Category Archives: Woman of the Week

Our Unknown Neighbors to the South

As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left Caribbean Islandsbehind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.

In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.

Mary SeacoleMary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”

Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.

After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.

When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence

Florence Nightingale

Nurse during Crimean War

Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.

Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.

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Pianos and Persistence–Clara Schumann and her music

Here in San Francisco the pianos are back in the gardens again—the Botanical Gardens. The idea of placing pianos in public areas and inviting passers-by to play them is now more than a decade old and it is still charming people around the world. Even thoughPiano_edited-1 piano lessons are not as common as they were a generation or two ago, many amateur musicians still enjoy playing when they have a chance.

Today I want to talk about a woman who helped to make the piano the major instrument that it continues to be—Clara Wieck Schumann. When she gave her first concerts in Vienna in 1838,  one critic described her “not a wonderchild—and yet still a child and already a wonder.” Clara was 18 at the time, so not exactly a child, but an accomplished young musician who had studied under her father’s guidance all of her life. From those early concerts, she moved on to a career in music that lasted for sixty years.

On the day before her 21st birthday Clara married Robert Schumann, the composer whose work she helped to make famous. She continued to perform and to compose music after she was married. She had little choice because she was the family

Clara Schumann

Clara Wiech Schumann

breadwinner. She also raised seven children (an eighth died in infancy). We often hear about the discrimination that women suffered during the 19th century, discrimination that kept many of them from fulfilling their early promise. But sometimes we need to think about the remarkable women who overcame the prejudices and oppression of the times and managed to have successful careers despite all the barriers.

If you ever feel discouraged about the difficulty of combining a career with marriage and motherhood, you can find inspiration by reading more about Clara Schumann. An excellent biography is Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy B. Reich. The author gives a great deal of scholarly musical background, but even if you are not knowledgeable about music, the story of Clara Schumann’s life will hold your attention and strengthen your resolve to persist in your own ambitions.

And if you have a chance—try to find one of those pianos in a public place and give it a try!

Woman_playing_piano

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Fiction or Biography–Where Does the Truth Lie?

Readers often have a great curiosity about the authors who write the books they love, especially the novelists. And in fact sometimes the life of the author lives on long after

Constance_Fenimore_Woolson-older

Constance Fenimore Woolson

the novels cease to be read except by scholars. That’s what seems to have happened to Constance Fenimore Woolson, one of the most successful American authors of the 19th century.

Back in the days when I studied American literature, Woolson was considered a female regional writer—not at all important when compared with the great writers like Twain,
Melville, Howells, and James. One professor of mine commented that she was “the spinster woman who killed herself because she was in love with Henry James”. Years before that she had been ignored when Howells and James set up their canon of important American writers. They included only male writers because they didn’t think women were capable of great writing, or even rational thought.

In recent years, of course, attention has shifted to women writers and several are now studied in college literature classes. Constance Woolson is seldom included, but her books are available in libraries and bookstores and there have been new biographies and a novel written about her life. A lot of the interest in her has developed because of her relationship with Henry James, which is a shame because her life and work are worth reading on their own.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Woolson’s life is how seriously she took her writing despite the lack of encouragement from “serious” critics. She devoted time and attention to her novels. When she was living in Venice in 1893, she wrote of her daily schedule: “I am now called at 4:30 every morning, and then, after a cup of tea, I sit (in a dressing gown) and write until 9:30, when I have breakfast. This is to get the cool hours for work. Then I dress and go on writing until 4 p.m., when I go to the Lido and take a sea-bath.” This is not a woman who rushed out her books in order to maximize sales.

Venice_19th_century

19th century Venice

Woolson started publishing in 1870, first magazine stories  and then novels. She was a success from the beginning and was able to support her mother as well as help her brother and sister. After her mother died in 1879, Woolson traveled to Europe in order to meet Henry James, a writer whose work she admired. She did meet him, in part because he was impressed that she was a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, and their relationship continued for the rest of her life. It is this relationship that has fascinated both critics and general readers through the years.

During the past year I have read two books about Woolson and enjoyed both of them thoroughly. One is a biography by Anne Boyd Rioux, Constance Fenimore Woolson; Portrait of a Lady Novelist, which gives a full account of her life and travels. She did not have an easy life because her hearing began to fade while she was still a young woman. Her deafness was a barrier that kept her from enjoying the music she loved and from easy exchanges with friends and colleagues. She sometimes said that she valued Henry James because she would never run out of things to talk about with him. Conversation was important to her, although not as important as her writing. James envied her success in writing and continued to patronize her because he recognized—they both recognized—that he was a greater artist.

The second book I read about Woolson this year is Elizabeth Maguire’s novel, Open Door, based on Woolson’s years in Europe and her relationship with Henry James. The author invents many details of Woolson’s life, some more convincing than others, and readers

Henry James nypl

Henry James

may quarrel about whether she successfully portrayed the connection with Henry James and whether Woolson did indeed know about his carefully closeted homosexual life.

Woolson’s death, after a jump or fall into a canal in Venice, is still a subject of speculation. Could it have been just a fall? Was it suicide? Was it caused by chronic depression or perhaps by the intense pain caused by her deafness and brain cancer? There will probably never be a definitive answer.

So where is truth? Is it in a fully-documented biography or in an imaginative  novel? My answer would be that it is in both. We need a solid biography like the one Rioux has given us so we can understand Woolson’s background and life and better appreciate her work. But there is also truth in trying to imagine what Woolson’s life must have felt like from the inside. I think we all try to do that instinctively when we read biographies. Maguire gave us intriguing speculation about what it might have felt like being Constance Woolson. Both books deserve to be read.

 

 

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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 reading.science 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

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

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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