The Name of Woman

“I may yet be worthy of the name of woman, in the purist and noblest sense. Yes, I will be if resolution and perseverance can accomplish anything.”
Alice Marshall Finch, May 1866

This is a line from my great-great grandmother’s journal. She was 18 or 19 when she wrote this and living near Richmond, Virginia. The Civil War had recently ended, and her family—whose business was tobacco—would be moving later that year farther south to Monroe County, Alabama.

I’ve spent a great deal of time with her journals that she dutifully wrote in 1866 and her later journal that she sporadically kept when she was a mother of six children in the 1880s. She was about my age when she died, early forties. The 1880s journal she wrote in her thirties came to me when I was a young woman of about 19.

For about two decades of my life, I often pondered the entry where she sat under a tree writing while her children played in the sand. She seemed like a prisoner to me, and I was afraid to have that life. I had often heard women profess to the joys of motherhood, but Alice spoke more of the woes and worries. The strain and defeat. She was honest and eloquent, and I admired that about her writing. I related to her laments about not writing more and could feel the distress of her overwhelming life that ended so soon.

Around my fortieth birthday, my mother told me of another journal of Alice’s, her 1866 journal. If I had heard of or seen that journal before, I didn’t recall it. But a photocopy of it came to me at the perfect time. I was on the lighter side of my second divorce and still not a mother. My body craved tiny bodies and tiny voices that sprung from my own, but there was only silence.

The 1866 journal, the musings of a young woman on the other side of a war, with Alabama/Marriage/Motherhood/Texas all still ahead of her, was a different Alice than the one I read about before. Young Alice, living with her family, attending Academy and receiving tutoring in Latin, Logic, World History, and the Classics was opinionated, had a passionate curiosity for life, and more than anything wanted to contribute to the knowledge of the world. I’m told she did become a teacher before she married (as did I). In this journal too she laments of not taking more time to write. But instead of only writing a line or two to satisfy her need to know and to be known through the pen in her hand as she did in the journal of her Wife and Mother Years, her youthful words and ideas overtook her. In one of my favorite entries, the one that made me fall madly in love with her, was the entry where she begins:

“Tuesday Morning, June 27th, 1866
I have only a few moments to devote to my dear book this morning, and indeed this, not my proper time for writing, still I have so many things to commit to its leaves that I cannot refrain from the pleasure even if my time is limited. I am reading a book called “Scenes in China” and as I have gained a good many facts worthy of my attention, I will note them down before reading further.”

Then—deliciously—she writes 15 pages in her beautiful longhand writing of “a good many facts” about China culminating in a climax of her Reconstruction-era rant about the treatment of women on the other side of the world. It’s clear from the quick strokes of her pen, by the intensity of the lettering in this section that she was impassioned by the thoughts she was writing about … the “cruel custom of compressing the feet” of Chinese women.

She wrote:
“By this act of inhumanity the poor creatures are made cripple for life. The females of China are very degraded & neglected. Seldom can a Chinese woman be met who can read the simplest book in her own language & while much money is spent in education of the beloved son, the daughter is suffered to grow up in ignorance…. She is disposed of by her parents for that sum of money which they see fit to request. She is conveyed to the house of the man to whom she is to be wedded & perhaps sees him for the first time in her life. And though separated from her parents, she shares not the pleasures or privileges of a wife. Her husband looks upon her as far inferior to himself & she receives from him corresponding treatment. By all classes of males in China, females have been regarded with contempt. Religion is denied them. Rise, run, work, eat little, spend little, be silent, kept out of sight, obey, bear, & rather bleed & die than complain, is the language of the rules laid down by their treatment.”

Are you in love with her now too? I know I couldn’t write like that when I was 19. I’m still trying to write like that. It makes me wonder about Alice’s parents—John Robert and Frances Cunningham Finch—and how they viewed and treated the woman in their home. Clearly there was some expectation for the education of girls.

My mother and I researched the family to further satisfy our own curiosities. There’s a special lineage of mothers to be traced there, to know one’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s, etc. From womb to womb we are linked, a string of pearls through time and space.

Alice had two younger brothers, we found, Louis and James Finch. Both boys had daughters of their own. Louis had a little girl named Louise Finch, who I’m told was quite a character. James had two daughters, Frances and Alice, named after his own mother and his older sister, both who had died not long after he married his wife. Frances had two extraordinary daughters of her own—Alice Finch Lee who practiced law in Monroe County, Alabama until she was over 100 years old; and Nelle Harper Lee who wrote the book “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

My Alice never met the other Alices in this story, but there’s no doubt that the tone that was set in the family of educating daughters has had a huge impact on the world. It makes me wonder about how the world would change if all the girls had a chance like them, if every girl was given a pen and paper and the charge to be free to write and explore her mind. What if every girl could freely use her power of expression to enlighten others of the unjust treatment of her sisters and brothers? How long after that until we are living in another world of a new level of consciousness?

From the perspective of a woman living now, I have my own home, I study what I like and create art every chance I get. But never enough to satisfy me. I, like Alice at 19, am unquenchable in my desire to create, to know, and to be known. I look at Alice from 19 to 40-something and see how she changed. She and I flip-flopped places in time and space. The older version of her spoke to my younger self; her younger self spoke to me as I am older. I can see the shift from the optimism of youth to her world-weariness, and the tragic loss of what she longed to become.

I do not accept that same fate.

I thank her for her journals and showing me that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t have children of my own, that I’m not trapped under a tree with only a few minutes to scribble and lament.

I visited Alice’s grave in Old Waverly, Texas. I visited the graves of her parents in Evergreen, Alabama and the graves of her brothers and their families. The Miss Lees, I’m told, are in ill health and unable to share any stories their grandfather told them. (Might there be other journals yet undiscovered?)

But Alice and her journals still tug at me. “Write,” they say. “Go! Do! Make!”

And nothing in those journals pulls at me more than the opening quote which I’d like to explore more:

“I may yet be worthy of the name of woman, in the purist and noblest sense. Yes, I will be if resolution and perseverance can accomplish anything.” 


5 thoughts on “The Name of Woman

Add yours

  1. Your great-great grandmother must have been an amazing and caring women. I don’t think I even thought that deeply and profoundly at age 19. Honestly, I feel blessed that I am treated with respect and taken seriously today as a Chinese woman.


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