The news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death Friday night was a shock to a country that has been absorbing shocks all year. I saw the announcement late in the afternoon as I turned on my email. No sooner had I read the headline than the phone rang as a friend called to ask whether I had heard the news. For the next hour, messages by phone and email came in from friends and relatives the news spread. Many of my friends and relatives felt the loss as a personal grief.
A crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court building in Washington within hours of the announcement, and as the word spread across the country, another crowd of mourners gathered in San Francisco, probably in other cities too. On the weekend crowds in cities across the country gathered to march in a tribute to the Supreme Court Justice who was affectionately known as RBG.
Why has her death resonated with so many people while other justices have died in office without attracting much notice from the general public? The biggest reason is probably that Justice Ginsburg was a warrior in the long fight for equality for women—a struggle that has been part of American history for at least a hundred years
When the upper-class gentlemen who wrote our constitution started their work, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams who was one of the authors, reminded her husband “Don’t forget the ladies”. But the men did forget them. More than a century passed before women won the vote, and even after they could vote, women—half the population—were still not considered capable of being leaders in government or business. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, like many other women, recognized this injustice. But unlike most women, Ginsberg did something about it.
Ginsberg’s reputation was built on her presentation of a number of cases documenting gender-related discrimination. The media of the past few days has shown the methodical way she went about winning case after case by showing that such discrimination was contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution. She never did win the final battle to get an Equal Rights Amendment added to the Constitution, but she supported the effort.
And Ginsberg not only fought for the rights of women, she also supported a series of interpretations of the Constitution that protected voting rights throughout the country. She opposed the Citizens United decision that enables corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to political groups. Throughout her long career she supported the view that all citizens should have equal rights and that the country should not be dominated by an elite group of wealthy people and corporations who bought their way into power.
Justice Ginsberg’s strong voice will be missed on the Court and throughout the country. As Sir Walter Scott wrote many generations ago, a beloved leader has been taken from us and our mourning will be long and painful.
He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font reappearing
From the raindrops shall borrow;
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!
Potowska Rose was an unlikely woman to have an
important role in America’s woman’s
suffrage movement. She was a foreigner who spoke English with an accent, a Jew,
and a fervent atheist. But during the 1850s, contrary to all expectations, she
became one of the most prominent members of the movement.
was born in Poland in 1810, the daughter of a wealthy rabbi who educated her as
though she had been a boy. She learned Hebrew and studied the Torah, but from a
very early age, she rejected religion and became a committed atheist. After her
mother’s death, when Ernestine was 16, her father betrothed her to an older man.
Shocked and rebellious, the girl went to the Polish court and sued to reject
the marriage and have her dowry returned. After winning her case, she left home
and never returned to Poland.
was Rose’s first stop and she lived there for several years, supporting herself
by making and selling air freshener. Later she moved to London where she became
a follower of the social reformer Robert Owen. Owen campaigned for workers’
rights, rejected child labor, and supported communal living. Ernestine began
her career as a public speaker after Robert Owen invited her to give a talk
about his ideas. Her talk was so successful that she soon became a regular
speaker at Owenite events.
1836, Ernestine married a fellow Owenite, William Rose. Her husband was not
Jewish, but, like her, a free thinker and an atheist. He had been trained as a
silversmith and jeweler. Soon after their marriage, the Roses moved to the
United States, which they considered the best country in the world.
New York, Ernestine and her husband joined a group of freethinkers who met
regularly at the newly built Tammany Hall. While William set up a jewelry
business, Ernestine began giving talks to the freethinkers group about
abolition and women’s rights. One of the
objectives that the group supported was to change the New York State laws that
excluded everyone who was not Protestant from serving in government posts or
being witnesses in lawsuits.
she became active in public affairs, Rose became increasingly aware of the limitations
placed on women. In some meetings she was hissed and booed simply for speaking
up as a man would. Soon she became an active supporter of the right of women to
play an active role in her community. Although a newcomer to New York, she went
door-to-door collecting signatures in support of a bill to allow women to own
property in their own name. Despite being able to collect only five names, she
submitted her petition to the legislature—the first petition ever submitted for
causes of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were closely entwined
during the years before the Civil War. In one speech, Rose pointed out that “The slaves of the South are not the only
people that are in bondage. All women are excluded from the enjoyment of that
liberty which your Declaration of Independence asserts to be the inalienable
right of all.”
1849, Rose joined Lucretia Mott for an anti-slavery speaking tour through
upstate New York. Although many reformers based their opposition to slavery on
Christian teaching, Mott was a radical Quaker who believed truth was found
within the individual rather than in any church. She declared herself a heretic
who had no difficulty accepting atheists who fought for the causes she herself
supported. She and Rose remained lifelong friends.
the 1850s, the women’s right movement grew in strength. The first major
conference was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. The Convention,
designed to address “Women’s Rights, Duties and Relations”, was organized by
women who knew Rose, but her name was not on the invitation. She kept a rather
low profile because her atheism did not fit in with the attitudes of most of
the organizers. Every one of the speakers except Rose specifically mentioned
the Christian and Biblical roots of women’s rights in their talks. Nonetheless,
Rose was an invited speaker and her contributions were widely praised. She was
also elected to the important Business Committee.
Rose became a a good friend and colleague of many of the women most active in
the women’s right movement, especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B.
Anthony, as well as Lucretia Mott. During the 1850s, Rose worked constantly for
the women’s movement. By 1856, she had given speeches in 25 of the 31 states
and was always in demand. She did not take money for her speeches, but was
supported by her husband William, who remained her most devoted companion.
Nonetheless, her atheism and the fact that she was foreign born set her apart
from most of the other activists. She was sometimes accused of being too
radical, as when she talked of supporting education for women and mentioned
that uneducated girls were often forced to turn to prostitution. And she dared
to support a speaker who mentioned, in guarded terms, the importance of
contraception in furthering women’s rights. Any mention of sex in a woman’s
rights meeting at that time raised a furor and accusations of supporting free
her valuable contribution to the women’s rights movement, Ernestine Rose must
have felt somewhat estranged from many other activists. Her health was always
poor, and after the Civil War, she became a less frequent speaker. The War had
unleashed a wave of religious fervor in America and the freethinker groups with
whom Rose felt at home dwindled away. Anti-Semitism was more openly expressed
and Rose sometimes felt called upon to oppose it publicly.
the war, Rose and her husband visited Europe several times. Finally the couple
moved permanently to England where Ernestine became friendly with suffragists
there. Her American friends, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, urged her to
return to the United States, but after William Rose died in 1882, Ernestine
refused to leave England again. It seems likely that she felt more at home in
Europe than she did in postwar America. When she died in 1892, she received
many honors in both England and America, but she was often left out of official
histories of the women’s movement and was gradually forgotten.
If you want to know more about Ernestine Rose, an excellent biography by Bonnie S. Anderson called The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter was published in 2016 and is available in many libraries. And in 2018, Judith Shulevitz wrote an account of Rose in the New York Review of Books that is well worth reading.
Sexism is alive and well in America. We all know that.
Just this week President Trump’s nominee for a post on the Federal Reserve Board had to withdraw his candidacy because of nasty remarks he has made about women over the years. The only surprise is not what he said, but the fact that he was called out for those remarks. Over the years, over the centuries really, powerful men, including our current President have suffered no penalty at all for insulting women.
When did things
start to change? If you depend on the media to tell you, the story will
probably be about the Me-too movement of the last few years. The backlash
against powerful men who thought they could exploit women has been much
publicized since the first accusations surfaced a few years ago. But it turns
out that women’s power has been an important factor in American political life
for more than 100 years.
I know this now
because I just finished reading Patricia Miller’s 2018 book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of
the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington.
Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard who in 1893 sued a prominent
Kentucky Congressman for breach of promise of marriage. Such cases were not
unknown, because marriage was almost the only chance women had to obtain a
secure life. But things were changing. It was a time when more and more women
had to find a way to make a living, even though most jobs and professions were
closed to them. Unfortunately, many men, including some of the most prominent citizens,
found it easy to take advantage of women and girls who were trying to build
their own lives.
Madeline Pollard was
an ambitious young woman in her late teens or early twenties (there are still
many unanswered questions about her life) who was trying to get an education.
She met Congressman William Breckenridge, member of one of Kentucky’s most
prominent families and a veteran of the Confederate Army, while she was
travelling on a train to her school. He introduced himself to her, she asked
him for advice, one thing led to another and soon she became his mistress. This
was no short affair. It lasted for eleven years and through the birth of two
babies (both of whom died) before his wife died.
Unfortunately, by the time he became a widower, Breckinridge was very short of money and needed a marriage to a wealthy, socially prominent woman to move ahead in his political career. But he had reckoned without Madeline. Unlike most women in her position, she was unwilling to give up and be silent about what he had promised.
Miller tells the
story of how Madeline gradually found supporters and brought her suit against
Breckenridge. Up until the very end, the Congressman did not seem to realize
that he could be held responsible. When he lost the suit, he confidently
announced that he would run for Congress again and gathered his usual team of
supporters around him.
To the amazement
of the politicians, it was the women of Kentucky who finally defeated
Breckenridge. Scores of women marched in protest against him. Even though they
could not vote, they warned their husbands, brothers, and sons not to give
Breckenridge another term in office. And they won! He never again served in
One final mystery
that Miller clears up in her book was the source of money that made it possible
for Pollard to pay the cost of going to court. It appears that there were
several wealthy widows who financed the trial. They never announced their
support, but they provided the resources needed to eventually bring down the
certainly sounds to me like a good message for women today. It will be women
standing up for other women that will finally succeed in combatting the double
standards that have for so long limited women’s participation in society And if
you need some encouragement along the way, you might want to read Bringing Down the Colonel and cheer on
Madeline Pollard and her supporters who were among the first to enlist for the
Of the seventeen candidates
running in the 2020 presidential race, seven are women. We are growing used to
seeing women on the podium at national conventions. But 35 years ago the idea
of a woman running for national office shocked the country.
In 1984, Americans found it hard to believe that the Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, would choose a woman as his running mate. A woman to be Vice President? Unthinkable! But Geraldine Ferraro already had a history of setting new goals for women.
Many prominent women welcomed Ferraro’s candidacy. The New York Times quotes Ann Richards of Texas as saying “The first thing I thought of was not winning in a political sense, but of my two daughters.” It had been 64 years since women had gotten the right to vote, but Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to demonstrate that even the highest office in the land was not off-limits for women.
It’s not easy to be a pioneer and Ferraro suffered from some of the same attitudes that have dogged female candidates ever since she ran. In 1984, candidates were expected to reveal their tax returns so the public could see where their money came from. Unlike male candidates, Ferraro was extensively questioned about her spouse’s finances and eventually she released her husband’s tax records. Of course, today even presidential candidates have been elected without revealing anything about their tax records. Times change.
Ferraro, like most women of her generation, had become accustomed to being disadvantaged because of her gender. When she graduated from college, her mother urged her to become a teacher because that was suitable work for a woman. When Geraldine decided she wanted to go to law school, an admissions officer warned her that she might be taking a man’s place at the school—an argument frequently used to discourage women from entering professional schools.
After law school Ferraro worked only part time until her children were in school and she felt free to accept a job as an assistant district attorney in Queens. (For many years she and her family lived in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, the same neighborhood in which Donald Trump grew up.) Ferraro moved on to national politics when she ran for Congress in 1978. There she quickly learned to work with Democratic leaders to push through the party’s agenda.
The presidential campaign
of 1984 was a difficult one. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity
running for a second term with his running mate George H.W. Bush. The
Mondale-Ferraro ticket was not given much chance of victory and sure enough it
went down to a sharp defeat in November.
But despite not winning the presidency, the Democrats had proven that a woman could be a formidable candidate and a plus for the party in a national election. Ferraro was a very popular draw at party rallies where she was often greeted by cries of “Gerry, Gerry!”
Ferraro changed several small habits in the country such as popularizing the use of “Ms” instead of either Miss or Mrs. During the 1984 campaign, the New York Times refused to use “Ms” and referred to Ferraro as “Mrs. Ferraro”, despite complaints from their resident grammarian William Safire. It was another two years before the NY Times finally allowed “Ms” to be used in their paper.
continued to be an active participant in political and social activities after
the 1984 campaign, although she never again held public office. She died in
2011, after having lived long enough to see the revolution of women’s
participation in public life in which she played such a large role. Women
candidates today owe her a vote of thanks.
As we celebrate Women’s
History Month, we should note that more women are serving in Congress now than
have ever served before. And a majority of the candidates for the 2020
presidential election are women. This week one of the people most responsible
for this revolutionary change is leaving the active political scene. Hilary
Clinton has announced that she will not be a candidate for president in 2020.
It’s about time we recognized all that she has done to make the changes in our
political life possible.
There have been other women candidates for President over the years. The notorious Victoria Woodhull ran for president as long ago as 1872, but no other woman has opened the door for a female president as wide as Hillary Clinton has. She has been opening doors for women now for more than a generation.
How many of us
remember when Clinton became first lady in 1993? She took over the role of the
previous First Lady, Barbara Bush, and the contrast was sharp. Barbara Bush
followed the typical path of women who grew up in the early twentieth century.
She dropped out of Smith College to marry George H.W. Bush and to follow her
husband around the country while he served in the military and went on to his
career. When she became First Lady in 1989, she promised that she would be a
“traditional” First Lady.
followed a different path. She completed her college degree at Wellesley
College and went on to Yale law school. Like Barbara Bush, she met her future
husband while she was a student, but she chose not to interrupt her education.
She and Bill Clinton moved to Arkansas, but after they married, she continued
to use her maiden name. Her decision to keep that name was unusual at the time
and apparently caused some dispute with both her mother and her mother-in-law,
but Hillary was already forging a path that would be followed by many other
women in years to come.
The public career
of Hillary Clinton is too well-known to need retelling. She served as First
Lady in her husband’s administration and later as Senator from New York. She
became Secretary of State in the Obama administration and travelled to more
countries than any Secretary of State had done previously. During all of her
assignments, her life was made more difficult because she was a woman. Often
the comments were just plain silly. These ranged from complaints about her
remark as First Lady that she didn’t stay home and bake cookies, to criticism
of the pants suits she often wore. She was a true pioneer and the choices she
made no doubt seemed threatening to some conservatives at the time, but no one
today would give them a second thought.
During the 2016
presidential election, Hillary Clinton got more votes than the man who became
president, but because of our complicated Electoral College system, those votes
were not enough to win the office. We will never know how much the 2016 race
was influenced by the reluctance of many men, and some women, to vote for a
woman for president.
long service to her country in many capacities has paved the way for the more
equitable Congress that we now have and for the number of women who are willing
to run for office. Surely we all owe her a vote of thanks for that.
We owe her more than a vote of thanks. The next government building that is built in Washington D.C. should be named for Hillary Clinton. She deserves the tribute for changing the role of women in our government and ushering in a new era of gender equality in politics. Let’s put this on the agenda. What a wonderful way to celebrate Women’s History Month!
Doing the right thing doesn’t always lead to applause. Mark Twain famously said, “Always do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” More than that, it will sometimes be called wrong and condemned as disloyalty. So many recent news stories tell us about people who do wrong things—praising tyrants and rewarding cruelty—and suffering nothing for their behavior that I think it’s time to honor some people who have chosen the right path and stuck to it even when condemned by others. One American woman who should be honored for her courage in standing up for the unpopular cause of ending slavery is Elizabeth Van Lew.
had been a problem since the beginning of the country. By 1850s, some
Virginians and people in other Southern states were talking about breaking away
from the United States over the slavery question. They worried that Northerners
would put an end to slavery and this would cause hardship for the South.
Eventually the quarreling became so bitter that the Virginia legislature voted to quit the United States.
They joined the Confederacy of Southern states to become a new country.
many Virginians did not want to leave the United States. Men who opposed
joining the Confederacy could join the Union Army and fight to preserve the
country. Women weren’t allowed to be soldiers, so they had to find different
ways of supporting the United
States. Elizabeth van Lew was one of these
women. She believed that slavery was wrong. She loved Virginia, but she loved her country more and
believed secession was a tragedy.
fighting broke out close to Richmond, Elizabeth and her mother got permission
to nurse wounded Union soldiers. Elizabeth
helped the soldiers write letters to their families. She also found another way
to help—she became a spy.
network of people helped get soldiers’ letters to the Northern states. They
were taken on boats flying a “flag of truce,” which were allowed to sail
between Virginia and the Northern States. General Benjamin Butler, a Union
officer, heard about Elizabeth’s
work and asked whether she could send information about the movements of
Southern troops. He did this by sending a letter addressed to “my dear aunt”
and signed with a false name. The letter was carried to Elizabeth by a Northern agent who slipped
through the Confederate lines. When the letter was treated with acid and heat,
another letter written in invisible ink appeared. In this letter Butler asked her if she
would “aid the Union cause by furnishing me with information”.
Elizabeth was able to set up a system through which she could send secret
messages to a false address in the North. They were then picked up and sent to
General Butler. Elizabeth
couldn’t travel around the city, because she was a well-known and wealthy woman
and people noticed her. Usually she sent a servant, often a young boy, to carry
the letters to the ship. People didn’t pay much attention to teenage boys
walking around the streets near the port.
got her information just by watching what was going on in the city. She was
also able to talk with Confederate army officers and officials. Most of them
did not believe a woman could be collecting information for the North. They
just another wealthy society woman.
not only sent information to the North. She also helped to hide Union prisoners
when they escaped from the military prisons in Richmond. She and her mother nursed prisoners
who were sick or injured and let them stay in the house until they were strong
enough to travel.
war ended with the Union victory, Elizabeth was made postmaster of Richmond as a
tribute to her services to the Union cause. But within a couple of years she
lost that job because of political changes. Most of her neighbors never forgave
her for being loyal to her country instead of to the South. She lived a sad and
lonely life, forgotten by the North and scorned by the Southerners who lived
around her. It takes a lot of courage to fight and suffer for an unpopular
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!
With all the bad news in world this week, there was one major event that made almost everyone happy—the royal wedding in England. Prince Harry married Megan Markle, an American actress. Even though Harry is 6th in line for the throne and very unlikely ever to become king, the wedding was treated as a major milestone in British history. The fact that Ms. Markle is a divorced biracial woman and an American makes her different from most people who have married royals, but the habit of marrying foreigners has a long history.
European royals have married across borders for centuries. Cultures have mingled, religions have been changed to suit the new country, and new customs spread across the continent. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, is even credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England–an important innovation if there ever was one–although some historians dispute his role in that.
The Georgian kings, who reigned during the 18th century, all married German princesses and brought many European ideas and customs to England. They also seem to have brought a lot of good sense too. Queen Caroline of Ansbach has been called the most intelligent consort in British history and was known in her own time as a strong political force. In fact a ballad written at the time warns her husband, George II, that she outshone him.
You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,
We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign –
You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.
Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,
Lock up your fat spouse, as your dad did before you.
Despite this kind of satire, Caroline was a good influence on the king and on the country. When she died, she was widely mourned by citizens who admired her strength and intelligence. At a time when monarchs had far more political influence than they do now, she was able to help shape modern England.
The importance of the royal family has dwindled since the days of the Georges, of course. The brides of all members of the royal family now seem to function mostly as fashion plates and supporters of good causes. But they still have an important role in bringing some new ideas and backgrounds to the royal household.
Megan Markle’s mixed heritage echoes much of what is going on in Britain today. The recent scandal over people from the Caribbean who were invited to move to Britain after World War II to relieve the labor shortage shows that race is still an issue. Ms. Markle’s heritage and the attention that was paid during the wedding ceremony to the African culture that is a part of the United Kingdom may help to move the country toward a greater acceptance of its broadly based cultural heritage.
Moving the country into a greater acceptance of its diversity may be the most important result of this highly-publicized wedding. That would demonstrate that even after all these years the monarchy can still be an important uniting force for the British people. It would be nice, of course, if the wedding also leads to a long and happy marriage for Harry and his bride.
When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar
to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.
Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.
One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.
Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver
Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.
For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.
Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”. All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.
So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.
My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating
Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.
May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children. When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”
“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.
As May grew up she was independent and ambitious. She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.
May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women. Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities
of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.
Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.
The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.
This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.
Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:
Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.
When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.
Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.
In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”
One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played. He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.
By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.
May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:
Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.
And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.
Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.