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 Congress.
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 Colonel.
That 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 cause.
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.
Geraldine Ferraro 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.
Hillary Clinton 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.
Hillary Clinton’s 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.
Slavery 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.
Still 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.
After 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.
A 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”.
Soon 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.
Elizabeth 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 considered Elizabeth just another wealthy society woman.
Elizabeth 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.
When the 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 cause.
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.