Yesterday I joined a crowd of other people headed to the Berkeley Rep theater to see the play Roe, an account of the forty-year-old Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. Written by Lisa Loomer and performed by a group of
gifted actors, the play makes the twists and turns of an old legal drama completely absorbing.
The drama focuses on the effects of the trial and its aftermath on the two central figures—Norma McCorvey the plaintiff, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who took her case to court. Most of us in the audience already knew the story—how Norma wanted an abortion to end her third pregnancy, and how Sarah wanted a case that would force changes in the restrictive Texas abortion law. Perhaps we didn’t all remember that Norma never did get that abortion because the case dragged on so long. The baby was born and given up for adoption before the court reached a decision. Sarah, however, did set in motion the legal changes that would change the landscape of women’s rights in America.
Over the centuries from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and India up until the present, women have tried to control their own fertility. Without effective contraception,
abortion often offered the only release from an endless series of pregnancies and births for married women, many of them from families that were ill-equipped to support another child. And most women who sought abortions were married. Even today, when contraception is much more available, cheap and foolproof, the majority of women who seek abortions, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute, are married women who already have at least one child.
Those of us who lived through the 1970s and were aware of the Roe v Wade case assumed that it would put an end to all the arguments and restrictions on abortion. Most countries in the developed world have accepted the fact that many women will want to abort a pregnancy that occurs at a time when they cannot bear and take care of another child. People who are strongly opposed to abortion usually claim that a “soul” enters a fetus’s cells sometime soon after conception. They therefore claim that the fetus is a person whose life must be preserved. Many other people dispute this claim. For centuries people believed that a human being becomes human when it is born and most people believe that now.
The dispute about when human life begins cannot be solved by science because it is a religious argument. Why is it that the United States is one of the very few countries where large numbers of people insist that their religious views become the law of the land? Perhaps if more people could see the play Roe they might develop a greater understanding of the arguments on both sides of the question. And perhaps more people would be content to let women control their own bodies. Medical science has given women the means to have safe and effective abortions; the decision about whether or not to have one should be left in the hands of the individual, not determined by the votes of outsiders.
On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.
Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.
Wealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.
Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.
One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.
The time shall come when wrong shall end,
When peasant to peer no more shall bend;
When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,
And the Man no more their frown obey.
Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,
Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.
With the presidential inauguration scheduled for Friday of this week, there has been much speculation about what the new first family in the White House will be like.
Melania Trump will step into the role of first lady, although she has said that she will not move into the White House until at least the end of her young son’s school term. She will remain living at Trump Tower in New York City.
People have become so accustomed to having a First Lady in the White House that speculation immediately started about who would fill that role until Mrs. Trump moves to Washington. Ivanka Trump is the name that comes to mind as the most likely White House hostess during the times when Melania Trump is not in residence. It wouldn’t be the first time someone other than the president’s wife filled that job—daughters, nieces and daughters-in-law have served in previous administrations.
The role of First Lady has not always been as important as it is now. In the early days of the Republic, serving as hostess as the President’s dinners was not a time-consuming task. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that people even adopted the title First Lady or paid much attention to the woman besides the president. Harriet Lane changed all that.
When James Buchanan, our only bachelor president, was inaugurated in 1857, his orphaned niece Harriet Lane became his official hostess. At 26, she was one of the youngest first ladies and her youth and good looks attracted attention. When she altered her Inaugural Ball gown by lowering the neckline two-and-a-half inches, she became a
fashion leader. Her clothes and her congeniality made her the Jackie Kennedy of the 19th century and the first really modern First Ladies. Like Mrs. Kennedy, she wanted to make the White House a cultural center. She invited artists and musicians to entertain there and also advocated for the rights of Native Americans on reservations.
During the bitterly divided years preceding the Civil War, entertaining in the White House required a genius for arranging dinners so that sworn enemies would not have to sit together or encounter each other in small groups. Harriet Lane must have had that genius because she kept the White House running smoothly up until the time that her uncle left office. By that time seven states had seceded from the Union and the election of Abraham Lincoln precipitated the Civil War. After leaving the White House, Harriet Lane went on to marry, to have two children who died young, and then to establish a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins University and to become an art collector and benefactor to the Smithsonian Institution.
From the stately Martha Washington, who was often called “Lady Washington”, to the youthful Harriet Lane who brought glamour to the position, the activist Eleanor Roosevelt who acted as her husband’s eyes and ears around the country, the quiet Bess Truman who disliked White House duties, America has had a wide variety of first ladies. Whether wives, nieces, or daughters they have shaped a role which has become more important over the years. Many people will be watching as a new family will be moving into the White House and shaping the activities of this presidency.
This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.
At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.
When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.
I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry. Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.
Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions. Some of them are still with me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same. Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.
Not every American celebrates Christmas, but if you have been spending any time at shopping malls or downtown city centers in the past few weeks, you might assume that everyone did. Department stores and public transit are jammed with people buying either for themselves or others. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, the stores welcome everyone who celebrates the holiday season by spending money. Recently I saw a news item designed to help people prepare for the holiday season:
It’s never too early to start shopping for Christmas gifts! Undoubtedly, Christmas can be one of the most celebrated yet equally stressful times of the year. First of all, consumers scramble their brains for great Christmas gift ideas followed by some frenzied Christmas shopping.
But it wasn’t always this way. In colonial times, celebrating Christmas was made a crime in some areas. Massachusetts passed a law against the keeping of Christmas and fined anyone who chose to acknowledge a holiday that was popular in Catholic countries. It
wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century when German and Irish immigrants flocked into the country that Christmas trees were introduced and Christmas gradually became the most popular holiday in the country.
It wasn’t long after Christmas started to be celebrated on this side of the ocean that people began to complain about how stressful it all was. In 1874 Fanny Kemble wrote:
Christmas is a season of such infinite labor, as well as expense in the shopping and present-making line, that almost every woman I know is good for nothing in purse and person for a month afterwards, done up physically, and broken down financially.
And so it goes. After two hundred years of Christmas celebrations, Americans still haven’t decided whether the holiday is a wonderful way to celebrate with friends and family or a fraud imposed by greedy marketers to encourage needless spending and anxiety. If the average American didn’t enjoy the holiday, they wouldn’t be crowding all the shopping malls and buying endless supplies of turkey and chocolates.
Perhaps we should stop worrying about how other people waste their time and money during the holiday season and just sit back and do whatever we want to do with our own family and friends. At least the lights of Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza brighten up the chilly midwinter season and strengthen us to face the beginning of a turbulent new year.
I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—
The children, the beasts, and the birds;
I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—
And I’d like to have magical words
To wish just the shining wish I would wish
In the Christmas words I would say,
For I’m wishing the whole world Christmas,
And joy on Christmas Day.
Today is a gray, gloomy day in northern California and even though we need the rain, it is hard to welcome the damp and chill. Last year at this time, there was plenty of trouble in the world, but the mood was hopeful. This year, it appears to many of us, that the country has […]
Many women today feel as though they have been slapped in the face again. After years of struggle, hard work, and service, another woman has failed to win the presidency. Despite being clearly the best candidate in a field of four, Hillary Clinton was once more sent back to spend more years working for the public good but not enjoying the glory of our highest office. Instead, a minority of voters (although a majority of the electoral college) chose a candidate who bluffed his way to the top with insults and braggadocio like a high school bully. This has been a sad election for the forces of hope and of rationality.
The history of women’s fight to gain the presidency reminds me of a line from a poem by the Irish-American freedom fighter, Shaemas O’Sheel, They went forth to battle, but they always fell. But we should remember that the Irish finally got their freedom and a woman will eventually be elected president, although the struggle has been long and difficult. We had hoped it was over, but it continues.
Only three women have come even close to being seen as serious contenders to become president of the United States. The first was Victoria Woodhull, who ran a spirited but spectacularly unsuccessful campaign in 1872. After all, women weren’t even allowed to vote at that time, much less run the country. I wrote a few posts about Woodhull on this blog during the 2012 presidential race.
A hundred years after Victoria Woodhull’s attempt, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm began her campaign to get the nomination of the Democratic Party. In 1972, she was well-known as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. That had happened in 1968 and Chisholm had made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal funds for child care facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War saying “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.” (Unbossed and Unbought, p. 97)
Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for the presidency was never taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Throughout her career, Chisholm noted that being a woman had put more obstacles in her path than being black. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired. After her retirement from politics, she taught for several years at Mount Holyoke College. Her experience continues to inspire liberal politicians and especially women and African Americans who are still struggling to be fully represented in government. And her book Unbossed and Unbought, which she published in 1970, remains a valuable document about a politician who fought for her constituents and was never swayed by money or political power during those halcyon days before the invention of PACS or the ravages of corporate funding for campaigns.
And now in 2016, it seems the theme remains the same for Hillary Clinton as it did for her predecessors: women are excellent accessories to a successful candidate, but not to be trusted with the tough job of running the country. Americans decided to take a chance on someone who wants to shut the country off from the world and huddle in a sinking swamp of resentment and anger. Do young people really want a chance to return to dirty, dangerous coal mining and mind-numbing assembly lines? To watch smokestacks billow black, sooty smoke that makes our children ill while our coastal areas are being flooded by warming ocean waters? Does anyone remember how miserable the 1950s were for most Americans—for minorities and women who struggled to survive in a world where all the good jobs were reserved for white men? Is this what we really want?
So, the struggle continues. All battles to build a better society take a long, long time. I’ll quote a verse written by the Chartists, a group who appear in my recent Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories Death Calls at the Palace. They bring us a hope of a better future. Someday that glass ceiling will shatter. The battle continues!
The time shall come when earth shall be
A garden of joy from sea to sea,
When the slaughterous sword is drawn no more
And Goodness exults from shore to shore.