If you were to run down the list of the great Stoics of history, who would come to mind?
What do all those people have in common? They were all men. In fact, you really have to look—and stretch—to come up with even one or two “accepted” female Stoics. Does this mean that Stoicism is just for men? Or that it’s been entirely composed of men for the last twenty five hundred years? Do you think Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the male Stoics had a monopoly on suffering? On courage? On mastering emotions? On being disappointed? Of having to make due with an imperfect world? No. Not at all. It’s an omission that needs to be addressed.
When the biographer Robert Caro was researching what life in Texas was like in the late 19th and early 20th century, he and his wife were appalled by what they found. Just how primitive and tough things were. Most of all, how much backbreaking work was expected of women—doing loads of laundry by hand, carrying endless amounts of water, cooking so much food in such incredible heat, fear of Native Americans, the terrible loneliness and isolation. After speaking to one woman, his wife, Ena, finally said, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again.” She was just disgusted at how much of the picture had been left out by historians and writers. Robert Caro would write later about how much this experience opened his eyes: “You hear a lot about gunfights in Westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling the water after a perineal tear.”
Women have had to deal with trials like these as much as, if not more than, the famous Stoics we read and talk about so much here. Certainly, they had to put up with being underappreciated, misunderstood, taken for granted, and being deprived of many critical rights. They did all that on top of having to give birth…and know that they might well die going into it.
The fact that they did this, along with countless other sacrifices and daily obligations, and did so bravely and patiently for so long is proof that they are true Stoics. And not only do they deserve our respect for it—but they have a thing or two to teach everyone else about what focusing only on what you can control really looks like.
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