Bird Fox would not be pigeon-holed. As I leaf through her essays archived in the Cline House museum, those she kept from college, I turn over the pieces of her puzzle — the mystery of some winter term in the 1880s, and the young woman who would have none of it.
On tiny pages in tiny letters beckon “Conquest of Self,” a ponderance of man’s suffering, always silent and alone, and “Our Inheritance,” a 23-page philosophical exploration of religion. Each of these essays received the highest marks. Near the end waits “No. 5 Girl’s Work.” Terser than the others, this is a summary of woman’s purpose and the happiness that ought to be realized in fulfilling it.
Bird wrote, “The subject of girls’ work … To one girl it means embroidering and making calls, to another cooking and washing dishes … There is real nobleness in the power to help oneself of which girls, who think only of dress and admiration, know nothing … Girls can work in their home to make them happy and after all it is the fixed and not the shooting star that guides and cheers.”
Her pen tripped and skittered, blotting the words she received but did not accept. She could be made to endow her audience with the rites of dutiful girlhood, but it did not sit right with her. Quoting “Lucile” by poet Owen Meredith, she concludes, “The great moral combat between human life/ and each human soul must be single. The strife/ None can share, though by all its results may be unknown.”
These last words are ringing; Bird had overcome. She laid out the professor’s concept of woman, so static and simple, and met it with a declaration of individuality. It was all she could do to explain her problems — our problems — as being a matter of the human condition.
Below her name rests her first perfect score.
Next waits a piece marked “No. 9 Woman’s Rights.” Feeling encouraged by the reception of “Girl’s Work,” Bird uses this piece to celebrate the building up of women as civilizations progress. She claims it an inevitability that women will be “placed on a level in all respects equal with man.”
Her joy drifts into a lamentation of injustice. She writes, “A great many women are not conscious of the wrong that is done them … Such women, if placed on an equal footing with men, would be obliged to consider other things … and would become true women … Ought they not say, as did the colonists, We will not endure this. It is taxation without representation.” Passion spills red over the pages in my hands, flowing until the last line.
Beside it, the rubric lies blank. The professor had refused it.
I find another essay, labelled No. 10 in Bird’s delicate ink. It is corrected by another’s as being the ninth, and I realize that this is what she wrote to punish her passion. It is a cold, factual “Biography of the Empress Josephine.” It has no rubric. And yet she persisted.
Emblazoned even as it fades, “No. 10 Practical Education” summarizes a boy’s schooling while “he spends many weary hours struggling with his original ideas,” and follows him into successful merchantry. Pondering his education by the hearth, “suddenly he thinks of the hours he spent essay writing. Had that ever been of practical use to him? No. He thinks of the wasted hours … paper … pencils … and sighs.”
I cannot help but chuckle. It is clear that Bird has fought and championed her own ideas, discovering them in “Girl’s Work” and exploring them in “Women’s Rights.” One could deny Bird Fox the plight of the woman, but she was brewing a war of words.
Her ideas are not worth grading, even reading? Alright, she says, but surely nobody practical would notice or even care if the language professor’s line of work went up in flames.
At the bottom of the page are the scrawled words, “Sounds well but you don’t believe it.”
Yes, anonymous commenter, I have to agree. I think Bird became quite invested in the power of words and her blooming ability to wield them.
I think that is her whole point.
Vifa McBride is a student at Trine University with a major in biology and a minor in English. She is interning at the Cline House Museum to uncover the stories of the town and make them more accessible.