Category Archives: Woman of the Week

Marching for the Facts

science march 2017The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.

In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.

Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.

Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer

education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.

Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.

It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.

Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.

It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth march02 2017


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Another Election and the Loss of Another Chance

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 hillary_clintonwas 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 Shirley Chisholmfunds 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.


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Agatha and her many mysteries

Saturday was a magnificent October day in San Francisco—sun sparkling on the Bay, tourists filling the streets, and the Blue Angels zooming their planes across the sky. But I didn’t spend it outdoors watching all the fun; instead I was inside all day with a group of sf_bay_2016about forty other women and a handful of men struggling with the joys and mysteries of writing mysteries. This was a conference of the Sisters in Crime group which offers fellowship and encouragement for those of us who follow the footsteps of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and the other fearless women who invaded the publishing world during the last century.

Mystery books and thrillers are the most popular genres of fiction and while both men and women read these books, statistics show that more women than men read books of all kinds. So it is not surprising that a group like Sisters in Crime was established to promote the advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers. As the publishing world changes year by year with more authors choosing to publish independently and social media becoming a major factor in book promotion, writers associations are more important than ever. Meeting aspiring writers as well as successful ones can lead to many fascinating conversations and introduce new worlds of experience and knowledge.

Agatha Christie probably could have used a support group of writers when she was building her writing career. The survivor of an unhappy marriage, Christie seems to have led a very lonely life during the years when she and her first husband were breaking up. She famously disappeared for eleven days, causing a police search and an enduring

Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.

Agatha Christie and some of her books

mystery about whether she suffered from amnesia or had planned the disappearance to embarrass her unfaithful husband. After the couple divorced in 1928, Christie started on a long tour of the Middle East. She became fascinated by the area and by archaeology. Her new interest  led to a second, happy marriage which lasted for the rest of her life.

The story of Agatha Christie’s trip to the Middle East has also led to a recent book, The 8:55 to Baghdad, by Andrew Eames, a Christie fan who in 2002 decided to follow Christie’s trip from London to Iraq. You don’t have to be a fan of Agatha Christie to enjoy his story. When Christie made the trip by train in 1928, intercontinental train travel was far more elegant than it is now in the 21st century. The famous Orient Express is a pale shadow of what it used to be and most travelers would have given up on the trip while the trains inched across Europe toward Turkey, but Eames pushed on. He tried to stay as close to Christie’s route as he could and sought out the hotels she stayed in and locations she mentioned, but 75 years makes a big difference in countries and cities, especially after World War II and several smaller wars since.

The most fascinating part of the book, to me, is Eames’s account of travelling through Iraq in the uneasy months after 9/11. For this part of the journey he joined a group that had been given permission to look at archeological treasures, but officials were suspicious and kept a close eye on the travelers. The Iraqis themselves were friendly for the most part, but all of them lived in fear that a another war would start, as indeed it did. As the group visits Aleppo, Palmyra, and other cities that have been in the news recently, we can understand more clearly what has been lost by ten years of fighting in the region. Many of the archeological treasures that Christie and her husband explored appear in the TV news that we watch today as ruined cities fought over by clashing groups. The book left me feeling profoundly sad for all the destruction that has been visited upon the Middle East and the people who live there.

The mysteries of the real world and its struggles are far more serious than the mysteries that appear in fiction, but telling stories has always strengthened the spirits of both writers and readers. Reading about a world in which reason prevails comforts us when the real world appears ever more chaotic. Perhaps that is why Agatha Christie has become, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the best-selling novelist of all time. And perhaps that is why so many of the authors of Sisters in Crime continue to write and readers continue to read their books.


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Words for Men; Clothes for Women

Now that both the Republican and the Democratic Conventions are over, we can all relax and go back to wondering what we should watch this evening. But we are not going back to the same political world that existed a month ago. The Democratic party’s nomination of


Hillary Clinton 2016


Hillary Clinton for President was an historic moment that will change the dynamics of conventions for years to come. But of course the conduct of conventions has changed dramatically over the years.

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.

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.”

Eleanor Roosevelt1940

Eleanor Roosevelt at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago

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 want 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 this year, 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.

We’ve come a long way since 1940 in the matter of spouses at conventions. This year Bill Clinton spoke as the spouse of a candidate—a first for a man at a convention. I do not


Bill Clinton 2016

recall any report on his clothes or any comments about who designed his suit. Perhaps the next milestone we should aim for is equal treatment for spouses of all genders at conventions to come. Now that the glass ceiling has been shattered, surely we can break the tradition of judging women by their clothes and men by their words. Let’s see what the 2020 conventions will bring.


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Margaret Fuller and the Flag

As the Fourth of July approaches, United States embassies around the world are hosting American expats, tourists, and local citizens at parties celebrating American independence. These parties are often the highlight of the embassy season and, depending on how lavish they are and how large the american flagcountry, can be a major financial headache. American corporations with local outlets often contribute to the costs. These receptions usually feature large cakes baked in the shape of an American flag and flags decorate the walls of reception rooms and flutter from flagstaffs on the building.

Americans abroad were not always so assured in using the symbols of the country. Back in 1847, when Italians were struggling to forge a more democratic government, a group of Americans living in Rome wanted to honor the opening of a new more representative Council by flying an American flag. They soon discovered there was not an American flag to be found anywhere in the city. As Margaret Fuller, wrote, the Maargaret_fuller_lgexpats were undaunted and decided to make their own flag. She reported: “they hurried to buy their silk—red, white and blue, and inquired of recent arrivals how many States there are this Winter in the Union, in order to make the proper number of stars”  Unfortunately, just as the Americans had managed to produce a suitable flag, an ordinance was passed forbidding the display of any flag except the Roman ensign.

Today it is hard to imagine an American flag as a changeable symbol with a fluctuating number of stars. It has been more than half a century since a new state was admitted to the union. But during the early years of the Republic, America was just establishing its traditions and beginning to take its place in the world. Margaret Fuller, a journalist, writer, and feminist, was one of the people who helped to make the United States aware of its importance as a symbol of freedom and democracy. Two years after the incident of the flag-making, Margaret was in Rome and watched the invasion of the French army on July 4, 1849. On the very anniversary of the day America gained its freedom, the Romans lost theirs. It would be many years before Italy would become a free and united country.

Margaret Fullermargaret_book-cover04.jpg was a brilliant and influential woman. She changed the way Americans view the world. As a journalist and activist, she demanded both votes and jobs for women.
During this month when we celebrate America’s independence and the men and women who built the country, you can get a free ebook copy of my biography of this remarkable woman, Margaret Fuller: an Uncommon Woman. Just go to , search for the title and use the code SFREE to get your copy.




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Boston Marriages to the Rainbow Flag

The events in Orlando this past week focused people’s minds and the media attention on the LGBT community as well as on terrorism. I am not going to write about that tragedy except to say that, like many others, my heart goes out to the friends and families of the victims. There is no excuse for the violence we have witnessed this week.

June is the month for LGBT celebrations across the country. In many cities and towns there have been and will be parades and demonstrations. Members of the LGBT community no longer have to hide their feelings or try to fit their relationships into an julia ward howeunyielding pattern of what used to be considered “normal” family life. And it has made me think of the ways in which women, who did not find happiness in the stereotypical marriages of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have tried to write and express their feelings.

Julia Ward Howe is remembered now only as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which became the most popular song of the Union forces during the Civil War. She was also a writer of popular poetry and articles as well as an activist for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. In many ways she lived the life of a traditional nineteenth century wife and mother, but behind that façade she struggled with her ambition to be a writer and artist. I have been reading Elaine Showalter’s fascinating and eye-opening biography The  Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe (2016) and learned of an unfinished manuscript that was found among Howe’s papers many years after her death.

Howe’s untitled manuscript tells the story of a Laurence, a character who has both male and female characteristics. The story is tragic as both men and women are attracted to Laurence, but none can accept the ambiguous nature of his sexuality. It is easy to see why the book was never completed. It seems as though Julia Ward Howe, although unambiguously a female, was unable to accept and understand her need for an active intellectual public life—a life that was considered suitable only for men. Howe lived a more or less conventional 19th century life, but her marriage was very unhappy. She could not accept the limitations placed upon women, and could not devise a life that would combine domestic life with her creative needs.

Some 19th century women managed to build what appear to be happy lives for themselves by avoiding marriage and finding emotional satisfaction with another woman. Sarah Orne Jewett, whose well-wrought stories of New England life were popular throughout the


Sarah Orne Jewett


country, lived for many years with the widowed Annie Fields. This was one of the famous “Boston marriages” (a term coined by Henry James) in which two women established a household of their own. We probably will never know whether or not most of these relationships had a sexual component. It doesn’t really matter. The revolutionary part of the Boston marriages was just the fact that women could live satisfying lives without depending on men for either financial, emotional, or legal support. Of course, the women who pioneered these lives had to independent means, whether inherited or earned, to enable them to live this way.

Well into the 20th century many women writers had difficulty reconciling their artistic

willa cather

Willa Cather

mbitions with the limitations imposed by their gender. Willa Cather, whose novels were both popular and won critical acclaim including a Pulitzer Prize was one of the writers who found it difficult to accept a conventional female role. As an undergraduate she had sometimes used the name ‘William’ and cut her hair so short she was mistaken for a man. She wrote several of her stories from a masculine point of view and at times seemed scornful of other women writers. Most of her closest friendships were with women, but she never described herself as a lesbian and she protected her privacy so fiercely that critics and biographers still quarrel over whether or not she had sexual relations with women.

Looking back it’s hard to understand why it took so long for society to recognize the wide range of people’s gender identification and emotional lives. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the gay liberation movement began to be noticed and to gradually become acceptable to most Americans. And as it has grown, it has become more inclusive so that now we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people joining together to remind everyone of the great variety of human lives and emotions. We can finally see that the rigid rules that required all women and men to act in certain prescribed ways are unnecessary and hurtful. Young people growing up today are not required to hide their gender preferences the way earlier generations did.

There is still a long way to go before equality is achieved, but at least we can celebrate the long road that has been traveled already.


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Elizabeth Fry and the Prisoners

One of the saddest sentences in the obituaries for Merle Haggard that appeared after his death this week was “He spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement”. Somehow Haggard turned his life around and eventually became a successful country music star Elizabeth Fryinstead of spending much of his life in prison,. Not many prisoners are as lucky. We now know that spending time in solitary leads to mental and psychological consequences that often last for a lifetime. But deciding what kind of punishment is appropriate for men and women who have committed crimes is a problem that has not yet been solved.

Public shaming, such as having people wear a red letter to let all their neighbors know about their crime was a favorite punishment during the eighteenth century. Anyone who has read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter will remember Hester Prynne and the red letter “A” for Adulteress that she was sentenced to wear. As society became more urban, public shaming was less effective—people didn’t care so much what their neighbors thought of them.

Countries then turned to harsher punishments. In England the death penalty was given for crimes such as stealing even small items. But this did not deter crime either and sometimes encouraged people to commit larger crimes. If you could be hanged for a theft,


Prisoners in Newgate prison. Date: 1735 Source: Painted and engraved by William Hogarth 

you might as well kill any potential witnesses. Samuel Johnson wrote during the 1750s,  “If only murder were punished with death, very few robbers would stain their hands in blood; but when by the last act of cruelty no new danger is incurred and greater security may be obtained, upon what principle shall we bid them forbear?”

By the beginning of the 19th century, many people were calling for a change in the prison system, but few people had ideas about how this could be done. Most improvements in prison life have been the result of  the persistent work of individuals, many of them Quakers, who insisted that even people who break laws should be given a chance to reform instead of merely being punished. One of the earliest pioneers in this work was Elizabeth Fry.

Born into a prosperous Quaker family in England in 1780, Elizabeth Gurney would have been expected to be satisfied with life as a wife and mother. After she married another Quaker, Joseph Fry, she settled down to bear and raise eleven children. Many women would have felt this was quite enough work to keep her busy, but Elizabeth wanted to contribute more and wrote in her journal, I fear that my life is slipping away to little purpose.”

A visit to the notorious Newgate Prison convinced her that prisoners, especially the female prisoners, who often had their babies and small children with them, could be taught useful skills. She persuaded prison authorities to have female guards for the women prisoners and she founded the Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners in Newgate which ran a school in the prison and taught useful skills such as needlework.

At first many people opposed her work. The Home Secretary complained that she was removing “the dread of punishment in the criminal classes”. Eventually, however, she

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison

Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners


found support among important people including the Prime Minister,  Robert Peel. Elizabeth Fry testified before a Parliamentary Committee, which influenced the Goals Act of 1823 which specified that women prisoners should be governed by women and that jailers should be paid a salary so they would not need to take money from prisoners.

Not all of Elizabeth Fry’s proposals have been accepted. She was a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and she argued against keeping prisoners in solitary confinement, or as it was then called, the “Separate System”. Prison systems in Europe and America have never returned, however, to the cruel conditions that prevailed before her work started.

As a final tribute, since 2001 Elizabeth Fry’s picture has appeared on the British five-pound note, so probably far more people recognize her face than know what she did to earn the honor.

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