Monthly Archives: January, 2016

Portrait of a Mother: Eliza Clerc Makes Her Deafness Visible, 1822

Clerc Boardman Marriage Announcement

Their wedding in 1819 was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States: the union of deaf man and a deaf woman.

When Laurent Clerc agreed to travel to America in 1817 to help Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet learn sign language and establish a school for the deaf, he made it clear he would be returning to France in 1820. That changed when he met 23-year old Eliza Boardman, one of his first students at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons in Hartford. By 1818, they were betrothed.

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1822

Eliza and Elizabeth Clerc, 1822. (From a photo by the author, Wadsworth Atheneum, 2014.)

The news of their engagement was not met with universal joy. Gallaudet himself opposed the match. Conventional wisdom held that the deaf should not intermarry. Eliza nor Laurent were not congenitally deaf, but most people of the era assumed that deaf parents would inevitably produce deaf children. There was also a question of logistics: how could a deaf mother ever tend to the needs of her children?

Quite well, as it turned out. Eliza and Laurent had six children, all born with normal hearing. The two were married for fifty years – just a normal, pleasant couple who happened to communicate through sign language.

In 1822, they both sat for their portraits with the great Charles Wilson Peale. Eliza could have easily chosen to let her deafness be invisible. Instead, she decided to immortalize her role as a deaf mother, her daughter Elizabeth on her lap, her right hand signing their shared initial.

This Is Not What A Feminist Looks Like

“Some idiot has drawn ladybits on the Queen Victoria statue on College Green.”

Bristol street artist “Vaj Graff” is behind the graffiti, which appeared on the 127-year old statue on 7 January. This isn’t the first time she’s “corrected” art and signage in the city, 120 miles west of London.

“Queen Vic was a power woman,” she told the Bristol Post. “She was the original feminist and she was proud. All I did was show her how she wanted to be seen. What’s so offensive about that?”

Here’s the problem: Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India was many things – as the title implies – but “original feminist” was not one of them. Not by any stretched, steampunked, anachronized definition of the word.

This is a woman that called the suffrage movement a “mad, wicked folly” and opined that one high-born suffrage woman “ought to get a good whipping.” While many in the women’s rights movement at the time held her up as an example of what a woman could be if given the opportunity, Victoria saw her role as female sovereign as “an anomaly” and more than a decade into her reign wrote that “I am every day more convinced that we women, if we are to be good women, feminine and amiable and domestic, are not fitted to reign.” She was fervent in her belief that she, like all women, needed to be guided by a strong man. Her extended mourning after the death of Prince Albert was both a genuine display of grief and a way to step out of her public duties.

Victoria took very little pleasure in any aspect of womanhood. Women, she once wrote, were “born for Man’s pleasure and amusement,” and that was that. A veteran of nine pregnancies, she came to hate the very sight of heavily pregnant woman, and continually compared pregnant and breastfeeding women to a variety of barnyard animals. She was appalled by social reformers who tried to educate woman on contraception, believing it encouraged immorality and prostitution. She rarely showed affection to her children, constantly finding fault with them while simultaneously demanding their complete loyalty to her needs.

And a woman who didn’t think other women should not train to be doctors or nurses because they’d have to look at genitalia would not let her bush fly on the Bristol green.

As graffiti goes, the addition of “ladybits” to the statue is funny, but also a bit sad. In the end, those parts of her anatomy didn’t make Queen Victoria feel strong or smart; they made her feel “feeble” and trapped. Like all queens, she knew the deal. Her body was only valuable for what came out of it: a male heir for the throne.

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