I was working on a bit of my
own family's history today - an activity I haven't had much time for
since beginning this genealogy website - and I found myself sidetracked
as an old-timey phrase came to mind. My fingers flew across the keyboard
until I realized that I wasn't on the topic of that particular family
any longer: I'd wandered into a little essay on historical context!
In deference to those COX
family historians who don't care to read my musings on the memories and
thoughts that a particular old-fashioned phrase brought to my mind, I
decided to clip out that bit and move it over here to the
Notes, where only my favorite diehard knuckleheads and the truly
lost can read it!
How'd I get started on
this? I was writing about my great-grandfather, J.
W. COX, who described his wife - and one of his principal reasons
for marrying her - as a "good woman."
woman?" Like, dude, what's a "bad" woman?!
modern ears, the phrase "a good woman" sounds odd and archaic, but
it had a special meaning in its day. In his wonderful book,
In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, Larry McMurtry explores the meaning of being a Texan in
this post-Wild West era. Along the way, he describes the old-time,
romanticized and reverential attitude of cowboys toward the ideal of the
"good woman." Though McMurtry doesn't go into great
detail about what this ideal is, the phrase instantly rang a bell
as I read: I'd heard it in my dad's stories about his grandfather. And
J. W. COX was a cattleman, among other things, and is said to have
worked on cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail before settling down,
teaching himself law, passing the Texas State Bar Exam.
But back to that phrase,
"a good woman." I know women who would instantly bristle at
that one, charging "male chauvinism" and instantly judging J.
W. as hopelessly misogynistic. Certainly, I don't know anyone who talks
like that today.
But I'm not writing
about someone who's lived through the Sexual Revolution of the 60's and
70's, or who's been enlightened by Women's Lib. I'm writing about a man
who was born in 1854.
The Victorian-era ideal
woman was credited for her calming and civilizing influence on the
otherwise rough and erratic nature of her man. The "good
woman" would inspire her husband to work hard to support his
family, would give him the reason to come home at the end of the trail
drive, and would insure his attendance in church on Sundays. Her value
as a homemaker was deeply appreciated, for the making of their home was
what brought out his best, and helped to preserve the family tradition
for the future.
J. W. COX was a man of
his times, but he was ahead of his time, as well. He made sure
his daughters went to college, an unusual attitude in the early 1900's
in the very rural South. While his description of Eliza as a
"good woman" may brand him as a male chauvinist today, at
least to the more superficial reader, we know that he was definitely not
chauvinistic, and he wanted more for his daughters in life.
Our values as a culture have changed dramatically,
for better or for worse, and
thus the "good woman" is a politically incorrect anachronism
today. But I think it's important to take these snippets of
memory, like the tale of J. W. 's desire to marry the "good woman" Eliza,
and to put them in the proper context. It wouldn't be fair, and it
wouldn't be right, to apply our modern sensibilities and views to their
lives, any more than we'd (necessarily) welcome their 19th-century judgments
upon our lives today.
Do you ever find
yourself cringing over something an ancestor did (or didn't do)? Is
there something that is part of your family's story that you find embarrassing
because it's something that we would never think of doing
today? What about poverty? Illiteracy? Or attitudes that we would
consider intolerable today among our peers?
We all do this, to some degree. After all, we have only our own
experience and our own cultural perspective from which to view these
people of our past. But it would be wise to remember, when considering
an ancestor's misdeeds or politically incorrect attitudes, that it's
important to consider them within the context of their times, and in
the context (as much as we're able to learn) of their experiences.
Unless, naturally, we'd be willing to have those citizens of the
19th century sit in judgment upon our lives, not knowing a whit
about how things and times have changed in the intervening decades. I
doubt that many of us could fare well with such judgment!
Historical context is critical in understanding our families'
stories. Thus, even if you got started in genealogy with no intention
of undertaking history as a hobby, too.... surprise! It's
time to go back to school!
The good news? No tests! And History is infinitely more fun when
you're learning it in the context of your own story!
Now, go learn something new today!