Congresswomen’s Profiles in Courage

As the new members of Congress were sworn into office this week, much attention was paid to the fact that more women than ever before are now serving in Congress. The youngest member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, otherwise known as AOC, was probably the most talked about, especially after a video of her dancing while she was an undergraduate was posted online. Although the video was apparently posted to make her seem frivolous, most viewers seemed to find it charming.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, described herself as a socialist, conservatives again started attacking her. And when she suggested that a marginal tax rate of 70% might be appropriate for very high incomes, some commentators were outraged even though the rate she suggested is no higher than the one the U.S. tax code imposed during and after World War II.

The people who write political commentary seem to have very short memories. The fact is that American Congresswomen have often favored more radical solutions than their male colleagues supported. And they have stood by their positions even when put under severe pressure.  

When Jeannette Rankin took her seat in 1917, she made almost as much of a splash as this year’s women did. As the first woman ever elected to Congress, she joined with more than 50 other members who voted against President Wilson’s request to enter World War I, even though the measure passed with an overwhelming majority.

Jeannette Rankin

After the war was over, President Wilson declared that it had been fought to make the world safe for democracy. But Rankin turned his words against him when she fought hard for a national measure to give women throughout the country the right to vote. “How shall we explain to them [American women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked. Women finally got the vote in 1920

Rankin left Congress but continued to be an activist for many years. In 1940 she was re-elected to a House seat and arrived there in time to be confronted with the Pearl Harbor attack. This time there were fewer members of Congress who opposed President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan. When she voted against the motion she was hissed and she was never again elected to public office.

Some Americans, however, recognized Rankin’s courage. Wikipedia describes the reaction of the noted editor William Allen White:

 Probably a hundred men in Congress would have liked to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.

In recent years other Congresswomen have demonstrated rare courage in standing up for their beliefs. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only representative to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force—the act that gives the president sweeping powers to attack any country at any time if he or she believes it threatens the safety of the United States or supports terrorism. That act passed 420-1 with Lee the only representative who voted against it. In the years since 2001, many people have come to believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the Middle East that were justified under this act have done irreparable damage to America, but at the time, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson who recognized the danger.

Barbara Lee

Anyone who has forgotten the tangled emotions and arguments that followed 9/11 (and that includes most of us) should read the article in the Atlantic that tells the story of both the attacks and support Barbara Lee received following her vote. But, through the years, Lee has held firmly to her beliefs and is still serving in Congress representing her district in Oakland, California.   

It is easy to see that the women now entering Congress are following the footsteps of some determined and courageous women. Let’s hope they can live up to the courage of their past leaders.  

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Who Wants an Old-Fashioned American Christmas?

A month ago President Trump wished all Americans a Merry Christmas and announced once again that he had won the “war on Christmas”.  I’m not sure he realizes quite how long the battles over the importance of Christmas have been going on in the U.S.

Reading about history is one of my favorite hobbies and the holidays are a fascinating subject. Those of you who have read my first Margaret Fuller mystery story, A Death in Utopia, know it is set in Brook Farm, a Utopian community that flourished in Massachusetts during the 1840s, so I’ve done a lot of reading about Brook Farm.

I’ve never forgotten the memoir I read about an American boy who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, not very far from Massachusetts, which had been settled by Dutch generations earlier. His name was John Van der Zee Sears and he was sent to Brook Farm for his education. The greatest shock of his new school was to discover that the Christmas holiday “did not exist” for them. In the Hudson Valley it was the greatest holiday of the year. Young John and his sister could find no one at Brook Farm who realized what they were missing except for an Irish resident, John Cheever, who was a Catholic and therefore understood the importance of the holiday for people outside of New England.

The celebration of Christmas was a divisive issue for many people in early America. It was celebrated in the South, but not often in New England. During the 1850s and later, when more and more immigrants began arriving from Europe, they brought customs from the old country, which upset many of the traditions of each of these groups. Christmas trees began to appear in American homes and were soon adopted by families from many different backgrounds.

“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (although his authorship has been disputed) made an indelible impression with its picture of Santa Claus coming down the chimney to leave presents under the tree for all good girls and boys. Its popularity was one of the most unifying aspects of the Christmas holiday. As years went by and Christmas became more important as a gift-giving holiday than as a religious one, it was shared by people of all backgrounds and faiths.

Whether for Kwanza, Hanukah, or Christmas almost everyone now can unite in wanting to give and receive gifts during this holiday season. In fact, perhaps we ought to admit that what has saved Christmas for most Americans has been Santa Claus and the commercialism he represents.  

Whatever the reason for the celebration, I hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season and looking forward to a good new year. Happy 2019!

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From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

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Do robots ask questions?

Reading about a 19th century woman forgotten by most history books may seem a long way from robots, but that was the path I followed this week. I met Mary Treat in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered. If you have read reviews of Kingsolver’s book you probably know that Mary Treat was a well-known scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Textbook written by Mary Treat

Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mary Treat received only the standard female education of the time, which did not include science. Universities did not admit women as students, so where did Treat’s knowledge about biology and botany come from? It seems to have been driven mainly by the curiosity. That is what led her to want to know about the life of the world around her. During the 1870s, she and her husband moved to Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of several Utopian communities built during the 19ths century. Situated close to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, it was full of plants and creatures that had seldom been studied by scientists. Mary’s husband didn’t care much about plants or insects, so he soon disappeared from her life.

In Kingsolver’s novel, we are first introduced to Treat, as she is sitting in her living room patiently holding one of her fingers in the grip of a carnivorous plant. What drove this woman to study plants and insects while other women were concentrating on dress patterns and cookery? It seems to have been mainly curiosity—the quality that sets many human beings apart from most other species as they look for answers to thousands of questions about the world they live in.

You can ask almost any teacher about how they recognize the children who will someday go on to make a mark on the world and time and time again you get the answer “curiosity”.  Perhaps all children are born to ask questions, but many of them eventually give up the quest. Poverty and the stress of difficult family life and social conditions push some children into abandoning the gift of curiosity, but there are other reasons too.

For centuries men were considered to have a natural monopoly on education. They were the ones who went out into the world and searched for answers while the women stayed home. Women weren’t supposed to ask too many questions, but somehow despite this, some women, like Mary Treat, kept their curiosity alive. Treat made many contributions to biological sciences. Just think what she could have done if she had been accepted into Harvard and studied with Asa Gray instead of having to learn it all on her own?

One of the things that fascinates me about studying women’s history learning about how and why some women have overcome the obstacles in their path and kept their curiosity alive. If we could understand that, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging both men and women, to use their curiosity to explore the world.

And what has this to do with robots? Well, one of the things about robots is that no matter how many questions they may learn to answer, or even to generate in a narrow task-focused area, they haven’t yet started to ask questions of their own. A workplace filled with robots that have been trained to do a task, will sit passively overnight or during a vacation shutdown. A workplace filled with human beings in a similar situation will come up with a dozen ways to escape their prison and move on to something more interesting. Until robots start asking questions, I don’t think we have to worry about them taking over the world.

Meanwhile we need to keep our children asking questions as they grow up and lead us into the future.

 

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Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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Creating Your Own Future

There are only a few more days until the elections, but some of us are wondering whether we will make it through the 2018 Midterms. And for those of us who have faithfully filled out our ballots and voted early, there is nothing to do now but chew our fingernails until the elections are over and the results are in.

How about taking a complete break? While the news media thunder their stories at us, election mailers clog our mailboxes, and our phones keep ringing with robocalls from woman writingcampaigns, now is the time to declare our independence and find a different path. And because this is the beginning of November, thousands of people across the country and around the world have decided to spend a month on creating something they have always dreamed about. NaNoWriMo is the name of a group dedicated to helping to encourage creativity through writing. The odd name stands for National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo, which will turn twenty years old next year, is a program to help writers and would-be writers sit down and produce a 50,000 word novel (or part of a novel) during the month of November. More than 400,000 people have tried the program either as adults or through the young writers program for students. Writing coaches help by posting pep talks and helpful suggestions for making the best use of writing time. And participants can join a group of other writers in a specific genre whether it is science fantasy, mystery, romance, or children’s books.

Setting goals to complete a specific project during a defined period of time is a wonderful way to make a start on some of your dreams. After trying NaNoWriMo for three years, I know how encouraging it is to feel the support of a group of people with goals similar to my own. You won’t finish a completed, ready-for-publication novel in a month, but lots of us have credible first drafts that we can build on over the year or more that writing a novel takes.

Perhaps other people who have creative dreams in different fields should come together to form similar groups. There are plenty of months that haven’t been taken yet. May might be a good month for making a movie, or September for writing a sonata. Too many people hope to start a great artistic project someday, but don’t actually do it. The first step is to start! And if the first time doesn’t work and your novel or movie or sonata dies away before completion, there is no need to despair. Failure once doesn’t mean failure always.

Millions of people over the years have been cheered by listening to the popular song written during the 1930s by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields:

Nothing’s impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
Start all over again

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad motto for an election either. Whatever happens next week, there will be another chance. Meanwhile

DON’T FORGET TO VOTE!voting

 

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Fathers and Sons Rule

The United States was founded by a group of men who wanted to do away with hereditary rulers. Leaders were supposed to come from out of the group of men naturally qualified to lead—the well-established, well-educated elites. They were to be

John-Adams

John Adams

 

the voters who chose the best among them to lead the country. The population of the country was small, just below 4,000,000 in 1790 when the first census was taken, so perhaps it was not strange that various members of the same family became leaders. John Adams, the second president, was eventually followed by his son, John Quincy Adams, who became the country’s sixth president.  It was a long time before the next father/son pair took the presidency—George H.W. Bush became the 41st president in 1988 and his son George W. Bush followed became the 43rd to hold the office in 2000.  By this time the population of the country had grown to 180,000,000. With so many people to choose from the chances of seeing many more such pairs seems slim.

Until recently, I had never seen a study of how fathers and sons who governed the same community have influenced one another, but now we have an account of how a father-son pair of governors in California did that. Miriam Pawel’s book The Browns of California tells the story of Pat Brown and his son Jerry Brown who were governors during half a century of California’s history.

When Pat Brown became governor of California in 1959, the population of the state was ten and a half million—more than twice as large as the entire country was when John Adams served as president. California was a relatively young state, at least compared with states on the Eastern Seaboard. The infrastructure had to be developed and a young population was eager to have a strong educational system. Pat Brown united the state, or at least enough of the voters, to develop a viable water system for the parched state and a system of highways connecting the large and diverse population. Under his leadership California instituted the country’s largest university system berkeley_lecture_hall_sticky

 

and a strong pre-college school system to prepare students for higher education.

By the time Pat Brown left office in 1967, the mood of the country had changed. The Vietnam War highlighted cultural divisions and led to unexpected violence. The mood of the country was shifting from the euphoria of post-WWII to the resentment and fears of a growing and ever more diverse population. By the time Pat’s son, Jerry Brown first became governor in 1975, some of his father’s policies seemed to be outdated and doomed. The population of the state had doubled again to over 23 million and taxpayers were beginning to revolt against the high taxes needed to support the state’s services.

Jerry Brown’s second tenure as governor, which will end this year, brought even more dramatic changes. Governor Jerry Brown has been a strong voice in the country and the world to call attention to the dangers of climate change and the need for new and less destructive ways of life. It is fascinating to see in this book how some of his father’s positions continue to dominate the state and how the son has changed and modified others to meet the current situation. His experience in local politics, perhaps especially his experience as mayor of Oakland, led him to value local control of some policies, while others, such as climate change, need to be supported internationally.

For anyone concerned with government and policy, whether in California or elsewhere, I strongly recommend The Browns of California. It is easy to read and filled with valuable insights into the way our world works.

 

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