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On The Rights Of Women

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Emily watched her children file out of her class and shook her head; they seemed more restless than usual today. More talking, more acting out, more impatient questions than the constructive ones. More playing around with their devices.

One young woman constantly brushing back her hair, clutching her books to her chest, did catch her attention as being genuinely worried about something. She didn't manage to catch her before she left, and spent the next three minutes between bells in the doorway watching her next class stampede on by her, the tidal movements of children pouring through the halls and out of doorways again.

It reminded her of something, but she couldn't think what.

A century or more ago, Helena brushed her daughter's hair and reassured her that she wasn't doing badly at her sums. "You just need to pay more attention," she told her, with a soft smile and a light touch down her shining brown hair. "I know you can do it."

"I know." But the dejected girl didn't sound as though she knew she could do sums or literature or anything else she put her mind to, she sounded distracted and far away from the schoolroom.

Helena sighed and closed the book, putting it away. "All right. What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Christina swung her head from side to side, stubborn pout and all. She was at the age where if something was wrong she wouldn't tell her mother, Helena had to tease it out of her like teasing knots out of string. Very much like, she decided.

"It's not the boys again, is it?" Helena was skeptical, her daughter didn't have much use for boys right now, but that would come. Or, and it might be worse for her or it might be easier, she would find her diversions among games with her other girl friends.

"No, Mother, it's not the boys," the girl rolled her eyes. Pressed her lips together and made a wide, flat line of her mouth, heaving a dramatic sigh. "It's not all the boys. It's just one boy."

Helena waited. "And who is this boy?" she asked, when she decided Christina wasn't going to answer without prompting. "And what marvelous thing has he done to deserve so much of my girl's attention?"

"Nothing," she snapped. "He didn't do... it's what he said. He said girls weren't fit for studying or reading anything but the society pages, not even novels, because he said it unfits them for marriage and gives them funny ideas in their heads about love and marriage and..." Her daughter's eyes flamed. "He said that learning about science and math just makes them think that they can do things they're not suited for, and it isn't fair to teach oh mother," she looked up at her and wailed. "What if I'm not suited for this? What if I c--"

"All right," Helena's voice cracked out halfway through the two syllables. She felt her back stiffen with the old, familiar outrage. "I think that's quite enough of that. Whoever this boy is, he may have his opinions, and welcome to them, but we will not bring them here into our place of study." She was frightening her daughter. Who had never seen her mother so angry. Helena took a breath and put her memories away; this was about what was happening now, not what men had said years ago. "Are you enjoying your study? Do you enjoy this?"

"Well..." Her daughter gave it some serious thought, with a slightly more grave expression than Helena thought necessary, as though to underscore the fact that she was giving it Serious Thought. "I like it when I solve a problem. Or! Or when I can make a thing ... work." Her hands described shapes in the air. "I like it when I can build one of those simple machines and it does what it's supposed to. But I also like it when I make a fine painting or a sketch, and doesn't that mean I should..."

"It means absolutely nothing," Helena interrupted. "Except that you enjoy those things. It means nothing in and of itself, except that doing these things makes you happy. People think that because a woman can sketch or draw or play an instrument or look pretty in a drawing room, that means that is what she should confine herself to doing. But if we only confined ourselves to things we were good at, we'd never try anything new and society would never go anywhere, wouldn't it?"

Her daughter hadn't yet gotten used to expanding the scope of her vision enough to catch the causes and consequences of what happened to human society, but she tried to now. "I suppose so..."

"If we never tried anything new, we wouldn't have these cities, carriages, electricity... we wouldn't have books, because no one would have thought to carve letters onto tiny blocks, add ink to them and place them in the right order onto the paper."

"And that would be terrible," her daughter nodded gravely, catching the hint of her mother's smile.

"Exactly," Helena smiled. "So, yes. Read your books. Read whatever books you like, I may not be much of a one for tawdry or fanciful romance or stories of men and women playing at manners, but if that's what makes you happy, my darling, you do it. And the more power to you. Never mind what a man and a woman are supposed to do, a woman can do anything a man can do, and a man can do... almost everything a woman can do," she chuckled slightly. "I've yet to meet the man who can bear a child."

Her daughter tried to work out for a moment how that would be possible, before the inherent biological difficulties got her stuck and she made a couple of truly impressive faces. "Let's not think about that."

"Let's not," Helena agreed. "No, you do what makes you happy, Christina, because no one else is going to concern themselves with your happiness. It's few enough people in this world who do concern themselves with their own happiness," she added. "Let alone those who pursue it."

Christina nodded, and she did seem to smile a little more now. "What was that proof, again? I think if I do it another time or two..."

Emily Lake found the young woman again, still hunched over her books and this time fumbling with her glasses and device and backpack all at once, after the last class. "Miss?" she approached, touching her shoulder. The girl jumped, turned around with a look as though she expected Emily to yell at her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"Yes?" The girl's eyes blinked wide as she jammed the glasses back on her face. "No, you didn't, I just, I thought I turned in..."

"It's not about your paper, your paper was fine. I thought you might want to talk?"

"About what?" Even more frightened.

"About... well, about whatever's bothering you? You look worried about something. Here..." Emily reached out to straighten her glasses, gently and slowly so that the girl, Romola, she remembered her name was, could back away if she felt pressed. "There, that's better. Is it the boys?" It was high school. Almost everything was about the opposite sex.

"No, it's not about the boys..." Romola pushed her hand through her hair. "Okay, it's not about... it's not like that, about boys..."