Category Archives: Women in the news

Father-Daughter Teams

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White House–north side

Every White House watcher has noticed by now the close relationship between President Trump and his older daughter, Ivanka. Now that Ivanka Trump has an official position in the administration and an office in the West Wing, she is expected to become even more visible to the public. What will her role be? How will she and her father work together?

History buffs scurried around to find examples of other presidential daughters who played important roles in their father’s lives. The only daughter who took over the First Lady role was Martha Jefferson, who acted as hostess for her widower father. Ivanka Trump’s role in her father’s administration is going to be far different from that of the First Lady, Melania Trump. It looks as though this administration will be setting quite a few “firsts” for presidential families.

The story that got me started on this train of thought is the story of Galileo and his older daughter as told in Dava Sobel’s book Galileo’s Daughter. It gives an eye-opening glimpse into family life in the 17th century. Despite spending most of her life in a cloistered

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Sister Maria Celeste

convent, Maria Celeste kept up with her father’s scientific discoveries and with his life in the turbulent political currents of the day. Her letters deal primarily with the mundane details of clothing and food. Maria Celeste mended collars for her father, asked him to send her fabric to make a wedding present for her brother’s wife, and prepared potions to ease his chronic aches and pains. But she also consoled him when he was persistently questioned by the Inquisition and even managed his household, from behind her convent walls, when he was imprisoned for publishing his heretical ideas.

Galileo, for his part, patiently hunted down the fabrics and other household items Maria Celeste requested and generously supported her and her convent for many years. I had never known that the families of nuns were expected to give so generously to pay for the necessities of life in the convent—food, medical care,

Galileo

Galileo

and even building repairs. Without a husband and without any means of earning a living, women were dependent on the generosity of their fathers, brothers and other male relatives. This must have led to anger and bitterness in some families, but in the case of the Galileo family, father and daughter forged a relationship that was filled with love and that must have consoled each of them for the trials and difficulties of their lives during the upheavals of their time.

Galileo’s Daughter is a book well worth reading, especiallyGalileo's Daughter book if you are a parent. You’ll learn a lot about science and perhaps even more about political and family relationships. Now that our society has moved far beyond the financial dependency of women, the dynamics of father-daughter relationships have changed, but these relationships are often stressful and difficult to maneuver. As the roles of both men and women continue to evolve, it is worth looking back sometimes on the ways families handled these challenges in the past.

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Abortion through the years

Yesterday I joined a crowd of other people headed to the Berkeley Rep theater to see the play Roe, an account of the forty-year-old Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. Written by Lisa Loomer and performed by a group of

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gifted actors, the play makes the twists and turns of an old legal drama completely absorbing.

The drama focuses on the effects of the trial and its aftermath on the two central figures—Norma McCorvey the plaintiff, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who took her case to court. Most of us in the audience already knew the story—how Norma wanted an abortion to end her third pregnancy, and how Sarah wanted a case that would force changes in the restrictive Texas abortion law. Perhaps we didn’t all remember that Norma never did get that abortion because the case dragged on so long. The baby was born and given up for adoption before the court reached a decision. Sarah, however, did set in motion the legal changes that would change the landscape of women’s rights in America.

Over the centuries from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and India up until the present, women have tried to control their own fertility. Without effective contraception,

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Aphrodite freed from her chains

abortion often offered the only release from an endless series of pregnancies and births for married women, many of them from families that were ill-equipped to support another child. And most women who sought abortions were married. Even today, when contraception is much more available, cheap and foolproof, the majority of women who seek abortions, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute,  are married women who already have at least one child.

Those of us who lived through the 1970s and were aware of the Roe v Wade case assumed that it would put an end to all the arguments and restrictions on abortion. Most countries in the developed world have accepted the fact that many women will want to abort a pregnancy that occurs at a time when they cannot bear and take care of another child. People who are strongly opposed to abortion usually claim that a “soul” enters a fetus’s cells sometime soon after conception. They therefore claim that the fetus is a person whose life must be preserved. Many other people dispute this claim. For centuries people believed that a human being becomes human when it is born and most people believe that now.

The dispute about when human life begins cannot be solved by science because it is a religious argument. Why is it that the United States is one of the very few countries where large numbers of people insist that their religious views become the law of the land? Perhaps if more people could see the play Roe they might develop a greater understanding of the arguments on both sides of the question. And perhaps more people would be content to let women control their own bodies. Medical science has given women the means to have safe and effective abortions; the decision about whether or not to have one should be left in the hands of the individual, not determined by the votes of outsiders.

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Rachel Carson’s Tangled Web

In the midst of the deluge of news coming out of the White House this past week, many environmentalists have paid tribute to Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring has silent-springbeen hailed by many as the impetus that started America’s environmental movement. Carson’s book called attention to the impact of the insecticide DDT on the deaths of birds, fish, and other animals up the food chain. The book called for an end to the indiscriminate spraying of DDT on crops, in houses, and on children and other people who spent time outdoors.

After the book was published, it was predictably attacked by the chemical industry, especially Dupont  Chemical Company which produced DDT. One Dupont scientist, Robert White-Stevens, was particularly vehement: According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Rachel Carson was called to testify before Congress on the validity of her findings, which she defended strongly despite being critically ill at the time. She died of cancer in 1964, less than two years after the publication of her most famous book.

Silent Spring was widely publicized, appearing as a series of articles in the New Yorker as well as being the subject of a CBS documentary. The public soon embraced the idea of the rachel-carson-illusdanger of pesticides and other technological advances in science. The use of DDT on crops was banned in the United States and in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was set up to monitor the effect of various scientific advances on the lives of Americans.

Controversy continues, however. When Google paid tribute to Rachel Carson on the 50th anniversary of her death, Breitbart News asked the question: “Will Google be paying tribute to any of the other mass killers of the 20th century? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot? Probably not. But then, none of the others have had the benefit of having their images burnished by a thousand and one starry-eyed greenies.” 

The idea of Rachel Carson as a mass murderer comes from the fact that deaths from malaria, which had been decreasing with the use of DDT to kill malarial mosquitoes, began to climb. But the increase seems to have been due more to the fact that mosquitoes evolved so that DDT no longer killed them. And critics of Carson fail to recognize that she never suggested that all pesticides be abolished. Environmental issues are complex and simple solutions seldom solve them.

The truth is that science is difficult. Discovering the truth about the natural world takes time and requires the cooperation of many scientists. And trying to use the facts of science to make the world better usually has mixed results. Rachel Carson was right—pesticides do disrupt the natural order and kill birds as well as insects. And other scientists are also right in saying that malaria is a terrible disease and that killing the mosquitoes that carry the disease saves human lives. We need to find a balance between the two. Gradually scientists are finding new pesticides which are again bringing down the rates of malaria around the world.

The struggle over science continues. Climate change is one of the most hotly contested scientific issues today, especially because President Trump has said that he does not believe in the concept of climate change caused by human activities . His nominee for the head of the EPA is a man who has scoffed at the need for the U.S. and the world to make any effort to climate-changeaddress climate change. On January 24, 2017, according to the New York Times, “President Donald Trump’s administration has instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change page from its website, two agency employees told Reuters, the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.”

As citizens we need to recognize the complexities of science and accept that changes are necessary even though they may be uncomfortable. Old jobs and old ways of life may disappear, but new ones will be found. We must protest when government officials forbid scientists to study how the world works and to make projections about what will happen in the future.

This blog is called Teacups and Tyrants. Most of my posts have focused on the quieter teacup parts of life, but recently the country has seen the growth of tyrants. From now on I expect to focus more on the harsher side of life and the threats that tyrants pose for our future.

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Women of the White House

With the presidential inauguration scheduled for Friday of this week, there has been much speculation about what the new first family in the White House will be like.

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First known photo of White House 1846

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Melania Trump

Melania Trump will step into the role of first lady, although she has said that she will not move into the White House until at least the end of her young son’s school term. She will remain living at Trump Tower in New York City.

People have become so accustomed to having a First Lady in the White House that speculation immediately started about who would fill that role until Mrs. Trump moves to Washington. Ivanka Trump is the name that comes to mind as the most likely White House hostess during the times when Melania Trump is not in residence. It wouldn’t be the first time someone other than the president’s wife filled that job—daughters, nieces and daughters-in-law have served in previous administrations.

The role of First Lady has not always been as important as it is now. In the early days of the Republic, serving as hostess as the President’s dinners was not a time-consuming task. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that people even adopted the title First Lady or paid much attention to the woman besides the president. Harriet Lane changed all that.

When James Buchanan, our only bachelor president, was inaugurated in 1857, his orphaned niece Harriet Lane became his official hostess. At 26, she was one of the youngest first ladies and her youth and good looks attracted attention. When she altered her Inaugural Ball gown by lowering the neckline two-and-a-half inches, she became a

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Harriet Lane

fashion leader. Her clothes and her congeniality made her the Jackie Kennedy of the 19th century and the first really modern First Ladies. Like Mrs. Kennedy, she wanted to make the White House a cultural center. She invited artists and musicians to entertain there and also advocated for the rights of Native Americans on reservations.

During the bitterly divided years preceding the Civil War, entertaining in the White House required a genius for arranging dinners so that sworn enemies would not have to sit together or encounter each other in small groups. Harriet Lane must have had that genius because she kept the White House running smoothly up until the time that her uncle left office. By that time seven states had seceded from the Union and the election of Abraham Lincoln precipitated the Civil War. After leaving the White House, Harriet Lane went on to marry, to have two children who died young, and then to establish a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins University and to become an art collector and benefactor to the Smithsonian Institution.

From the stately Martha Washington, who was often called “Lady Washington”, to the youthful Harriet Lane who brought glamour to the position, the activist Eleanor Roosevelt who acted as her husband’s eyes and ears around the country, the quiet Bess Truman who disliked White House duties, America has had a wide variety of first ladies. Whether wives, nieces, or daughters they have shaped a role which has become more important over the years. Many people will be watching as a new family will be moving into the White House and shaping the activities of this presidency.

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Look at who is running the country

During the past week, newspapers and other news sources have carried stories about two world leaders who share a characteristic rare among the powerful players on the

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international scene—they are both women and both are Asian. Women have not had an easy time reaching the heights of power in Asian countries, but they have moved faster

than American women. The stories about President Tsai Ing-wen  of Taiwan (above) and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea (below) have made me think about the fact that the United States is lagging behind many other countries in having a power structure that includes both men and women. What is it that makes us so backward?

Thinking about this inspired me to go back to a book I read a few years ago— Jung Chung’s biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013). I wrote a blog post about it at the time, but recent events both here and

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around the world makes the book even more relevant today.

Cixi was born in 1835, during a period when China was isolated from most other countries. A few Europeans and Americans had visited China, but there was little trade between China and the West and even less understanding. Chinese leaders considered the Westerners to be barbarians and most Westerners scorned the Chinese as ignorant and backward. Cixi was destined to revolutionize the relations between China and the rest of the world.

Girls and women at that time were not expected to play any role in public life. They existed to provide sons and heirs to their husbands. Cixi went to the royal court as one of many

Painting of the Dowager Empress Cixi

Dowager Empress Cixi

concubines for the emperor, but she had the great good luck to bear a healthy son. This changed her life. The emperor was sickly and because Cixi could read and write, she could help him handle his government duties. Doing this taught her a lot about government and how it worked. When the emperor died young, Cixi’s five-year-old son became emperor.

Cixi was intelligent and politically astute. Her husband had appointed eight regents to govern the country while his son was a child, but Cixi knew she could do the job better. She allied herself with her husband’s childless wife and the two of them became guardians of Cixi’s son, the child emperor, and effectively ruled the country. Because women could not be acknowledged as rulers, Cixi sat behind the royal throne, concealed by a screen, to listen to official reports and make decisions about what should be done.

During the late 1800s, Europe and America because more aware of the valuable resources China had to offer to the world. Europeans and Americans, as well as the Japanese, competed to get access to natural resources and to the China trade. The struggle led to the Opium Wars and to many other battles. Cixi and some of her supporters recognized that in order to keep the country independent they had to accept some Western ways. Education was reformed so that young students learned more than just the classics of Chinese literature; representatives were sent to Europe and America and foreign diplomats were finally welcomed into the Chinese court.

Cixi was by no means a perfect person; she could be cruel and impose harsh punishments and death upon her enemies, but she set the course of China toward modernization. By the time she died in 1908, China was ready to enter the twentieth century and take its place on the world stage. Now, more than a hundred years later, reading about the Dowager Empress Cixi gives us an idea of what a strong and powerful woman she was. Her determination and strength can help us to understand where China is today—a world leader. And reading about how the Dowager Empress was maligned and underestimated by many of the leaders in her own country and internationally may make us ponder whether Americans are also underestimating the women leaders in our country. I strongly recommend reading Jung Chung’s book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China (Knopf 2013).

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Too much idealism for Angela Merkel?

 

These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me—
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee—. Emily Dickinson

Two or three years ago the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the most popular European leaders of the 21st century. She appeared unbeatable as her party swept to an angela-merkeloverwhelming victory in 2013. Her success seemed an anomaly in the male-dominated German politics of recent years. Journalists wondered how a plain-spoken middle aged woman whose nickname was “Mutti” (Mommy) could wield such power amid the turbulent struggles of the European Union in difficult economic times.

Merkel grew up in East Germany when it was a Communist country. Although a bright student, she was not a natural leader. In university she studied science and became a physicist and did not engage in public life. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany that she was drawn to political life, and few people would have predicted that she would become a leader. But, improbable or not, this quiet woman made her way past the bombastic male leaders of the party and eventually emerged as the leader.

But then came the refugee crisis. When thousands of Syrian refugees tried to make their way to safety in Europe, Merkel announced that Germany would accept them. She called on other European countries to do the same. Some were welcomed, and many Germans angela_germanymigrantappeared at first to be willing to make sacrifices to find housing and food for refugees. Then the inevitable bitter violence broke out. Demonstrators were soon calling for an end to refugees and a retreat to a “Germany for the Germans” mentality. Merkel’s CDU party suffered severe electoral losses. Undoubtedly the influx of refugees caused some voters to turn to severe anti-immigrant policies.

But the verdict is still out on what Angela Merkel will do—whether she will stand for Chancellor again or not. She seems to be sticking to her guns and insisting that the decision to accept refugees is the only morally defensible policy. Many idealists and religious people would agree with her. The refugees are still fleeing unbearable conditions in many countries. Despite a backlash; despite the fears; it was a proud day for Angela Merkel when she decided that Germany would be a moral leader in that path.  Let’s hope that by working with other countries, and international organizations, she will be able to make it work. The quiet woman from Germany has been a strong leader—a strong “Mutti” insisting that the world should honor its deepest ideals. Good luck to her!  refugees-are-human-beings-oki

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Women want to compete

Much of my attention this week has been focused on the Olympics in Rio. They are quite a relief from the two political conventions we just watched because in the Olympics, people olympics-superJumbo-v3keep moving instead of talking and we can see for ourselves who is winning. There is no need for lengthy commentary about who said what and who scored points against an opponent. There is something very satisfying about a clear cut win like Katie Ledecky’s brilliant 800-meter swim that smashed the world record and won her another gold medal.

Women weren’t always so prominent in the Olympic Games. In the ancient games, of course, only men were allowed to compete and when the games were reinstated in 1896, the organizers thought it would be foolish to allow women to compete. Four years later, however, a few women managed to participate in the 1900 games in Paris—22 women out of a field of 997 athletes.

The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—olympics 1904 posterthe only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate. Almost everyone who took part was an American and a true amateur; many signed up at the last minute without training or knowledge about how to compete.

As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not

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UK Women swimmers 1912 olympics

allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards. The UK women’s team won the medals that year.

What women athletes wear has always been an issue at the Olympics. This year, for the first time, all of the countries that have Olympic Committees have sent both men and women to the Games. For the first time, women from Saudi Arabia have been allowed to participate. This means that some of the Muslim women have competed while wearing outfits that look quite different from many of their European and American counterparts.

Athletics - Women's 100m Preliminary Round

It is a pleasure to see the freedom women have finally found, being able to wear gear that makes them comfortable while competing on even terms with all participants. Three cheers for freedom of choice!

 

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