Calpurnia

I recently finished a fascinating novel by Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

Eleven year-old Calpurnia V. “Callee Vee” Tate loves everything an eleven year-old girl growing up at the turn of the 20th century shouldn’t: swimming, climbing trees, roaming the outdoors, exploring the natural world, asking questions and developing her own unique “scientific method” under the patient tutelage of her grandfather.  A voracious reader with an insatiable curiosity, Calpurnia explores the world around her, delving into natural history, botany, archaelogy, and science, to the prim horror of her mother and most of society.  In the process, Calpurnia runs up against what it means to be a girl in the early 1900s.

Toward the end of the book Kelly deftly describes what Calpurnia’s up against when she unwraps a Christmas gift from her parents.

“The book was so thick and hefty that I knew it was a reference book of some kind, a text, maybe even an encyclopedia.  I peeled book the stiff paper to reveal the word Science printed in curlicues.

“Oh,” I exclaimed.  Such magnificence!  But even better than the solid reality of the book in my hand was the gladsome fact that my mother and father at last understood the kind of nourishment I needed to survive.   I beamed at my parents with excitement.  They smiled and nodded.  I ripped the paper off to reveal the whole title: The Science of Housewifery.

Here’s a young girl with a fine, inquisitive mind and a gift for science.   She’s a whiz at identifying unknown plant species or writing questions, observations, and forming hypotheses in her notebook.  But on Christmas Day Calpurnia’s opening the only gift that the world of 1900 deemed appropriate for her gender: a book on homemaking and domesticity.

Kelly continues:

“Oh!” I stared in befuddlement.  it made no sense to me.  What could it mean?  Was the writing even English?  The Science of Housewifery, by Mrs. Josiah Jarvis.  This couldn’t be right.  My hands turned tow wood.  I fumbled the book open to the Table of Contents and read: “Cooking for the Invalid.”  “Favorite Pickles and Relishes.”  “Removing Difficult Stains.”  I stared at these grim subjects….

I looked at Mother, who paled and then flushed.  I was committing the sin of embarrassing her in front of a guest.  Her face turned grim.

She said, “What do you say, Calpurnia?”

What does Calpurnia say?  What could I say?  That I wanted to throw the book-no better than kindling-into the fireplace?  That I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all?  That at that moment I could have done violence, that I could have punched them all in the face.  Even Granddaddy.  Yes, even him.  Encouraging me the way he had, knowing that there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl.  My life sentence had been delivered by my parents. …

Great fatigue washed over me like a tidal wave, drowning my anger.  I was too tired to fight anymore.  I did the  hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.  I reached down into the depths of my being, and I dredged up the beginnings of a watery smile.

I whispered, “Thank you.”  Just two words.  Just two artificial words, coming from my own hypocritical mouth.  Tears came into my eyes.  I felt like I was disintegrating.

Ever felt that way?

Maybe the saddest part of this entire commentary – you need to read the book en toto to get the full context – is that Calpurnia is not only being straight-jacketed into a one-size-fits-all gender role that fits like an unsewn gunny sack, but her gifts, skills, abilities, passions and interests never even enter the equation, aren’t on the radar.

Fast forward 100 years or so.

Here’s a young girl with a fine, inquisitive mind and a gift for preaching and teaching.  Leadership.   How many girls are told – either implicitly or explicitly – that her future in the Kingdom of God  is confined to “pickles and relishes” and stain removal?

What if she has other interests, passions, skills, and gifts?

In Calpurnia’s case, the world lost a budding scientist of extraordinary talent who may have discovered or unraveled who-knows-what because… “girls don’t do science.”  How many budding preachers, teachers, and church leaders, etc., have been “lost” – muzzled or hamstrung – because “females don’t do preaching”?     How many “Calpurnias”  have been lost due to  “Mrs. Jarvis”?

***

Coming up next: What are “Best Sellers” Saying?

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2 Responses

  1. “…that Calpurnia is not only being straight-jacketed into a one-size-fits-all gender role that fits like an unsewn gunny sack, but her gifts, skills, abilities, passions and interests never even enter the equation, aren’t on the radar…”

    Thankfully, I believe more and more people in the church are coming to realize these issues and address them . The positions held by those currently in high profile leadership do not reflect the views of the vast majority of believers. Some of the legalistic over-emphasis on patriarchy stems from insecurity more than anything else. Insecurity over the fact that they are engaged in a losing battle…

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