Harriet the (Gender) Spy

Harriet M. Welsch is a childhood friend of mine. She’s been in my heart since 4th grade, when I began my own habit of carrying notebooks to “clear my brain like a laxative” as her Ole Golly instructs her from the age 8.

It’s because of this brutally honest portrayal, of a genuinely flawed child on the brink of puberty, that Louise Fitzhugh’s ever-popular book still winds up on Banned Book lists every year.

Often cited as a “bad example” that will encourage nastiness, lying, and sneaking. As though these are qualities children would never posses if someone did not dangle them like a carrot in front of their pure angelic souls.

There’s no question that Harriet is at times nasty, sneaky, and manipulative. The notebooks she marks “Private” are labeled as such with good reason. Harriet already knows many of her thoughts are only for herself. That’s why they’re so unabashed and even, as she describes her own thoughts at times, ugly.

Harriet the Spy is ultimately a story of learning how to be true to oneself while also bending your overly rigid moral code. But it is not Harriet’s development as a child that brought me back as a thirty-something reader. Rather, it is her own unfiltered take on other girls, women, and femininity itself.

Especially after I gained the knowledge that her own author was an out lesbian from an upper-class background not unlike her protagonist. And I believe Harriet M. Welsch is already written to follow in her creator’s footsteps.

Yes, I believe Harriet the Spy is a baby lesbian, regardless of her complete lack of any mention of attraction throughout the book. (Besides jokingly referring to her best friend, Sport, as her husband.)

Now I have already waxed poetic on my own take on lesbianism being intentionally socially separated from “womanhood,” right down to the words themselves. And in previous essays I have also pointed out how utilitarianism over fashion has been a reliable “visual cue” for sapphic women seeking out our own kind, regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be “butch” or “femme” or neither.

Yet little is ever said about how sapphic women develop as girls, or how our views of (compulsory heterosexual) womanhood, as a looming inevitability, may shape our own views of ourselves as children. It doesn’t help that girls are trained from the cusp of puberty, and arguably even younger, to see other girls as competition rather than peers and confidants.

For some girls, like Harriet, this becomes a rejection of feminine expression or interests in favor of more “serious” masculine pursuits. It is no mere coincidence that Harriet wears an old pair of her father’s eyeglasses in order to feel more intelligent while spying, or that she quotes the works of male literature even after Ole Golly no longer dispenses then.

She even insists on rescuing well-worn clothes her mother has expressly forbidden her to wear. The description of her “spy clothes” is so detailed it takes up nearly two full pages of text, and nearly every article of clothing is coded as male. Including an actual Boy Scout knife, which surely must have also belonged to her father. She carries these tools, while admitting they serve no needed purpose, and make her rattle. But they complete her as a Spy.

She already sees masculine items as useful, while viewing feminine pursuits as frivolous. According to Harriet, her father works in television and her mother plays bridge. She already shouts this distinction to the Cook before school begins:

“I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!”

This is a defiant rejection of how she already views upper-class womanhood. By choosing to work as a spy from the age of 8, in her mind she has already deliberately set herself apart from her intended role models, especially Marion Hawthorne and Rachel Hennessey.

IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.

I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY IF I LIKE RACHEL OR WHETHER IT IS JUST THAT I LIKE GOING TO HER HOUSE BECAUSE HER MOTHER MAKES HOMEMADE CAKE.

However, she also disparages even her own best friends for their seemingly shared social (and gendered) deviance:

SOMETIMES I CAN’T STAND SPORT. WITH HIS WORRYING ALL THE TIME AND FUSSING OVER HIS FATHER, SOMETIMES HE’S LIKE A LITTLE OLD WOMAN.

WHO DOES JANIE GIBBS THINK SHE’S KIDDING? DOES SHE REALLY THINK SHE COULD EVER BE A SCIENTIST?

This theme of gendered contempt can also be found throughout her relation to her mother and other grown women, especially compared to others (mostly men) she considers more worthy of her admiration:

“Bridge. What a bore. How can she play that fink game so much? And those finks she plays with!” He muttered away to himself. Harriet loved to hear him jabber on like this. She knew he wasn’t talking to her, so it was fun to listen.

Ole Golly and her somewhat renegade style of “parenting” has become increasingly at odds with what Mrs. Welsch believes to be most important to instill in her own daughter’s success. Namely, charm and grace befitting her upper-class background.

But Harriet only wishes to be a spy and “know everything.” Ole Golly does her best to encourage Harriet to learn how to blend in, specifically by invoking Mata Hari, but nothing can dissuade her from seeing expressive femininity as anything short of a waste of time.

Her competing models of womanhood come to a head when Harriet’s parents unceremoniously fire Ole Golly for taking Harriet out to the movies without express permission. A turn of events which absolutely crushes Harriet’s previous sense of order and predictability.

(You don’t keep your room “just so”, have tomato sandwiches every lunch, followed by cake and milk every afternoon, and follow the same Spy route every week, without a need for dependability.)

But courageously, she presses on without much disruption to her routines. It is only when she begins to practice being an onion for the school play that she begins to think about herself as something different from who she already happens to be.

I WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO BE A TABLE OR A CHAIR OR A BATHTUB OR ANOTHER PERSON. I WONDER WHAT OLE GOLLY WOULD SAY TO THAT. OLE GOLLY LOOKED LIKE A BIRD WITH TEETH, BUT I THINK I REALLY LOOK A LITTLE LIKE AN ONION. I WISH SHE WOULD COME BACK.

Disaster strikes when she becomes caught in the dumbwaiter of Mrs. Plumber, right before practicing her “onion dance” with Janie and Sport, and she has a true crisis of identity:

SPIES—SHOULD NOT GET CAUGHT. THAT IS THE ONE ESSENTIAL THING ABOUT SPIES. I AM A ROTTEN SPY.

In her foul mood she immediately dumps on her best friends. As Janie and Harriet have previously been united on all fronts, particularly against the dreaded “dance classes”, a sign of impending expectations.

This begins the foreshadowing of Janie’s ultimate betrayal: the public reading of Harriet’s notebooks. Which leads to a new kind of feminine power Janie has never experienced through her science, the power of domination over someone she once trusted:

“Harriet, go over there on that bench until we decide what we’re going to do to you.”

The campaign against Harriet that week is the kind of bullying only children can devise. They pass notes about her developing body (Harriet M. Welsch smells. Don’t you think so?) and disgust at her well-known habits, they use the “class priss” to pull faces when the teacher isn’t looking, and when she is too busy taking notes on her way to lunch, they even steal her ritualized tomato sandwich.

This is the ultimate betrayal that has her write, in the same block letters she feels she has grown out of:

EVERYBODY HATES ME.

It is only after “playing sick” for three days that Harriet is taken to the “kindly old family doctor,” who just so happens to be Carrie Andrews’s father, a connection she’s never made. When he brings up the subject of The Notebook, her mother attempts to explain how her actions have affected others, but still she disparages her mother’s emotional labor:

THAT WAS ALL VERY NICE BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY NOTEBOOK. ONLY OLE GOLLY UNDERSTANDS ABOUT MY NOTEBOOK. I WILL ALWAYS HAVE A NOTEBOOK. I THINK I WILL WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY THING THAT HAPPENS TO ME.

This is immediately followed as she wakes with:

WHEN I WAKE UP IN THE MORNING I WISH I WERE DEAD.

And:

THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH.

Which she realizes even as she closes her notebook, isn’t actually true. But as a channel for her emotions, these notes don’t have to be truth as Harriet sees them. They are simply her “private” thoughts, to Harriet.

When Rachel Hennessey, second in command to Marion Hawthorne, attempts to tease Harriet about still writing, Harriet makes herself physically threatening:

Harriet felt it necessary to become menacing. She slid slowly off the bench and in two steps was almost nose to nose with Rachel. “Listen here, Rachel Hennessey, just what do you mean by that?”

Rachel immediately backs down, which vindicates Harriet’s feelings toward her as a doormat and therefore inferior. Harriet uses might to make right, which is not a typical feminine quality, and is part of why she sticks out among her developing female peers. The same day, however, we see Sport’s new masculine identity: a carried toolbox.

Although Sport had been reduced to tears and could not even bear to read his own notebook descriptions out loud, now he assists Carrie Andrews (gifted in drawing) in leading the construction of the Spy Catchers Club in Rachel Hennessey’s backyard. Chosen for her mother’s well-known homemade cake.

These are three children who had previously been powerless, but through their united cruelty, have become valuable among their peers. They even fly the infamous Purple Socks as their chosen flag.

It is peculiar, dare I even say queer, that Harriet attempts to overcome this peer hostility through the type of stoicism normally reserved for male coming of age stories. She even quotes Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” no doubt once heard from Ole Golly. This poem is, of course, about what it takes to be a man, not a woman.

After this critical moment, her own bodily autonomy becomes violated through the pouring of blue ink all over her body, and the traumatic “help” of her classmates, all rubbing and touching all over her body in derisive torture, while her teacher remains oblivious.

Once Sport and Pinky begin rubbing her legs, she catapults herself out the school and out into the street and doesn’t stop until she gets home, despite leaving a trail of blue behind her the entire way:

I’m the blue monster of East End Avenue, she thought as she careened across Eighty-sixth Street and up the block to her house.

Surprisingly Harriet writes no other notes about this incident, even though the only thing she carries from school is her notebook. It could be that something so monstrous was not even able to express itself through her thoughts. I will add that for me, as a child and an adult, this particular bullying scene was the most horrific. And I believe blue, rather than black ink, is a deliberate masculine choice by her peers (and her author).

The next day she learns the name of the Spy Catchers Club, but she remains ever stoic and defiant:

I HAVE NEVER HAD TO GO THROUGH SOMETHING LIKE THIS. I WILL HAVE TO BE VERY BRAVE. I WILL NEVER GIVE UP THIS NOTEBOOK BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT THEY ARE GOING TO BE AS MEAN AS THEY CAN UNTIL I DO. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW HARRIET M. WELSCH.

As she becomes more isolated her writing becomes truly detrimental, as she completely disregards her own school work and family life and even self-care. I feel Mrs. Welsch deserves a lot of credit for her own bravery as a parent, because she takes on the thankless task of removing Harriet from her notebook at this time:

“I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!”

Again, she distances herself from traditional womanhood by calling what she does Work. But her mother attempts to put her writing into its appropriate perspective:

“Look, dear, at the moment you’re in school, so your work is school. Just like your father works at the office, you work at school. School work is your work.”

“What do you do?”

“A lot of unseen, unappreciated things.”

Damn. That’s a helluva feminist punch hidden behind Harriet’s nastiness and indignation. And her mother still keeps a cool head.

The truth is, whether Harriet (or her father) actually see or appreciate it, Mrs. Welsch does do a lot for her family. She oversees their hired help, maintains the upper-class social network her family takes for granted, and it’s hinted she’s sacrificed quite a bit of her own cleverness to keep up appearances.

Even though she also loves math, which is traditionally seen as masculine, because Harriet has no talent for it she only sees this as another frivolous quality of her mother:

“What are you studying?”

“Math.”

Harriet made a terrible face. Mrs. Welsch came into the room and leaned over Harriet’s chair. “What fun, darling. That was always my favorite subject in school.”

Well, there you are, thought Harriet. Ole Golly wouldn’t have said that.

I feel I never gave Mrs. Welsch enough credit as a child. Yes, it is quite easy to paint her as a neglectful socialite who foists her child onto her hired nurse. (Although so does her father, and he revives no flak despite often disappearing from his family into his study with a drink.)

However this is what was expected of The Welsches in order to maintain their family’s social clout. And while the matriarchy of Manhattan may seem like a bunch of finks to Harriet and her father, it is her conflict with that feminized power which completely flattens her, because she does not understand or respect it.

And only when she has no emotional outlet do we see a much nastier and violent side of Harriet. Again, violence is a form of emotional outburst generally reserved for boys, especially by the age of 11. But Harriet trips and pinches and terrorizes without her notebook. She causes wails and tears and yelps:

SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY HAPPENING TO ME. I AM CHANGING. I DON’T FEEL LIKE ME AT ALL. I DON’T EVER LAUGH OR THINK ANYTHING FUNNY. I JUST FEEL MEAN ALL OVER. I WOULD LIKE TO HURT EACH ONE OF THEM IN A SPECIAL WAY THAT WOULD HURT ONLY THEM.

We can infer much about her classmates’ lives during this time, although some is alluded to earlier. Rachel Hennessey has no father. Beth Ellen is often starved for food and reacts strongly to being hit. Pinky Whitehead’s known problem is his mother. Sport reads cookbooks because nobody else will care for him or his father. And Janie’s planned revenge, breaking a finger, is the most violent of all.

But some revenges may appear humorous to young readers. Marion Hawthorne, the ultimate priss, is afraid of frogs and snakes. Harriet cuts a huge chunk of Laura Peters’s hair without her noticing. These are not dissimilar from what is often waved off as “boyish pranks,” but in a 11-year-old girl, they are strongly pathologized.

Mrs. Welsch (the unsung hero who has no first name, even though we know Harriet is named after her father Harry) must then leave her hairdresser’s to control the massive damage of her own distraught child’s behavior.

It is Mrs. Welsch who ultimately convinces her angry husband that Harriet needs to see a psychologist. And it is Mrs. Welsch who eventually smooths things over with Harriet’s school and presumably the mothers of Harriet’s peers.

Harriet never expresses gratitude for this unseen labor, but she does sleep blissfully when her mother tucks her in that night. Yet the next day she only washes when her father says so, and only agrees to see a different doctor because of his begrudging approval:

“He’s not a fink like most doctors.”

Of course the actual task of bringing Harriet to see the psychologist falls on her mother, presumably because her husband has work. And Harriet still views the task of seeing Dr. Wagner as being “fussed at,” the same phrases she disparages her mother with at times:

This was the dumbest thing Harriet had ever heard of. To come all this way to play a game. She bet her mother didn’t know this.

She questions her mother’s wisdom in taking her to see Dr. Wagner, until she is given a notebook, and again her mother has the thankless task of taking it away when their session is done.

While Harriet sees this as a betrayal, it does cause her to eventually attempt to make up with Janie and Sport. Her relationship with Janie remains tense, despite their bond of resisting dance class and having professional ambitions. For the first time without her notebook, Harriet finally understands her feelings:

She began to reconsider the idea of going to Sport’s house. A tear ran down the side of her nose. Janie was one thing, but Sport had always been her best friend. Suppose he acted like Janie?

It is here Sport is seen in the middle of a celebration for his father’s writing, something Harriet has been dreaming of for herself and which Sport has seen as a waste of his father’s time. Sport can’t help but briefly share his joy with Harriet, even though his anger soon returns when his father and Harriet begin to bond as writers:

“Hey, listen, Sport, get a clean shirt on. I’m taking you out to dinner.” Sport ran into his room. “How ’bout you, Harriet? Want to go to dinner with us?” Before Harriet could say anything, Sport opened the door to his room and shouted “NO” as loud as he could. Then he slammed the door again.

After this Harriet again has no tools to handle such emotions, expressed in a nightmare which begins as a pleasant dream about being rocked by her nurse:

Harriet’s mother came into the room. Harriet was still in her dream, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly.” She kept on crying softly even after her mother was holding her.

Harriet rejects her mother still. And at this point my adult heart genuinely aches for her because there is nothing left she can do but humbly call on Ole Golly for her help in raising her child, after she also consults the psychologist she convinced her husband to hire. And she still returns Harriet’s notebook to her, against her own better judgement.

Harriet becomes joyously distracted catching up on her Spy Route, and before long she yearns to return to school. Here we see the true unsung heroism of Harriet’s mother and teachers, but only if we look for it between Harriet’s own disparaging views of her foes’ attempts to emulate their own bridge-playing mothers:

They walk like old ladies, thought Harriet.

“Rachel, don’t you think it would be nice if we could play bridge in the afternoons?”

Marion had a kind of cawing voice, like a crow.

Harriet has her peer-endorsed victory, the right to be published in the school paper. She has usurped Marion Hawthorne from her place of supreme power, and can now feel vindicated. But not before Ole Golly’s letter arrives (thanks to Mrs. Welsch) offering her two final pieces of advice:

1) You have to apologize.

2) You have to lie.

Of course, Harriet is immediately successful as the paper’s editor, given that she’s had years of practice. And while her published musings become kinder (sometimes), she still gloats to herself in her notebook about what she see as her Work:

I AM GOING TO WRITE A STORY ABOUT THESE PEOPLE. THEY ARE JUST RATS. HALF OF THEM DON’T EVEN HAVE A PROFESSION.

But while Harriet basks in the glory of printing stories from her Spy Route, eventually her writing takes on a different tone as Harriet begins to actually listen to what her mother and father talk about at dinner. For once, both parents are shown to be active agents in shaping their child’s life:

“I really don’t understand Mabel Gibbs. She starts out with this big thing about the kids going to dancing school—you’d think from the way she talked that they would be absolute apes in the drawing room if we didn’t send them—and I told her at the time, of course, that I thought Harriet was too young.”

Soon followed by her father:

“That better be from the Times. If they don’t print that retraction tomorrow I’m going to be mad as a hornet.”

This becomes Harriet’s inspiration to print her own “lie” in the form of a contraction, combining her advice from Ole Golly into knowledge learned from her father’s work. And finally, the gossip of her mother’s social goings as they relate to her peers also make it into the paper:

JANIE GIBBS HAS WON HER BATTLE. THIS SHOULD BE A LESSON TO ALL OF YOU IN COURAGE AND DETERMINATION. IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, THEN ASK HER.

Harriet, for once, does not hold her father above all others:

MR. HARRY WELSCH ALMOST LOST HIS JOB LAST WEEK FOR BEING LATE. HE IS ALWAYS SLOW IN THE MORNING.

The story ends with the dissolution of the Spy Catchers Club, in Sport’s own victory over his few male peers:

“This has gone far enough,” said Sport and looked at Pinky and The Boy with the Green Socks. “I can’t imagine what you MEN think you’re doing here.”

And Janie backs him up as well, contending that while men do play Bridge, they only do so in the evening when they are forced by their wives, playing directly into compulsory heterosexuality and masculinity:

Marion and Rachel finally sat alone. They looked at each other and then looked away.

“I guess,” said Rachel with some embarrassment, “that I’ll go see if the cake is ready.”

She was getting up rather forlornly when suddenly Laura and Carrie came back.

“We decided that there wasn’t anything else to do anyway, so we might as well play bridge,” said Laura.

“Besides,” said Carrie, “I’m rather fond of it.”

By now, Harriet and her best friends have navigated their adolescent emotional growths relatively unscathed. Janie has avoided dance class in favor of her science experiments for another year. Sport has become the king of his small masculine court before he must leave Gregory School for a different co-ed education. And Harriet is recognized for her relentless dedication. The three friends silently meet at the park, and walk along the river after Harriet offers a final thought:

NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.

She still focuses on her Work as what sets her apart. And likely this will not change. Harriet feels superior to the likes of Marion and Rachel and their socialite heterosexual mothers, but she has also learned to make allies rather than enemies of her own gendered deviants, Janie and Sport.

It is with this greater wisdom and humility that she walks forward into the inevitable process of puberty and higher feminine expectations. But we can always hope she does so as the Spy she has always known herself to be.

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Harriet the (Gender) Spy
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