You would be hard-pressed to find an American who had never heard of Mark Twain, the famous 19th century writer and humorist. It would be almost as difficult to find an American who had even heard of Marietta Holley, much less read her work. And yet, in her lifetime (1836-1926), Holley was nearly as popular a literary humorist as Mark Twain was.
She published twenty-four books between 1873 and 1914, many of them humor books written under the pseudonym “Samantha Allen” or “Josiah Allen’s Wife.” In these works, Holley uses humor to advocate for women’s rights and temperance, the two issues about which she was most passionate. A best-selling writer in her own time, she was forgotten after her death.
Living as we do in a time period in which some people still openly claim women are not funny, or at least not as funny as men, I think it is important to keep the voices of past female humorists alive. (Click here and here for random examples of the women-aren’t-funny claim.) Although we would all like to think the struggles women faced over a century ago are no longer relevant, unfortunately this is not the case. The role of women in the Christian Church, for example, is still a hot-button issue, and Holley’s satire still rings true. I will admit that her use of dialect is a little off-putting. If you can get past the dialect, though, I think you’ll find her humor is still effective.
I am reproducing here an excerpt from Holley’s book Samantha Among the Brethren. In this excerpt from Samantha Among the Brethren, Samantha—a devout Christian—is frustrated with the way women are treated in her church. In particular, Samantha grapples with trying to understand why women are not allowed to serve as delegates to a church conference. Although Samantha does not understand the logic governing women’s status in the Church, her husband Josiah understands it perfectly because of his superior mind. It has to do with how the words “laymen” and “men” are interpreted in official documents. Women’s minds are too feeble to understand such fine legal distinctions, but Josiah happily tries to explain it to Samantha.
“Oh, yes,” sez Josiah in a reasonin’ tone, “the word laymen always means wimmen when it is used in a punishin’ and condemnatory sense, or in the case of work and so forth, but when it comes to settin’ up in high places, or drawin’ sallerys, or anything else difficult, it alweys means men.”
Sez I, in a very dry axent, “Then the word man, when it is used in church matters, always means wimmen, so fur as scrubbin’ is concerned, and drudging round?”
“Yes,” sez Josiah haughtily. “And it always means men in the higher and more difficult matters of decidin’ questions, drawin’ sallerys, settin’ on Conferences, etc. It has long been settled to be so,” sez he.
“Who settled it?” sez I.
“Why the men, of course,” sez he. “The men have always made the rules of the churches, and translated the Bibles, and everything else that is difficult,” sez he.
Sez I, in fearful dry axents, almost husky ones, “It seems to take quite a knack to know jest when the word “laymen” means men and when it means wimmin.”
“That is so,” sez Josiah. “It takes a man’s mind to grapple with it; wimmen’s minds are too weak to tackle it. It is jest as it is with that word “men” in the Declaration of Independence. Now that word “men” in that Declaration, means men some of the time, and some of the time men and wimmen both. It means both sexes when it relates to punishment, taxin’ property, obeyin’ the laws strictly, etc. etc., and then it goes right on the very next minute and means men only, as to wit, namely, votin’, takin’ charge of public matters, makin’ laws, etc.
Josiah continued: “I tell you it takes deep minds to follow on and see jest to a hair where the division is made. It takes statesmanship. Now take that claws, ‘All men are born free and equal. ‘ Now half of that means men and the other half men and wimmen. Now to understand them words perfect you have got to divide the tex. “Men are born.” That means men and wimmen both—men and wimmen are both born, nobody can dispute that. Then comes the next claws—‘Free and equal.’ Now that means men only; anybody with one eye can see that.”
“Then the claws, ‘True government consists,’” continued Josiah. “That means men and wimmen both—consists—of course the government consists of men and wimmen, ‘twould be a fool who would dispute that, “in the consent of the governed.’ That means men alone. Do you see, Samantha?” sez he.
I kept my eye fixed on the tea kettle, fer I stood with my tea-pot in hand waiting for it to bile—“I see a great deal, Josiah Allen.”