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

Beecham's_pills_advert

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,

Abortion_Greek

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.

7 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, San Francisco events, Uncategorized, Women in the news

Orchids and Mysteries

IMG_0265_edited-1On a day when the news is filled with stories about a hate crime in Kansas, an assassination by nerve gas in Malaysia, and the exclusion of our most reliable news sources from a presidential briefing, it is a relief to turn to the wonders of the natural world. Along with scores of other people I visited the Pacific Orchid Exhibition in San Francisco and was refreshed by the silent, wondrous beauty of flowers.

Orchids, of course, are more than flowers. They are symbols of luxury, wealth and ambition. Perhaps because Westerners had to search so hard for them during the 19th century when they were first discovered, they have been associated with kings, queens, rich men and beautiful women. Queen Victoria had her own personal orchid hunter who scoured jungles throughout the world to find plants for the royal conservatory.

no_more_orchids_filmposterWealth and orchids often went together in early films such as Carole Lombard’s hit No More Orchids in 1932. The perfect film title to link orchids and wealth was a 1927 silent film called Orchids and Ermine, which featured young attractive girls trying to find themselves rich husbands. The movie version of a sensational World War II book (said to be the most-read book among British troops during the war) No Orchids for Miss Blandish again offered orchids as a symbol of wealth and privilege.

Novels that feature orchids usually qualify as escapist fiction and the Nero Wolfe series of books by Rex Stout certainly fits that category. I depend on the Kindle downloads from the San Francisco Public Library for much of my reading and this weekend I was lucky enough to find the Nero Wolfe story Black Orchids. It’s delightful to travel back in imagination to the 1940s and visit an orchid show in New York where Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archiimg_0466_edited-1e Goodwin, go to an orchid show not unlike the one I visited. The flowers there were still as beautiful, the growers as dedicated, and the visitors just as enchanted as the ones I saw. The only thing not on display at the California show was a mysterious murder. Nero Wolfe’s love of orchids lives on and so do Stout’s books about him. They are well worth revisiting.

One of the things I like best about reading mysteries, and about writing them, is the intriguing subjects I learn about. In my recently published Charlotte Edgerton mystery, Death Calls at the Palace, Charlotte and her husband discover the excitement and anger of people involved in the Chartist movement in England during the early 19th century, just as I learned about them in researching the book. Deep divisions between the rich and poor, the demand for jobs that have disappeared, and the angry demonstrations that grow out of injustice echo some of the themes we see in our world today. And so do the strong convictions expressed in this “Chartist Anthem”.

death-calls-at-the-palace-small The time shall come when wrong shall end,

When peasant to peer no more shall bend;

When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,

And the Man no more their frown obey.

Toil, brother, toil till the work is done,

Till the struggle is o’er and the Charter won.

3 Comments

Filed under San Francisco events, Uncategorized

Seeing Danger Wherever He Looks

Who would have thought that airports with their tedious lines and endless corridors could become so exciting? This week a new presidential order denying entry to people from several Middle Eastern countries caused consternation as immigration officers denied entry to some people with valid visas or green cards as well as all refugees. Fortunately for the country, several states protested and the courts have resisted the move and put a temporary halt on the order.

immigration-cartoon

Thomas Nast cartoon-Wikimedia

Prejudice against newcomers isn’t a new sentiment in the United States. Neither is prejudice against a particular religion that is seen as a threat to the country. From Colonial times on, many Americans have suspected that Roman Catholics with their “foreign” religion were a threat to the country.

The Irish immigrants who poured into the country from the 1840s on, were often the targets of discrimination by the press and clergy. Lyman Beecher, for instance, wrote that “The Catholic system is adverse to liberty, and the clergy to a great extent are dependent on foreigners opposed to the principles of our government, for patronage and support.”

One of the few writers who believed that the despised immigrants brought value to the country was Margaret Fuller. She praised the Irish immigrants for their generosity and family feeling and told her readers that they would be of great value to America. Fuller margaret-fuller-1valued the contributions of other immigrants of the time too, including the Germans and Italians who could offer much to the country. My admiration for Margaret Fuller was what led me to write a biography of this brave woman.

Over the years, Americans learned that Catholics did not pose a threat to American values. They became a part of mainstream American life. But fearful people continue to fear. Today we are hearing echoes of Lyman Beecher as politicians talk about the threat of Muslims and of  Islamic thought. As of 2014, seven states had passed laws or ballot measures that banned Sharia law from influencing the courts. These states include Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee. Currently the Montana legislature is arguing about the need for such a law.

President Trump appears to view the world as a threatening place and to fear that people professing a religion different from what he is used to must be dangerous. As any historian could tell him, people who are not descended from the handful of English settlers, have fdr-fearmade this country great. Fear of anyone different from ourselves leads to stagnation, not greatness. Perhaps the president should listen to a brave woman like Marie Curie who said it well: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

And if President Trump wants to gain wisdom from the presidents who preceded him, he might pay attention to the words of one of our greatest leaders, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously announced that The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

4 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Women in the news

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.

white_house_1846

First known photo of White House 1846

melania-trump

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

harriet-lane

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, Women in the news

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

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

fatherchristmastrial-1686

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

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized