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.

Showing Us a Different World–Nadine Gordimer

Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.  

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.

Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:

Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.  

Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.

Nadine Gordimer died in 2014. 

Equal Pay for Equal Scores—treat female athletes right

The United States Women’s Soccer team earned a well-deserved surge of publicity this week when it returned to New York as world champions for the fourth year in a row. Thousands of girls around the country undoubtedly watched the welcome parade and dreamed of a possible future for themselves as they celebrated the women’s victory. But we should remember that the women have still not won their struggle to get pay equal to male soccer players. It has taken a century for women athletes to get as far as this, but there is still work to be done.

U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

Over the years women have been pressured to stay out of sports and let the men do all the active work and get all the credit. The Olympic Games have only slowly and reluctantly welcomed women into competition. America’s first female Olympic champion was Margaret Ives Abbott. She was a young society woman from Chicago who played golf for pleasure and was very good at it. In 1900, she was in Paris studying art and heard there was a golf contest, so she signed up. That was the first year that golf had been part of the Olympic program and for a many years it was the only time. Not until 2006 was golf reintroduced as an Olympic sport. Margaret Abbott may have been a champion, but scarcely anyone noticed her achievement.

The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—the only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate.

Women’s Olympic swim team 1912

As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards.

Now at last the Olympic organization is working to make sure the 2020 Games will be equally divided between male and female athletes. This chart shows how the number of women participating and the sports they have chosen have changed over the years.

Professional sports seems to be a last bastion where women athletes are treated unfairly with lower salaries and fewer perks. Now that the excitement of the World Cup is over, let’s not forget Megan Rapinoe and the rest of the team. As their fight for equal pay fades from media coverage, we need to keep reminding the U.S. Soccer Federation and other overlords of athletic organizations that women do care about sports and we want to support women athletes.

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.

 

Did Elizabeth Bennet Wear Underwear?

Many movies this summer feature fantasy characters inhabiting a fantastic world created in the filmmaker’s mind. Fantasy fiction is the choice of young adult readers who pore over lengthy descriptions of future life. Oddly enough, many of the fantasy worlds of the future seem to resemble one another. The same electronic doors slide open to admit the threatening villain’s as did a generation ago in Star Trek. Human imagination, after all, has its limits and Utopian futures go through cycles often offering predictable versions of what life will be like.

More surprising than fantastic futures are the forgotten realities of the past.  “The past is Jane Austen fashiona foreign country” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but few people take the time to understand how different it was. We assume that the people who lived years ago and wore funny clothes were in fact thinking and feeling just as we do. But when we read the books and letters they wrote, we are constantly being reminded that the past is far different from what we consider normal today. Even the small things like being able to contact friends and family at a moment’s notice is something that seems natural today. How did people get along without it?

When I was researching background for my first Charlotte Edgerton book, A Death in Utopia, set in the 1840s, I found the forgotten histories of the times an amazing treasure trove of trivia that brought the past alive. It wasn’t the detailed histories of presidents and society women

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)
A Death in Utopia

that gave me a sense of what was going on, but the long-forgotten memoirs and collections of letters from ordinary people that helped. In a book called My Friends at Brook Farm (1912) I learned that the young people who lived in that Utopian community had the same desire to be in contact with their friends as today’s teenagers do. John Van de Zee Sears describes the “peculiar whistle” they used to signal to a friend that they were near, and the answering whistle the friend would use to respond. This detail made the Farm community come alive to me in a way that formal histories never could.

Letters and diaries from the past record the way people felt about other people—sometimes far differently from the way we feel today. Van de Zee Sears tells us that “racial prejudice was cherished as a virtue” so his friends who lived in upstate New York in a Dutch settlement worried when he was sent to school among strangers in Massachusetts. To the New Yorkers with their Dutch roots, the people at Brook Farm were “English, that is to say, foreigners, strangers”. For a Dutch American to live among them was a big step. Knowing that helps us understand how long it took for Americans to embrace the diverse society the country was becoming.

A recent column in the Washington Post is a good reminder that even Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers were far more provincial in their outlook than would be acceptable today. It is good to remember that the men who wrote our constitution were not 21st century men in funny clothes, but people whose lives and ideas were as different from ours as we are from the Martians in science fiction.

There are historians to meet every need. Clothes often lead us into understanding the past and appreciating the way our ancestors lived and felt. One of the most fascinating blogs that I read is written by two women who are the authors of popular regency novels. They call themselves “two nerdy history girls” and their blog posts introduce the fashions, furniture, and habits of the past. Would you like to know what underwear a Jane Austen heroine would have worn? Or how a woman wearing a hoopskirt could manage to sit down on a sofa? The nerdy history girls show us videos of how women dressed, how their clothes were made, and how they were worn. Learning about those clothes and how constricting they were helps us to know the women. After learning about the reality of everyday life, it is easier to understand why many women didn’t have the time or energy to demand rights for women.

Instead of celebrating the creators of fantasy worlds, I like to celebrate the historians who bring to life the world of the past and let us see what it was like to live in years gone by. The more we understand the past, the more we should be able to control our future. As for what Elizabeth Bennet wore—read the historians!

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.