In 1867, Mark Twain addressed letters to Missouri expressing his disgust at the thought of women’s voting rights. He expressed that women should stick to their “feminine little trifles” that consisted of “babies…and knitting.” Twain speculated that women were not capable of making decisions about politics and should let the “natural bosses do the voting” instead. Twain described women as one might antique furniture: “an ornament to the place that she occupies.” Women are glorified stepping stones, everyday tools to make life just a little bit easier.
Twain’s reputation as a satirist does make it difficult to distinguish at times between sincerely derogatory jests and burlesques of misogynist attitudes intended to make the men who held them seem ridiculous. Young Twain also praised women, but mostly for their roles as mothers and wives. Twain’s respect for women’s roles within the family stemmed from his own appreciation for his mother, Jane Clemens, who he described as having a “sunshine deposition” and “a kind of perky stoicism” through domestic troubles. He joked that women were “earthly angels” not to be mixed in with the shabbiness of men and their politics. Although Twain may have meant no harm in these passages, many women in his era did not find the subject to be a laughing matter. They wished their political crusade to be taken seriously.
During his youth, Twain was consistent in his sarcastic approach to women’s suffrage, but in December of 1867, he met Olivia Langdon. Langdon was a reformist – she advocated for women to break from their traditional molds in the household. Livy surrounded herself with influential women like Julia Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker who, as Laura Skandera-Trombley describes, “were dynamic, intelligent, unapologetic, as well as committed feminists – women who had rejected the purely domestic sphere in favor of participation of the outside world.”
A few weeks after Twain met Langdon, he fell in love and proposed. She initially refused. Through the ensuing years of courtship, Twain came to appreciate women as more than just cooks, seamstresses, and childcare, an appreciation which only increased as he and Livy raised three daughters.
Twain’s three adult daughters were influential upon his social attitudes and some of his most successful written works. According to Trombley, Twain regarded his eldest daughter, Susy Clemens, “as his intellectual and social equal.” Like her mother, Susy played a crucial part in editing and planning Twain’s works. Susy’s influence is clearly demonstrated in the 1901 annual address to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, during which Twain acknowledged that women knew as much about voting as men did – maybe even more than some. If women were to handle the ballot, “they would rise in their might and change the awful state of things.” After working with Livy and later Susy, Twain began to view women and men on an equal playing field – at least in regards to voting. Twain concluded that women have “scored in every project they undertook against unjust laws…If women had [the ballot] you could tell how they would use it.”
Although women’s voting rights are not an issue today, other rights, including their rights to control their own bodies, are still challenged. Twain’s early trivializing of women’s suffrage is reminiscent of how President Trump has dismissed women’s issues and causes as laughable. In his 1997 memoir, he wrote,
“The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”
Twain had a similarly reductive view of women, comically dismissing their plights, until the women of his life challenged him to be more than, as Susy wrote in correspondence to Grace King, “a funny man – a maker of funny speeches.” It took him years to appreciate the true range of women’s capabilities. All he had to do was start listening. Perhaps President Trump can become more than comic material for Saturday Night Live, more than a figure of mockery on Twitter. All he has to do is start listening. There are thousands of women speaking to him.
Diandra Alvarado is the 2017 CMTS Intern and a senior Elmira College English Major pursuing a career in publishing. She is also a literature reviewer for the EC Octagon.