Blood pressure must have soared these past few weeks all across America as fury reigned in Washington over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The struggle pitted not only Republicans against Democrats, but often men against women. People couldn’t even agree on what the argument was about. Was the basic question whether or not Kavanaugh had committed a sexual assault 36 years ago? Or was it about whether his overwrought, hysterical claim that “leftists” had conspired against him revealed a glaringly unjudicial temperament?
What we are left with now is a Supreme Court that reflects the views of only a minority of Americans. Many of the justices’ decisions will be questioned because by people who believe their views have not been heard and their wishes have not been respected. In part this is because in recent years gerrymandering and voter suppression in the states have kept many people’s votes from being heard. But far more tragically, many people did not vote because they just did not bother. Demonstrating against Congressional actions that seem unfair may make people feel good, but voting is far more effective for changing the country.
Women especially, whose voting rights were earned with so much pain and bitterness, should feel particularly guilty if they don’t vote regularly. It is hard to believe that only 43% of women who were eligible to vote in the 2014 Midterm elections cast a ballot. We can do better than that.
Now that the 2018 Midterms are only a few weeks away, how are women going to respond? There are more female candidates running for office than ever before, but they need the support of women who may never run for office, but who can surely vote and ensure they are represented by people who reflect their views.
When we look back at the history of women’s voting, there is a lot to inspire us. Susan B. Anthony and a group of women went to the polls in Rochester, N.Y. in 1872 and voted, claiming that they had the constitutional right to do so. Local authorities did not agree and arrested the women. The judge at Anthony’s trial did not allow the jurors to discuss the case, but directed them to find Anthony guilty. He fined her $100, which she refused to pay, hoping to move the case to the Supreme Court, but the judge successfully blocked that path by refusing to send her to jail. Nonetheless, the trial generated a lot of publicity and advanced the prospect of women’s suffrage.
We’ve come a long way since those days, but now that we have the vote, it is up to us to use it. Unless women are active participants in elections, they will not be treated as equal to the powerful men who run the country. Now is the time to register and vote!
As yet another hurricane brings torrents of rain and flooding to another part of the
United States—this time the Carolinas—I can’t help but think how the attitudes of many Americans toward nature have changed over the years. Many of our leaders now seem to see nature as a foe to be defeated and conquered instead of as a priceless resource to be studied and understood.
During the early post-Revolutionary years, most of the leaders who shaped the country were awestruck by the riches of their new land. I have been reading a book about one of these Americans, David Hosack. He is hardly a familiar name, although his achievements during the early post Revolutionary period are still important. The book is called American Eden: David Hosack, Botany and Medicine in the Gardens of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson.
David Hosack was a doctor, who is perhaps most often remembered for the role he played in attending Alexander Hamilton after the fatal duel between Aaron Burr and Hamilton. He was unable to save Hamilton’s life after that duel, but he was responsible for saving many other lives both through his own treatments and through the medical students he trained and the cures he discovered. Unlike many of our current leaders, Hosack had great respect for the value of science and of studying how medical treatment could be improved through learning more about the characteristics of plants.
One of Hosack’s most important legacies was the establishment of a famous botanical garden, called Elgin Garden located on the current site of Rockefeller Center. At the time the garden was established, it was far uptown from the small city of New York in lower Manhattan. For years Hosack taught at Columbia College and took his students through the gardens to learn about the medicinal qualities of plants. He established ties with fellow scientists in Europe, especially England and Scotland, and exchanged both information and plants with them. American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, honored Hosack’s work and sometimes exchanged plants with him. Like most leaders of his generation, Hosack understood the value of working internationally to improve the lives of Americans and others.
Generation after generation as the United States grew and expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts of North America, much of its growth and prosperity was fueled by scientific advances. Land grant universities trained young people to understand science and improve agriculture. As the country grew more populated, farsighted leaders like Theodore Roosevelt understood the necessity of preserving the natural landscapes and resources of the continent and established National Parks.
Until recently government, scientists and community leaders worked together to preserve the natural riches and to enable people to lead better lives. Now suddenly, even as more and more scientists and ordinary citizens recognize the threat of climate change brought on by human activities, many of our leaders have lost their way. Instead of working to mitigate the dangers of greenhouse gases, we are encouraging corporations to spew more noxious fumes in the air and make the world less safe for children as well as the rest of us. Instead of working with other countries to improve the world, our leaders want to tear up treaties in the hope of immediate profits for a few wealthy corporations. Instead of encouraging scientists to study our changing world, many leaders are cutting funding for education and restricting scientific research. What has happened?
Do we really want our shorelines to erode? Do we want to increase the number of children and adults who suffer from asthma? Is it more important for a corporate executive to buy another jet plane than to preserve the fish, birds, and other disappearing wildlife? That is something that everyone who votes in November should consider. And everyone who could vote but doesn’t should feel a personal responsibility for failing to protect the country so many of us celebrate.
Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day, but the day did not offer much reason for working people to celebrate. The president struck a blow at the spirit of the day by cancelling scheduled salary increases for federal workers, citing a need to save money. It seems that the tax breaks for executives and corporations have to be paid for by workers lower in the hierarchy.
Still, there are bright spots on the horizon. This week we have also had a chance to see a
number of women who are working hard to protect all Americans. Even though women were the last major group of citizens to be given the right to vote in the United States, they have finally come into their own as powerful voices for all of us.
The week started with the presentation of the documentary film, The Notorious RBG, a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has devoted much of her career to persuading her fellow judges of the importance of women’s rights. When Justice Ginsburg completed law school and looked for positions, she found that women were consistently discriminated against in employment. She was turned down for a clerkship on the Supreme Court because, she was told, women just were not appointed to such positions. When she was hired to teach at Rutgers law school, she was frankly told that she would be paid less than a man would be because women did not have families to support.
Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has worked patiently, supporting small changes such as using “gender” instead of “sex” when talking about discrimination. It’s a small change, but it has moved discussion away from the emotion-laden word “sex” to a more neutral term.
Gradually Justice Ginsburg and others have gained acceptance for the idea that women and men should be paid equally for equal work and hired for their skills rather than
their gender. And women must be allowed to speak out on issues of importance. Having a voice and speaking out is an important part of being a citizen.
If you ever want a quick refresher in the history of how women have been silenced over the years, you should read Mary Beard’s short book called Women; a Manifesto. Beard, a well- known classical scholar, tells how women’s voices have been silenced over the centuries. Perhaps it started with Telemachus, the
young son of Odysseus, when he rebukes his mother for expressing an opinion: “go back up into your quarters” he said. “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
But women are no longer willing to be silenced. It has taken hundreds of years to develop their voices, but at last we are seeing it happen. More women are running for elective positions in 2018 than have ever run before. And this week we were able to see some of the results.
At the Senate Judicial Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, some of the most memorable questions came from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamela Harris. Whatever the outcome of the appointment may be, thousands of people across the country have had the satisfaction of seeing troublesome questions raised—questions about a woman’s right to choose, about limitations on presidential powers, and about the future of health care in America. Women spoke and attention was paid.
Now it is up to all of us to keep on speaking up—with our votes, with our actions, and with our voices. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Here in northern California we have been preoccupied by the wildfires that are threatening homes and property in many parts of the state. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the vague smell of smoke hovers over us and on some days the sky in the morning has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue. City dwellers are sometimes thought to be immune to changes in the natural world, but nature has intruded on us this year and we have become preoccupied by it.
The wildfires in so many western states—made much worse by the hot, dry weather that has prevailed—are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and the disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. And the hurricane season has only started. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.
Last year when I visited London, I bought a book called Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies. The author, Alexandra Harris, traces the history of the way writers and artists have been influenced by English weather over the centuries. The ever-changing British weather has encouraged a deep interested in tracking the vagaries of
changes in the weather. Even architecture has been impacted. The warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s, as reported by Harris, have been suggested as an incentive to introduce the neoclassical style buildings in cities like Bath. Although as she explains the “high ceilings and open colonnades were considerably less appealing” when the average chilly English climate reappeared in later years.
The 19th century was one that brought dampness and rain to much of England. Byron wrote “Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,/And men forgot their passions in the dread…” As the century went on and cities grew in size and density, rain and fog became a part of the plot as in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in which rain falls throughout the first twelve chapters and weather seems to become an integral character in the story.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the influence of people on the weather was recognized as being as important as the influence of weather on people. The use of fossil fuels and the growth
of manufacturing led to increasing episodes of smog both in England and America. The culmination, for London, was the great smog of December 1952 which killed several thousand people. At last the general public began to pay attention and the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.
Now we are again to be in an era when mankind is impacting weather so strongly that once again people throughout the world are in danger. Climate change is causing rising temperatures for oceans and land. Unprecedented storms are increasing in numbers and violence. Deserts are expanding in Africa and coastlines are receding as the oceans rise. Although our national government has become reluctant to act on the clear danger, if enough people push hard enough, we will be able to stop the reckless policies of our so-called leaders and insist on regulations to limit the worst effects of these changes.
Reading Wonderland won’t give you a background in climate science, but it is a great reminder of how important weather has always been in the life of human beings.
A few days ago I watched a video from the Jimmy Kimmel TV show that really jolted me. In a typical “man on the street” setup, passers-by were asked to identify a country on a world map. They could identify any country—the U.S., China, England—any one they chose. One by one the viewers failed the test. A few identified Africa as a country, but couldn’t find any country on the continent. At last a boy, who looked as though he might have been in fifth or sixth grade, was asked and he swiftly identified the U.S., Mexico, and a string of countries in South America.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how these people ever followed the news about world events. Hearing news about Syria without having any idea where Syria is would certainly not help anyone understand what is going on in the Middle East. With Google earth and all the digital maps available why are people so geographically illiterate?
Making maps is something people have been doing for thousands of years. As knowledge about the world grew, people were able to visualize how the known world was laid out. Instead of being limited to the small area in which they were born and raised, seamen and warriors were empowered to explore larger and larger swaths of the world.
One important mapmaker, although little known, was Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who mapped much of the Middle East for the British Army in the early years of the 20th century. I wrote a blog piece about her back in 2014 after I had read and been fascinated by her biography. Her work was important in shaping the boundaries of the current countries in that area—for better and for worse. Understanding how modern boundaries came into being can help us see how conflict in the area became almost inevitable.
Maps and globes are important in shaping how we see the world. More than ten years ago when I visited Cape Town, South Africa, I saw an art exhibit called Perspectives on Africa. The exhibit was designed to show how differently Africa was viewed by various groups of people. One installation included three world globes hung in different ways—one in the conventional way with the North Pole at the top; the next swung from two points on the equator; and the third with the South Pole at the top. The artist made the point that the conventional way we hang the globe is no more sensible than several other ways. I’ve never forgotten how surprising the “upside-down” globe looked to me. It gave me a new perspective on the southern hemisphere.
I am not sure how geography is taught in the schools today, but I am often astonished at the limited knowledge many Americans have of the world outside our borders. Perhaps we should ask teachers to post a large map of the world on the wall of every classroom and a globe in every library. Many children learn about maps by looking at the tiny screen of a phone. Seeing the larger picture day after day might broaden their horizons and encourage them to notice that while Google maps are great for planning trips, they offer only a tiny picture of the world around us. Even now in the 21st century, Google does not rule the world!
Sometimes I need a change from the present day with its endless news—endless recycling of stories that make me sad or mad or both. That’s when I lose myself in reading about the past. For the last week or so I’ve been reading a new biography of Edward Lear. Remember him? He was the author of children’s verse such as
The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
Even more famous are his limericks, which have become almost as familiar as Mother Goose rhymes.
Like most people I had no idea that Lear was not primarily a poet, but rather a respected painter specializing in birds and landscapes. That was how he made his living and the reason why he traveled ceaselessly around Europe and the Middle East. I learned all this from a sparkling new biography by Jenny Unglow called Mr. Lear; a Life of Art and Nonsense.
During the past two weeks I’ve spent much of my spare time dipping into Edward Lear’s remarkable life. Unglow makes his life memorable by describing his unusual family life—he was the 13th of 14 (or possibly more) children and was raised primarily by an older sister because his mother couldn’t cope with all the babies.
Born in 1812, Lear was able to take advantage of the speedy travel made possible by the spread of trains across Great Britain and most of Europe and the steamships that took him to Greece, Malta and Sicily. His network of friends gave him companionship when he was in foreign lands. Although not an aristocrat, he found patrons among wealthy families who valued his pictures and enjoyed his cheerful company and his way with children. He was welcomed everywhere he went.
Certainly his life wasn’t easy. He suffered from a range of ailments including epileptic attacks as well as episodes of depression. He longed for the stability of marriage and family life, but his emotions centered on men and he never found a way of balancing his desires with the rules of Victorian society. Still, he maintained his friendships and found satisfaction in his work, although like all of us he often complained of overwork.
The past was not a happy place, and I wouldn’t want to live there, but visiting it now and then is refreshing. I urge you to read Jenny Unglow’s book, which is available now in libraries and bookstores as well as on Amazon.com.
People have lived through worse times than those we are going through today. Reading and writing about them today gives me perspective on the life and times of the 21st century. That is why I have set my Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories in the 1840s, a tumultuous period in both Europe and America. Charlotte Edgerton and her friends lived through many of the same events that Edward Lear did.
Later this month, the fourth Charlotte Edgerton mystery Death Enters the Convent will be published. I’ll write more about that in my next post.
Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.
This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.
Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.
Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare
No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can
- Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
- Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
- Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
- And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE!