Happy Birthday ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, usually known simply as ACLU, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The year of its birth, 1920, was a year very much like our own. Many Americans were fearful of the future in which so many things were changing. The world had just survived a terrifying flu epidemic, women were demanding the right to vote and to decide their own lives, Russia had just installed a communist government and many Americans felt threatened by the success of revolutionary movements in Europe.

In 1917 the fear of radicals had led to the passage of the Espionage Act. Thousands of people were arrested for expressing radical ideas in speeches and publishing them in magazines. Often the government did not respect the traditional American rights to assemble and to speak freely about their ideas. It was in this climate that a small group of liberals started the ACLU in order to defend the traditional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution.  

Although the ACLU was originally supported mainly by people with liberal political views, in the years since its founding, questions have arisen about where it stands. Liberals cheered in 1925 when the ACLU stood up for the right to teach evolution in schools. Conservatives began to cheer for the ACLU as they supported Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag in schools, defended white supremacists and supported the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited political contributions by corporations as well as individuals.

As an organization the ACLU has always been resistant to being categorized. People who strongly support it for one action may turn against it for another. Overall, it has earned the respect and gratitude of both liberals and conservatives, but never a year goes by that someone in one political camp or another doesn’t disagree with a specific action. Sticking by your principles in all situations has always been a difficult stance to maintain.

The fate of the ACLU has to some extent been mirrored in the fate of one of its important founders. Crystal Eastman, one of the most charismatic and well-known activists of the early 20th century, had been famous for years when she joined with others to start the ACLU. Eastman had been an activist fighting to gain women’s right to vote, to own property, and to equality in marriage. She was also a socialist and a dedicated pacifist during the years leading up to World War I. Like the organization she helped found, she refused to settle down to one theme in her life. She supported numerous causes but refused to be defined by them.

Crystal Eastman

During the first two decades of the 20th century more and more women supported the women’s suffrage movement. By the time of the 1916 election, both Democrats and Republicans were vying for the support of suffrage leaders. Many of these leaders, including Eastman, thought that the time for a women’s suffrage amendment was close at hand. Most of the same leaders were also eager to persuade the government not to enter the war which had started in Europe in 1914. Most of the suffrage leaders, decided that getting the vote for women was more important than trying to avoid going to war.

Crystal Eastman stood almost alone in deciding that her commitment to peace was more important at that time than her fight to get votes for women. She never stepped back from her suffrage work, but it became less important in her life. Perhaps that is one reason why she is less often remembered than some of the other suffragists. Many of the traditional suffragists who are honored for achieving votes for women had to sacrifice some of their other values to support that over-riding cause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals like Crystal Eastman or groups like the ACLU could decide what values they upheld and move ahead toward them on a straight path? Instead, fighting for any ideal inevitably raises questions.

  • When does defending freedom of speech turn into support for hate speech?
  • When does a desire to maintain peace mean that we ignore death and suffering in foreign lands?
  • When does a person’s right to privacy justify ignoring possible security threats being planned by online groups?

These are the questions that keep idealists lying awake at night. And the truth is those questions will probably never be completely answered. But they are questions we should keep thinking about. Two books I’ve read recently offer a lot of food for thought. One is a new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson and the other is the recent Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Both of them raise many questions about how we set priorities in our personal and political lives. No answers—just questions. In the end we all have to find our own answers.

A Nurse Who Made History–Florence Nightingale

During these painful days of the coronavirus pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of our healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and their assistants are the people we rely on for help with illnesses. But they do more than just help us as individuals. They also build knowledge and systems that improve the quality of healthcare for all of us. Often, they don’t get credit for these achievements. Nurses especially are apt to be remembered only for their gentle kindness, but not their other valuable work. Florence Nightingale is a good example of a woman who is remembered for all the wrong reasons.  

The Legendary Florence Nightingale

Born into an old-fashioned English family in 1820, Nightingale had to fight hard to get the education she wanted and to become a nurse. Her big chance to shine came when England blundered into the Crimean War in 1854. The British had not fought a war in decades and were confident they could defeat Russia which was threatening to block their access to India. It wasn’t until British troops reached the Crimea that their vulnerability to the climate and poor sanitary conditions was demonstrated. Before the battles had even started, 20 percent of the troops had come down with diarrhea, cholera, or dysentery. Hospital facilities were poor or non-existent.

At last Florence Nightingale had an arena in which her talents shone, although it was a difficult struggle to convince the authorities that she could help. Finally she was able to gather together a group of women who had some experience as nurses. They included lay nurses and both Roman Catholic and Anglican nuns. Florence left for the Crimea in October 1854 and established her headquarters in the hospital at Scutari. It was there that she proved her abilities as an executive, managing the delicate relationships between the army and the nurses, establishing methods of providing food and supplies for the hospital, and introducing sanitary measures that saved lives.

While she was in the Crimea, Florence’s fame as the “lady with the lamp” grew even though she did less and less nursing. She was essentially a manager and purveyor of supplies, but the public insisted upon viewing her as a gentle nurse who soothed poor, sick soldiers. The army officers and politicians who interacted with her were more realistic in describing her as a tough executive who fought to build a viable organization of hospitals.

When Florence returned to England in the summer of 1856, she had no intention of stepping back. The more she learned about health conditions among the troops, the more determined she became to change the situation. She pushed hard to get an official commission appointed and although she was not allowed to serve on the commission herself, it was her persistence that eventually brought it about. She labored relentlessly to write a report, which she eventually published as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Here her interest in statistics served her well. Realizing that people could visualize pictures better than rows of figures, she invented what she called her “coxcombs” to present the most important facts.

Example of Nightingale’s Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale lived to be ninety years old and most of those years were devoted to improving public health. Like so many other women, her strengths have often been misunderstood. She is remembered as the sweet nurse tending soldiers, but her real achievement was far too “unwomanly” to be acknowledged while she was alive. It’s a shame that she is often misrepresented even now. There are several good biographies; one that I strongly recommend is Mark Bostridge’s recent Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. After reading it, you’ll never feel the same about Victorian women and their lives.