- Attaining Masculinity:Charles Brockden Brown and Woman Warriors of the 1790s
When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.-Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1999
I delighted to assume the male dress, to acquire skill at the sword, and dexterity in every boisterous exercise. The timidity that commonly attends women, gradually vanished. I felt as if imbued with a soul that was a stranger to the sexual distinction.-From Martinette's narrative in Brown's Ormond, 1799
As a legion of fans understood, the final (2002-03) season of Joss Whedon's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" underscored its eponymous character's contribution to both popular horror and teen culture by showing that real women can both fight and win. Locked in combat with a disembodied evil called the First, Buffy and an expanding band of potential slayers triumph over ultramasculine uber-vamps and a minister whose physical power is driven by his misogynist loathing. The season finale literalizes Buffy's metaphoric representation of female empowerment-her role as antidote to the centuries-old trope of woman as helpless victim that so cruelly crescendoed in post-1980 slasher films-when girls and young women around the world become slayers, too.
To find an earlier moment in U.S. culture analogous to this in its genre-bending depiction of triumphant female physical resistance to patriarchal domination, one might need to travel back in time-past the "last girls" of horror series who survive one film only to be butchered in the sequel, past the suicidal heroines of nineteenth-century novels whose awakenings [End Page 37] lead to death, past the orphaned girls of domestic fiction who achieve just enough independence to become good wives and mothers, and past the heroine-victims of gothic and sentimental fiction-back to a remarkably exploratory novel: Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond; or the Secret Witness (1799). Appearing at the end of a decade of speculation about female potential, Ormond pushed beyond familiar questions about woman's place to boldly feminist positions. A female bildungsroman, Ormond follows the eventful maturation and testing of Constantia Dudley, a young woman given a man's education and then compelled by extreme adversity to support her father, manage a household, deal with various dangers, make crucial life decisions, and, finally and most remarkably, defend herself from physical attack. Along the way, Constantia meets Martinette de Beauvais, a trans-Atlantic, cross-dressing revolutionary who provides a model of the woman warrior. As more attention has focused on Ormond in recent years, reading Martinette and her role in Constantia's growth has become central to establishing what it was possible to think and write about gender roles in the Early Republic.
First-wave feminist critics found it difficult to gauge Martinette's significance because she seemed an almost impossible figure in relation to the works they were celebrating. Such contemporaneous novels as Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) and Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) follow the ruination of women who have limited life skills and virtually no physical strength. Even the heroine of Judith Sargent Murray's novel The Story of Margaretta (1798) deals with adversity and danger by weeping frequently and following her parents' advice. Like Margaretta, what Charlotte and La Rue (the fallen women of Charlotte Temple) and Eliza Wharton (Foster's doomed coquette) have in common is the ability to complain, whine, or berate themselves or others when they feel threatened or victimized. Nina Baym no doubt had such characters and later "heroines" in mind when she wrote:
[I]t was generally agreed that woman's physical weakness suited them for activities bringing people together rather than forcing them apart -suited them, that is to say, for sentimental work. . . . Therefore, in woman's fiction, the self-dependent individualism that is grounded in woman's inner strength must be calibrated to a world in which she is outwardly weak.(xxxvi) [End Page 38]