2015–Hopes and fears as another year arrives

Does anyone still remember the Y2K bug that threatened to end the world as we knew it on New Year’s Day 2000? The problem was caused by the way early computer programs were written, allowing only two figures to indicate the year section of the date.  The first two numbers of the year were assumed to be ‘19’ so that 4/5/00 stood for April 5, 1900. When the year 2000 came around the date would be written 4/5/00 again, this time standing for April 5, 2000. This could be very confusing when comparing dates of events that happened over long stretches of time. A baby born in 2000 could have a her date of birth registered as 4/5/00 and thus appear to be 100 years old on the day she was born.

Prediction published in 1999
Prediction published in 1999

As the media coverage heightened, more and more bizarre suggestions were made about how bad the chaos would be. According to a New York Times report on the event (May 27, 2013),

Frightened citizens stocked up on bottled water and extra guns, according to news reports. The Rev. Jerry Falwell prophesied the electronic equivalent of fire and brimstone: “I believe that Y2K may be God’s instrument to shake this nation, humble this nation, awaken this nation and from this nation start revival that spreads the face of the earth before the Rapture of the Church.”

President Clinton appointed a Y2K czar to oversee activities designed to head off the problems. People with a tendency to worry, worried even more. A few people headed off on extravagant vacations on the assumption they would not need money after the world ended.

When January 1, 2000, actually rolled around however, nothing much happened. Corporations and public agencies had hired computer experts to reprogram computers; no major system failures occurred and the new century rolled on. The one tiny reminder of the great even that remains is that now when we enter dates into most computer-generated forms, we use four figures for the year—2014 or 2025—rather than the two figures we used back in the twentieth century.

The passing of what appeared to be major catastrophes is a good thing to look back on as another new year rolls around. For many of us the year ahead holds more fears than hopes—wars continue to bedevil us, climate change rolls relentlessly on, people have not yet shown the generosity necessary to overcome poverty in the world, but perhaps there is still hope for the new year and the years to come.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the year 1900 was on the horizon, Thomas Hardy wrote a poem of limited hope. It doesn’t suggest a divine intervention to bring happiness or wealth, but just acknowledges that hope exists and perhaps we can find it when we look at the world around us. Hardy found it in the song of a bird.

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy         

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

Working Women–marrying daughters

Watching a PBS presentation of the 1984 movie Amadeus a few days ago I was struck by the way Mozart’s future mother-in-law was presented. The woman was played for broad comedy as she interrupted a court musical event to push her

Costanze Mozart in 1782
Costanze Mozart in 1782

daughter, Constanza, forward as Mozart’s fiancée. Mothers intent on getting their daughters safely married to the best available husband have been a staple of comedy for centuries. Think of Jane Austen’s scorn for Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as she fussed over her daughters’ prospects with any gentleman in sight. But for mothers in these circumstances, marrying off their daughters was their primary professional obligation. We may think they were frivolous, but with opportunities so limited for women, a good marriage was the best gift a mother could give her daughters; marriage was almost always the only fortune that would keep them from the shame and poverty of spinsterhood. Perhaps we should have more respect for these hard-working women as they went about fulfilling their obligations.

If we look back a few centuries earlier, the importance of mothers in ensuring the future of their daughters was recognized and respected, at least among members of the aristocracy. One of my favorite heroines of the past is Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. She worked hard not only to find a suitable marriage for her daughter but to make sure that she inherited the throne of Scotland and was safe from English imperialism. Yet while Mary Queen of Scots lives on in movies, plays, and novels, despite her spectacular failures in love and life, the elder Mary, her mother, is only a footnote to history. But it was Mary of Guise who had the brains and political skills to give her daughter a chance at keeping the Scottish throne.

Europe during the sixteenth century was not neatly divided into separate countries ruled by their own sovereigns.  England and France struggled for control over Scotland and Mary of Guise was born into the powerful French family of Guise. Left a widow at 21 after the death of her first husband, March had a choice between marrying Henry VIII of England or James II of Scotland. She chose James, perhaps because he had no history of beheading his wives, or possibly because she wanted

Mary of Guise
Mary of Guise

to preserve the French-Scottish alliance that kept Scotland Catholic. At any rate, that marriage resulted in the birth of a healthy daughter, Mary, who became Queen of Scotland when she was six days old. Her father, James II, died unexpected and left Mary of Guise a widow for the second time at the age of 27. From then on Mary’s life was spent on an effort to strengthen the ties between France and Scotland and preserve the kingdom for her daughter. She was a shrewd politician am maneuvered her way through the tangle of Scottish lords and French aristocrats who felt they had the right to decide the fate of the country.

Perhaps if she had lived longer, Mary of Guise could have done more to strengthen the Scottish-French ties she supported, but like many people of her century she died young—at the age of 45 in 1560—and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, in the end was put to death by the English Queen Elizabeth I. Scotland became a Protestant country and has closer ties with England than with France to this day. You can read more about this story in Mary of Guise a lively biography by Rosalind K. Marshall written as part of the “Scots’ Lives” series. It is not often found in American libraries, but it is worth searching for.

It’s not easy to view Constanza’s mother or Mrs. Bennet as inheritors of the same quest that Mary of Guise embraced, but in fact they were following her example. The easy laughs of modern audiences at the attempts of mothers to launch their daughters into matrimony ring hollow when we think about what serious work such efforts really represent.

Maybe our grandmothers were smarter than we are!

For the last two weeks most of us Americans have been deluged not only with images of food—turkeys, pies, sweet potatoes—but also with images of clothes. As Black Friday, which has stretched out into more than a week, merges into Cyber Monday, our local newspapers swell with advertising sections and our email becomes clogged with ads from national brands. Not only are we supposed to eat far more than our bodies want, but also to deck ourselves out in clothes that make our lives more difficult instead of more enjoyable.

Amelia Bloomer
Amelia Bloomer

Perhaps we should make a national hero of Amelia Bloomer, the 19th century feminist who tried valiantly to make clothes serve women instead of making women slaves to clothes. Although clothing reform was not her major interest—she also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to petition the government, as well as for temperance—she recognized that the heavy, uncomfortable dresses women wore restricted their activities and the work they could do. When she saw a costume made up of loose trousers covered be a knee-length skirt, she adopted the idea and advocated it in her newspaper The Lily. It soon became known as the Bloomer costume. Women discovered that it freed them from the necessity of restricting their activities. With their new freedom they could walk along the filthy streets of big cities or the mud and dust of country roads without carrying along bugs and trash clinging to their skirts. They could even ride the new-fangled bicycles and moved faster and more easily than they ever had before.

Many women wore the style and enjoyed their new freedom. Getting rid of tightly-laced corsets and long, dragging skirts was a blessing, but men just didn’t understand. We have to suspect that men liked having women restricted in their movements and controlled in their activities. Newspapers continued to make fun of women in pants and some suggested that once a woman was allowed to wear pants she would soon rule her husband. It took many years and the Great War to bring real dress reform to European and American women.

Chinese girl in San Francisco 1911

But have we really come so far? Surely when we see women striding confidently into public meetings and offices wearing pants suits and walking as comfortably as men do, the progress is obvious. But when you look at the ads for skin tight dresses that make every movement uncomfortable, and high-heeled shoes that have crippling effects on a woman’s ability to do anything active, we can only wonder.

Fashionable shoes 2014
Fashionable shoes 2014

The fashion industry appears intent on sending women back to the bad old days when they had to rely on men to transport them wherever they wanted to go. Some of the shoes on sale remind me of the shoes that Chinese women with bound feet used to wear. Does anyone want to go back to the lotus shoes that disfigured Chinese women’s feet for so many years? Chinese women have moved beyond that, why do fashion tyrants want to drag us back into that world?