Who Controls a Woman’s Life? Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Her Children

Today in several American cities demonstrators are marching to protest the expected Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Women fear that they will lose the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. This seems an appropriate week to celebrate the work of one woman who fought to enlarge and protect the rights of women at a time when most women had no choice at all about bearing or raising children. In fact, by law in England once a woman was married, all her rights were given to her husband. But one woman started a battle which continues to this day.

Caroline Sheridan was born in 1808 in London. Her grandfather was the famous playwright, Richard Sheridan, and her father was an actor as well as a diplomat. Caroline was one of three daughters in the family, all of whom were admired for their beauty and lively wit. Unfortunately, when their father died suddenly, the family was left without any regular income and were almost penniless. His daughters had to rely upon their beauty and charm to build satisfactory lives for themselves. And because marriage was the only acceptable career for a woman, that meant they each had to find a reliable husband.

Caroline Sheridan Norton

Caroline, the middle daughter, was beautiful and had a quick wit which attracted many men, although some people considered her too sharp-tonged and outspoken. In 1827, she married George Norton, a barrister with political ambitions.  He was well-educated and capable, but like his wife, he was dependent on earning enough money to support his family. The marriage quickly became a difficult one. Norton was a harsh and strict husband. He encouraged Caroline to support his career by making friends who could help him to get a government appointment, but he was a heavy drinker and became abusive if he thought his wife was too friendly with other men.

Despite their troubles, the couple remained together and had three sons who became the center of Caroline’s life. As the family unhappiness continued, Caroline threw herself into writing. Her first book The Sorrows of Rosalie was published in 1829. It was a success and she wrote several other novels as well as pamphlets on current affairs. As a married woman, all of the money she earned belonged to her husband. According to English law, married women were not recognized as individuals, but only as dependents of their husband. Furious at the way her husband took all her earnings, Caroline began to spend more and more of the money earned by her writing. Her debts, like her earnings, became the responsibility of her husband, but his anger and resentment about this only led to more abuse. The couple finally separated in 1836 when Caroline left Norton and moved into one of her sister’s houses.

After their separation, Caroline continued her busy social life. One of her closest friends was Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister. They saw each other frequently and wrote many letters about what was happening in government circles. But then George Norton committed what Caroline saw as an unforgiveable sin—he kidnapped their three sons and moved them to Scotland to live with his sister and her husband. Caroline was not allowed to visit the boys or to make any decisions about their education. She protested to her family and friends, some of whom supported efforts and tried to persuade Norton to let her see her sons more often.

In the midst of this battle over custody, Norton decided to ruin Caroline’s chances by accusing her of sexual misconduct with Melbourne. He brought charges against Melbourne and the case went to trial. Personal letters between Caroline and Melbourne were read aloud in court and servants who had been discharged from the household were called upon to testify that they had seen inappropriate behavior between the two. In the end, the jury ruled that adultery had not been proven. Norton was not able to sue for divorce, but Caroline’s reputation would never recover from the scandal.  

Caroline’s life was not destroyed by the Melbourne trial, but it was set on a path which led her into more and more political activity. She continued to write novels as well as articles and political pamphlets. Her work along with that of other women helped lead to laws such as the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870. 

George and Carolyn’s lives remained stormy although they never divorced. Caroline won the right to see her sons and eventually her grandchildren, but their relationships had been damaged by the years of separation. George Norton died in 1875 and Caroline in 1877

Antonia Fraser has written a thoughtful biography of Caroline Norton called The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2021). This biography paints a vivid picture of what married life was like during the 1800s and helps us to understand some of the difficult battles that have been fought to enable women to control their own lives. Now it appears that the battle is not over yet.

Viewing Stars and Finding a New World—Sophia Brahe

Although wives are often remembered as the helpmates of their husbands, sisters are less likely to be given that spotlight. Most male scientists have probably had sisters, but astronomers seem to be the only ones who made their sisters part of their team. Caroline Herschel, for example, helped her brother William Herschel with his observations for many years and was known and honored as a discoverer of planets.

Two centuries before Caroline Herschel made her mark, another younger sister became an important assistant to her astronomer brother. Born in 1556 (or perhaps 1559) Sophia Brahe was the youngest child in a large brood of children born to a noble family in Denmark. Her brother, Tycho Brahe, the oldest child in the family, was ten years older than Sophia. As she grew up, Tycho realized that his youngest sister was unusually curious and loved to learn, so he provided books to help her learn about chemistry and horticulture. He believed that a woman would be unable to become an astronomer so he did not suggest that she learn about heavenly bodies even though that was his major interest. But Sophia was a determined girl. She read astronomy books in German and had Latin books translated so she could study them. Eventually Tycho recognized his sister’s talents and began to make her one of his assistants.

Sophia Brahe

Sophia frequently visited Tycho’s observatory, Uranienborg. Tycho Brahe was the first astronomer to recognize the importance of careful, precise observations of the stars and planets. Sophia Brahe helped him to prepare his observations for his publication De nova stella, or On the New Star. She assisted with a set of observations that led to the discovery of the supernova now called SN 1572, as well as observations of the December 8, 1573 lunar eclipse. She, along with other assistants, made observations that helped Tycho develop his theory of orbits. This work was essential in establishing modern methods to predict the positions of planet.

Today, as we look back on the work of Brahe and his associates, it is hard to believe they could learn so much about the behavior of astronomical bodies without the help of modern instruments like the telescope. It was not until thirty years after Brahe’s observations that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, applied for the first patent for a telescope.

Astronomy was only one part of Sophia’s life. In 1579, she married Otto Thott. The couple had one son before Otto died leaving Sophia to raise the son and maintain Thott’s estate until the child came of age. She continued to visit her brother at Urainienborg, but also used her horticultural expertise to design magnificent gardens and develop her son’s estate.

Like most astronomers of the time, both Tycho and Sophia were interested in astrology. Most people believed that accurate predictions about people’s lives could be based on the movements of planets. The desire for astrological predictions was one of the most important reasons why many rulers supported astronomers in their courts. Tycho was more interested in learning about astronomy, but Sophia Brahe devoted much of her time to investigating genealogy and astrology.

In 1602, Sophia Brahe married Erik Lange, an alchemist who devoted much of his fortune into trying to change base metals into gold. Her family, except for Tycho, strongly disapproved of the marriage of Lange and Sophia, so the couple lived in poverty for many years. But her work continued. Besides her studies in astronomy and astrology, Sophia Brahe completed a detailed genealogy of the Danish Royal Family

According to an article in Wikipedia, the poet Johan L. Heiberg proclaimed that “Denmark must never forget the noble woman who, in spirit much more than flesh and blood, was Tycho Brahe’s sister; the shining star in our Danish heaven is indeed a double one.”  

The Woman Who Brought Down a King—Katharine O’Shea

March is a month that spotlights the tangled history of Ireland’s struggle against English rule. This year, after a two-year break, St. Patrick’s Day Parades were held again in many American cities including San Francisco and New York. The release of Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated movie Belfast has again called attention to the tumultuous history of this small country.

But none of this activity has aroused the intense interest reached 130 years ago when the private lives of Charles Stewart Parnell and Katharine O’Shea disrupted the British government and changed the history of Ireland.

Katharine O’Shea

Katharine O’Shea was born Katharine Wood in Essex, England in 1846. Her family were prosperous and politically active supporters of the Liberal party and friends of William Gladstone, its leader. At the age of 21, Katharine married Captain William O’Shea, a Catholic Nationalist MP for County Clare. The marriage was not a happy one and after having two children, the couple separated, although they continued to maintain a façade of a marriage. Because they had residences in England as well as land in Ireland, it was not difficult for them to carry on their lives while seeing very little of one another. Katharine’s wealthy aunt paid the expenses of their household so that Captain O’Shea could pursue his political career and the family could live in comfort.

Meanwhile, Charles Stewart Parnell, born in the same year as Katharine to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family in County Wicklow, was pursuing his own political career. Having grown up in Ireland, he had seen the cruelty that many landlords inflicted on their tenants and he decided Ireland should be governed locally rather than from a faraway Parliament in London. His fiery speeches won him great support from Irish nationalists and their representatives in the British Parliament.

As an ambitious politician, Captain O’Shea soon became a follower of Parnell. He encouraged Katharine to invite Parnell to dinner and to cultivate her relationship with Gladstone. Soon both O’Shea and Parnell were relying on her to carry messages back and forth to Gladstone to smooth the path for political cooperation. Parnell got into the habit of sending mail through the O’Shea and he set up an office in their estate. His increasing intimacy with the family led to an affair between him and Katharine, an affair that Captain O’Shea was aware of and used to further his political ambitions.

Because divorce was opposed by both Catholics and Protestants at that time, that option was not available. Parnell and Katharine had three children who were accepted as part of the O’Shea family. Gossips may have speculated about what was going on, but the façade of peaceful family life continued.

Parnell and Gladstone worked together to pass the Home Rule Bill that would allow Ireland to manage its own internal affairs and weaken the power of absentee British landlords. Parnell’s popularity grew and his supporters gave him the title of “uncrowned king of Ireland.” Support for him poured in not only from the Irish, but also from overseas from Irish emigrants to the United States and Australia. During the late 1880s, support for Home Rule grew, the Liberals were in power,  and the movement seemed destined for success. Then disaster struck.

Historians differ on the cause of the events that followed. Katharine’s wealthy aunt died in 1889 but did not leave her money to Captain O’Shea as he had probably hoped. The money was left in trust for a number of cousins. In 1890, O’Shea filed for divorce from Katharine, citing her adultery as the cause. Parnell refused to defend himself in court and the wide publicity of this scandal destroyed the friendly relations between him and Gladstone. He also lost the leadership of his Irish party. Gladstone, well-known as a crusader for virtue, refused to support him and the Home Rule bill died. It would be another generation before Ireland escaped from British rule.

In 1891, after the O’Shea divorce became final, Parnell and Katharine married. By this time, however, Parnell’s health was broken and he died four months later at the age of 45. After his death, Katharine led a very quiet life in England. In 1914, she published a biography called Charles Stewart Parnell, which has been the source of much of the information known about the couple. Katharine Parnell died in 1921 at the age of 75.

1937 film “Parnell”

In the century since her death, the story of Katherine O’Shea and Charles Stewart Parnell has been told many times in books and other media. In his 1914 book Dubliners, James Joyce pays tribute to Parnell in one of his best-known stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” In 1937, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy starred in a Hollywood film called simply, Parnell. Although Gable’s performance was not acclaimed by critics, the film lingers on and is available on DVD in many public libraries. Also available are biographies and novels based on the lives of Katharine and Parnell. Despite the failure of their early dreams, the story of their lives continues to have appeal and to attract the interest of younger generations.

Happy Birthday to a Real Pro—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.

Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business.  Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.

Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.

Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh,  which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.

In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55. 

During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.

There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.  

You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—An Activist in Africa and the World

During the early nineteenth century, many people who worked to abolish slavery in the United States, including several women who have appeared on this blog, believed that freed African Americans should be sent to Africa to live. They were afraid that if they remained in the United States, they might be endangered by their previous owners or other supporters of slavery. Most people at that time seemed unaware of the long history of African Americans in America. Many enslaved families had a longer history of living on this continent than their European American neighbors had. Their African roots had been obscured or forgotten after generations of living in America.

Nonetheless, many sincere abolitionists believed that the newly freed people would settle happily in Africa and build a new life for themselves. Between the 1820s and the Civil War, the American Colonization Society raised money to send more than 15,000 people to an area on Africa’s West Coast that would be named Liberia. This, they hoped, would offer a new start for freed slaves. It would also, of course, relieve former slaveowners from having to accept their former slaves as equal citizens of the United States. And so, money was raised, and thousands of people were sent to Liberia.

The newly enfranchised African Americans, however, were not accepted by the Africans who lived in the area. The Africans did not speak English, and the Americans did not speak the languages of the indigenous people. The resettlement was not a success.  Liberia has been a troubled state from its beginning, but despite the difficulties it has faced, it has produced some of Africa’s most important leaders.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as president of Liberia from 2006 until 2018, was the first women ever elected as leader of an African country. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1938, she was educated at the College of West Africa and later attended Madison Business College in the United States, the University of Colorado, and then Harvard College. When she returned to Liberia she worked as an economist in the government of William Tolbert.

After the Liberian military coup of 1980, Sirleaf fled the country and moved to Washington D.C. where she worked for the World Bank. Later she returned to Africa and worked for the United Nations and for several private banks. It was not until 1997 that she was able to return to politics in Liberia. And it was almost ten years later, in 2006, that she was elected president of the country.

During her years in office, Sirleaf succeeded in bringing women into government and into positions of power in other fields. She promised to bring reconciliation to the country, and to stamp out corruption, although these issues still remain problems. Nonetheless, Sirleaf brought Liberia a long period of peace. Newsweek named her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, and the Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had”.   

In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, remains an important figure in Africa and in the world. She is active in causes from women’s rights to healthcare during the Covid pandemic.  In 2018 she started the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women”.

An Anniversary and a New Focus—Savitribai Phule

2022 is the tenth anniversary of this blog. It is hard to believe that I’ve written almost 300 posts—287 to be exact. I hope to hit 300 this year. As I wrote in my first post in February 2012, I started this blog to share my ideas about the connections I have found with the men and women who went before us. From the beginning I have concentrated on women because their lives and ideas have often been neglected.  

As I look back over my posts, I see many familiar names spanning a wide history. I’ve written about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian “female pharaoh” who was born about 1485 BC and about Greta Thunberg who was born in 2003. That’s quite a range of time, but I’ve not ranged as widely in geography. Most of the women in my posts lived either in the United States or Europe. This year I am going to cast a wider net and include more women who lived in Asia, Africa, and other places on our globe. Even though I have travelled widely and visited countries around the world, I know far less than I should about their histories and peoples. This year I’ll try to broaden my vision.

Savitribai Phule is an important figure in the history of India. Born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra province, she is remembered now and honored as the country’s first female teacher. Her family belonged to the Mali caste, whose members traditionally grow flowers, spices, and other crops. Although Savitribai’s family was prosperous, they did not consider it appropriate to educate women, so she was illiterate when she married Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was a reformer and a strong believer in education. One of his first projects was to teach his young wife to read.

Phule Savitribai and Jyotirao

Savitribai studied with her husband and soon realized that education was the key for improving the lives of all women, especially those of the lower castes. With her husband’s support, Savitribai attended a teacher-training institute and later the two of them set up a school for girls. Soon they were running four schools for—the first schools for girls in India that were run by Indians. When they started to enroll girls from the lower castes—at that time called untouchables—however, both Savitribai and Jyotirao encountered strong opposition from many Brahmins and other higher caste Indians.

 Opponents to women’s education told Jyotirao that he would die young because he had allowed his wife to be educated. They claimed that educated women might use their skill to write letters to men outside of the family. Some protesters did not stop at making predictions. They also followed Savitribai as she walked back and forth to school and threw rotten fruit and dung at her to frighten her away from teaching. But the young couple was not deterred. They persisted in keeping their schools open and eventually they had 150 or more girls enrolled.

 Savitribai and her husband worked all of their lives to make life better for people born into the lower castes, and especially women. They introduced the name “dalit” instead of “untouchable” and helped people to enjoy the benefits of education and enjoy a more satisfying life. They campaigned against child marriage and called for better treatment for widows.

Even in the midst of her busy life, Savitribai found time to write and publish several volumes of poetry. After Jyotirao’s death, Savitribai continued his work with the help of their adopted son. When the bubonic plague struck India in 1897, she and her son set up a clinic to help victims of the plague. Savitribai died while doing this work.

Today Savitribai’s birthday on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Din in the province of Maharashtra, especially in girls’ schools. In 1998 she was honored by being the first Indian woman to appear on a postage stamp.

English language information about Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is not widely available in American libraries, but there are a number of videos about this extraordinary couple posted on YouTube. Most of the films are produced in India and narrated in Hindi, but some have English subtitles. One that I enjoyed very much is Episode 45 of Bharat Ek Khoj entitled Savitribai

Savitribai Phule is remembered in India, but her life and work deserve to be known throughout the world.   

Three Women to Remember from 2021 Books

2021 has been a difficult year, and most of us will be glad to see it gone. We started the year with the happy news that vaccines against Covid 19 had become available, but after a tumultuous twelve months, we are still struggling to overcome hostile variants of the virus.

One of the few good things that could be said about the year is that for those of us who spent much of our time at home, it offered an opportunity to catch up on our reading. As I recall the books I have read this year, I am especially grateful for the ones that introduced me to women who have lived through some of the most fascinating periods in history.

Here are brief introductions to three women whose stories have most captivated me during 2021.

Briseis and Achilles

Briseis, a Trojan woman who lived during the tumultuous years of the Trojan War, tells her story in Pat Barker’s book, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was a Trojan woman who was captured by the Greeks and given as a slave to Achilles. Briseis narrates the story and describes the difficult adjustment she makes to her suddenly diminished status. She paints a convincing picture of life in a camp of soldiers during a nine-year war that has stalled. The soldiers are tormented not only by the fighting, but also by a plague, which kills many of them. Briseis is an unforgettable woman and her story continues in the second book of Barker’s trilogy, The Trojan Women. We will have to wait a little longer for the final volume of the trilogy, which is promised, but not yet scheduled.

Anna Dostoevskaya

Moving forward in time, I found an unexpected woman—a woman I had never heard of—who played an important part in world literature by marrying the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his biography, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, Andrew D. Kaufman tells the story of Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya. Born in 1846 to a middle-class family she became a stenographer and was hired by Dostoyevsky during a period when he was struggling to complete his novel The Gambler. The two fell in love and married. Despite his many gifts, Dostoyevsky’s ability to write was threatened by his gambling habit. As his business manager, editor and sometime publisher, Anna was able to guide his career and help him to become a major literary figure in Russia and in much of the world. After Dostoyevsky’s death Anna continued to publish and publicize his books. She worked tirelessly to keep his books in print and available to readers in Russia and all of Europe. I wonder whether his fame would have been as great and his genius so well-remembered if he had not had Anna to keep his name alive for the almost half century she lived after his death.

Another woman who made a lasting impact on me during this year was Fiona Hill author of There is Nothing for You Here. Hill grew up in the North of England, an area caught in economic depression because of the closure of the coal mines. Mining had been the major employment option for most people in the community, including Fiona Hill’s parents. With the disappearance of mining, Hill’s parents encouraged their children to get an education and move away from the North. Even with the encouragement of her family, it was not easy for Fiona Hill to take advantage of the educational opportunities available. Eventually, however, she attended university, moved to the United States, and became a public figure when she testified at the Congressional hearings on Trump’s impeachment.

Fiona Hill

Hill’s wide-ranging experience gives her insight into the educational systems not only in England but in the United States and in Russia. Her book is not so much a personal story, but a more general account of the barriers that keep working-class children from developing their skills and using their talents to become important participants in their communities. While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will have to learn to live in the new world that is coming. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to changes our governments could make to prepare young people for that world.

Happy Reading for a Happy 2022!      

Start the Year with an Uncommon Woman–Margaret Fuller

The Smashwords publishing website is having a special year-end sale that includes my biography of one of America’s most famous women—Margaret Fuller. Fuller is the nineteenth century woman who inspired women throughout the country with her book Women in the Nineteenth Century. She was a writer, an editor and a pioneering foreign journalist who covered the 1848 revolution in Italy.    

Smashwords offers the ebook version of my book Margaret Fuller—An Uncommon Woman for the bargain price of FREE. This sale lasts until January 1, 2022.  Click on this Smashwords link to find the page and enter the sale code listed there to order your digital copy.

If you prefer to read a print version, you can find one at Amazon.com, but this special sale price does not apply to books purchased through Amazon.

HAPPY READING!

The Stenographer Who Saved a Genius– Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya

During the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was a part of Europe but felt very separate from it. During that time, Russian middle and upper classes, women were proud of having more rights than they would have in other European countries. The right to an education was particularly important and a strong feminist movement grew up. Women were encouraged to educate themselves and become self-supporting. Surprisingly enough, one of the most liberating career paths for women was learning stenography. This was the path chosen by Anna Grigoryeva Dostoevskaya, a woman who was destined to play an important role in Russian literature.

Anna was born in 1848 in St. Petersburg. Her family encouraged her to be independent and read widely. She graduated with high honors from high school and decided to become a stenographer, one of the few careers in which a woman could earn a living. It was a stroke of luck when one of her teachers recommended her for a job with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was already one of her favorite authors. He had published several articles and two novels during the 1840s, but his career had been interrupted when he was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.

At the time Dostoyevsky met Anna, he was struggling to rebuild his career. His first wife had died, leaving him with a stepson to raise, his reputation as a writer had faded, and he was struggling to fulfill his contract to complete a novel called The Gambler. He called upon a friend to help him find a stenographer and luckily the friend recommended Anna, who had been one of his students.

Eventually, with Anna’s patient help, Dostoyevsky completed his novel and was able to fulfill his contract. During the weeks they worked together, he also fell in love with his faithful helper  and proposed to her despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. During the years before meeting Anna, Dostoyevsky had drifted into a life of gambling, which led to debts that interfered with his writing career. No one could have predicted that a 19-year-old stenographer would save him from his gambling addiction and his precarious life, but that is what happened.

With the help of Anna’s mother, who agreed to pawn the girl’s dowry and give the money to the newly- weds, Fyodor and Anna were able to leave Russia and spend four years in other European countries. Anna’s example of hard work and willing sacrifice inspired Dostoyevsky to continue writing despite the pull of the ever-tempting gambling casinos. Anna tried hard to understand his addiction and even spent a secret day at the casino alone so that she could better understand how the insidious promise of quick riches could tempt almost anyone to continue playing.

Throughout the early years of their marriage, Anna helped her husband continue his writing. She understood his need to gamble and helped him through the difficult years until they were able to move back to St. Petersburg and pay off their debts. During the rest of Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna managed his writing career, even starting a publishing company to sell his books. When he died in 1881, Anna was only 35 years old, but she dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his books  and his memory.

For many years, Anna’s role in Dostoyevsky’s life has been downplayed in accounts of his life, but a recent biography has now presented a more balanced view of her importance. The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew Kaufman (Riverhead Books 2021) offers a fresh view of the creative partnership between these two remarkable people.

The Good She Did Should Live On—Marie Stopes

A lot of attention has been paid in recent weeks to the anti-abortion law passed in Texas. This is the law that enables an individual to profit by denouncing anyone they believe is helping someone to obtain an abortion. Legislators claim this will cut down on the number of abortions performed in Texas, yet research and experience have shown that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide information about contraception. But Texas, according to a National Institutes of Health report, is not one of the 20 states that the requires schools to offer information about contraception. You have to wonder whether the Texas legislators are seriously interested in reducing abortions at all.

As we hear about the ways in which some conservatives are trying to do away with the knowledge and services that help people control their fertility, we should remember how difficult it was to start making that information available to anyone. The use of contraception makes it possible for women to play a variety of roles in the world. Yet, over the years, many people in public positions tried to withhold information instead of sharing it with those who need it. It’s about time to start honoring the women (and some men) who finally started to tell people how they could manage their sexuality and live more fulfilling lives.

Marie Stopes was an unlikely figure to play a role in this field, but in fact she played an important role. Born in Scotland in 1880, and educated in England, she was a paleobotanist. What is a paleobotanist? Someone who studies the way plants have evolved and developed through the centuries. She became the youngest person in Britain to receive a Doctor of Science degree in 1904 and became one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

Marie Stopes

During the first years of her career, Stopes devoted herself to science, but her interests expanded a she grew older. In 1918, she published a book called Married Love, which was one of the first books to give men and women frank and explicit details about sex. The book was a great success and sold widely throughout Britain and all of Europe.

Marie Stopes opposed abortion and strongly advocated that an expanded knowledge about contraception would eliminate the need for abortions. She founded the first birth control clinic in Britain and edited the newsletter Birth Control News. Few people have done so much to benefit women’s health and progress.

Despite all the good work she did for many people, Marie Stopes is often left unmentioned in histories of birth control. She was not a perfect person. At times, she advocated eugenics, a belief that society would be improved if people of low physical and mental health did not have children. Although she herself was not a racist, many people who advocated eugenics did believe that the white race was somehow better than other races. Today these beliefs have been rejected by scientists and social leaders, but Marie Stopes’ reputation has been permanently damaged.

Even though Stopes was not always right, I still believe we can honor the good work she did at a time when very few other people were willing to educate the public about birth control. We ought to acknowledge the good that she did and try to forgive her mistakes.