Saturday, February 10, 2018

Give Margaret Jewett Bailey her #MeToo Moment: Ruth Rover and The Grains is Justified Rage

Original 1854 title page
via Wikipedia/Oregon Encyclopedia
(Stuff happens and sometimes it's necessary to revisit things.)

The headlines of this past week have brought back to mind that we have an account of harassment and abuse at Jason Lee's Methodist Mission and in early Oregon we still haven't properly honored and absorbed into our official histories, The Grains, or Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover with Occasional Pictures of Oregon.

Wednesday: Pervasive and enduring
Thursday: Defiant
Friday: Resigns, but still defiant
After her time at Jason Lee's Methodist Mission and other activity in the Oregon Territory, in 1854 Margaret Jewett Bailey published a hard-to-classify book, Ruth Rover. The blurb for OSU's modern edition is typical and subtly discounts it, stressing it as "a novel" and using the lightly condescending rhetoric of "unique and provocative":
This autobiographical novel, first published in 1854, is generally considered the first novel written and published in the Pacific Northwest. Bailey provides a unique and provocative view of many prominent figures in early Oregon history.
It's not just "unique and provocative" like she was stirring the pot and making trouble. That's how we dismiss claims by "difficult" women. The books' claims are likely very true. In this last year of #metoo, it is increasingly clear that we should look past the "fiction" tag of Ruth Rover and believe it as essentially true. The accent should be on autobiography and the default assumption should be that it is true. We should believe Margaret Jewett Bailey. It is unfair not to.

Each time I read scenes like this it seems less and less likely that they are padded out or reshaped with untrue details, either with extra mustard or with outright falsehood. The behavior of these ministers and religious leaders at the Mission, "Reverend Mr. Leland" (David Leslie) and "Mr. Wiley" (William Willson), is despicable, even allowing for differences between 19th century and 21st century customs and different historical understandings of fairness or equality. They are using power and public shame to force marriage, sex, or both. Margaret is absolutely heroic for naming it.
IT cannot be supposed, considering the scarcity of females in Oregon in the days of its early settlement, that Ruth Rover, even with as few fascinations as she possessed, could be long in the country without receiving an offer of marriage—whether it were dictated by love or as a matter of convenience—consequently, she had been but a few days in the Willamette settlement when a very officious gentleman said to her, "Well, sister Ruth, I suppose you will have no objections to marry? it is pretty generally understood that the young ladies come out ostensibly on that errand, although they profess to be teachers"....

...Rev. Mr. Leland, pastor of the church, who called on Miss Rover, in company with Mr. Wiley, and said he had come on an unpleasant errand, but if she would take the proper steps it might be soon passed over, and then asked her, as he said, "'in the authority of her pastor, if she had committed the crime of adultery or fornication with Mr. Wiley?"

She, astonished, replied quickly, "No!"

He then asked Mr. Wiley if he had "been guilty of committing that crime with Miss Rover?"

He attempted to answer, but his deeply wrought feelings choked his utterance, and he only articulated, "O! dear!—I—I—am in the hands of my brethren—they—they—may do as they ple—ple—ase with me!"

Mr. Leland then told Ruth that "her best course would be to confess her fault, and 'twould be all over—'twould not hurt her at all—the brethren would forgive her—he knew of two methodist ministers who were guilty of that error—before marriage, but they confessed it and it was all passed over. But he would have her remember that if she refused to confess, it was in his power to suspend her labors in that mission."

Ruth replied that she was not at all disinclined to make confession of any wrong act of which she was guilty—that she fully and freely confessed she had done wrong in keeping company with Mr. Wiley after he had proposed improper intercourse with her, but the crime of which he spoke she never had committed with him nor with any other.

Mr. Leland added: "'Twill not do—you must acknowledge it, for the brethren will be satisfied with nothing else!" and having told her he should call again, he went away.

In a few hours he came again with a paper on which was written:

"To the M. E. Church in Oregon:

"DEAR BRETHREN—With deep regret I have to acknowledge to you that I have been guilty of the crime of fornication.—hoping God to forgive me," &c.

He asked Ruth to sign it. She read it and gave it to him again, saying she was not guilty.
And any notions that Margaret Jewett Bailey was "difficult" or "didn't smile enough"?


Ruth Rover's not a fun read or an easy read, but then it's not supposed to be a novel for pleasure or light reading. In order to speak out, to say important things she had no other way to say, Jewett Bailey worked creatively in the seams between memoir and novel, and the book rarely satisfies our genre expectations. More importantly, the book is angry and seeks justice. She did not obtain it during her life, but maybe if more of us read it, we could honor her better in the future.

Additional links...

1 comment:

mark said...

An excellent book about Margaret Jewett Bailey is "Grist" by Rosalie Marten, local author.
It gives well researched insight into the American settlement of the Willamette Valley and the characters involved.