Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Remembering The New Northwest, Part II: Don't Quarrel About the Farm

In this Part Two of "Remem- bering The New Northwest," the Poetry & Popular Culture office presents another poem from the weekly, Portland-based, suffragist newspaper edited by mother, wife, teacher, dressmaker, and writer Abigail Scott Duniway between 1871 and 1887. If "The Perplexed Housekeeper" (presented last week) catalogs the uncompensated daily work activities of a 19th-century housewife and thus provides support for her critique of the institution of marriage, then today's poem, "Don't Quarrel about the Farm," takes on another aspect of women's economic vulnearability—the subject of women's property rights (or lack thereof).

"Don't Quarrel about the Farm" struck the P&PC office as notable for a couple of reasons: 1) it uses a story with a happy ending to lobby for reforms in the area of women's property rights (other such poems rely on tragedy or worst-case scenarios to make their arguments, as many family disputes weren't resolved as amicably as this one); and 2) the speaker is a persuasive, articulate daughter/sister who wins her brothers' assent, in the process demonstrating that emotion and intellect are not incompatible in the 19th-century woman and prospective voter. It's precisely this mixture, in fact—an emotional, charitable, and rational calm in the face of people driven primarily by their own personal economic interests—that The New Northwest and other suffragist papers claimed that women would bring to the polls and public discourse if granted their right to vote. Today, of course, we recognize the limitations of that essentialist claim. Nevertheless, the rhetorical clinic that Sis puts on for her brothers in "Don't Quarrel about the Farm" is a pretty stunning one. Enjoy.

Don't Quarrel about the Farm

"No, brothers, don't fall out 'bout it, or quarrel here today,
Be civil toward each other, and listen to what I say:
You know as well as I do that it's wrong this way to speak,
And if you have disputes to make—why, make them in a week.

"Just wait at least, till father's cold, just put it off—pray do,
And what is yours no doubt you'll get; but wait a day or two.
Have more respect for mother, for she's old and weak and ill,
And don't take foul advantage, just because there is no will.

"Now Freddie, you're the oldest! You should good example show;
For what's the good of quarreling, I'd really like to know?
The money's in the bank—there is no reason to complain
Or the paltry share that's in the home from mother try to gain?

"I'm poorer than the poorest one, yet she shall have my part;
I'll work and toil 'mong strangers with a merry, cheerful heart,
If I only live to know that she can call this place her own;
I'd gladly give her all my share that she may have a home.

"I don't know much about the law, for I never went to school.
And you know more about the ways that's followed as a rule;
I think they'll sell the place right out, and and share it so I’m told.
And that would throw out mother, boys, and leave her in the cold.

"Now I can't see how this is right; she earned as much as he;
She paid, I'm sure, those last three notes endorsed by Squire Lee,
And father often told us so. Besides, he always said
He hoped that she would suffer naught when he was with the dead.

"And that's one reason why, I think, he left no will behind—
Because his boys were rich and therefore would be kind:
He did not wish to give offence by willing all to her,
But thought we here, with one accord, would give and not demur.

"Now I know I'm not a scholar, boys; few things I understand;
I don't know much about real estate, or the price of farming land;
Yet this I know, ten acres with a house and barn and ware,
Will not bring much to nine of us, not counting mother's share.

"I'd like any little part of it—a great deal with it too
For I never had the chance to earn that father gave to you;
No! I always had to stay at home and work the livelong day.
And for it got but board and clothes—that's more than you can say!

"And if I am the youngest one with not a cent ahead,
I’ll give my share to mother now! and go and earn my bread;
And you needn't think because I plead that I just want a home;
No! No! I’ll leave—though hard 'twill be for her to live alone.

"This living 'round with the married sons ain't what it's thought to be!
And mother's old, near sixty years, and not as strong as we;
Besides, she ought to have a home—her own—to live in no one's way,
And be protected from harsh words you all might some times say.

"Then let us give the home to her—come, who will follow me?
I give my share to mother, now! My hand is up, you see!
You're losing but a paltry—a little mite of land—
Whoever's willing, as I am, can raise his own right hand!"

And not a hand remained in place, but up they went as one,
And brothers looked and marveled, and wondered how 'twas done!
All quarrel ceased, the brothers knelt, and found themselves in prayer
For Sis with mother, and the home; and peace came to them there!