Category Archives: Current Affairs

Why Are Women Still Dancing Backwards?

Almost everyone is familiar with the comment from a cartoon written by Bob Thaves about Ginger Rogers, “she did everything he [Fred Astaire] did, but she did it GingerRogersbackwards and in high heels.” That about sums up the extra requirements put on women as they move ahead in a professional world dominated by men. Often this includes the expectation that women in any field will look like models and stay as fit as athletes whether this has anything to do with their work or not. Men are usually permitted to put on a little weight (as long as they wear a well-tailored jacket to disguise it) or to let their biceps sag a bit.

A recent New York Times story described the rigid standards set for cheerleaders who work for professional sports teams  but it is not only women who perform before the public who must observe different rules depending on their gender. Female writers, artists and political figures are judged differently than the men they compete against.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, was featured in a recent Vogue magazine article looking like a model.  Although the article itself was respectful and professional, it seemed odd to have the caption label all the items of Ms. Smith’s wardrobe. Can anyone imagine Virginia Woolf allowing a magazine to inquire into the brand names of all of the clothing she wore for an interview? Tracy Smith’s poetry stands on its own as one of the treasures of American literature. Surely her readers do not need to know the details of her consumer choices.

Women who run for political office are scrutinized not only for what they say and the causes they work for, but also for the clothes they wear and the way they style their hair. Hillary Clinton’s pants suits and shoes certainly became part of the stories written about her. No one bothered to report on these items for the men who were running for office.

Some of the most glaring examples of the different ways in which professional men and women are viewed can be seen in the various TV news channels. The women who report the news on CNN all seem to have carefully made-up faces and to wear sleek, tight-fitting dresses while they report their stories. I sometimes wonder how many more hours they must spend preparing for work than their male colleagues, who go on air sometimes rumpled and tieless, but with all their flaws hidden behind a generic jacket.

It is certainly great that women are reporting the news at all. I can remember the bad old days when it was said than the TV audience would not accept serious news presented by female reporters. Still, the playing field will not be level until women are allowed to be fully human in their professional lives. They may occasionally gain a few pounds, or their hair may turn gray or white, and wrinkles can be seen as an honorable sign of a thoughtful life and knowledge gained. Until they can appear honestly—aging and changing as the years go by—will women have achieved full equality?

I think I can hear the ghost of Ginger Rogers urging us on.

 

 

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Changing Roles for First Ladies

This has not been the best of weeks for me, primarily because I had a fall early in the week, at home, of course, where so many falls take place. While I’ve been fretting over my aching muscles and experimenting with how to get my meals ready without putting too much strain on my sore leg, I haven’t had much time to think about a blog post.

Then I read an article about Melania Trump in the New York Times which set my mind to melania-trumpconsidering a subject I wrote about the changing roles of first ladies back in 2016.

Two of the most watched speeches of the conventions were those given by Michele Obama, our popular First Lady, and by Melania Trump, who aspires to be a first lady. Our Founding Fathers would be aghast if they knew that candidates wives were actually appearing in public and speaking on behalf of their parties and their husbands roles in politics.

Like so many other revolutions in American politics, Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneer in opening the way for wives to speak at nominating conventions. She surprised everyone by appearing on the podium at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago to urge delegates to nominate her husband, Franklin. As the New York Times reported:

Eight years after her husband shattered the tradition of the non-appearance of Presidential candidates before the conventions which nominated them, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the same hall and on the same platform, established another tonight, the first wife of a President or nominee ever to address a major political party conclave.”

The Times went on to report that the First Lady spoke with unusual gravity, both at the press conference when she arrived in Chicago on a chartered plane, and in the convention hall. Franklin Roosevelt had announced earlier that he did not wantEleanor Roosevelt1940 to run again, and Eleanor Roosevelt said she was not surprised at this because “I cannot imagine in the present state of the world, why anyone would want to carry such a burden…” Her reaction when told that her own name had been placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency was to laugh and say. “I could imagine nothing more foolish or less wanted.” Her speech, when it came, was forceful and the delegates went on to nominate Franklin Roosevelt by acclamation for an historic third term as President.

Eleanor Roosevelt, like both Michele Obama and Melania Trump…could not escape press comments on her clothes. “Her traveling suit was a tailored ensemble of navy cloth coat with long lapels of Eleanor blue, with a soft crepe dress beneath in the same shade. Her hat was a small one of navy straw in a modified beret type…” At least the newspaper did not report on her hair style or the height of the heels of her shoes.

Time has moved on since 2016, although Melania Trump, still gets many comments on her clothes and even on the height of her heels, other changes are being made. Our new first lady chooses not to be completely buried in the shadow of her husband any more than Eleanor Roosevelt or Michele Obama were. She has chosen a different route to independence. She did not move into the White House immediately after the inauguration, and she has chosen not to appear with her husband or travel with him as often as most other first ladies have done. Instead she pursues her own interests and has not been a fierce political supporter.

I urge you to read Kate Andersen Brower’s column “The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump” and think about the changes that are coming to the First Lady role in American politics. Sometimes long lasting changes occur without our even noticing. And sometimes they are made by the people we would least expect to make them.

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Women in Black–starting a new battle

The Golden Globe awards ceremony last weekend was raised far above its usual status as just another awards show by the dramatic way the women participants coordinated metoo-featured-imagetheir costumes. All of the women wore black dresses, some starkly black from top to bottom, others relieved by a touch of gold or color. But the overwhelming effect was of a crowd of beautiful women wearing the most dramatic color possible for women’s clothing—black.

The Golden Globe display was, of course, in support of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements protesting sexual harassment and assault. Many of the women who spoke at the event mentioned the prevalence of sex discrimination in the entertainment industry and urged both men and women to protest against it.

As a follow-up to that successful display, several Democratic Congresswomen are planning to wear black to President Trump’s first State of the Union speech on January 30. Whether others will follow their lead remains to be seen.

Will any of this matter? Are we at a turning point for relations between women and men? It will be a long time before we know for sure. The history of women’s demands for fair treatment has not been a happy one. Generations of American women fought for women’s right to vote—from 1848 until 1920 the struggle continued. Hundreds of women and then their daughters and granddaughters argued, wrote pamphlets, and demonstrated in an effort to convince men they should have the right to vote. By the time the women won, most of the early supporters had died.

And the movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prompted long and vigorous struggle that has not yet been successful. You can read the full story of how the amendment was proposed and how close it came to passing at the excellent website at http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/

When the ERA went to the states for ratification in 1972, it looked as though it would be speedily accepted. During the first year, 22 states ratified the bill, but then the backlash

Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schafley

 

gained strength. Phyllis Schlafly was one of the bill’s fiercest critics saying that it “would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms“. Well, now we have unisex bathrooms in many public buildings and neither men nor women face a military draft, but the amendment is no longer an active item on the agenda. Will it ever be revived?

Why do women’s campaigns so often seem to fail or to take an inordinately long time to be accepted? It reminds me of the line from the World War I poem by Shaemas O Sheel “They went forth to battle, but they always fell.” Will the movement to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace also fail, or perhaps take a century to win? Women can’t change things by themselves; men have to understand the issues too. Social change is never easy, but at least there are some clues about how it happens.

It begins with education, early education before attitudes are congealed into rigid patterns. Perhaps we could start by not encouraging children to view life as a battle, or a football game, with winners and losers. Sports play a surprisingly large part in American education—more than in any other country. Children quickly learn about winning and losing, but not so often about working with one another and cooperating on projects.

By the time young people become sexually active, many of them have decided that sex is a competitive sport. A boy who “scores” thinks himself victorious and the girl is often shamed as a loser. Boys and men feed their power by forcing females to submit to their desires. Instead of being about intimacy, sex becomes a matter of exerting power and winning. It’s time for educators and parents to think more about what they are teaching boys and girls and how it will affect their futures.

As for grown men—better late than never. They can still learn to treat women with women powerfairness and respect. It will be a long struggle, but at least the women in black have made a start.

 

 

 

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What was good about 2017?

This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year 2017oldstarted with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.

As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.

But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.

Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl,  the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character.  Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her

Leni

Leni Riefenstahl and Adolf Hitler

 

interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.

I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks IMG_0632_edited-1ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.

One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.

When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely FDR_New Dealconservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.

Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.

Happy New Year!

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Escape to the Past—the joys of historical novels

At a time when present day life often seems overly complicated and depressing, many reading in bathtubreaders as well as many TV viewers choose to go back to earlier times. Somehow it seems as though life must have been simpler then, although the truth is that it wasn’t. Finding enough food for the family and keeping young babies alive was a lot harder than coping with an overcrowded bus on the daily commute.

Even though we know life wasn’t really simple in the old days, it’s easy to believe that it was because the problems were different. After all, the Regency heroines of romance novels never had to worry about having a scandalous video of their indiscretions turn up on Facebook.

But historical novels often deal with issues that are very current and similar to what’s going on today. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace might be set in a different time, but the alias-gracedifficulty of judging guilt or innocence in a crime is a perennial problem. It will be interesting to see whether the TV version of Alias Grace treats the subject with as much depth as the book did.

TV is often scorned as offering a more sanitized and false picture of the past than historical fiction books. Certainly the imagined world of Downton Abbey which attracted so many viewers, brought people into a domain where servants and gentry shared not only an estate but also a world view. The master and mistress of the house cared about the servants and thoughtfully helped them through their troubles. In the end almost everyone made out all right.

Novels that deal with servants and masters are often far more frank than TV shows about the carelessness and cruelties that often make a servant’s life miserable. If you pride and prejudicereally want a glimpse of what it was like to be a servant in early 19th century England, you might want to read Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which gives a fascinating glimpse of the life of a servant in the service of Jane Austen’s fictional Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly Jane Austen wrote about an earlier historical period than Downton Abbey, but it is hard not to believe that Baker’s view of the world is far more realistic than the one offered by the familiar TV series.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, whether mysteries set in medieval Europe or novels based on American history like The Underground Railroad, you’ll enjoy this great list of historical novels website.    Choose your century and ENJOY!

 

 

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Science carries on while society falls apart

Turning on the news first thing in the morning has been a lifelong habit of me. Just like thousands of other people, I would hate to think that the something exciting had happened overnight without my knowing about it. Recently, however, the morning news has been so discouraging that I often switch to music for the rest of the day. Learning more about natural disasters thousands of miles from home, or human foolishness in capitals across the world makes a harsh background to our everyday life.

Sometimes it seems the only way to remain calm and carry on is to ignore the feverish

neutron starGW170817.rect_-150x150

Neutron star

 

activity of politicians, pundits and the cruelties of societies turning on one another. Music is a good escape, and so is paying attention to the work of scientists whose dramatic breakthroughs bring good news to a world absorbed in the bad news of politics. This week we had the dramatic story of how astronomers discovered the collision of two neutron stars, an event that had been predicted but never before actually seen. As the Scientific American announced in its story about the event, “Spacetime ripples from a stellar cataclysm in a distant galaxy help explain the cosmic origins of gold, and chart the course for a new age of “multi-messenger” astronomy”

Even as our ordinary world carries on its squabbling about who-said-what and which party will win the prize in the next election, science is carrying on the important work of the world—discovering new knowledge and sharing it with all of us.

Women have long played a major role in astronomy, and in honor of this event I want to call your attention to the role of women in studying the stars. Several years ago I wrote a blog post about Caroline Herschel, one of the pioneers. Caroline and her brother William were able to work with the primitive telescopes available in the 18th century to chart the movements of stars. Caroline specialized in finding comets as they flashed across the sky.

It wasn’t only solitary astronomers who were able to advance the science. The most recent book from Dava Sobel, who has written many books about science and scientists for the general reader, offers a realistic account of how the science works and how many individuals work together to discover the truth about scientific phenomena. She recognized the work of the women astronomers at Harvard University in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. The advances made by these late 19th and early 20th century astronomers still surprise and intrigue readers who wonder how we know what we do about stars and other natural phenomena. Slow, patient cooperation among a large number of scientists was the key to the discovery of how our universe is constructed.

 

The methods of science—the patience and cooperation of many individuals should be an inspiration to the men and women who are working to make our political and social world a better place to live. The search for knowledge and for solutions to problems grows out of patient cooperation, not hasty judgments and angry quarreling. Reading about people who actually advanced humanity can make us a bit more optimistic about our ability to work together now to overcome the challenges facing people everywhere.

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Finding the Past in the Land of the Future

What does Anne of Green Gables have in common with The Parable Series by Octavia Butler or The Hunger Games or my own Charlotte Edgerton mystery story A Death in Cover of A Death in UtopiaUtopia? Recently I discovered that they all have enough in common to share a space on the Internet in Utopian studies.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More coined the term Utopia and used it to describe a fictional community that many readers saw as far better than the actual communities in which they lived. Ever since then, it seems, people have been searching for the ideal Utopia where healthy, happy people could live and flourish without the need for violence, war, and greed.

During the early 19th century, in both America and Europe, the search for the ideal community continued and led to the establishment of several Utopian societies including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida colony in New York. At a time of crisis when the country was changing, many people were discontented with the ways things were going. Fulfilling lives seemed to be disappearing as the industrial society replaced the old rural, farming life Americans had been accustomed to. Isolated groups of people trying to forge a new society did not, however, find great success in changing the world. As years went by, the Utopian or “intentional” communities have mostly faded away, but perhaps technology has found a new way to bring together the dreamers, past and present, who hope for a better world.

Even Ronald Reagan, the idol of conservatives across the country believed that

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

 

technology would solve the world’s problems.  As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 1989) he announced “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” It never quite worked that way though; Goliath has not quite disappeared in the almost 30 years since Reagan predicted its demise, but our world has certainly been changed by technology.

The Internet has made it possible for writers, readers and dreamers across the world to share ideas about how people have tried to change society in the past and what could happen in the future. This summer a conference, Solidarity and Utopia 2017 in Gdansk, Poland, brought together scholars from many different countries and disciplines to discuss the ways Utopian ideas have affected the world. There was a great deal to be learned.

I had never known that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables became an important document in Poland during World War II. Polish soldiers were issued copies of a Montgomery novel to take to the front; later, it became part of a thriving black market trade for the Polish resistance.

As for my own heroine, Charlotte Edgerton, here is what one scholar discussed about her appearance in A Death in Utopia.

Intentional Community under the Magnifying Glass: Brook Farm in A Death in Utopia by Adele Fasick Elżbieta Perkowska–Gawlik (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin) A Death in Utopia of 2014 by Adele M. Fasick is the first book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The eponymous utopia stands for The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a famous intentional community set up by George and Sophia Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. But for economic solidarity and the solidarity of ideas, Brook Farm would have never come into existence. However, “all the grand plans for reforming the world” (Fasick 3) were very soon confronted by the practicalities of farming, in which most of the members lacked experience. Since the novel covers the span of time from September to November 1842, i.e. the second year of Ripley’s experiment, the spirits of many members appear to be high yet the looming financial crisis casts a shadow over the future of the whole enterprise. To make matters worse a Unitarian minister visiting the community is found dead on the premises of Brook Farm. Charlotte, one of the Brook Farmers, resolves to protect the good name of the community and find the culprit. In my presentation I will argue that Fasick’s idea of inscribing the fictional investigation of an amateur detective into the life of Brook Farm has proved to be successful as far as “magnifying” the issue of solidarity is concerned. However, Charlotte’s amateurish attempts to solve the criminal conundrum reveal more of the ideals and daily routines of the intentional community than of the tragic circumstances concerning the crime, a facet most probably intended by the author who has already explored the history of Brook Farm on a scholarly basis.

We may not have reached a Utopian society, but the possibilities are still worth discussion. And being able to talk about them on a worldwide network is the kind of Utopian dream that Thomas More and the Brook Farmers would have loved to celebrate.

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