Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mrs. Claus - Was Mrs. Claus an Early Feminist Icon?

Was Mrs. Claus an early feminist icon?

The wife of Santa Claus first entered pop culture consciousness in 1889. That's the year "America the Beautiful" author Katharine Lee Bates created and introduced her in the poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride*.

Although modern-day depictions of Mrs. Claus show us a contented stay-at-home wife, Bates' Goody Claus is anything but. Instead, the original wife of Santa pushes the envelope on women's rights and presses for acknowledgment of her hard work and significant role in making Christmas possible.

An Unexpected Feminist

The first-person narrative -- told from Goody Claus' perspective -- centers on her clever and persistent attempts to prove that the gender roles her husband insists on are arbitrary. Throughout the poem, she gradually convinces us that she can do many things just as well as he does, and some things even better.

From the opening line, Goody Santa Claus makes her desires clear. She tells her husband that she wants to accompany him on his annual sleigh ride:

Santa, must I tease in vain, dear? Let me go and hold the reindeer,
While you clamber down the chimneys. Don't look savage as a Turk!
Why should you have all the glory of the joyous Christmas story,
And poor little Goody Santa Claus have nothing but the work?

Despite his apparent unwillingness to have her come along (as we gather from his "savage" look), Goody Claus pleads her case through the first ten stanzas of the poem. She chides him, "You just sit here and grow chubby off the goodies in my cubby," and points out that though he's a woodsman, she's actually the one who tends the fir trees that -- instead of bearing pine cones -- produce the "toys and trinkets" that fill Santa's gift bags each year. Since Santa's lazy and too busy toasting his toes by the fire, he never steps outside to witness how carefully she nurtures the trees to reap the harvest of gifts; but as she indicates, someone else knows how hard she works:

Yet ask young Jack Frost, our neighbor, who but Goody has the labor,
Feeding roots with milk and honey that the bonbons may be sweet!
Who but Goody knows the reason why the playthings bloom in season
And the ripened toys and trinkets rattle gaily to her feet!

As we learn, Christmas isn't the only holiday Goody Claus has a hand in. She's also responsible for the most prominent elements of two other major holidays. In asking Santa for a ride in the sleigh, she reminds him of her efforts year round:

Santa, wouldn't it be pleasant to surprise me with a present?
And this ride behind the reindeer is the boon your Goody begs;
Think how hard my extra work is, tending the Thanksgiving turkeys
And our flocks of rainbow chickens — those that lay the Easter eggs.

In the next two lines, Mrs. Santa Claus reveals herself as a staunch believer in women's rights as she argues against the commonly-held belief that women should stay at home:

Home to womankind is suited? Nonsense, Goodman! Let our fruited Orchards answer for the value of a woman out-of-doors.

When he finally agrees, she goes along and holds the reindeer on the roof while he makes his down-the-chimney runs. But once again she pushes the envelope when she makes another request of her husband:

Bend your cold ear, Sweetheart Santa, down to catch my whisper faint:
Would it be so very shocking if your Goody filled a stocking
Just for once? Oh, dear! Forgive me. Frowns do not become a Saint.

He scowls and they continue on, but she keeps pressing for her chance, even as they near the end of their long winter flight:

Now the pack is fairly rifled, and poor Santa's well-nigh stifled;
Yet you would not let your Goody fill a single baby-sock;
Yes, I know the task takes brain, Dear. I can only hold the reindeer,
And so see me climb down chimney — it would give your nerves a shock.

As she wryly notes, Santa doesn't believe a woman's capable of doing a man's job.

But at the last house, when Santa finds a stocking too riddled with holes to hold the last small gift, he finally relents when his wife offers a solution:

But I'll mend that sock so nearly it shall hold your gifts completely.
Take the reins and let me show you what a woman's wit can do.

Using an icicle for a needle and a moonbeam for thread, she darns the stocking, tucks in an extra box of paints, and kisses this last recipient goodnight.

An Unconventional Victorian

Why has this charming portrait of a feminist-leaning Mrs. Santa Claus been lost to time? Why was this smart feisty helpmate and strong-willed spouse later supplanted by a pudgy, acquiescent, non-descript version? Could it be because Goody Santa Claus was ahead of her time?

In many ways, Goody Santa Claus reflects the sentiments of her creator, author and poet Katharine Lee Bates. Born in Falmouth Massachusetts in 1859, Bates made a name for herself writing children's poetry yet her interests were far broader. She also penned poems featuring anti-war and women's issues themes.

According to Mary Sicchio, archivist of the Falmouth Historical Society, "Bates definitely pushed for the rights of women. She wasn't docile at all. She was feisty and a lot more worldly than people would expect of a Victorian woman."

A Strong Woman "For All Times"

The world Bates lived in was a world that would not have been comfortable with a strong female figure like Goody Claus. Back in 1889, a woman who proved that she could do anything a man could do might have been seen as a threat or an oddball. It would be another 30 years before Congress would pass the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Yet Bates created a character that touches women today just as effectively as it did 120 years ago by asking the age old question, "Why can't a woman be given the chance to do the same work as a man?"

In a season dominated by iconic male figures, Goody Santa Claus reminds us not to settle for the status quo. With wit, cleverness, and determination, she made a place for herself in a traditionally 'male profession' and in the end proved her worth. Like her creator Katharine Lee Bates, "she was a woman of her times and for all times. "