Month: December 2018

Who Wants an Old-Fashioned American Christmas?

A month ago President Trump wished all Americans a Merry Christmas and announced once again that he had won the “war on Christmas”.  I’m not sure he realizes quite how long the battles over the importance of Christmas have been going on in the U.S.

Reading about history is one of my favorite hobbies and the holidays are a fascinating subject. Those of you who have read my first Margaret Fuller mystery story, A Death in Utopia, know it is set in Brook Farm, a Utopian community that flourished in Massachusetts during the 1840s, so I’ve done a lot of reading about Brook Farm.

I’ve never forgotten the memoir I read about an American boy who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, not very far from Massachusetts, which had been settled by Dutch generations earlier. His name was John Van der Zee Sears and he was sent to Brook Farm for his education. The greatest shock of his new school was to discover that the Christmas holiday “did not exist” for them. In the Hudson Valley it was the greatest holiday of the year. Young John and his sister could find no one at Brook Farm who realized what they were missing except for an Irish resident, John Cheever, who was a Catholic and therefore understood the importance of the holiday for people outside of New England.

The celebration of Christmas was a divisive issue for many people in early America. It was celebrated in the South, but not often in New England. During the 1850s and later, when more and more immigrants began arriving from Europe, they brought customs from the old country, which upset many of the traditions of each of these groups. Christmas trees began to appear in American homes and were soon adopted by families from many different backgrounds.

“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (although his authorship has been disputed) made an indelible impression with its picture of Santa Claus coming down the chimney to leave presents under the tree for all good girls and boys. Its popularity was one of the most unifying aspects of the Christmas holiday. As years went by and Christmas became more important as a gift-giving holiday than as a religious one, it was shared by people of all backgrounds and faiths.

Whether for Kwanza, Hanukah, or Christmas almost everyone now can unite in wanting to give and receive gifts during this holiday season. In fact, perhaps we ought to admit that what has saved Christmas for most Americans has been Santa Claus and the commercialism he represents.  

Whatever the reason for the celebration, I hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season and looking forward to a good new year. Happy 2019!

From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Do robots ask questions?

Reading about a 19th century woman forgotten by most history books may seem a long way from robots, but that was the path I followed this week. I met Mary Treat in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered. If you have read reviews of Kingsolver’s book you probably know that Mary Treat was a well-known scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Textbook written by Mary Treat

Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mary Treat received only the standard female education of the time, which did not include science. Universities did not admit women as students, so where did Treat’s knowledge about biology and botany come from? It seems to have been driven mainly by the curiosity. That is what led her to want to know about the life of the world around her. During the 1870s, she and her husband moved to Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of several Utopian communities built during the 19ths century. Situated close to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, it was full of plants and creatures that had seldom been studied by scientists. Mary’s husband didn’t care much about plants or insects, so he soon disappeared from her life.

In Kingsolver’s novel, we are first introduced to Treat, as she is sitting in her living room patiently holding one of her fingers in the grip of a carnivorous plant. What drove this woman to study plants and insects while other women were concentrating on dress patterns and cookery? It seems to have been mainly curiosity—the quality that sets many human beings apart from most other species as they look for answers to thousands of questions about the world they live in.

You can ask almost any teacher about how they recognize the children who will someday go on to make a mark on the world and time and time again you get the answer “curiosity”.  Perhaps all children are born to ask questions, but many of them eventually give up the quest. Poverty and the stress of difficult family life and social conditions push some children into abandoning the gift of curiosity, but there are other reasons too.

For centuries men were considered to have a natural monopoly on education. They were the ones who went out into the world and searched for answers while the women stayed home. Women weren’t supposed to ask too many questions, but somehow despite this, some women, like Mary Treat, kept their curiosity alive. Treat made many contributions to biological sciences. Just think what she could have done if she had been accepted into Harvard and studied with Asa Gray instead of having to learn it all on her own?

One of the things that fascinates me about studying women’s history learning about how and why some women have overcome the obstacles in their path and kept their curiosity alive. If we could understand that, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging both men and women, to use their curiosity to explore the world.

And what has this to do with robots? Well, one of the things about robots is that no matter how many questions they may learn to answer, or even to generate in a narrow task-focused area, they haven’t yet started to ask questions of their own. A workplace filled with robots that have been trained to do a task, will sit passively overnight or during a vacation shutdown. A workplace filled with human beings in a similar situation will come up with a dozen ways to escape their prison and move on to something more interesting. Until robots start asking questions, I don’t think we have to worry about them taking over the world.

Meanwhile we need to keep our children asking questions as they grow up and lead us into the future.

 

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