In recent weeks I often feel as though I am drowning in news from all sources—breathless voices from radio, TV and newspapers both print and online insist on telling me the latest tweet or thoughtless comment about what is going on. In self-defense I’ve resolved not to pay attention to any news that pops up after the PBS Newshour ends in the evening . Everything else can wait for morning.
This resolution leaves me more time to watch some of the riches I can stream on my TV, watching performances that I never had a chance to see in person. My favorites are ballets, pure art without the intervention of words or arguments. It is a tremendous relief to switch on Amazon Prime and watch dances that were performed at the Mariinsky theater and other famous locations. It is another world right in my own living room.
All of this reminds me of how long it took for ballet to make its way to America and what it meant when it finally arrived. And one of my favorite American heroes, Margaret Fuller, played a part in welcoming the European art. There is a well-known story that when Margaret and her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Fanny Elssler, one of the first ballerinas to tour the country, Emerson turned to Margaret and said: “This is not dancing, it is poetry ; ” to which she replied, ” No, Waldo, it is religion!”
Those comments make a good story, but unfortunately they are most likely untrue. Charles Capper, Fuller’s most respected biographer, tell us that Fuller and Emerson did not attend a ballet performance together, so the story must be regarded as just casual gossip. What it does reveal, however, is that the leading American writers and intellectuals were fascinated when they had a chance to view ballet. And who was the woman who introduced this art? Fanny Elssler, an Austrian dancer who came to America in 1840 and traveled across the country giving performances for a year and a half.
Fanny had been born into a musical family in Austria. Her father was a copyist and valet to Hayden and two of her brothers were musicians. Her sister Therese was also trained as a dancer and the two young girls frequently performed together. Therese grew to a height considered to be abnormal in those days—5 feet, 6 inches—so she could dance male parts when accompanying Fanny.
As frequently happened, the attractive young dancers attracted powerful older men as supporters and lovers. Fanny eventually had two children, a boy and a girl, who were boarded with friendly families until they were old enough to join their mother. I have to wonder sometimes what staid Americans like Emerson and his circle would have thought if they had known one of their admired artists had unacknowledged children. And I sometimes wonder what female artists would have done in that long-ago time before the Me-too movement had started if they had had the freedom to reject the attentions of wealthy patrons who assumed all female dancers would welcome their attentions.
But that did not happen. The dancers kept on dancing until they retired, as Fanny Elssler did in 1845, leaving behind a number of American and European fans who continued to support ballet as well as the other arts. During the late 19th century Americans, who had learned of many of these arts through performers who visited from Europe, developed their own artists and the inspiration began to flow in a two-way direction between this country and the rest of the world. Now, thanks to technology, we can watch performances from all over the world whenever we need a break from the endless chatter of today’s life. I highly recommend it.
As the new members of Congress were sworn into office this week, much attention was paid to the fact that more women than ever before are now serving in Congress. The youngest member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, otherwise known as AOC, was probably the most talked about, especially after a video of her dancing while she was an undergraduate was posted online. Although the video was apparently posted to make her seem frivolous, most viewers seemed to find it charming.
When Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, described herself as a socialist, conservatives again started attacking her. And when she suggested that a marginal tax rate of 70% might be appropriate for very high incomes, some commentators were outraged even though the rate she suggested is no higher than the one the U.S. tax code imposed during and after World War II.
The people who write political commentary seem to have very short memories. The fact is that American Congresswomen have often favored more radical solutions than their male colleagues supported. And they have stood by their positions even when put under severe pressure.
When Jeannette Rankin took her seat in 1917, she made almost as much of a splash as this year’s women did. As the first woman ever elected to Congress, she joined with more than 50 other members who voted against President Wilson’s request to enter World War I, even though the measure passed with an overwhelming majority.
After the war was over, President Wilson declared that it had been fought to make the world safe for democracy. But Rankin turned his words against him when she fought hard for a national measure to give women throughout the country the right to vote. “How shall we explain to them [American women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked. Women finally got the vote in 1920
Rankin left Congress but continued to be an activist for many years. In 1940 she was re-elected to a House seat and arrived there in time to be confronted with the Pearl Harbor attack. This time there were fewer members of Congress who opposed President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan. When she voted against the motion she was hissed and she was never again elected to public office.
Some Americans, however, recognized Rankin’s courage. Wikipedia describes the reaction of the noted editor William Allen White:
Probably a hundred men in Congress would have liked to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.
In recent years other Congresswomen have demonstrated rare courage in standing up for their beliefs. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only representative to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force—the act that gives the president sweeping powers to attack any country at any time if he or she believes it threatens the safety of the United States or supports terrorism. That act passed 420-1 with Lee the only representative who voted against it. In the years since 2001, many people have come to believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the Middle East that were justified under this act have done irreparable damage to America, but at the time, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson who recognized the danger.
Anyone who has forgotten the tangled emotions and arguments that followed 9/11 (and that includes most of us) should read the article in the Atlantic that tells the story of both the attacks and support Barbara Lee received following her vote. But, through the years, Lee has held firmly to her beliefs and is still serving in Congress representing her district in Oakland, California.
It is easy to see that the women now entering Congress are following the footsteps of some determined and courageous women. Let’s hope they can live up to the courage of their past leaders.