a sweet mother and an excellent homemaker and has come closer to killing the main antagonist than any spy or soldier on the show. Mary is worth feminist analysis because she survives as so many forgotten women have. She plays the game, and she endures.

Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti in HBO’s John Adams. Image courtesy of HBO

HBO’s John Adams, the biopic miniseries about the eponymous founding father, also does an admirable job of this in how it portrays the relationship between John and Abigail Adams. Abigail is key to all of John’s work, his main sounding board and editor. However, we only ever see him seek her advice in private. Them’s the breaks in the 18th century. John Adams was undeniably a brilliant man, but Abigail was easily his equal. Some people might crave a character that fights to share the stage more with her husband, who rails publicly against the system keeping women from speaking at the Continental Congress. That would not have been effective though, and Abigail Adams was an incredibly savvy person. One can’t help but be frustrated Abigail’s ideas on slavery and women’s rights did not make it into the constitution, but the fact is she used her proximity to power and understanding of societal rules to have about as much influence as a woman could in that time and place. Both Abigail Adams and Mary Woodhall represent female strength underrepresented in media, that of the woman who doesn’t get her way by rejecting custom, but working with it.

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Starz’s Outlander. Image courtesy of Starz

Starz’ Outlander also plays with our understanding of women in different periods, especially because it is actively comparing the status of women in drastically different eras. When English WWII nurse Claire Beauchamp is transported to 18th century Scotland, she experiences a believable and understandable culture shock in dealing with an alien version of her world. There is a whole new set of rules, and she has to learn them fast. Her survival tactics are also very much a product of her time. Claire uses her knowledge of healing to gain people’s trust, and has enough training to withstand several attempts at interrogation. While this serves her well, her understanding of female modesty and male status does not match the women around her, so she sticks out like a sore thumb. However, Claire comes from an era where the role of women was actively changing. Stories about women like Claire are valuable and interesting, but they are also more accessible than the stories of women like Mary Woodhull. Someone like Claire was much more likely to get a chance to share her story than someone like Mary or Abigail.

I think we do our female ancestors a disservice when we refuse to tell the stories of the women who lived within the social structures they were given. What about the women who didn’t fight their arranged marriages? Who considered marriage a choice of family duty and honor, rather than a question of romantic love? What about the women who let people think they were meek, because it was the easiest way to get by? What I want is for the stories of the quiet women, the ones who used their ingenuity and understanding of the rigid world they live in to survive and endure, to be remembered and acknowledged. I want to hear those stories, and I think Mary Woodhull is a great start.

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