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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Another New Year 2017

This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.

At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:

I heard a bird sing

In the dark of December

A magical thing

And sweet to remember.

“We are nearer to Spring

Than we were in September,”

I heard a bird sing

In the dark of December.silverpennies_img_0583

That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.

When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.

I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry.  Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.

Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions.  Some of them are still with me.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words – Piano_flower_edited-1

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same.  Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.

happy-new-year-2017

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Christmas today and yesterday

Not every American celebrates Christmas, but if you have been spending any time at shopping malls or downtown city centers in the past few weeks, you might assume that everyone did. Department stores and public transit are jammed with people buying either christmas-stockingsfor themselves or others. Whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, the stores welcome everyone who celebrates the holiday season by spending money. Recently I saw a news item designed to help people prepare for the holiday season:

It’s never too early to start shopping for Christmas gifts! Undoubtedly, Christmas can be one of the most celebrated yet equally stressful times of the year. First of all, consumers scramble their brains for great Christmas gift ideas followed by some frenzied Christmas shopping. 

But it wasn’t always this way. In colonial times, celebrating Christmas was made a crime in some areas. Massachusetts passed a law against the keeping of Christmas and fined anyone who chose to acknowledge a holiday that was popular in Catholic countries. It

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Trial of Father Christmas 1685

wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century when German and Irish immigrants flocked into the country that Christmas trees were introduced and Christmas gradually became the most popular holiday in the country.

It wasn’t long after Christmas started to be celebrated on this side of the ocean that people began to complain about how stressful it all was. In 1874 Fanny Kemble wrote:

Christmas is a season of such infinite labor, as well as expense in the shopping and present-making line, that almost every woman I know is good for nothing in purse and person for a month afterwards, done up physically, and broken down financially.

And so it goes. After two hundred years of Christmas celebrations, Americans still haven’t decided whether the holiday is a wonderful way to celebrate with friends and family or a fraud imposed by greedy marketers to encourage needless spending and anxiety. If the christmas-treeaverage American didn’t enjoy the holiday, they wouldn’t be crowding all the shopping malls and buying endless supplies of turkey and chocolates.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about how other people waste their time and money during the holiday season and just sit back and do whatever we want to do with our own family and friends. At least the lights of Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza brighten up the chilly midwinter season and strengthen us to face the beginning of a turbulent new year.
I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—

The children, the beasts, and the birds;

I’m wishing the whole world Christmas—

And I’d like to have magical words

To wish just the shining wish I would wish

In the Christmas words I would say,

For I’m wishing the whole world Christmas,

And joy on Christmas Day.

–Annette Wynne

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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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Thanksgiving 2016

Today is a gray, gloomy day in northern California and even though we need the rain, it is hard to welcome the damp and chill. Last year at this time, there was plenty of trouble in the world, but the mood was hopeful. This year, it appears to many of us, that the country has taken a wrong turn from which it may never recover.

In high schools, students are expressing their fear by harassing fellow students; in the streets, people are demonstrating against the government with a fury that hasn’t been seen in fifty years; hate groups are springing to life again apparently feeling they have won the right to turn back the clock and resume their old habits of tormenting anyone they disagree with.

In times like this, it is easy to agree with Matthew Arnold’s bitter assessment of the state of the world.

the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. 

But the holiday is upon us and we will be expected to produce the usual holiday dinner along with good cheer. There is always much to be thankful for—friends and family; a chance to live and work in a (mostly) peaceful country free of war. And even in the wider world, many people still act with generosity. On Thursday, thousands of volunteers will serve Thanksgiving dinners to people who cannot buy their own. Doctors and nurses and all the others who help the sick and dying will continue to work during the holiday and make life more endurable. People will scrub the cruel graffiti off walls and sidewalks and will make friends with the targets of scorn.

Somehow human nature has survived the assault of other periods of unrest and attack. We will survive this one too. The spirit of hatred and exclusion has threatened the country many times before. Native Americans were harried and driven from the lands they had nurtured; slaves were brought from their own countries and forced to work in ours; people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned for no reason except baseless fear during World War II. But somehow the tide turns and evil has been recognized for what it is. Slowly and imperfectly Americans have recognized their mistakes and tried to undo them. Wrong choices and cruel actions are never completely erased. They have to be fought by every generation and by every individual. But people are strong.

The most important thing to be thankful for is that we won’t be conquered by new mistakes. Bad choices may be made but they can be reversed. Remember the old W. E. Henley poem we came across in school? No defeat has to be permanent. People are strong and will resist. We shall overcome!

Out of the night that covers me, 

      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

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November 21, 2016 · 8:33 am

Another Election and the Loss of Another Chance

Many women today feel as though they have been slapped in the face again. After years of struggle, hard work, and service, another woman has failed to win the presidency. Despite being clearly the best candidate in a field of four, Hillary Clinton hillary_clintonwas once more sent back to spend more years working for the public good but not enjoying the glory of our highest office. Instead, a minority of voters (although a majority of the electoral college) chose a candidate who bluffed his way to the top with insults and braggadocio like a high school bully. This has been a sad election for the forces of hope and of rationality.

The history of women’s fight to gain the presidency reminds me of a line from a poem by the Irish-American freedom fighter, Shaemas O’Sheel, They went forth to battle, but they always fell. But we should remember that the Irish finally got their freedom and a woman will eventually be elected president, although the struggle has been long and difficult. We had hoped it was over, but it continues.

Only three women have come even close to being seen as serious contenders to become president of the United States. The first was Victoria Woodhull, who ran a spirited but spectacularly unsuccessful campaign in 1872. After all, women weren’t even allowed to vote at that time, much less run the country. I wrote a few posts about Woodhull on this blog during the 2012 presidential race.

A hundred years after Victoria Woodhull’s attempt, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm began her campaign to get the nomination of the Democratic Party. In 1972, she was well-known as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. That had happened in 1968 and Chisholm had made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal Shirley Chisholmfunds for child care facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War saying “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.”  (Unbossed and Unbought, p. 97)

Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for the presidency was never taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Throughout her career, Chisholm noted that being a woman had put more obstacles in her path than being black. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired. After her retirement from politics,  she taught for several years at Mount Holyoke College. Her experience continues to inspire liberal politicians and especially women and African Americans who are still struggling to be fully represented in government. And her book Unbossed and Unbought, which she published in 1970,  remains a valuable document about a politician who fought for her constituents and was never swayed by money or political power during those halcyon days before the invention of  PACS or the ravages of corporate funding for campaigns.

And now in 2016, it seems the theme remains the same for Hillary Clinton as it did for her predecessors: women are excellent accessories to a successful candidate, but not to be trusted with the tough job of running the country. Americans decided to take a chance on someone who wants to shut the country off from the world and huddle in a sinking swamp of resentment and anger. Do young people really want a chance to return to dirty, dangerous coal mining and mind-numbing assembly lines? To watch smokestacks billow black, sooty smoke that makes our children ill while our coastal areas are being flooded by warming ocean waters? Does anyone remember how miserable the 1950s were for most Americans—for minorities and women who struggled to survive in a world where all the good jobs were reserved for white men? Is this what we really want?

So, the struggle continues. All battles to build a better society take a long, long time. I’ll quote a verse written by the Chartists, a group who appear in my recent Charlotte Edgerton mystery stories Death Calls at the Palace. They bring us a hope of a better future. Someday that glass ceiling will shatter. The battle continues!

The time shall come when earth shall be

A garden of joy from sea to sea,

When the slaughterous sword is drawn no more

And Goodness exults from shore to shore.

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Death Calls at the Palace–a new Charlotte Edgerton Mystery

death-calls-at-the-palace-smallAs she mourns the death of her infant son, Charlotte Edgerton finds the gray skies and gritty poverty of an unfamiliar city almost more painful than she can bear. London in 1846 is far from the gracious society Charlotte and her husband Daniel had imagined. Dark skinned strangers from Britain’s far-flung empire are demanding justice, but the young Queen Victoria and her court seem unwilling to listen. Even worse, Charlotte’s naive brother Tom is being drawn into a radical political group that Charlotte fears will lead him to violence and perhaps death. Meanwhile the city is growing more and more crowded with impoverished immigrants from famine-stricken Ireland. When one of her young Irish friends—a kitchen maid—dies in a tragic fire, Charlotte believes it was no accident. But uncaring policemen scoff at her suspicions and refuse to investigate. Charlotte discovers that she must search for the villain on her own.

In volume 3 of the Charlotte Edgerton Mysteries series, Charlotte and Daniel have left the boisterous streets of New York and moved to London where Daniel takes up a new job on a weekly newspaper. After their adventures in New York City (which you can read about in volume 2 of the series, Death Visits a Bawdy House) they find themselves in a city even more dangerous than the one they left behind.

During these past months while I was finishing this book the U.S. presidential campaign was in full swing. I couldn’t help thinking about how today’s campaign echoed what was happening in London more than a century ago. Some things never change—when famine and war devastate a country, people move on to more prosperous places. But often they find little welcome there. Wealthy men struggle to hold on to their traditional privileges, while working people fear their jobs and way of life will disappear. But all is not doom and gloom even in London. Charlotte Edgerton and her family find new friends and new hope as they struggle for greater justice and freedom in an old country.

To celebrate the publication of this third volume in the Charlotte Edgerton Mysteries series, I will send a free copy of the book to the first three people who write a comment on this blog post. I hope you enjoy the story!    

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