Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, I made my first trip to Cuba as an adult. I had visited as a child with my family during the days of close U.S.-Cuban ties, but after Fidel Castro’s successful revolution, it was difficult for Americans to travel there. The 1994 trip was to a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations so participants came from all over the world. The trip was an eye-opener for all of us as it gave us a chance to see for ourselves what Cuba was really like. For me a special bonus was getting to know Lee Lorch, a most unusual academic and activist who has had an impact on people and events in several different societies.
Lee contacted me through mutual friends to see whether I would join an effort to send secondhand computers to Cuba. Having seen the shortage of technology in the schools and libraries in Cuba, I was glad to participate. As time went on I discovered that helping Cuba was only a small part of Lee Lorch’s efforts to improve the world. As a mathematician at York University he taught students and wrote scholarly papers, but being a scholar wasn’t enough for him. He had spent many years fighting racism in the United States and every time I met him there were new revelations about events he had participated in. He fought to open an apartment complex in New York City to African-Americans; he and his wife escorted students into the newly-desegregated Little Rock High School during the turmoil of school desegregation. He lost teaching jobs and had to move from one university to another as his notoriety grew.
In 1959, Lee and his family moved to Canada when he took a position at the University of Alberta. Later he moved to York University in Toronto. After all the turmoil of his life in the U.S. he found friends and a new life in Canada, and he never gave up fighting for justice. One of his interests was to encourage women mathematicians who were routinely discouraged from entering the field and often treated unfairly if they persisted.
People today find it almost inconceivable that even in the 20th century academics openly discriminated against non-white people and women. Until you read the story of someone like Vivienne Malone Mayes, it is hard to imagine the determination needed for women, and especially African American women, to be accepted in science and mathematics. Lee Lorch was among the pioneers in encouraging women to enter the field and in supporting their efforts for advancement.
I know I am late in finding out about this, but it made me very happy to learn that last year Professor Lee Lorch received a distinguished scholar award from CAUT—Canada’s organized voice of academic scholars. At the age of 97, he has participated in many struggles for justice and fair treatment for all people. He is a credit to the universe, and I hope the honors continue to flow during these crowning years of his long life.
Catharine was born in 1731 into a prosperous, but not aristocratic, family. Her mother died while Catharine was young, and her father, John Sawbridge, paid little attention to his children, especially his daughters. Like most girls of her time, she got very little education. While her brothers went to school, she was kept at home, not given tutors, but allowed the run of her father’s library. She quickly learned to read and having started was almost insatiable. Where did these 18th century teenagers get their hunger for ancient history? Today’s young people can barely keep from yawning when they hear stories about 50-year-old wars, but in those days adolescents found excitement in stories about 2000-year-old battles in Greece and Rome.
Not only was Catharine a great reader, she developed an ambition to become a writer. Luckily at 29 she married George Macaulay, a physician and gentleman, who seems to have encouraged her ambition to become an historian even though it was a bizarre choice for a woman. She was also influenced by her brother, John Sawbridge, who was a Republican activist in monarchist England. Catharine and he shared an ambition to reduce the power of the monarchy and make the king treat his subjects fairly.
Like many 18th century radicals, Catharine looked back to Anglo-Saxon times before the Norman conquest, when the English enjoyed freedom and equality. She considered the period of the Commonwealth as “the brightest age that ever adorned thepage of history” and admired Oliver Cromwell far more than the kings who ruled before and after him.
When she published the first volume of her history, it was widely read and praised. She became a star—no doubt partly because of the novelty of having a woman who could write solid history. And she enjoyed her role and the acclaim that went with it. She used her fame as a pathway into some of the male privileges of the time. As one astonished fellow-guest wrote, “Mrs. Macaulay does not retire after dinner with the ladies, but stays with the men.”
While British activists argued about the lessons of history, American colonists were busy applying their theories. They looked to many British historians, including Catharine Macaulay, for interpretations of the actions of the monarchy. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were among the American leaders who read Macaulay’s history and admired her work. Thomas Jefferson bought the whole 8-volume set of her history books for the library when he established the University of Virginia. Macaulay was very supportive of the Americans struggle to control their own destiny and in 1775, wrote a passionate “Address to the people of England on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs” in which she urged King George III and Parliament to change their policy.
Well, we all know what happened next. The crisis was not solved, the American colonies rebelled, and a new country was formed. As we celebrate the occasion, we should perhaps look back not only on the heroes who fought for that country, but to the people who inspired them and helped shape their ideas of how a government should treat its citizens.
Catharine Macaulay is almost forgotten today. There is an excellent biography by Bridget Hill called The Republican Virago, but it is not easy to find in a library or bookstore. The lives of the other women who influenced the American Revolutions are celebrated in a widely available book by Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. that is well-worth reading too.