Trump's 'Nasty Woman' Insult of Clinton Comes From a Long Tradition of Insults Directed at Accomplished Women

Who is the “nastier” woman, Hillary Clinton (as dubbed by her opponent for the presidency, Donald Trump) or British novelist Charlotte Bronte, creator of the proto-feminist character Jane Eyre?  

The question was inescapable as I wended my way through the captivating exhibition currently on display at the Morgan Library and Museum, in New York, “Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will,” mounted on the bicentennial of her birth.

For Bronte's work to remain read and relevant two centuries on—now that’s stamina, I thought. No matter that she was petite, standing 4’ 9” with a corseted waist of less than 19 inches. Her diminutive physical presence is made visible by the teen-sized blue-and-white demure floral print dress that greets visitors when they enter the exhibit gallery. Equally tiny are the pair of shoes displayed beside the dress. But her words are not dainty. They loom large and forceful throughout the exhibit, as seen in the original manuscripts, notebooks, letters, and other papers, many borrowed from the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England.   

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you,” reads a heading along the top of one wall. This is how Jane Eyre initially responds to her employer, Mr. Rochester, master of Thornfield Hall, when he first proposes to her. It is not that she does not love him; she does. But her lowly status as a governess to his young ward makes her wary of his intentions. She is all too aware that, given the difference in their positions, many men might presume automatic permission to toy with her. Yes, reader, we know that she does eventually marry him. But not before many more plot twists compel her to demonstrate that she is anything but a doll to be played with. 

Although the word “nasty” is not invoked, as I went through my well-read copy of Jane Eyre after returning home from the exhibit, I found that comparable insults are. For instance, after his true marital status comes to light (he is husband to the madwoman in his attic), Mr. Rochester excuses himself from not revealing this fact previously because he had feared Jane's “stubbornness” of character. Now that she knows all, he calls Jane “wicked” for refusing to consent to live with him as his mistress. “Never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable,” he complains, a “resolute, wild, free thing” who defies and denies him.  

But what is her offense? Remaining true to a credo of integrity and self-respect. Even though her heart would like nothing more than to say yes to Mr. Rochester’s out-of-wedlock arrangement, she holds steadfast, she tells him, because, “Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour....If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Jane endures additional invective when she subsequently says no to St. John Rivers, the emotionally cold but morally upright clergyman who takes her in after her departure from Thornfield Hall. He is determined that Jane shall join him as his wife on his Christian mission to India. “Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity,” he warns her. “Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”

And when she does refuse, he labels her words “violent, unfeminine, and untrue.” Her offense this time: saying no to a marriage without love, a situation she believes would kill her soul. “God did not give me my life to throw away,” she tells her suitor bluntly, “and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”   

I ask you, how much nastier can you get than that?

Charlotte Bronte gave it a go in real life when, in 1849, she chastised critic George Henry Lewes for his brutal review of her second novel, Shirley, primarily on the basis of the author’s gender. This was particularly troubling to Bronte, as she had tried to even the gender playing field by publishing both Jane Eyre and Shirley under the androgynous pseudonym of Currer Bell. Lewis, however, had discovered her identity and went so far as to question how a childless spinster could write convincingly about the relationship between a mother and child.   

The correspondence is quoted in the Bronte scholar Juliet Barker’s group biography, The Brontes. “I will tell you why I was so hurt by that review,” Charlotte Bronte wrote him, “because, after I had said earnestly that I wished critics would judge me as an author not as a woman, you so roughly—I even thought—so cruelly handled the question of sex…you are in such a hurry to tell it all, you never give yourself time to think how your reckless eloquence may affect others, and, what is more, if you knew how it did affect them you would not much care.”  

By that point, Bronte’s brother Branwell and her sisters Emily and Anne had died. She had buried them all, in less than two years. Bereaved and isolated despite her growing fame as an author, she wrote that, ''Labor is the only radical cure for rooted sorrow.” She would live to publish one more novel, Villette, in 1853. But her very first novel, The Professor, would not be published until 1857, two years after her own death, which occurred just three weeks shy of her 39th birthday. 

Bronte’s survivors included her father, her husband of only nine months, and the legacy of her work. Her final illness, its origin unclear, was beyond nasty  In one of her last letters, she described pain and “sickness with scarce a reprieve." But there was also joy. “As to my husband,” the letter continues, “my heart is knit to him—he is so tender, so good, helpful, patient.”  

Two hundred years after Bronte’s birth, an estimated one million visitors a year pay tribute to her as they travel to Haworth and its Brontë Parsonage Museum. Indomitable, resolute, wild, and free, Charlotte Bronte—and her literary creations—continue to speak to us today, even as she and her heroines spoke back in their time. “Who in the world cares for you?” the spurned, dismayed Mr. Rochester demands of the penniless Jane Eyre. “care for myself,” she replies. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I respect myself.” Of such nasty self-respect, heroines are made. No wonder that the small-sized pair of Bronte’s shoes on display in New York seemed to shimmer. It is because they are still leaving footprints to follow. 


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