A Foreign Queen for England—Charlotte II

If you watch news on TV these days, you can scarcely miss seeing pictures of crowds in London paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on September 19 has attracted the attention of many people in Europe and beyond. She served as queen of England for seventy years before dying this month at the age of 96. Pictures of the preparations for her funeral and speeches of tribute have been broadcast around the world. Her funeral on September 19 will be marked by an outpouring of love and respect from celebrities as well as ordinary people.

More than 200 years ago, in 1818, England was mourning the death of another queen, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Queen Charlotte was not a monarch, as Elizabeth was, but she was England’s longest serving female consort. (The only royal consort who served longer than she did was Prince Phillip, who was consort to Queen Elizabeth II for almost seventy years until he died in 2021.) 

Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small duchy in Germany. When George III of England inherited the British throne in 1760, his advisors recognized that he needed a queen, so they looked around Europe for suitable royal wives. Charlotte was an obvious choice. She was the right age and came from a royal family. Like most women of the time, she had been given very little education and was unlikely to question anything the king or his advisors might choose to do. So Charlotte was quickly sent off to England with only a few servants and attendants. She had a difficult voyage through stormy weather, and the wedding took place less than six hour after she had arrived in England.

Queen Charlotte and two of her children.

The king and his new queen must have had a difficult time getting to know one another. King George spoke no German, and Charlotte no English, but they did share a love of music. Somehow they seem to have achieved a reasonable relationship. Charlotte worked hard at learning English, although, according to reports, she always spoke with an accent. She and King George III had 15 children and 13 of them survived to grow up. That was quite an achievement for the time when so many children died in infancy.

The king, unfortunately, was not as healthy as his children were. During the first years of their marriage, everything went well. King George III spent a good deal of his time negotiating with England’s far-flung colonies. Charlotte’s name is memorialized in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in several cities, bays and other places in Canada and New Zealand. She introduced the tradition of Christmas trees to England and supported the expansion of Kew Gardens.

King George III, however, developed mental problems as he grew older and was forced to step back from his royal duties. Charlotte was overwhelmed by the illness of the king. The novelist, Fanny Burney, who served as one of the queen’s attendants described her reaction to the news of his serious attack in 1788. “My poor Royal mistress! Never can I forget her countenance—pale, ghastly pale she looked; …her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.”  

The king’s mental problems grew worse as he became older. Eventually his two oldest sons served as regents. Charlotte remained a supportive wife and mother. She continued to act as hostess at palace events during the regency of her sons, but her relationship with her husband was difficult. By the time she died in 1818, it is unlikely that the king was able to understand that she was gone. He died a little more than a year later.

Although much of Charlotte’s legacy has been forgotten over the years, she had a lasting influence on English royalty. Two of her sons became kings  of England—George IV and William the IV. Another son was the grandfather of Queen Victoria, another long-serving queen.

And questions about her legacy continue to come up. In recent years, a few articles have raised the issue of Charlotte’s racial heritage. Several writers have suggested that she had African ancestry. This idea is based mainly on pictures of Charlotte and on some accounts  of her written by people who claim she looked like a mulatto. Very few historians accept this idea of African ancestry and, of course there is no way of going back to find evidence one way or the other about her DNA. But people can continue raising questions about Charlotte’s ancestors. We’ll never know for sure. That is what makes history so fascinating—there are seldom permanent answers. We continue to read and study evidence, but final truth remains an elusive goal.

The Fire that Changed How America Lives—Frances Perkins

Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.

Frances Perkins

During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.

Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.

After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911

Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.

Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.     

Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent  get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.

Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.

Working Behind the Scenes: Abigail Adams and Her Sisters

Watching the results of the primary elections in many American states over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the number of women running for office. We’ve watched ads and heard speeches about policies supported or opposed by a wide range of women. It makes me wonder how government functioned back in the days when women, supposedly, did not participate in elections at all.

One of the unacknowledged stories about the history of American is that it was not only the famous “founding fathers” who set up the basic structure of government. Hovering in the background were a number of women some of whom contributed important ideas. Among them the three Smith sisters of Massachusetts. Their stories have been told by  Diane Jacobs in her book Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters (2014). 

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was the best known of the sisters. She is famous for writing to John in 1776 while he was helping to prepare the Declaration of Independence: “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” 

Those were brave words, but Abigail did not persuade her husband or any of the other men who were writing the basic documents on which the United States still depends. Although considered very outspoken women for their times, Abigail and her sisters accepted the role of women as helpers to their husbands rather than leaders. I wonder what they would think of the women in politics today.

Abigail Smith Adams was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, the middle sister of three girls in a clerical family. Although at the time girls were barred from the colleges where their brothers and future husbands were being educated, the Smith girls were lucky. All three sisters were well educated by their mother and had access to large book collections. All three had high ambitions. Abigail’s life is much better documented than the lives of her sisters, but in Jacobs’ book we learn more about the lives of all three of the women.

Unlike most history books, which focus on the meetings, battles, and speeches of prominent figures, Jacobs also tells the story of what was going on among family and friends of the politicians. While John Adams was traveling to Europe to negotiate with Great Britain, for example, Abigail was at home keeping their family going. She was the one who maintained the farm and household. She hired workers, supervised the building and repair of several houses, educated their children, and handled the family’s investments.

Women’s lives were filled with endless labor. Because there were few doctors, women were the main providers of medical care to their families. It is surprising to learn about the number of illnesses that occurred routinely—from yellow fever in Philadelphia when Congress was meeting there, to tuberculosis for which no cure was known, as well as long periods of depression which several family members endured. Some of the men in the family also developed alcoholism. This is the first history book I have read that mentions the tragedy of spousal abuse that alcoholism sometimes causes, but it was a problem that was not recognized or discussed.  

Abigail was her husband’s most important adviser during his long career in politics. He relied on her help while he served in diplomatic posts abroad and later when he served as Vice President and later President of the young country.

Despite being aware of how important their contributions to public life were, Abigail and her sisters were apparently willing to accept the fact that they were never allowed to vote, much less run for election. All of their work and all of their ideas were accepted as normal gifts that women ought to give to their husbands and families without expecting acknowledgements or rewards. It would be more than a century before women’s contributions were recognized as important enough to earn her the right to vote. And it took several generations of more confrontational women to win that right.

Now, at a time when women are losing some of the rights they have long enjoyed, is a good time to remember that rights are seldom gained by asking patiently for them. They must be won by actions, arguments and a refusal to take “no” for an answer.

Dorothea Lange—Picturing America during Difficult Years

People alive today are no doubt the most photographed generation that has ever lived. Cell phones record our daily life and let us see what is going on in the rest of the world. We are accustomed to seeing people splashing through floods in India, scratching for food in drought-stricken fields in Africa and enduring bombings in Europe.  But documenting news through photographs is a fairly recent development. We owe the richness of our visual lives to a handful of photographers whose work made photography a vital source of information in the modern world. One of the influential women in this field was Dorothea Lange, a documentary photographer who introduced thousands of Americans to the sight of the landscape of our country and the people who live and work in it.

Born in 1895 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dorothea Lange grew up in New York and its suburbs observing and living with people in the city. As a child she suffered a bout of polio that left her with one crippled leg. She always felt self-conscious about that, but she did not let it hinder her activities. While still a teenager, she made up her mind to be a photographer even before ever owning a camera. After graduating from high school, she travelled to California with a friend and settled in San Francisco. There she got a job in a photography studio and within a few years became a successful portrait photographer. In 1920 she married the painter Maynard Dixon with whom she had two sons.

Dorothea Lange

For ten years or more she and her husband lived busy social and professional lives. They became part of the progressive artistic life of San Francisco and knew many painters and journalists. Dixon loved painting scenes of the rural areas of California and Arizona, so the couple spent a great deal of time traveling in the Southwest. Unfortunately, when the 1920s ended with a financial crash, the market for photographic portraits and for paintings almost disappeared

Both Lange and her husband were ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal policies of providing help for workers, including artists. For a decade starting in the early 1930s, Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures and writing reports about conditions throughout the western and southern states. When the dust storms of the mid-thirties pushed thousands of people from their barren fields in Oklahoma and other Southern states out to California, Lange took some of her most famous pictures, including the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

As World War II started, the United States began to force Japanese American families who lived in Western states into internment camps. Lange proposed a project of documenting this move through photographs. She also interviewed people as they were being moved into the camps and documented their difficult lives. Most of her pictures of camp life, however, were impounded by the government and did not become available until after the war. They can be seen now in the National Archives and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California.

Migrant Mother” one of Lange’s most iconic photos of the Depression

Dorothea Lange’s life and work continued for twenty years after the end of WWII. For those who are interested in her life and achievements, Linda Gordon has written an absorbing biography. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009). Gordon not only makes Lange and her personal live come alive, she also paints a picture of California during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading about Lange’s life, we learn about how farming developed in the West and about the variety of Californians—Indigenous people, Latinos, and Easterners fleeing the Depression. Lange’s life was lived at a turning point for the country and her pictures help us understand how important those years were. You can find  the book, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, at most public libraries.  

Jemima Boone–The first Star of Frontier Life

Everyone who has studied American history knows the name of Daniel Boone, a pioneer who led settlers into Kentucky and encouraged the Westward expansion of the original thirteen colonies. His daughter, Jemima, is less well known, but she had an important role in expanding American territory. 

Jemima’s great adventure started on July 14, 1776, when she was 13 years old and living with her family at Boonesborough, the settlement her father had organized. She and two other teenaged girls took a canoe out on the Kentucky River, which flowed close to the settlement. Seeing flowers on the opposite shore, the girls decided to paddle over and pick some. No sooner had they drawn close to the shore when a group of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians appeared, seized the canoe, grabbed the girls, bound their hands, and marched them away from the river.

Abduction of Jemima Boone by Charles Wimar (1853)

Fortunately, Jemima and her friends were familiar with the difficulties of tracking people through a heavily wooded area and did their best to leave traces of where they had gone. The girls were wearing long dresses, which made it difficult for them to walk through the dense woods, so the Indians cut several inches off the bottoms of the skirts. The Indians buried the fabric so that it would not be found, but the girls were able to tear pieces from the ragged skirts and attach them to bushes along the path. When the Indians noticed what they were doing, they ordered them to stop, but some pieces of fabric were left.

It wasn’t long before the settlers in Boonesborough heard cries and realized something was happening. They ran to the river where they found the empty canoe floating in the water. The girls had disappeared and the men realized they had been captured. Daniel Boone quickly organized a few men as a search party. Although both Shawnee and Cherokee Indians travelled often through the area, their trails were well hidden and Boone and his party didn’t know which direction they would choose.

Jemima was wearing a bonnet and she realized the bonnet strings could give information. She tied knots in the string to indicate the number of Indian braves who had taken them—five in all. Because the girls were clever enough to leave clues, and because Daniel Boone and his party understood them, it took only a few days to rescue the girls. Despite worries among the settlers, the girls were not injured by their captors. In fact, the girls seem to have established congenial relations with several of the Indians and reported that they had been well treated.

Jemima and her friends, however, soon became only a background to the media blitz (by 19th century standards) of their story. During the years after they had returned to Boonesborough, been reunited with their families, and married other settlers, their story was often retold. It served as the basis for a fictional retelling in Sir Waler Scott’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and was the basis for both paintings and stories in popular media.

It seems sad that Jemima would never be able to read Scott’s novel because like most women among the colonial settlers she was never taught to read. She did live a long, adventurous, and presumably happy life, however, as a wife and mother until her death in 1834.

Jemima’s story and the effect it had on her father as well as other settlers on the Western frontier is the subject of a recent book by the novelist Matthew Pearl, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America (2021). Pearl has done a lot of research and he sticks carefully to the known facts about the incident and its repercussions. The result is a fascinating picture of what life was like for both settlers and Indians during pioneer days on the western frontier. It was a lot more complicated and far more fascinating than most versions that have been available in books, movies and on TV.

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”.