Martha Washington, Emma Peel and ideas

Posted on August 17, 2010


In 1998, I published an essay titled “Martha Washington, Emma Peel and ideas.” At the time, Martha Washington was a popular subject for biographers and historians and my childhood TV hero, Mrs. Emma Peel, ever-popular among cult-TV types, was back in the spotlight.

Mrs. Emma Peel

Given the theme of my most recent post (“Celebrate the Power of an Idea”), I thought it might be interesting to revisit the essay. Here it is–in substantially the same form as it originally appeared in The Crimson White (Thursday, Jan. 22, 1998). I made a few minor edits to improve the flow. I write; therefore, I edit. Here it is:

Martha Washington, wife of George, is [was] the new “hot” subject among historians, while cult icon, Mrs. Emma Peel, is back in the pop culture spotlight thanks to a film remake of the popular 60s TV program, The Avengers set for release this summer [1998].

Martha Washington

It’s interesting that the popularity of these two female “personalities” would converge in 1998, just as they did in the early years of my life, way back in 1968-69. Although Emma Peel may have been John Steed’s equal partner on The Avengers, the “women’s movement” hadn’t quite reached small-town Alabama. ‘Married women’s property laws’ were relatively new and integration was the hot social issue at the time. After the summer of love, American society was stumbling headfirst into the year of destruction.

It was in this environment that the “founding fathers” (and their wives) entered the stage, courtesy of my first grade class. I well remember my acting debut. I was Martha Washington–the belle of the ball–in the midst of the Constitutional Convention. I still have a newspaper photograph of the first grade founding fathers, resplendent in their breeches, knee socks and powdered wigs (crafted from paper towels), me as Martha Washington–wearing ringlet curls, and my friends as Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams. The storyline loosely followed the debates and discussions surrounding the crafting of our Constitution.

Martha Washington

My most significant line in the play–the one that stands out vividly in my mind: “I have an idea.” Not exactly Shakespeare but significant, nonetheless, because of the reply these words invoked.

“That’s silly. Girls don’t have ideas,” retorted one of the founding fathers, maybe even my hubby, George. My little five-year-old mind immediately thought “wait a minute, something is wrong here.” My mother certainly had ideas. So did my aunts and grandmothers. I had seen them all express their ideas, vehemently at times. And never once did the men in my family disregard these ideas or opinions simply because they were expressed by women.

What registered in my mind was that someone had failed to tell the author of that school play that girls did have ideas, lots of them, and good ones at that. Just ask John Adams about some of Abigail’s ideas.

Ben Franklin in France

Or talk with Ben Franklin–he loved to spend hours talking and corresponding with his “mistresses” about ideas, big and small.

Egads! [Maybe I didn’t think that word in the 60s but it seems to express in 1998 what I felt back then.] The first-grade Sheree had spent the past year watching Emma Peel brandish her mental and physical superiority to avenge the misdeeds of all manner of blackguards and rogues.

Mrs. Peel

We even learned in ‘The Master Minds’ episode that Mrs.  Peel’s IQ was higher than John Steed’s. So why couldn’t my Martha Washington put in her two-cents worth at the Convention?

Fortunately, my parents and family had instilled in me the belief that girls can, and do, have ideas. I’ve never been discouraged from pursuing my goals, however non-traditional they might appear to be. Unfortunately, in many regards, the attitudes of the the playwright are still with us in 1998, perhaps somewhat obscured by the veil of legal guarantees of “equal rights.”

I hope the interest in Martha Washington [and Abigail Adams] and The Avengers–especially Mrs. Emma Peel–will encourage other young women to stand up for themselves and pursue their goals as equals of, neither superior nor inferior to, men.

It takes more than legislation and Supreme Court decisions to change a culture. A family environment and an educational system that encourages young women to follow their dreams and ambitions in the same way that young men are encouraged is vital to lasting change. A positive pop cultural icon like Emma Peel doesn’t hurt either.

We have made progress. After all, I suppose I should consider it a success that Martha Washington, Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams were even included in my first grade play about the Constitutional Convention. In reality, in 1787 they were all probably at home baking cookies.

Keep in mind that this was written in 1998, not 2010. The “baking cookies” reference was to Hillary Clinton’s jibe about baking cookies in the 1992 presidential campaign.