A Nineteenth-Century "Womanist" on Gender Issues: Edith J. Simcox in Her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker

Article excerpt

Edith J. Simcox (1844-1901) was a respected public figure who kept a private journal from 1876 to 1900 in which she recorded her activities as scholar, reformer, and businesswoman, as well as secrets of her unrequited love for George Eliot and her observations on gender issues.

Edith J. Simcox was born on August 21, 1844, and began to keep a personal journal, which she called Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, (1) in May of 1876. From 1876 until a few months before her death in 1901, Simcox recorded the day-to-day activities involved in her public life as a prolific writer, businesswoman, member of the London School Board, and social reformer. Her candor and wit make her Autobiography a unique repository of observations on gender issues from the perspective of a woman who is involved in many roles usually reserved for men. Simcox also uses her journal as a private diary in which she confides personal matters, including her secret love for the novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) and her pain that the love is not returned. From 1961, with Keith A. McKenzie's publication of his booklength study Edith Simcox and George Eliot, (2) based on his reading of the manuscript of the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, until the 1998 publication of the entire journal, Simcox has been known almost exclusively in connection with Eliot. However, during Edith Simcox's life, she chose never to discuss her unrequited love with any other person but saved her confessions for the pages of her autobiography, which she writes is "not the autobiography of a shirtmaker but of a love" (32). Simcox's journal entries continued for nineteen years after Eliot's death on December 22, 1880. Throughout the entire Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, Simcox makes it perfectly clear in numerous entries that she determined that all she accomplished should serve as a tribute to Eliot and as a monument to her memory. Until her own death on September 15, 1901, Simcox worked diligently "to build for her a monument in the bettering of words and deeds to come" (137). Both Simcox's reform efforts and her writings provide an impressive legacy. This article will first focus on the self-revelatory private details recorded in the Autobiography of a Shirtmaker concerning Edith Simcox's love for Eliot, her attitudes toward marriage, her friendships with women other than Eliot, and her sense of her own androgyny. It will also discuss the gender issues related to Simcox's diligent efforts to better the lives of working class men, women, and children.

I think Edith Simcox would have thought it appropriate to label herself a "womanist," according to Alice Walker's definition in her In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. She is an example of "A woman who loves other women, sexually and nonsexually ... Appreciates and prefers women's culture ... and women's strength.... Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." (3) Edith Simcox loved Eliot sexually and nonsexually although Eliot returned her love in neither sense, and Simcox sustained many positive nonsexual relationships with women who reciprocated her friendship. In her public life Simcox dedicated her time, energy, and writing to worthwhile causes that would improve the survival and wholeness of men and women, but especially to help provide better economic, educational, and social opportunities for women. As an ardent reformer, she was a positive role model for other women and often wrote about women who could serve as examples for other women to follow. She advocated that women be given more freedom of choice in all matters--particularly in being able to vote and in being able to decide for themselves whether or not to marry. In every aspect of her own life, Edith Simcox demonstrated that an educated woman with sufficient economic independence could enjoy privileges equal to those available to men.

In all of her roles Simcox is secure in her androgynous sense of self and makes it clear in her Autobiography of a Shirtmaker that she consciously transformed her intense pain in having Eliot reject her love into the positive energy that fueled her many accomplishments. …