Women in Black–starting a new battle

The Golden Globe awards ceremony last weekend was raised far above its usual status as just another awards show by the dramatic way the women participants coordinated metoo-featured-imagetheir costumes. All of the women wore black dresses, some starkly black from top to bottom, others relieved by a touch of gold or color. But the overwhelming effect was of a crowd of beautiful women wearing the most dramatic color possible for women’s clothing—black.

The Golden Globe display was, of course, in support of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements protesting sexual harassment and assault. Many of the women who spoke at the event mentioned the prevalence of sex discrimination in the entertainment industry and urged both men and women to protest against it.

As a follow-up to that successful display, several Democratic Congresswomen are planning to wear black to President Trump’s first State of the Union speech on January 30. Whether others will follow their lead remains to be seen.

Will any of this matter? Are we at a turning point for relations between women and men? It will be a long time before we know for sure. The history of women’s demands for fair treatment has not been a happy one. Generations of American women fought for women’s right to vote—from 1848 until 1920 the struggle continued. Hundreds of women and then their daughters and granddaughters argued, wrote pamphlets, and demonstrated in an effort to convince men they should have the right to vote. By the time the women won, most of the early supporters had died.

And the movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prompted long and vigorous struggle that has not yet been successful. You can read the full story of how the amendment was proposed and how close it came to passing at the excellent website at http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/

When the ERA went to the states for ratification in 1972, it looked as though it would be speedily accepted. During the first year, 22 states ratified the bill, but then the backlash

Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schafley

 

gained strength. Phyllis Schlafly was one of the bill’s fiercest critics saying that it “would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms“. Well, now we have unisex bathrooms in many public buildings and neither men nor women face a military draft, but the amendment is no longer an active item on the agenda. Will it ever be revived?

Why do women’s campaigns so often seem to fail or to take an inordinately long time to be accepted? It reminds me of the line from the World War I poem by Shaemas O Sheel “They went forth to battle, but they always fell.” Will the movement to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace also fail, or perhaps take a century to win? Women can’t change things by themselves; men have to understand the issues too. Social change is never easy, but at least there are some clues about how it happens.

It begins with education, early education before attitudes are congealed into rigid patterns. Perhaps we could start by not encouraging children to view life as a battle, or a football game, with winners and losers. Sports play a surprisingly large part in American education—more than in any other country. Children quickly learn about winning and losing, but not so often about working with one another and cooperating on projects.

By the time young people become sexually active, many of them have decided that sex is a competitive sport. A boy who “scores” thinks himself victorious and the girl is often shamed as a loser. Boys and men feed their power by forcing females to submit to their desires. Instead of being about intimacy, sex becomes a matter of exerting power and winning. It’s time for educators and parents to think more about what they are teaching boys and girls and how it will affect their futures.

As for grown men—better late than never. They can still learn to treat women with women powerfairness and respect. It will be a long struggle, but at least the women in black have made a start.

 

 

 

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What was good about 2017?

This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year 2017oldstarted with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.

As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.

But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.

Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl,  the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character.  Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her

Leni

Leni Riefenstahl and Adolf Hitler

 

interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.

I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks IMG_0632_edited-1ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.

One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.

When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely FDR_New Dealconservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.

Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.

Happy New Year!

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Travel is good for the soul!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot Samuel Clemensbe acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain

 

Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.

Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.

Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.

Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and

gertrude-bell

Gertrude Bell

supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.

In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.

British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map camel ridingthe area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.

Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.

There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.

Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet.  And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

Ocean liner

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Do We Ever Understand History?

IMG_0632_edited-1Visiting the exhibit of  colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.

Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people Socratesthought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?

IMG_0629_edited-1

 

 

Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.

The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of

Elgin_Marbles-British_Museum-frieze

Elgin Marbles British Museum

the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.

Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent

Mary_Nisbet_Countess

Mary Nisbet

 

pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.

Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?

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Not Your Usual Thanksgiving

Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow…

That traditional Thanksgiving song might have been popular during the 19th century when Thanksgiving was first recognized as a holiday in America, but it didn’t reflect real life for many people. As cities grew in size, fewer and fewer people harvested their own food, sleighs became obsolete, and people didn’t find much to celebrate at harvest time.

By the late 1800s, many children didn’t have a big dinner to look forward to on Thanksgiving. In the cities, especially New York and Philadelphia, one of the most ragamuffinspopular ways for children to have holiday treats was to dress up as ragamuffins and go from door to door begging for money.  The ritual was mentioned in Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This tradition flourished in New York City for 50 years or more into the 1940s. There are still ragamuffin parades on Thanksgiving in some parts of Brooklyn and the suburbs. It wasn’t until after World War II that Halloween took over in most of the country as the holiday for dressing up and begging for treats.

The reason for celebrating Thanksgiving on a Thursday rather than any other day of the week is not clear. Some people have suggested it is because ministers used to give lectures on Thursday afternoon in many churches, which made that day rather special. But whatever the reason, when more and more people began working in offices and Thanksgiving adswitched to a five-day workweek, the Thursday date left an inconvenient Friday hanging. Many schools and offices began giving people the Friday off, and that was the beginning of Black Friday—the biggest shopping day of the year. Merchants began offering special sales and encouraged everyone to start their holiday shopping as soon as Thanksgiving was over. We all know what that led to—stores started opening earlier and earlier on Friday morning and some have now spilled over into Thanksgiving itself.

Aside from eating, shopping, and watching football, what else can people do on Thanksgiving? One suggestion is to give someone else a chance to have something to be thankful for. During a year like this when we are confronted every day by pictures of refugees, tired, hungry and desperate, it gets harder and harder to enjoy that turkey with all the trimmings.

It seems as if the least we can do is share our bounty with some of the other people around the world who are not as lucky as we are. The charities listed below have all been given high grades by Charity Navigator, so you can be sure that your gift will be used efficiently to benefit the needy.

International Rescue Committee

USA for UNHCR United Nations Refugee Agency

Helping Hand for Relief and Development

Maybe if we spread the goodies around the world we can all have a better Thanksgiving this year.Thanksgiving

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Escape to the Past—the joys of historical novels

At a time when present day life often seems overly complicated and depressing, many reading in bathtubreaders as well as many TV viewers choose to go back to earlier times. Somehow it seems as though life must have been simpler then, although the truth is that it wasn’t. Finding enough food for the family and keeping young babies alive was a lot harder than coping with an overcrowded bus on the daily commute.

Even though we know life wasn’t really simple in the old days, it’s easy to believe that it was because the problems were different. After all, the Regency heroines of romance novels never had to worry about having a scandalous video of their indiscretions turn up on Facebook.

But historical novels often deal with issues that are very current and similar to what’s going on today. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace might be set in a different time, but the alias-gracedifficulty of judging guilt or innocence in a crime is a perennial problem. It will be interesting to see whether the TV version of Alias Grace treats the subject with as much depth as the book did.

TV is often scorned as offering a more sanitized and false picture of the past than historical fiction books. Certainly the imagined world of Downton Abbey which attracted so many viewers, brought people into a domain where servants and gentry shared not only an estate but also a world view. The master and mistress of the house cared about the servants and thoughtfully helped them through their troubles. In the end almost everyone made out all right.

Novels that deal with servants and masters are often far more frank than TV shows about the carelessness and cruelties that often make a servant’s life miserable. If you pride and prejudicereally want a glimpse of what it was like to be a servant in early 19th century England, you might want to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which gives a fascinating glimpse of the life of a servant in the service of Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly Jane Austen wrote about an earlier historical period than Downton Abbey, but it is hard not to believe that Baker’s view of the world is far more realistic than the one offered by the familiar TV series.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, whether mysteries set in medieval Europe or novels based on American history like The Underground Railroad, you’ll enjoy this great list of historical novels website.    Choose your century and ENJOY!

 

 

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Science carries on while society falls apart

Turning on the news first thing in the morning has been a lifelong habit of me. Just like thousands of other people, I would hate to think that the something exciting had happened overnight without my knowing about it. Recently, however, the morning news has been so discouraging that I often switch to music for the rest of the day. Learning more about natural disasters thousands of miles from home, or human foolishness in capitals across the world makes a harsh background to our everyday life.

Sometimes it seems the only way to remain calm and carry on is to ignore the feverish

neutron starGW170817.rect_-150x150

Neutron star

 

activity of politicians, pundits and the cruelties of societies turning on one another. Music is a good escape, and so is paying attention to the work of scientists whose dramatic breakthroughs bring good news to a world absorbed in the bad news of politics. This week we had the dramatic story of how astronomers discovered the collision of two neutron stars, an event that had been predicted but never before actually seen. As the Scientific American announced in its story about the event, “Spacetime ripples from a stellar cataclysm in a distant galaxy help explain the cosmic origins of gold, and chart the course for a new age of “multi-messenger” astronomy”

Even as our ordinary world carries on its squabbling about who-said-what and which party will win the prize in the next election, science is carrying on the important work of the world—discovering new knowledge and sharing it with all of us.

Women have long played a major role in astronomy, and in honor of this event I want to call your attention to the role of women in studying the stars. Several years ago I wrote a blog post about Caroline Herschel, one of the pioneers. Caroline and her brother William were able to work with the primitive telescopes available in the 18th century to chart the movements of stars. Caroline specialized in finding comets as they flashed across the sky.

It wasn’t only solitary astronomers who were able to advance the science. The most recent book from Dava Sobel, who has written many books about science and scientists for the general reader, offers a realistic account of how the science works and how many individuals work together to discover the truth about scientific phenomena. She recognized the work of the women astronomers at Harvard University in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. The advances made by these late 19th and early 20th century astronomers still surprise and intrigue readers who wonder how we know what we do about stars and other natural phenomena. Slow, patient cooperation among a large number of scientists was the key to the discovery of how our universe is constructed.

 

The methods of science—the patience and cooperation of many individuals should be an inspiration to the men and women who are working to make our political and social world a better place to live. The search for knowledge and for solutions to problems grows out of patient cooperation, not hasty judgments and angry quarreling. Reading about people who actually advanced humanity can make us a bit more optimistic about our ability to work together now to overcome the challenges facing people everywhere.

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