I’m reading Gone With The Wind again, for the first time in about 30 years. I didn’t mean to, but I found a lovely, perfectly clean copy at Goodwill for $1.49 and couldn’t resist buying it (such a bargain). And then, of course, once it was in the house, I kind of opened it to the first page: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.” I was hooked all over again.
There is no doubt that the book is a very painful reminder of the racism about blacks that filled the American mind, not just during the Civil War, but in the 30s when the book was written and became one of the greatest bestsellers of all time, as well as in the many decades after. Mitchell’s writing about blacks and slavery makes one writhe just reading it.
But if you scooch by those offending passages and focus on the rest of the book, it is truly a masterpiece. It’s a phenomenal evocation of a lost era, one that willingly hurled itself onto the funeral pyre of an unwinnable war. It’s a fantastic character study of a young women who is so shallow and self-centered one ought to hate her, but who is also so honest, fearless and determined that she becomes a mesmerizing figure who has fascinated generations of readers. One of the things that makes Scarlett such a great character is the way in which, with Rhett Butler’s help, she breaks the chains that bound women in the South who, for all that they were ostensibly “cherished,” were also deeply imprisoned by the conventions of the time. Indeed, one of the book’s most memorable moments includes precisely such a moment of liberation.
Whether you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you all remember the charity ball Scarlett attends, swathed in the widows’ weeds she was condemned to wear for years after her husband’s death. That same convention demanded that widows remove themselves entirely from social interaction, withdrawing to the home to mourn endlessly. Scarlett’s appearance at the ball, hidden in a corner booth, was due solely to the exigencies of the war. You also recall that, in the auction to lead off the first dance, Rhett bid $150 dollars in gold for Scarlett’s hand, and Scarlett scandalized the assembly by taking him up on the offer. What you probably don’t remember is the conversation Scarlett and Rhett had before he made that bid:
“I have always thought,” he said reflectively, “that the system of mourning, of immuring women in crepe for the rest of their lives and forbidding them normal enjoyment is just as barbarous as the Hindu suttee.”
He laughed and she blushed for her ignorance. She hated people who used words unknown to her.
“In India, when a man dies he is burned, instead of buried, and his wife always climbs on the funeral pyre and is burned with him.”
“How dreadful! Why do they do it? Don’t the police do anything about it?”
“Of course not. A wife who didn’t burn herself would be a social outcast. All the worthy Hindu matrons would talk about her for not behaving as a well-bred lady should — precisely as those worthy matrons in the corner would talk about you, should you appear tonight in a red dress and lead a reel. Personally, I think suttee much more merciful than our charming Southern custom of burying widows alive.”
“How dare you say I’m buried alive!”
“How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them! You think the Hindu custom barbarous — but would you have had the courage to appear here tonight of the Confederacy hadn’t needed you?”
Arguments of this character were always confusing to Scarlett. His were doubly confusing because she had a vague idea there was truth in them.
What Rhett knew, the leader of American Reform Jewry apparently has not yet figured out. According to Dennis Prager, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in a speech to American Muslims at a meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, asked “Why should anyone criticize the voluntary act of a woman who chooses to wear a headscarf or a veil? Surely the choice these women make deserves our respect, not to mention the full protection of the law.” Prager, echoing Rhett’s words about societal strictures that render women invisible, answered:
In the long history of women’s inequality, it is difficult to name almost anything more anti-woman, dehumanizing and degrading than the veil. We know people by their face. Without seeing a person’s face, we feel that we do not know the person. When we read about someone in the news, whether known for good or ill, we immediately study the person’s face. One can have one’s entire body covered, and it means nothing in terms of whether we feel we know the person. But cover a person’s face, and the person might as well be invisible.
Indeed, the veiled woman is intended to be invisible. That is precisely the goal of the veil.
In light of the veil’s dehumanization of women, how could anyone, especially a rabbi on the left, say he respects a woman choosing to wear a veil?
It is not new for cultures to try to hide their women for one reason or another. It is always a dehumanizing thing that leaves the women, as Rhett said, “buried alive.” That the reform rabbi would be unable to grasp this, something that has been recognized in the West since at least 1936, when GWTW was published, is both sad and shocking.