The weather outside was cold and dreary, but the Andrews house was warm with laughter and gossip. Elizabeth and some other gentry women of Williamsburg sat near a toasty fireplace and sewed. Nearly everyone was curious about the man staying in the Andrews’ home.
“He’s a friend of John from Yale,” Elizabeth explained. “I cannot say I know all that much about him.”
Susannah Randolph, Elizabeth’s closest friend, detected something in Elizabeth’s tone and face that said she was not telling the complete truth, but she didn’t question it.
“He’s quite handsome,” Anne Cresswell said. “Do you know anything of his family?”
Elizabeth lied again. “No, but he did attend Yale.”
Modesty Montgomery, the youngest of the group at only 16, let out a groan. Everyone looked at her.
“Must we always talk about men?” She complained, throwing down her embroidery in frustration. “Surely there is something more interesting to discuss! All we ever do at these things is talk about who the eligible bachelors are, what dresses everyone is wearing to whatever ball, and other boring things. Can’t we ever talk about anything interesting?”
“You aren’t being very ladylike,” Anne chastised.
“Why should I be ladylike? It’s dull and restricting!”
At this, Elizabeth groaned, though she had the decency and manners to keep it inside and not out loud.
“You act as though it is shameful to be a woman,” Elizabeth accused.
“Well what good is it to be a woman? I don’t want to be like the rest of you and just sit at home until some man comes to take me away and then just sit at home for the rest of my life but this time with children of my own.”
“Is it wrong for a woman to want to be a lady and a mother?”
“Yes! You of all people should agree with me! You’re always talking about women being allowed to do more!”
“I would rather be ladylike than be a man, which is what you’re doing.”
“How am I being a man?”
“Telling women what they should and should not do? Judging them for the choices they make? From my experience, that accounts for nearly all that a man ever says to a woman.”
“I only mean that-”
“Modesty, it would do you well to better live by your name. Nothing will ever come of complaining and yelling and arguing.”
“All you ever do is argue, especially with men.”
“But I do it with wit and facts, not shouting and fallacies.”
Modesty grumbled to herself and stabbed her embroidery with the needle.
“I think you’ll find that you have a lot more power when you conform to society’s rules,” Elizabeth began. Anne and her sister Lydia looked at each other and rolled their eyes in anticipation of another one of Elizabeth’s sermons. Susannah took her attention away from her sewing and listened intently to Elizabeth. Elizabeth continued. “When every bit of your existence, your hair, your clothes,the way you walk and talk, the things you say, remains within the boundaries deemed acceptable by society, there is nothing they can fault you for. People are more willing to hear you speak your mind if you dress and act correctly otherwise, but if your appearance is unkempt and you act like a sailor, no one will take anything you say seriously. You may have great ideas, but people will dismiss them based on irrelevant faults like your volume and tone or whether your clothing is in the latest fashion. Obey society’s rules, and you can change them.”
“Thank you for the lecture,” Modesty said sarcastically. “But I’m going to keep living how I want to.”
“And I’m never going to marry and have children.”
“There is nothing better for a woman to do than have children. For how else can one change the world if not through the mind of a child? One must influence the mind of a child to influence the mind of humanity.”
“Do you ever tire of hearing yourself speak?”
Phila entered with a tray of desserts, providing a much needed breaking of the tensions in the room. Elizabeth had never gotten along with Modesty, but she continued to be friendly to her in hopes of changing her.
Modesty stuffed a tart in her mouth while maintaining eye contact with Elizabeth, as if to spite her. Elizabeth knew what she was doing and ignored her. She wasn’t the girl’s mother.
After another hour of sewing and gossip, Modesty and the Creswell sisters departed, thanking Elizabeth for the hospitality and company. Elizabeth expected Susannah to follow them, but instead she moved closer to Elizabeth and lowered her voice so that no one else could hear them, although there was no one else in the house for them to worry about.
“There’s something you aren’t telling me,” Susannah guessed knowingly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We’ve been friends for eight years. I know when you’re only giving half of the information you know.”
“In regards to what? The latest trends in footwear?”
“No! The man staying in your home!”
“I knew it!”
“The way you just said that, pretending you don’t care. Who is he really?”
“I told you, he’s John’s friend from Yale. John convinced him to come to Williamsburg with him.”
“And how do you feel about him being here?”
“How should I feel? I hardly know him.”
“You’re lying again.”
Elizabeth looked around, checking to be sure that no one had slipped in while they weren’t paying attention.
“Fine. I met him when I went to New Haven.”
“And what? We talked about literature, I disagreed with him, he was annoyed.”
“Well I danced with him at a ball, but I danced with several men.”
Susannah gave her a knowing smirk.
“And do you think there are any more dances in your future?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “He’s awkward and boring. I only danced with him to annoy someone else. I’m sure I’ll do the same to him if we’re ever at the same ball again.”
Susannah was not convinced, but she pretended she was satisfied with Elizabeth’s answers. She bid her friend farewell and they promised each other that they would see each other sometime soon.
After Susannah left, the front door opened, letting in a gust of cold, December wind. John and Benjamin entered shivering.
“You must come warm yourselves!” Elizabeth insisted when she saw John’s teeth chattering. “There’s still some tarts leftover from when my friends were here.”
John and Benjamin joined Elizabeth by the fire.
“Who came?” John asked.
“The usual ladies. Susannah, Lydia and Anne Creswell, and Modesty.”
John detected some animosity in the way his sister said “Modesty”.
“What did she do this time?” John was well aware of Elizabeth’s dislike of the stubborn, coarse young girl.
“The same thing she always does! She thinks it’s a curse to be a woman!”
“No good is going to come of denouncing your own sex. Her intentions are good. She just wants to be treated equally, but she goes about it all wrong and makes us all look bad.”
John helped himself to the leftover tarts. “Why do you keep inviting her, then?” He asked, with a mouthful of tarts, leaving a dusting of crumbs on his jacket.
“It would be rude not to. And besides, there is hope that with enough of my influence she’ll eventually be at least a little less rude.”
“Lizzie, you truly are a blend of optimism and vanity like I’ve never seen before.”
“I know that I’m intelligent and people tend to like me. Why should I deny it?”
“Yes, but you need not always be so arrogant.”
“If I were a man, people would call it confidence.”
“But you’re not a man.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. She had given her brother enough lectures about the injustices against women imbedded into society. She thought it best to change the subject and see what else she could argue about.
“What were you two doing out in this weather?” She asked.
“I took Ben to the bookstore,” John explained. “I thought he should read A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
“I take it you are not a fan of Mr. Jefferson,” Ben judged from Elizabeth’s expression.
Elizabeth was glad to have something to argue about. “I find fault with his writings on liberty and freedom.”
“Do you not believe in these things?”
“I do. That is why I find fault with his writings.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“May I see your copy?”
Ben nodded and handed it to her. She skimmed through the pages until she found her spot.
“‘To remind him that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.’” She quoted.
Phila entered to clear the plates and tea cups from the room.
“What of that do you find fault with?” Ben asked.
“I have to wonder, who does Mr. Jefferson want freedom for? Who deserves these rights of Englishmen?”
“Why, all men of course.”
“All men? Including the slaves?”
Phila worked quicker, wanting to get out of the room now that she had become the topic of discussion.
“‘Our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants’. Were slaves not once free inhabitants of Africa?”
“They were never British citizens like our ancestors were, and thus do not qualify for the rights of Englishmen,” John argued.
“So does Mr. Jefferson only want rights for Englishmen? What of the Scottish? Or the French? Or the Dutch? Do these people not deserve rights?”
“I thought so.”
Elizabeth felt satisfied with herself and departed.
“I take it your sister is not a patriot,” Ben guessed once Elizabeth was gone.
“No, she’s much too independent to even stand with people who believe in independence.”