There was no response. So Sagacia got down in her friend’s face and said, “What’s going on?”
Simplia jumped, as if startled, and said, “What?!”
“That’s what I asked you. What is going on?” Sagacia spoke slowly, distinctly, as if she were talking to a simpleton, which, in fact, she was. “You’re clutching all those new letters in a death grip and you’re staring off into space. Let me see who else has a response for Activist in Oslo.”
Gene Helmick-Richardson wrote: In an age where women often died in childbirth (because all the old midwives had been burned at the stake) and plague and pox and other dread diseases were rampant the chances of having a stepmother were much greater than now. The royal families were reflected in the lower classes where biological parents were obviously prone to prejudice for their own children. There is a kind of biological “genetic imperative” at play in wanting “your own” to survive, even to the detriment of “the others.”
In a monotone, Simplia responded, “In an age where the divorce rate is what it currently is, chances of having a stepmother are just as high now as they ever were.”
“But it’s different now,” Sagacia reasoned. “Women don’t have to be under the wing of a man in order to survive anymore, like David Thompson reminds us.”
What we understand as the evil stepmother was codified in the fairy tales of the late 17th early 18th century fairytale salons in Paris. Since women had absolutely no rights period, they couldn’t even inherit a late husband’s wealth, the widow would find a rich widower and marry him. She would then begin to look out after her own children at the expense of the new husband’s children, at times even alienating the husband from his own children.
Fran Stallings offered a plausible rationale for the occurrence in fairy tales of so many cold-hearted stepmothers:
I have read that the bros Grimm had intended their collections for fellow adults, but when they discovered that parents were reading the tales to kids, they changed some of the evil biological mothers to step mothers.
Sagacia went on, “And see here. Jane Dorfman makes a good point. Sometimes birth mothers — not just step-mothers — don’t bond with a kid.”
Sometimes it’s the mother that’s the threat. In ‘One My Darling” from Haiti, the mother has four daughters, three of whom she loves and one whom she does not–no reasons given. It makes the story more intense than if it was a step-mother…
“You’re right.” Simplia concurred, but it was flat and half-hearted. “And if all step-families had gone to the ‘Robin Bady School of Blended Family Advocacy,‘ there’d be a lot fewer fairy tales, but a lot more ‘happily ever afters.’”
She offered Sagacia a letter with a Brooklyn postmark and a monogram that read “RB.”
I want to join the Stepmothers’ Anti-Defamation League. Hell, I will found it if necessary! In the olden days, the struggle was about money. How does a woman who can’t keep her husband’s money survive? On the kindnesses of her children.
Nowadays, most of us are like the stepmother in “The Lion’s Whisker”. Trying, trying, trying and struggling.
…We need more positive role models! We need friends in literary places! We need scholars and educators as well as Jungians looking at these tales!!
Who wants to join the Stepmother’s Anti Defamation League?
“But see, here’s the thing,” Simplia insisted. “My step-mother was cold, jealous, manipulative, dishonest, and cruel. At least, she was that way toward my siblings and me. Everybody else took her for a saint.”
Sagacia had been rendered uncharacteristically speechless.
Simplia continued, “I am acquainted with some people who I’m sure are dandy step-parents. BUT, I know one person who embodied the ‘wicked’ stereotype. Let me tell you — I have taken comfort in some of those outmoded, regressive tales where the family dynamic is as harsh as these childhood memories I see hovering about a thousand yards out there on the horizon. We’re focused so much on unfair stereotypes that we forget that the archetype exists for solid reasons.”
Sagacia found her voice. “Bless your heart,” she said. “Do you need a hug?”
“Yeah,” said Simplia. “After you’ve read my favorite letter in this batch.”
Another quick note from Fran Stallings, and a whole new can of worms:
Jealous stepmothers are not unique to European lore. There are fewer tales about stepfathers, which is strange considering that human males, like those of many other species, are inclined to kill their mate’s offspring from a previous male. I’m afraid the news reports children killed/abused by new boyfriends almost weekly. Where are the folktales about this?