Why is Barbara Fritchie not an American Feminist Icon?
After Confederate Troops marched into Frederick, Maryland (Yankee soil) and were given orders to shoot down all the American flags, a brave 94-year old woman stated (according to Whittier’s poem) “Shoot if you must, this old gray head…but spare this Country’s flag”. This was surely a bad-ass moment for women everywhere, but hold on! Barbara Fritchie is barely remembered today, is thought to have not actually done this deed, and (along with other female American would-be patriotic heroines) not recognized by modern feminists…why?
To begin, it was most likely Fritchie’s neighbor Mary Quantrill (or young Nancy Crouse), who waved the flag in the face of Johnny Reb that day, and Stonewall Jackson probably didn’t say “Who touches a hair on yon gray head, dies like a dog…march on!”. But I can still remember the fire in my sainted grandmother’s eyes as she recited the poem on July 4ths of more than 60 years ago, as though she’d witnessed the taking of Frederick, Maryland herself (along with the obvious patriotic overtones). She and Grandpa had doubtless heard stories from her Pennsylvania grandparents (who experienced the Civil War and 1863 “Northern Invasion” first hand). Along with Mollie Pitcher, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, Harriet Tubman, and others, Fritchie (who may have also had a hand in popularizing the “Star Spangled Banner”) would seem to merit iconic status, if perhaps as much legend as truth. Perhaps as the journalist said while attempting to describe Jimmy Stewart’s exploits in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. (McCartney, 2012)
Perhaps Fritchie was present, or helped inspire Quantrell (or Crouse) to wave our flag in front of armed southern troops, perhaps it was General A.P. Hill, not Jackson, that had a verbal confrontation with Quantrell (and perhaps decided it would be “bad optics” to shoot a woman, in Quantrell’s case one in her late 30s). Author John Greenleaf Whittier may have garbled the account, or perhaps decided that 94-year old Fritchie made a better stand-in for respected feminine patriotic fervor, we may never know. But does it matter? The subtext of the poem and the Fritchie/Jackson profiles may be the most telling. My ancestors spoke of Stonewall Jackson in reverential tones (odd since my 8 g-g-grandfathers all fought for the Union Army, most at Antietam around the time this event occurred). Since Jackson was a deeply religious man, I believe this spoke to the tragic/romantic overtones of the conflict, that both sides shared religious or masonic beliefs, and often felt regret at the perceived betrayals of flag, religion, and basic respect. Fritchie was born before the revolution (1764) and a devoted Unionist, and indeed waved a flag in front of Union troops the same month (Sept. 1862, after Antietam and before Gettysburg). It should be explained that residents of Maryland and Pennsylvania (where General Lee’s invasion took place) were in Yankee territory (with some Southern sympathy) and Northerners were shocked (terrified?) at Lee’s audacity and the potential of total war or loss affecting their families and values. That an elderly woman (dating back to the Revolution and Francis Scott Key) defied Lee’s army must have been a terrific rallying point at the time, embellished or not. It is also classic in the sense that man or woman, young or old, the hero can be summoned from within to save the day. The patriotic fervor of the times drove home the point that WOMEN (especially old ones) HAD GUTS! Modern times have changed this construct, and movie-makers would probably rather make 94-year old Barbara Fritchie a hot, buff 22-year old who kicks Stonewall in the balls (if he’d survived that, perhaps he’d have been called “Stoneball” Jackson?).
There are many tales of yore, accounting for a woman’s bravery in war/patriotism, when their lives were on the line. Starting with…oh let’s say Joan of Arc in the 1400s, drawing a line to Pitcher (a revolutionary war camp-follower who took over her husband’s cannon firing after he fell), Tubman (who actually led a Civil War raid to free slaves), and let’s say Leigh Ann Hester (in the Iraq War, who received the Silver Star) among others. What is peculiar is that modern American feminism does not accept these heroes (nor many women of yore, including authors) as female icons. On the West Coast, I’ve found very few people who have ever even heard of Barbara Fritchie (while on the East Coast, many of my parents generation had her memory etched into their brains). Modern American Feminism may have made the mistake of ditching Patriotic themes as part of the infamous Phyllis Schlafly political battles, not wishing to seem too “Republican” and alienating their largely younger, hipper, freer, LGBTer, audience. Later, Third Wave Feminism made a conscious effort to disavow some of these women’s contributions (in literature, for instance) prior to 1950, as being “tainted by a man’s world” (it may have actually been marketing for current women’s books by exclusion?) This seems incredibly biased (are you listening from somewhere Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Ann Evans, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Charmian London?) if not patently untrue. To get noticed in the olden days, a woman probably really did have to be ten times braver/better and so they deserve our praise, regardless of the arena. (Austen, 1976),(Kelly, 2018),(Thomas, 2004),(Anand, 2019),(Britannica.com,n.d.),(Spampinato, 2018),(Sommers, 2000)
What may be happening at-large is a “hens and roosters” parable. Somehow, we all know that hens run the place and do most of the work. However, roosters (who fight like hell to protect) get the notoriety as their actions are more “box office”. Yet you know that any dying rooster is all about his girl (girls?) and his Mom. The hens have incredible de facto power, and in the 1800s they were additionally helping protect the flock while getting a greater voice for hens, while freeing “caged hens”. The roosters did most of the dying, but were perhaps doing it all for the love of the hens? Modern hens cackle at these brave (and forgotten) old hens and roosters, thinking themselves more highly evolved with choices, but when the flock is preyed upon, some of those choices will evaporate. In the olden days, some of the hens had to even join the fight.
The marketing mistake of some modern feminists is leaving behind the natural constituency of brave, elderly, and patriotic women (not to mention women who love their families and kids). From a male standpoint, the Barbara Fritchies of the world are the women they secretly love (the way I loved my Grandmother who recited the poem). A note to Naomi Wolf’s publicist might read “be sure to include brave elderly women, as men consider them to die for, and you may need some men to help your movement succeed”. But of course this line of thinking went bye-bye a long time ago, and many women that men love might be considered “traitors to the sisterhood” (who would rather just taunt men). Is this why feminists never won over church women, giving nutty Republicans a chance to win the 2016 election and endangering future elections ala Donald Trump? Barbara Fritchie may be a stand-in for heroic women of yore, if not everything the poem claims. One imagines that she is watching from somewhere, not proclaiming that her vagina roars, and wondering why brave women of yesteryear are forgotten, when they fended off slavery, risked their lives, and helped build much of what is good about this country (including much of what was until recently considered rational). Is angry Betty Friedan or naughty Miley Cyrus a rallying point for bravely righting wrongs (and inspiring men), or are they aimless, self-aggrandizing sissies?