A Foreign Queen for England—Charlotte II

If you watch news on TV these days, you can scarcely miss seeing pictures of crowds in London paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on September 19 has attracted the attention of many people in Europe and beyond. She served as queen of England for seventy years before dying this month at the age of 96. Pictures of the preparations for her funeral and speeches of tribute have been broadcast around the world. Her funeral on September 19 will be marked by an outpouring of love and respect from celebrities as well as ordinary people.

More than 200 years ago, in 1818, England was mourning the death of another queen, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Queen Charlotte was not a monarch, as Elizabeth was, but she was England’s longest serving female consort. (The only royal consort who served longer than she did was Prince Phillip, who was consort to Queen Elizabeth II for almost seventy years until he died in 2021.) 

Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small duchy in Germany. When George III of England inherited the British throne in 1760, his advisors recognized that he needed a queen, so they looked around Europe for suitable royal wives. Charlotte was an obvious choice. She was the right age and came from a royal family. Like most women of the time, she had been given very little education and was unlikely to question anything the king or his advisors might choose to do. So Charlotte was quickly sent off to England with only a few servants and attendants. She had a difficult voyage through stormy weather, and the wedding took place less than six hour after she had arrived in England.

Queen Charlotte and two of her children.

The king and his new queen must have had a difficult time getting to know one another. King George spoke no German, and Charlotte no English, but they did share a love of music. Somehow they seem to have achieved a reasonable relationship. Charlotte worked hard at learning English, although, according to reports, she always spoke with an accent. She and King George III had 15 children and 13 of them survived to grow up. That was quite an achievement for the time when so many children died in infancy.

The king, unfortunately, was not as healthy as his children were. During the first years of their marriage, everything went well. King George III spent a good deal of his time negotiating with England’s far-flung colonies. Charlotte’s name is memorialized in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in several cities, bays and other places in Canada and New Zealand. She introduced the tradition of Christmas trees to England and supported the expansion of Kew Gardens.

King George III, however, developed mental problems as he grew older and was forced to step back from his royal duties. Charlotte was overwhelmed by the illness of the king. The novelist, Fanny Burney, who served as one of the queen’s attendants described her reaction to the news of his serious attack in 1788. “My poor Royal mistress! Never can I forget her countenance—pale, ghastly pale she looked; …her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.”  

The king’s mental problems grew worse as he became older. Eventually his two oldest sons served as regents. Charlotte remained a supportive wife and mother. She continued to act as hostess at palace events during the regency of her sons, but her relationship with her husband was difficult. By the time she died in 1818, it is unlikely that the king was able to understand that she was gone. He died a little more than a year later.

Although much of Charlotte’s legacy has been forgotten over the years, she had a lasting influence on English royalty. Two of her sons became kings  of England—George IV and William the IV. Another son was the grandfather of Queen Victoria, another long-serving queen.

And questions about her legacy continue to come up. In recent years, a few articles have raised the issue of Charlotte’s racial heritage. Several writers have suggested that she had African ancestry. This idea is based mainly on pictures of Charlotte and on some accounts  of her written by people who claim she looked like a mulatto. Very few historians accept this idea of African ancestry and, of course there is no way of going back to find evidence one way or the other about her DNA. But people can continue raising questions about Charlotte’s ancestors. We’ll never know for sure. That is what makes history so fascinating—there are seldom permanent answers. We continue to read and study evidence, but final truth remains an elusive goal.

Another Note on Labor Day

Yesterday I paid tribute to Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt and was responsible for many of the gains working people have made in America. Labor Day is a good time to remember how our lives have changed as governments have set guidelines for workers and employers to keep society safe and make life better for all of us.

Labor Day is not always celebrated in September. Many countries celebrate it on May 1. Australia has chosen a March date. Yesterday I got a notice from Amazon Australia about royalties paid on sales of the Charlotte Edgerton mystery books. That reminded me that Labor Day is an appropriate time to think about Charlotte and her adventures.

Why Labor Day? Well, Charlotte was a nineteenth century working class girl, born in England, who came to America to build a good life for herself. In the first book of the series, A Death in Utopia, she is living in a community based on the idea that the division between workers and leaders can be eliminated. (That doesn’t work out well.) In the second volume, Death Visits a Bawdy House, Charlotte moves to New York City where almost the only way for a woman to make a living is to become a prostitute. (But brothels are dangerous places.)  Later Charlotte and her husband go to England during labor riots as the Chartists demonstrate against Queen Victoria in Death Calls at the Palace. (Facing a  hostile militia is no fun.) And in the final book of the quartet, Death Enters the Convent, Charlotte and Daniel are in Florence, Italy, where entering a convent is the road to employment for many women. (But even quiet nuns in convents have secrets).

Yes, Labor Day is a good day to celebrate the adventures of Charlotte Edgerton and her family. You can find all four of the Charlette Edgerton mysteries in print and as ebooks on the Amazon website.

The Fire that Changed How America Lives—Frances Perkins

Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.

Frances Perkins

During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.

Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.

After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911

Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.

Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.     

Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent  get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.

Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.

Working Behind the Scenes: Abigail Adams and Her Sisters

Watching the results of the primary elections in many American states over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the number of women running for office. We’ve watched ads and heard speeches about policies supported or opposed by a wide range of women. It makes me wonder how government functioned back in the days when women, supposedly, did not participate in elections at all.

One of the unacknowledged stories about the history of American is that it was not only the famous “founding fathers” who set up the basic structure of government. Hovering in the background were a number of women some of whom contributed important ideas. Among them the three Smith sisters of Massachusetts. Their stories have been told by  Diane Jacobs in her book Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters (2014). 

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was the best known of the sisters. She is famous for writing to John in 1776 while he was helping to prepare the Declaration of Independence: “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” 

Those were brave words, but Abigail did not persuade her husband or any of the other men who were writing the basic documents on which the United States still depends. Although considered very outspoken women for their times, Abigail and her sisters accepted the role of women as helpers to their husbands rather than leaders. I wonder what they would think of the women in politics today.

Abigail Smith Adams was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, the middle sister of three girls in a clerical family. Although at the time girls were barred from the colleges where their brothers and future husbands were being educated, the Smith girls were lucky. All three sisters were well educated by their mother and had access to large book collections. All three had high ambitions. Abigail’s life is much better documented than the lives of her sisters, but in Jacobs’ book we learn more about the lives of all three of the women.

Unlike most history books, which focus on the meetings, battles, and speeches of prominent figures, Jacobs also tells the story of what was going on among family and friends of the politicians. While John Adams was traveling to Europe to negotiate with Great Britain, for example, Abigail was at home keeping their family going. She was the one who maintained the farm and household. She hired workers, supervised the building and repair of several houses, educated their children, and handled the family’s investments.

Women’s lives were filled with endless labor. Because there were few doctors, women were the main providers of medical care to their families. It is surprising to learn about the number of illnesses that occurred routinely—from yellow fever in Philadelphia when Congress was meeting there, to tuberculosis for which no cure was known, as well as long periods of depression which several family members endured. Some of the men in the family also developed alcoholism. This is the first history book I have read that mentions the tragedy of spousal abuse that alcoholism sometimes causes, but it was a problem that was not recognized or discussed.  

Abigail was her husband’s most important adviser during his long career in politics. He relied on her help while he served in diplomatic posts abroad and later when he served as Vice President and later President of the young country.

Despite being aware of how important their contributions to public life were, Abigail and her sisters were apparently willing to accept the fact that they were never allowed to vote, much less run for election. All of their work and all of their ideas were accepted as normal gifts that women ought to give to their husbands and families without expecting acknowledgements or rewards. It would be more than a century before women’s contributions were recognized as important enough to earn her the right to vote. And it took several generations of more confrontational women to win that right.

Now, at a time when women are losing some of the rights they have long enjoyed, is a good time to remember that rights are seldom gained by asking patiently for them. They must be won by actions, arguments and a refusal to take “no” for an answer.

Bad Girl Makes Good—Miriam Leslie, Scandalous Tycoon

During the 1800s, life for women was a constant battle to stay within the rules of society while still winning the battle for security and prosperity. For a beautiful girl born in poverty, this battle could be won or lost by one indiscrete kiss. Miriam Leslie, who is better known by the name of Mrs. Frank Leslie, was one woman who managed to escape this trap, but it was not easy.

Miriam Leslie

Miriam Leslie was born in Louisiana in 1836. Her father’s family had emigrated from France and settled in the area at some time during the 1700s. They started out as farmers, but by the time Miriam was born, they had lost their farm and were struggling businessmen. Miriam’s birth was never recorded. Her father was divorced at the time and we have no record of who her mother was; however, she acquired a stepmother when the family moved to New York a few years after her birth. It seems most likely that Miriam’s mother had been an enslaved woman, but no one has been able to prove that. (Many years later, that elusive mother became the basis for an attempt to keep Miriam from disbursing her fortune.)

Miriam’s life was never well-documented and she tried hard to keep much of it secret, so there remain many patches of uncertainty about her biography. She often made-up stories about her ancestors and her family, so historical sources differ. Where she was educated, and by whom, is not clear, but, somehow, she managed to get a better education than most women of her time. Her father encouraged the girl to read widely and Marion had a gift for languages. As an adult she spoke French, Italian, and Spanish fluently.

Despite giving Marion a good education, her father continued to pile up debts and neglected to provide for his family. It is not unlikely that both Marion and her stepmother engaged at least part time in prostitution, which was one of the few options women had for earning money. Eventually, however, Miriam’s skill with languages helped her to get a job with the dancer and actress, Lola Montez. They became a successful entertainment team and Marion learned how to dress and keep herself looking fashionable and attractive.

Miriam, however, fell out with Lola after their successful tours. She found other acting jobs but was not content to remain an entertainer. Her ambition was to become a socialite and join the highest ranks of New York society  As soon as she had a chance, she left the stage to marry Ephraim Squier (usually known by his nickname, E.G.) a scientist and businessman with plans to build a railroad across Argentina.

Unfortunately, like Marion’s other husbands, E.G. was not a successful businessman. He soon discovered that building an Argentinian railroad was not feasible and turned to other schemes. He started writing travel pieces for publication in the growing market of magazines in New York. Marion soon began to write for publication and both of them were encouraged by meeting Frank Leslie, editor of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine.

Leslie soon became a family friend. He left his wife and moved in with Marion and E.G. and the three of them continued to have an active social life. Marion soon found that her unconventional living arrangement meant that she was unable to gain entry into the highest New York society, but she had a wide circle of friends and entertained lavishly. Her writing and her editorial skills kept the family afloat for several years.  

Both Frank Leslie and Marion were eventually able to divorce their inconvenient spouses and get married. When they did, Marion legally changed her name to Mrs. Frank Leslie thus firmly leaving behind her birth family and her other marriages. After Frank Leslie died in 1880, Marion was able to take over his publications and keep her place in the ever-changing publishing world of the early twentieth century. She divided her time between New York and Europe and maintained her social contacts on both continents.

The greatest irony of Marion’s life was that despite having never supported the idea of women’s suffrage in any of her publications, she nonetheless left all of her money to Carrie Chapman Catt. Despite efforts by long lost relatives to break her will, it survived. The fortune was eventually spent on supporting the 19th Amendment that gave American women the vote and on founding the League of Women Voters to help women take advantage of their new rights.

Despite the limited documentation available about Marion Leslie’s life, we are lucky this year in having a valuable biography recently published: Betsy Prioleau’s Deadlines and Diamonds: A Tale of Greed, Deceit and a Female Tycoon (2022). Prioleau paints a vivid picture of Marion Leslie’s life and the times in which she lived. Reading it helps us understand how one woman managed to triumph despite poverty and the limitations placed on women. Marion Leslie deserves to be remembered.

Losing the Right to Plan Our Lives–An American Tragedy

Back in the mid-1950s when I was a newly married graduate student at Columbia University, one of the most important discoveries in my new life was the Planned Parenthood Clinic on 125th Street. Having grown up in a family where contraceptives were never mentioned, I was on my own in finding out about birth control.

Contraception was a lot more unreliable during those post-war years than it is now. Aside from condoms for men, the only realistic choice was a diaphragm for a woman, but that had to be fitted and prescribed by a doctor. Of course, a few couples used the only method approved by the Catholic Church. This was the rhythm method which required a woman to take her temperature every day to figure out when she was ovulating and thus likely to get pregnant. Never the most reliable method, it was sometimes referred to as “the pope’s roulette”

The possibility of a surprise pregnancy gave employers and educators an excuse to deny women, especially married women, many of the opportunities available to men. Medical schools, law schools and employers restricted women’s applications because women were not able to control their fertility. States like Connecticut, which made the use of contraceptives illegal even for married couples, added an extra burden for women.

Gradually through the 1950s, new means of contraception were developed. The pill—the  gold standard in birth control—was unveiled to the world in 1954, and during the next twenty years, the pill became more effective and safer for women. The Planned Parenthood organization was instrumental in perfecting the pill. They publicized the need for reliable contraception and helped to fund doctors and scientists who gradually perfected the methods. Planned parenthood ran clinics and publicized the availability of effective contraception as well as providing help in fertility and family planning issues. PBS has prepared a timeline to show the development of contraception

Having the means to control fertility changed people’s lives. Birth control allowed women and couples to maintain healthy families they could support. Gradually the repressive laws that prevented people from leading healthy, satisfying sex lives were discarded. States could no longer forbid marriage between people of different races, or people of the same sex. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals had the right to privacy in making intimate decisions. Since that time, women and men have had the right to choose their partners, to decide when to have children and raise them, to limit the number of children they had, or to choose not to have children.

By 2022, the world seemed safer for women. Most of us thought our rights were settled and secure. But we were wrong. In a devastating decision, the Supreme Court abruptly declared that it had all been a mistake. A majority of the Court stripped women of the right to choose whether or not to carry a fetus to birth. Who knows what rights they may decide to take away next? The right to get married? The right to decide the number of children they have? The right to choose their partner? 

America’s Founding Fathers believed people had the right to pursue happiness, but it seems our courts have decided that legislators can determine what form of happiness we are allowed to choose even in our most intimate family relationships. Legislators who know nothing about the science of how pregnancy occurs and the complexity of fetal development are given the power to impose their religious beliefs on all of us. Without any factual basis, they can determine who will receive appropriate medical treatment and who will not when complex issues of life and death occur.

Surely this is not what Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers had in mind when they declared that each of us has the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Future justices will look back on the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade as a low point for the Supreme Court. The right to privacy is worth fighting for. We must let legislators and justices know that free people do not easily surrender their rights. The struggle to preserve our freedom is only beginning. We will win it by voting in every election and electing candidates who believe in individual freedom for each of us.  Americans deserve no less.

Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.  

Jemima Boone–The first Star of Frontier Life

Everyone who has studied American history knows the name of Daniel Boone, a pioneer who led settlers into Kentucky and encouraged the Westward expansion of the original thirteen colonies. His daughter, Jemima, is less well known, but she had an important role in expanding American territory. 

Jemima’s great adventure started on July 14, 1776, when she was 13 years old and living with her family at Boonesborough, the settlement her father had organized. She and two other teenaged girls took a canoe out on the Kentucky River, which flowed close to the settlement. Seeing flowers on the opposite shore, the girls decided to paddle over and pick some. No sooner had they drawn close to the shore when a group of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians appeared, seized the canoe, grabbed the girls, bound their hands, and marched them away from the river.

Abduction of Jemima Boone by Charles Wimar (1853)

Fortunately, Jemima and her friends were familiar with the difficulties of tracking people through a heavily wooded area and did their best to leave traces of where they had gone. The girls were wearing long dresses, which made it difficult for them to walk through the dense woods, so the Indians cut several inches off the bottoms of the skirts. The Indians buried the fabric so that it would not be found, but the girls were able to tear pieces from the ragged skirts and attach them to bushes along the path. When the Indians noticed what they were doing, they ordered them to stop, but some pieces of fabric were left.

It wasn’t long before the settlers in Boonesborough heard cries and realized something was happening. They ran to the river where they found the empty canoe floating in the water. The girls had disappeared and the men realized they had been captured. Daniel Boone quickly organized a few men as a search party. Although both Shawnee and Cherokee Indians travelled often through the area, their trails were well hidden and Boone and his party didn’t know which direction they would choose.

Jemima was wearing a bonnet and she realized the bonnet strings could give information. She tied knots in the string to indicate the number of Indian braves who had taken them—five in all. Because the girls were clever enough to leave clues, and because Daniel Boone and his party understood them, it took only a few days to rescue the girls. Despite worries among the settlers, the girls were not injured by their captors. In fact, the girls seem to have established congenial relations with several of the Indians and reported that they had been well treated.

Jemima and her friends, however, soon became only a background to the media blitz (by 19th century standards) of their story. During the years after they had returned to Boonesborough, been reunited with their families, and married other settlers, their story was often retold. It served as the basis for a fictional retelling in Sir Waler Scott’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and was the basis for both paintings and stories in popular media.

It seems sad that Jemima would never be able to read Scott’s novel because like most women among the colonial settlers she was never taught to read. She did live a long, adventurous, and presumably happy life, however, as a wife and mother until her death in 1834.

Jemima’s story and the effect it had on her father as well as other settlers on the Western frontier is the subject of a recent book by the novelist Matthew Pearl, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America (2021). Pearl has done a lot of research and he sticks carefully to the known facts about the incident and its repercussions. The result is a fascinating picture of what life was like for both settlers and Indians during pioneer days on the western frontier. It was a lot more complicated and far more fascinating than most versions that have been available in books, movies and on TV.

Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Memorial Day Past, Present and Future

In May of 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin, Walt Whitman wrote these lines as a tribute to the slain president:

When lilacs last in the dooryard blooms’,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

During the years since then, in late May when lilacs are blooming in much of the country, Americans have paused to honor the young people who have died in war. Memorial Day has been one of the most important holidays of the year especially for parents who lost children during those wars.

This year we have even more tragic deaths to mourn. Nineteen children were killed—not on a battlefield, but in their classrooms in Texas by a teenager with two assault weapons. A teenager killing children. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen in a civilized country. But it did. And it has left grieving parents and grandparents who will never forget their loss. Every year when spring arrives across the country, people will grieve again for the senseless waste of innocent lives.

Christina Rosetti put that grieving into words for us:

Talk what you please of future spring
And sun-warm’d sweet to-morrow:—
Stripp’d bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
I sit alone with sorrow.

The only way to end this endless cycle of loss and grieving is to take action. Those of us who have read and listened to the news of the mass shootings must remind our political leaders that we the people have the right to defend our children and our children’s children. We must protect them from the endless cycle of tragedies. Other countries have shown us the way. We can insist that Congress outlaw the sale of lethal weapons to young people. We can make spring a time to celebrate growth and rebirth instead of a time of mourning. We just need the courage and the wisdom to take action.

Veterans Graves decorated for Memorial Day