History as Entertainment

As 2012 ends, many people are looking back toward history rather than ahead. After all, what is ahead for us except the dreaded “fiscal cliff” a phrase designed to frighten us all. One of the major entertainment successes of the fall, aside from the inevitable fantasies of hobbits and talking animals, has been the story of Abraham Lincoln and his successful handling of a government crisis. RunningtheMachine-LincAdminThe popularity of this movie has pushed the history book on which it was based Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to the top of the bestseller list here in San Francisco. It isn’t often that the general public agrees that history can be fascinating and can perhaps even give us insight into what is going on in the world today. We’ll never know how Lincoln would have handled the current fiscal crisis, but seeing how the men in that rambunctious Congress is certainly a reminder of what is going on in Washington today.

This sudden surge of interest in historical figures has cheered me as I look over the year’s progress in this blog. History is filled with figures who can both entertain and enlighten us. It’s a pleasure to read more about them and get to know them. Understanding how they thought and acted sheds a new light on what’s going on in our own world. One of the people who has been introducing women’s history to audiences for years is Bonnie Hurd Smith whose website and blog describe her busy life helping businesses and nonprofits craft their histories into stories for the public. Her book “We Believe in You” tells the stories of twelve women who made their mark on American history. If you don’t know her work, 2013 is a good time to learn about it.


Mary Seacole–An unknown heroine

Who was the most famous nurse of the 1800s? Most Americans would probably answer “Florence Nightingale” although Clara Barton might get a few votes. Almost no one would remember Mary Seacole who served as a nurse and non-traditional doctor during the Crimean War at the same time that Florence Nightingale did. Unlike Nightingale and Barton she was not primarily an administrator, but rather a hands-on provider who forged strong ties with hundreds of the men serving on the bleak battlegrounds of the Crimean War.

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. cover of Mary Seacole's autobiographyWhite British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”

Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.

After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.

When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.

Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson, easily available in the UK, but hard to find in America. It is worth searching for. We need to remember these women who lived heroically and did so much to broaden our view of what women can accomplish.

Remembering Eleanor Roosevelt–When America Led the World

You may have been as disgusted as I was this week when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the United Nations treaty that would urge all countries to follow America’s lead in providing services to people with disabilities. To many of us who have been proud of our country’s role in ensuring equal treatment for all people, it was hard to believe that our current leaders are turning their backs on that tradition. It make me long for the days when American leaders were acknowledged around the world for being at the forefront of human rights, and one of the people I think of most often is Eleanor Roosevelt.

Like many women around the world today who grew up in the 20thth century but have nonetheless adapted to the changes of the 21stst, Eleanor Eleanor_RooseveltRoosevelt had a foot in each of two centuries. She was a daughter of genteel 19th century New York who was able to become a valued world citizen of the 20th century.

Like other wealthy young women of her time, Eleanor married young and accepted the domestic duties that went with the job of being a political wife. December was one of her favorite months because it gave her a chance to pick out gifts for family and friends.  Choosing gifts for her five children was the most fun of all, but her gifts were not just for her family; she never because an entirely home-centered wife and mother.  As first lady during the Depression, she recognized that a lot of Americans needed more than gifts; they needed education, jobs and the right to vote. She traveled around the country, acting often as the eyes and ears of her husband, Franklin Roosevelt. She told him in no uncertain terms what he should be doing for Americans who were reeling from the Great Depression. Sometimes her domestic chores took second or third place, but she tried to meet the standards she had learned from her family and to meet the needs of her husband as well as her own individuality. It wasn’t easy.

After Franklin Roosevelt died, Eleanor’s life changed dramatically. She wasn’t ready to move into quiet retirement, so she decided to expand her efforts to serve the world instead of limiting herself to national politics. President Harry Truman appointed her as the United States’ first delegate to the newly-formed United Nations. Eleanor was soon off and running with that job.

The United Nations was formed in 1945 to prevent another war. World War II had left Europe devastated and much of the rest of the world unsettled. People feared another war would destroy civilization and many of them believed that countries could work together to prevent that happening.  Many people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, also believed the UN should protect not only the freedom of countries but the freedom of individuals everywhere.

In 1946, she became a member of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights and was elected chair of the group. For two years, the Commission worked to decide which basic rights are important for everyone in the world. They argued over which rights should be included and how to express the rights in a way that every country and every religious group could accept. Finally they came up with a document that every country represented could sign. It’s not perfect and it leaves room for arguments and differences of interpretations, but at least it has given the world something to work with. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on December 11, 1948. Among other things it was Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest gift to the people of the world.

What have been some of the effects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It has

  • Led to a declaration of the rights of children around the world.
  • Led to an agreement on the rights of women in every country
  • Helped to persuade South Africa to end its system of apartheid
  • Led to world agreement in condemning the use of child soldiers.

The Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world. It is now available in more than 300 languages.