Lessons from “nasty women” of the past

A colleague writing an endorsement of After Emily, my forthcoming book (W.W. Norton, October 2018), concluded, “Let me end this letter very frankly. Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham were exemplary ‘nasty women’ of their times…in Trump’s ‘alt America,’ every ‘nasty woman’ will find the stories of this mother and daughter so very resonant.”

That was almost two years ago. I was thrilled that my colleague picked up on a theme I thought I’d embedded in my manuscript. But today I feel this theme is more relevant than ever. At a juncture in this country when women are struggling to make their voices heard, when Hollywood grapples with issues of diversity and when we’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the @metoo movement, are there lessons we can learn from these “nasty women” of the past?

To the extent that she is remembered today, Mabel Loomis Todd is known either as one of Emily Dickinson’s first editors (she helped to edit and publish the first three volumes of Dickinson’s poetry and two volumes of her letters in the late 19th century), or for her 13 year-long extra-marital affair with Emily’s older brother, Austin. Yet she lived a full and remarkable life apart from these roles, writing widely for the leading magazines and newspapers of the day, publishing a dozen of her own books, speaking across the country on an astonishing array of topics (one newspaper called her “unquestionably the dean of American women lecturers”). Mabel traveled the world at a time when few Westerners did, and fewer women, still. She was an accomplished artist and a gifted musician. She associated with many of the leading American literary figures and intellectuals.

But perhaps Mabel’s “nasty woman” legacy is the subversive way in which she was able to achieve some of what she did.

Despite the nascent women’s movement of the 19th century, men still dominated and controlled most institutions, including publishing. Keenly aware of this, Mabel knew how to link herself to male power brokers of the day and yet insist on retaining at least some of what she believed to be the most important aspects of her own and Emily Dickinson’s art. Perhaps the best example of this was her work with Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson, a well-known and widely respected minister, abolitionist, Civil War hero and literary advocate, had initially passed on the opportunity to edit Dickinson’s poetry after her death. But Mabel knew the poems were powerful; she also knew she needed Higginson’s credibility to help get them published.

She traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from her home in Amherst, and over tea one afternoon in the fall of 1889, read some of Dickinson’s poetry aloud to Higginson. He was overcome with the poems’ beauty in Mabel’s rendering of them (he had already read the print versions — or tried to decipher Emily’s peculiar handwriting and punctuation), and agreed to assist Mabel with the project.

To be sure, there has been much debate over Mabel and Higginson’s editing of the poetry. She most certainly acceded to his thoughts even when her own were different. And as an extremely attractive woman well-versed in social graces, there is no doubt she utilized traditional female tropes to get what she wanted. Yet this was not a case of a woman caving in to man, or a woman using “feminine wiles” or playing on sexuality to accomplish a goal. I believe that Mabel knew what she was doing. Without Mabel’s surety of the poems’ worth and absent her ability to learn to pursue the path she knew was correct by tapping into the male power brokers of the day while steadfastly maintaining strong female leadership of the project, we might never have known Emily Dickinson, at all.

Mabel’s only child, Millicent Todd Bingham, had a promising career of her own. The first woman to receive a Ph.D. in geography and geology from Harvard, Millicent seemed on a successful academic trajectory. In 1929, her mother asked her to assist with preparation for a new volume of Emily Dickinson’s letters, which Mabel wanted to publish to coincide with the centenary of the poet’s birth in 1930. Torn between her sense of filial obligation and her desire to navigate her own way in a male-dominated field, Millicent reluctantly agreed to abandon her own career to take up her mother’s work. After Mabel died unexpectedly in 1932, it became Millicent’s mission to finish her mother’s unfinished Dickinson work, and to find appropriate ways to memorialize her mother. Interestingly, both pursuits led her to challenge the male establishment and assert herself in ways that she knew went against the gender norms with which she’d grown up.

Trying to complete the publication of the remaining 600 or so Dickinson poems, as well as deciding where these valuable original manuscripts would ultimately reside, placed Millicent at odds with powerful forces within the publishing industry, and at times, in opposition to the male-dominated establishment at Harvard University, which sought to acquire her Dickinson manuscripts. Finding ways to properly memorialize Mabel found Millicent attempting to turn over oversight of land her family owned on Hog Island, off the coast of Maine, to the National Audubon Society to turn it into an ecology camp for adults. This effort, as well, placed her squarely in a field dominated by men in that era. Millicent’s belief that environmental education was imperative to preserve the natural world and her writings about this as far back as the late 1930s were not only a clarion call for environmental stewardship, but a singular female voice making this call.

Millicent ultimately prevailed in all these endeavors, but at quite a considerable personal and professional cost. Her “nasty woman” message to us in the 21st century would probably be, “stick to what you know to be right, even when the male establishment seems to rule. You’ll ultimately be vindicated.”

And Emily Dickinson, the third “nasty woman” in my troika, demonstrated clearly that sometimes, when women “break the rules,” they provide new paths.

Emily’s poetry did not adhere to many of the conventions of 19th century verse. Her use of words, punctuation, meter and even capitalization, were highly idiosyncratic. Though only perhaps a dozen of her almost 1800 poems were published during her lifetime, today her poetry is required reading in American high school English classes and is widely known around the world. She is, unquestionably, one of America’s greatest poets

Dickinson knew that individuality was integral to herself and her art, and implied in her poetry that people should feel justified in their life choices whether or not they conformed to convention. As she wrote in the poem now known as “The Soul selects her own Society,” after making such a choice she should shut the door, and:

To her divine Majority — 
 Present no more —

Emily Dickinson’s “nasty woman” work demonstrates to us that voices long silent can still sing loudly. And in the climate of #metoo and highly polarized politics, these are the voices that need to be heard.

Emily Dickinson
Millicent Todd Bingham
Mabel Loomis Todd