Mark Twain, Suffragette Ally & Overprotective Father

In his 1903 essay “Why Not Abolish It?,” Mark Twain argues that the age of consent for extramarital relations should be abolished for women. Twain’s underlying premises are that young women are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about sex, that once a girl has engaged in sexual relations she is “dragged down into the mud and into enduring misery and shame,” and that, worst of all, so is her family. Why the family? Because she does not own herself. Rather, she is property of her family: “There is no age at which the good name of a member of a family ceases to be a part of the property of that family – an asset, and worth more than all its bonds and moneys.”

So a woman is an object of economic value, pure and simple, and remains so throughout her life. I have to admit that even though I understand that this was the prevailing dogma in 1903 (indeed, my father rattled off many of the same sentiments 60 years later, when I started dating), and that Clara Clemens’s propensity to gallivant around Europe unchaperoned probably triggered Twain’s paternal anxieties, his smug conviction that women of any age should have no say over their own bodies has always infuriated me. I wonder how Clara responded, as well as her sister, Jean. And even Twain’s wife, Livy, then nearing her end. Did the girls’ push for freedom from parental constraints prompt a more measured response from their mother than it did from their famous father? Were women in the family embracing the 20th century, even while “Papa” harked back to the 19th?

Twain wasn’t such a Luddite on other feminist issues. In 1897, during the dreary London winter following Susie’s death, Jean and Clara talked both parents into allowing them to buy bicycles – a daring new activity for women. In 1909 Twain told the New York Sun that he had supported women’s right to vote for fifty years. And indeed, in 1874 he had published a letter to the editor of the London Evening Standard, in which he averred that he had been “persuaded that in extending the suffrage to women this country could lose absolutely nothing & might gain a great deal.” By 1909 he had taken his conviction a step farther, commenting that women should do “what they deem necessary to secure their rights.” Politically at least, Twain had come to understand that women could be a powerful force in the public sphere.

Nevertheless I think Twain’s view of women’s sexual freedom tells us a lot about his struggle to deal with the new and often frightening social changes that were catapulting Americans into the new century. Middle class women were gaining more freedom (working women had always had more freedom because they had to earn money) – freedom that was manifested in their ability to leave the house unchaperoned, to live alone, to work, to meet men outside their families’ social circles. But to many people, these changes meant that society was unraveling. Because the image of the pure woman, the moral center of hearth and home, had been so powerful earlier in the century, the image of the New Woman, mounted on a bicycle and off to meet a man her parents did not know, signaled social upheaval and the corruption of domestic values. The issue came to be framed in terms of female sexuality and its “value” to the culture. Twain was not alone in his assumption that female “purity” equaled “controlled sexuality” – controlled through systematic social shaming. It was the culture’s way of keeping women within bounds, and women as well as men participated in the social policing.

We remain a culture frightened of our own trajectory, and we are still trying to solve society’s problems by controlling women’s sexuality. Twain saw men as sexual predators, and he sought laws to punish men who robbed women of their “purity.” We see some of the legacies of his argument in our current legal wrangling over rape and what constitutes “consent,” especially on college campuses. But “consent” is no longer the dominant arena for control over women’s bodies. Instead the desire to restrain women focuses on women’s reproductive health.

Those who attack agencies like Planned Parenthood pretend that their target is abortion services, but such proposals also deny women access to routine gynecological exams, to contraception, and to pre- and post-partum health services. Congress’s recent proposal to drop maternity care from the nation’s priority list of “essential” health services means a return to the inequities of the 20th century, when women routinely paid more for health insurance than men. (One of our esteemed Congressmen recently testified that he thought prenatal care shouldn’t be an essential service because “he had never used it.” I would love to hear Twain’s comments on that one.)

But the reversal doesn’t stop with money. Control over reproduction has been the linchpin of women’s progress in the public sphere for the last one hundred years. If women are denied access to contraception, to safe pregnancies, and to maternity leave, we will lose our footing in the working world. We will return to Twain’s time, forced either to foreswear sexuality (and hence pregnancy) altogether or else to be confined to the home and dependent on men for support, including access to healthcare. Retreat from the work world – and from the power that being actors in the public sphere provides – in turn encourages increased sexual harassment when women do venture forth from home – the kind of behavior that prompted Twain’s essay in the first place. Those of us who dare to show ourselves in public will be prey for men who can seduce, grope, harass, and then shame us – and walk away to boast about their “conquests” on social media. Yes, we still have problems with predatory men, but the solution isn’t to yank us out of the public sphere, to strip us of control over our bodies, to deny us essential services. Do we really want to return to the days when we didn’t own ourselves?

Susan K. Harris is Distinguished Professor Emerita at University of Kansas and author of numerous books on 19th-century American literature and culture, including The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain

Sam & Livy Clemens: Married & Buried in Elmira

Mark Twain described his Autobiography as an “apparently systemless system…a complete and purposed jumble,” and so it is, though it is not wholly without method. Over the course of its composition Twain relied heavily on a biography begun by his daughter, Susy Clemens, when she was just thirteen. Twain would copy a selection from “Susy’s Biography” then expound upon the events and episodes sparsely described therein. This ritual provoked both humor – the celebrated septuagenarian writer debating the details of his own life with a precocious adolescent – and nostalgia – the heartbreaking earnestness of an aging father communing with his lost child.

On Valentine’s Day 1906, he chose a single sentence for his muse: “Soon papa came back East and papa and mamma were married.” Twain responds, “It sounds easy and swift and unobstructed, but that was not the way of it.”

Samuel and Olivia Clemens were married on February 2, 1870 in the Langdon House on Church St. in Elmira. But, as Twain reports, “There was a deal of courtship. There were three or four proposals of marriage and just as many declinations.” As Twain would recount dozens of times, he encountered Livy first as an ivory miniature in her brother’s room aboard the Quaker City steamer off the coast of Turkey in the summer of 1867. He met her in person later that year, commenting on her beauty in a letter to his mother, then created every opportunity to “renew the siege” throughout 1868. Olivia, at last, relented, and, after a few tortuous months securing her parents consent, they were engaged on February 4, 1869, presenting each other with matching porcelain lockets. (Sam had been begging Livy for a portable portrait for months.)

The “hand of Providence,” as Twain recalls in the Autobiography, came in late September, shortly after his first proposal had been turned down. Having been unable to find any further excuse to extend his visit to Elmira, he climbed into a wagon meant to take him away and was promptly thrown from it. “I struck exactly on the top of my head and stood up that way for moment, then crumbled down to the earth unconscious,” Twain recalled, “It was a very good unconsciousness for a person who had not rehearsed the part.” Awaking “to hear the pitying remarks drizzling around over me” was “one of the happiest half-dozen moments of my life.” Though she turned down two more ensuing proposals, the elder Twain remembered Livy “assuaging” the trivial injuries he sustained as the turning point in their courtship.

Their wedding was small. The marriage certificate pictured below (courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society) lists ten witnesses, as well as two officiants, Thomas K. Beecher and Joseph H. Twichell, both of whom would remain lifelong friends of the Clemens family.

Samuel & Olivia Clemens Marriage Certificate
Courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society


Sam recycled the engagement ring – “plain, and of heavy gold” – he had given Olivia a year earlier. He had their wedding date engraved inside of it, though this proved superfluous since “it was never again removed from her finger for even a moment” and, at Sam’s insistence, was buried with her.

The ceremony took place in the library. In the closing words of his Autobiography, written two days after the death of Jean Clemens in 1909, Twain wrote, “Jean’s coffin stands where her mother and I stood, forty years ago, and were married; and where Susy’s coffin stood thirteen years ago; where her mother’s stood, five years and a half ago; and where mine will stand, after a little time.”

What was Mark Twain doing the last time the Cubs won the World Series?

The Chicago Cubs first trip to the World Series since 1945 is, for many fans of the franchise, tinged with the melancholy remembrance of friends and family. Many lives were lived in the interim between World Series appearances, much less World Series victories. But such rare events can also have a telescoping effect, temporarily making the seemingly distant past seem oddly approachable and familiar.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Samuel Clemens was 72. He was living at Stormfield, in Redding, Connecticut. The day before the Series began he welcomed his oldest living daughter, Clara, and spent the weekend reveling with her friends, taking especial liking to Commodore Daniel Dow, who had captained the ship which brought Clara back from Europe. For some reason, the weekend’s festivities inspired Twain to write, “We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.”

He spent much of Monday, October 12th in bed, reading newspapers and writing letters. He likely read several accounts of the Cubs Game 2 win over the Tigers, including that by the syndicated Chicago Tribune sportswriter, Charley Dryden, who the Saturday Evening Post would later dub “the Mark Twain of baseball.” He also read about the contentious presidential election between Secretary William Howard Taft and an eccentric populist, William Jennings Bryan. Clemens told his youngest daughter, Jean, “Don’t you be fooled by the immense noise & racket the Presidential election is making – there is no substance to it & no great interest in it – it is just make-believe…deep down under the noise & the storm the national ocean is quiet, apathetic, & indifferent.”

He proceeded to spill an equal amount of ink describing his cat, Tammany.

And he sent a copy of a recently published novel to his 17-year-old pen pal, Frances Nunnally. Anne of Green Gables, he said, “is a very pleasant child to know” and “the literary quality of the book is fine.”

On Monday afternoon, Clemens welcomed his sister-in-law, Susan Crane, visiting from Elmira. The following day the family was joined by his childhood sweetheart, Laura Hawkins Frazer, supposedly the model for Becky Thatcher, as well as the namesake of the heroine of The Gilded Age. All were on hand for the dedication of the Redding Library on October 14th, 1908, the day the Cubs won their last World Series. The library, initially located in the Umpawaug Chapel was made possible by Clemens’s donation of over a thousand books from his personal collection. He told the audience at the ceremony, “I am glad to help with this library. We get our morals from books. I didn’t get mine from books, but I know that morals do come from books – theoretically at least.”