Marnie Anderson - Associate Professor, Department of History, Smith College
What was possible for a former geisha in late nineteenth-century Japan? This talk focuses on the life of one Sumiya Koume (1850-1920), a geisha who was a concubine before becoming a social activist and Christian missionary. Anderson analyzes what her life reveals about opportunities for some women in the Meiji period (1868-1912). While scholars normally divide women of this period into two categories—those based in households and those available for hire—and frame their experiences in terms of the “good wife, wise mother” (ryōsai kenbo) paradigm or the birth of feminism, Anderson argues that these categories and frameworks are too limiting for understanding the actual experiences of some women. Movement between the categories was possible for Sumiya given the particular combination of circumstances that emerged in the late nineteenth century. To shed light on her many “careers,” Anderson addresses several representations of her in Japanese and in English from the 1890s, including one extant piece she wrote herself, ”Geisha Should Not Become Concubines.” In the end, Anderson considers larger questions about changes in gender categories and access to public space across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transformations that made a trajectory like Sumiya’s unthinkable by the 1930s.