On Why I Need to Read More Classics

It seems a shame to let the year go without another post, despite my long neglect of this space. I have, to be honest, found myself lacking the inspiration to write creatively in the midst of a grad school year filled by often dense and specialized readings. It’s been difficult not to talk myself out of writing because, really, who is remotely interested in reading about a defunct evangelical publishing house or the politics of British censorship on a light and fluffy blog?

But the holiday break and a run of good films has finally presented some material for a post – material that connects effortlessly to some of the semester’s readings on British popular culture, of all things.

One of the overarching themes of books on British popular culture is the constant anxiety the middle classes suffered on behalf of the British population in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Well-meaning, if overzealous, evangelical men and women especially worried constantly that theatre, books, and music halls would corrupt the youth, the women, single and married men of the lower and middle classes. (The aristocrats, they figured, were already to licentious to bother with.) They started youth organizations, church groups, and working-man’s clubs as alternatives to secular entertainment; they lobbied for censorship laws to stymie offensive plays, imported (read: French) books, and bawdy variety shows.

But the worst of the worst, the entertainment industry that caused the most ulcers and aneurysms, was cinema. Woe to the viewers of Hollywood, or even sub-par British, films for they knew not what smut lay within. At best, critics found the moving pictures mindless. At worst, detractors accused films of undermining God, King, and Empire. (This, of course, despite Hollywood’s penchant for producing films like Gunga Din.)

Recent historians however argue that, far from corrupting the general population, cinema played an important role in renewing interest in classic plays, books and historical themes, all elements of elite culture that critics could hardly object to. Most British films depended on an audience’s pre-established interest in a play or novel (say, Henry V or Great Expectations) for their success. Elaborate period pieces about looming British figures, like Henry VIII, likewise succeeded at the box office in large part because the British public already knew of the person. What’s more, historians increasingly see evidence of film and television prompting viewers to seek out serious books that inspired or were related to what they saw.

Which brings me to my own viewing pleasures over the break and my fledgling hope that this winter’s box office hits might have the same effect. The biggest films of the season – The Hobbit, Anna Karenina, Les Misérablesand Lincoln – are all based on classic novels, musicals, and historical events. The Hobbit and Les Misérables are old favorites for me, but even those have me asking new questions, like who on earth is that Pale Orc? And what are the rest of the verses to “The Misty Mountain“? Some changes to the lyrics in Les Misérables as well as new interpretations of the characters likewise left me curious about the original novel, which I haven’t read. Does Hugo emphasize the class conflict apparent in the original stage show, or does he take shots at the monarchy the way this newer rendition suggests? Is Javert the cool, calm, calculating figure we see from Russell Crowe, or is he the passionate, fanatical law enforcer who usually shows up in the musicals and concerts? (Crowe’s interpretation is, to be honest, a little lifeless for my taste, but I’m willing to wait and see if maybe this is moreso the Javert of the novel.)

Anna Karenina and Lincoln, by contrast, are new territory for me. I’m intrigued by the former in large part because the brilliant Tom Stoppard did the screenplay, but it’s also high time I read a classic Russian novel. Plus some reviews are suggesting that the film doesn’t even begin to do the novel justice, and I dislike being unable to judge the value of a reviewer’s appraisal. Lincoln thoroughly impressed me, and I’m willing to take M.L.’s word on the authenticity of the portrayal of the former president. The film’s characterization of Mary Todd, though, is troubling. She’s petty and hysterical and machinating and I wonder if historians have been more harsh on her than is warranted. There’s the possibility that the portrayal is accurate, of course, but I tend to find that history isn’t always terribly kind to women who might wield power, or who grapple with mental health issues. Still, I’d like to add a biography or two of her to my personal reading list before I offer criticism. (I’m assuming such a thing exists. Recommendations, anyone?)

So from sheer personal experience, I ultimately find myself agreeing with historians’ evaluation of the role of cinema in the lives of the British people. Far from being mindless entertainment, films based on books and stage shows and history can illuminate the richness of their inspirations. A good film, I think, is ultimately defined as one with enough entertainment value to keep us in our seats for two or three hours, but one that still lacks just enough to send us running for the written word after the credit roll is completed.


50 States, 50 Women: Part 3 of 3

Note from your usual author: As promised, we’re graced with a guest post from the fiancé – a seriously wonderful man who not only encourages my feminism, but happily accepts the title “feminist” himself. (And even includes people like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Delores Huerta in his lectures. What a guy…) Please forgive us that the project is re-introduced here. It was originally written for another blog: http://northumbriancountdown.wordpress.com

50 States, 50 Women 

(By The Illustrious M.L.)

I mentioned in a recent post that one of the projects I had in the pipeline was in cooperation with my fiancée, Heather.  Our idea was inspired by the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C., where each state gets to pick two representative citizens to be immortalized in marble near the capital rotunda.  Heather and I began to think, “what if each state had to pick one woman?”  Who would it be?  We would each take 25 states at random and select who we believed to be the exemplary woman “from” that state.  (“From” can mean a multitude of things– one could be born there, retire there, work there, or perform some kind of activism there.)   We had only one rule and one guideline: no first ladies, and avoid those who were famous largely by being the wife, daughter or mistress of a famous man.

There was just one snag– when we put the names on slips of paper and drew them out of a hat, Heather got all of the “good states”: New York, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania– states with a great many famous women to choose from.  I got most of the duds where in some cases I really had to scrape: Arkansas (remember, no First Ladies), the Dakotas, West Virginia, Delaware, etc.  Heather offered to redraw the states, but I refused.  It was more fun to complain. I shall link to Heather’s selections and write-ups when she’s done. (In all fairness, I only finished mine first because I don’t have a Master’s thesis to write!)

So, here are the choices that I have made:

Arizona: Linda Rondstadt (b. 1946): Already a member of my “Free France Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (those wrongfully excluded from the illegitimate Hall of Fame in Cleveland), Rondstandt makes another appearance here. Few women excelled in quite so many facets of popular music: as an expressive singer, thoughtful songwriter, and a creative arranger who successfully navigated between the rock, folk, and country/western idioms.

Arkansas: Katharine Susan Anthony (1877-1965): Oddly, the only Susan Anthony on our list (someone else beat her more famous relative for New York’s spot), she was an early 20th-century advocate for the rights of women in the workplace. Additionally, she was a prolific biographer, writing pieces on Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Louisa May Alcott.

Connecticut: Claire Booth Luce (1903-1987): This breaks the “no wife of famous people” guideline, but for good reason; her husband was Henry Luce, the eminent publisher of TimeLife, and Sports Illustrated. Claire Luce was no less significant. Her resume is astounding: editor, playwright, screenwriter, Republican congresswoman, atomic energy advocate, and ambassador to Italy.

Delaware: Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941): A prominent astronomer, whose system of star classification remained the field’s standard for decades. She is credited with the discovery of over 300 stars, a record matched only by Ed McMahon.

Hawaii: Queen Liliukalani (1838-1917): In her youth, she was a reformist monarch who advocated a limited monarchy and a constitutional empowering native Hawaiians. In later life, she valiantly fought an illegal attempt of sundry U.S. entrepreneurs to annex the Hawaiian islands. Alas, this was in vain, and the state became a lucrative fiefdom for the Dole fruit company for the next several decades.

Idaho: Sacajawea (1788?-1812?): Actively, she sought out berries, edible plants and provided crucial translation skills for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Passively, her mere presence discouraged attacks against the party by first nation tribes, reassured that a war party never traveled with a woman. Virtually nothing we know about her comes from her own hand or her own words, and yet there’s a fascinating tapestry of a life here.

Indiana: Madame C.J. Walker (1867-1919): Not too many entrepreneurs on my list, but Walker certainly deserves a place here. Her eponymous company sold shampoos and hair ointments out of an Indianapolis factory. Walker is widely considered the first African-American woman to be a millionaire, and the first American woman to be a millionaire as a result of her own business acumen, rather than through inherited or bequeathed wealth. Later in life, she supported the NAACP and began to train other African-American women to run their own businesses.

Kansas: Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1939): Among the loudest and most long-winded of the Populist agitators that dotted the American prairie in the 1880s. At a time when crippling railroad rates and quasi-colonial policies toward the Western states made life difficult, she exhorted farmers to “raise less corn and more Hell.”

Louisiana: Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972): Perhaps the most famous gospel singer in U.S. history. While many African-American women veered unerringly for blues or pop or eventually R&B, she lent her magnificent voice to gospel recordings, the veritable soundtrack of hope.

Maine: Martha Ballard (1735-1812): Come on, you thought I would pick Margaret Chase Smith, didn’t you? Surprise! I chose Martha Ballard, a long-forgotten midwife working during the Early Republic era. Her diary, a meticulous, thorough litany of her career assisting the birth process, has proven to be an invaluable resource to future historians.

Mississippi: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977): Working in a civil rights movement that could be shockingly sexist at times, Fannie Lou Hamer was in charge of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which did the dirty work, going house to house registering voters in rural Mississippi. This Freedom Summer of 1964 was a watershed in the civil rights movement, obscured by more conspicuous, publicity-grabbing maneuvers by MLK and the SCLC. A shame really; if King was the face of the movement, Hamer was its inviolable heartbeat.

Missouri: Maya Angelou (b. 1928): An amazing life of unlikely turns: abject poverty, abusive family members, 5 years as a mute, time as a prostitute and pimp, Calypso nightclub performer, anti-Apartheid activist, and finally, perhaps the most loved and respected poet of her generation.

Montana: Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973): She only served a few terms as a Montana congresswoman, but Rankin was there during two crucial points in our country’s history– our decision to enter World War I, and our decision to enter World War II. Rankin is the only congressperson to have voted against declaring both wars. A lifelong pacifist, she explained her vote thusly: “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and refuse to send anyone else.”

New Hampshire: Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910): The founder of the Christian Science movement, an intriguing blend of modernist and spiritualist ideas in the 1870s. Eddy is indirectly responsible for this crazy-as-hell cable access show, the Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Show.

North Carolina: Crystal Lee Sutton (1940-2009): A union activist in a notorious right-to-work state, Sutton successfully organized workers in a textile factory despite fervent opposition, and eventually dismissal from her employers. Courts subsequently ruled their action illegal and unconstitutional. The Sally Field film Norma Rae is based upon her life.

North Dakota: Elizabeth Bodine (1898-1986): Obscure but a common, salt-of-the-earth woman who did humanitarian work among the American Indian tribes in her state, and sent all 18 of her children to college. She was the winner of the 1979 Mother of the Year Award.

Ohio: Gloria Steinem (b. 1934): What it means to be a feminist has been diluted, twisted, and misrepresented in the last 40 years. Steinem’s name gives some people fits, but it shouldn’t. Steinem, more than anyone else, even her contemporary Friedan, made modern womanhood into a viable and respectable culture. That was essentially the contribution of her Ms. Magazine, forging a feminism that is assertive and forthright and eager to correct structural inequities, but not at all the shrill, abrasive, and shrewish phenomenon of its detractors’ imaginations. Gloria Steinem is okay with you holding the door open for her. Honest.

Rhode Island: Anne Smith Franklin (1696-1763): A sister-in-law of Ben, she was the first prominent woman publisher in the Colonies. As a widow, she took up her husband’s line of work, serving as an editor, a writer of almanacs, and a printer of paper currency.

South Carolina: Sarah Grimke (1792-1873): Would it surprise you to know that one of the greatest American abolitionists came from a family of aristocratic planters in South Carolina? After being reproached for teaching slaves to read, she moved up north, married into a Quaker family. With her sister Angelica, she became prominent as a voice for ending slavery and increasing the role of women as moral voices in the public sphere.

South Dakota: Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957): Nobody captured the challenges and the blessings of life in the far Midwest quite like Wilder. Her book series and in time, the semi-apocryphal television series based on her life have become common currency in youth fiction. I’d drive past the eponymous “little house on the prairie” in South Dakota during frequent trips between Mitchell and Sioux Falls.

Texas: Molly Ivins (1944-2007): Throughout the 80s and 90s, Ivins was an acerbic, sharp-tongued political pundit, routinely breaking out into Texas colloquialisms and phraseology to shed light on corruption and hypocrisy, both nationally and the special object of her wrath, the Texas State Legislature.

Utah: Marie Osmond (b. 1959): I’m sorry, okay? Utah was really difficult. Argh. Um..from what I can glean from a cursory look at her Wikipedia page, she…let’s see here…hosted a t.v. show, started a line of dolls, and is involved in some charity work or other.

Washington: Mother Joseph Pariseau (1823-1902): A lot of people on here are activists, but not everyone on here is someone I can describe unequivocally as compassionate or loving or gentle. Mother Jones of the Sacred Heart has these qualities in divine abundance. In a sparsely populated Pacific Northwest, she built a network of orphanages, hospitals, schools and charities from the ground up.

West Virginia: Mother Jones (1837-1930): During the turn of the century, the last thing you wanted if you were a mine owner is for Mother Jones to come to your town. With a stump speaking style that alternated between sweet humor and prophetic anger, Jones organized workers and communities in coal-mining towns throughout Appalachia. She was instrumental in the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World and crusading for laws limiting a child labor at a time when a patronizing press called such radical ideas “socialistic.” WV gets credit for her on account of the Paintsville protest, where Jones was arrested and refused to recognize the legitimacy of her court, held under the auspices of martial law.

Wyoming: Esther Hobart Morris (1814-1902): Originally from central NY, Morris moved to the Wyoming territory and became an early advocate for women’s right to vote in a rough-and-tumble environment where the domestic ideal that prevailed back East simply wouldn’t fly. She was also, by all accounts, the first female Justice of the Peace.

50 States, 50 Women: Part 2 of 3

The second set of my twenty-five are included here. All links are for full biographies of the women listed here. I’d invite you to explore their tales more deeply.

NebraskaSusan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
Picotte was the first woman of the American First Nations to receive a medical degree in the United States (1889). Dr. Picotte’s work was inspired by death of a native woman after a local white doctor refused to treat her. Picotte therefore spent her career providing medical care for members of the Omaha Reservation as well as the native men and women in Bancroft, Nebraska.

NevadaSarah Winnemucca (orig. Tocmectone) (1844-1891)
Winnemucca was a First Nations’ educator, author, and vibrant lecturer. She served as a translator between U.S. government agents and her tribe, traveling throughout Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho with her people, the Northern Paiute. The outbreak of violent conflict between her tribe and the U.S. government served as the impetus for a lecture tour in California and the Washington Territory. Winnemucca worked tirelessly to raise support for the plight of her tribe members and First Nations peoples more generally throughout the western United States.

New JerseyDorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Lange was a photographer, deeply concerned with men and women who found themselves displaced and discriminated against. She is most famous for her heart-rending picture of the migrant mother and her children in California during the Great Depression. Additionally, Lange produced important documentation of the Japanese-Americans relocated to internment camps by then-President Roosevelt after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her photographs are a testament to her compassion and to the dignity and courage of her subjects.

New Mexico: Delores Huerta (1930- )
Huerta a labor activist and grassroots organizer. She began as an organizer in California, working to remove the citizenship requirements then in effect for pension and public assistance programs. In 1961, she met Cesar Chavez and, in conversation with him, formulated a plan for organizing U.S. farm workers. By 1965, Chavez and Huerta coordinated a strike by migrant grape pickers that would last for five years, ending only after Huerta and other labor leaders negotiated for increased wages and the addition of benefits for agricultural workers. Over the last forty-plus years, Huerta has worked persistently to maintain the rights she and Chavez fought for in their youth, constantly renegotiating contracts, organizing underpaid workers, and finding new injustices to resist.

New YorkElizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
This was hands down the most difficult state to choose only one woman from. Margaret Sanger (whose record is ultimately too mixed to make the final cut), Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony…heck, the entirety of the 1848 Women’s Rights’ Convention (!) were contenders. So I went back to the source. Cady Stanton was a suffragist, abolitionist, speaker, and author. Perhaps most famously, Stanton co-penned the Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States, which Anthony presented at the centennial celebration in the Capital in 1876 (uninvited, of course). Her legacy lives on at the National Women’s Rights Museum in Seneca Falls, NY.

OklahomaBelle Starr (1848-1889)
I’m including Starr because this list needs at least one notorious, rough and tumble woman. (Those I suppose every woman on the list was or is notorious in her own way…) Starr was a horse thief, gambler, and sharp shooter in Oklahoma. She eluded arrest multiple times, was arrested on nearly as many occasions, and ultimately died a violent death – shot in the death by an enemy or lover. (No one is quite sure.) Someone to admire? Perhaps not. But a colorful character worthy of a legacy.

OregonLaura Stockton Starcher and the women of the “Petticoat Revolution”
On December 5, 1916 in Umatilla, Oregon, Starcher was elected mayor and four other women gained seats in the city council. Only four years after Oregon women won the vote, the ladies staged a coup, which was quickly dubbed “The Petticoat Revolution” by the New York Herald. Stockton even beat out her own husband in the mayoral race, 26-8. (He didn’t know she was running!) I wouldn’t advocate that sort of intramarital rivalry, but I do love that the women took their new-found political liberties so seriously.

PennsylvaniaLouisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Though Alcott grew up in Massachusetts, her birthplace is Germantown, PA. Alcott’s Little Women (and the sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys) have become standard reading for adolescent girls (or they were when I was such a one…) Her characters – the tomboyish Jo, feminine Meg, compassionate Beth, and sophisticated Amy – speak to the diversity of womanhood and her stories remains a lovely tale of familial love and friendship.

Tennessee: Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)
Rudolph’s is a story of the resiliance of the human body. She was born prematurely and all-but crippled for the first seven years of her life, but went on to play basketball in high school, ultimately earning the attention of the track and field coach at Tennessee State. Rudolph competed in her first Olympics in 1956 (at 16) and four years later, became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track during the games in Rome.

VermontCaroline Ardelia Yale (1848-1933)
Yale spent her life as an educator for the deaf and principal of the Clarke School for the Deaf. She revolutionized education for the hearing-impaired through her development, with a fellow teacher, of an immensely detailed phonetic system used to communicate, orally, with her students. Yale’s “Northampton Vowel and Consonant Charts” remained a tool of educators of the deaf for many years.

Virginia: Clara Barton (1821-1912)

Known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” Clara Barton first earned her stripes as a dedicated civil war nurse. Barton independently collected and distributed medical supplies during a time when there was little strategy in post-battle treatment of wounds and injuries. She also requested permission to travel with those soldiers evacuated from the battlefield and continued her nursing behind (and sometimes quite near) the line. Following the Civil War, she founded the American Red Cross. Based on the original Swiss Red Cross, Barton’s organization continued to organize treatment and care in disaster situations across the United States. Today, the Red Cross continues to serve as a disaster relief organization, supplying everything from bandages to blood during and after natural and human disasters. (P.S.–The Red Cross is looking for apheresis and whole blood donor. No, really. They’ve been calling me all summer to donate. Give it a thought… I’ll even go with you if you live in NJ.)

Wisconsin: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
O’Keeffe is an American modernist artist, most famous perhaps for her magnified paintings of flowers and quasi-surreal cattle skulls. And since you’ve read quite enough, allow me to let this last woman’s art speak for itself:

50 States, 50 Women: Part 1 of 3

On a pilgrimage to Seneca Falls. (See “New York” in the post for Part 2.)

What if the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. required every state to submit a statue of one female representative of their region? Noting the paucity of women in the current collection, M.L. and I set ourselves the challenge of choosing recommendations for the Hall’s collection.

Our guidelines are pretty loose. We each researched 25 states and selected a woman who was born or lived a portion of her life in the state. She could be famous for anything – artistic endeavors, political achievements, a colorful story – so long as she was not significant only by virtue of her connection with her husband. (So first ladies are pretty much out…) The end product is three blogposts, two by yours truly (because it makes for a very, very long post if I include all 25 women in one shot), and one by M.L. (who doesn’t mind long blog posts at all), which will be uploaded as a guest post. (Stay tuned!)

I will note that my selections tend towards women who are significant for their achievements in the arts, health care, or social activism. I don’t have too many female scientists, business persons, or athletes here, but would be very, very happy to hear of women to those fields that I have overlooked. So, without further ado:

AlabamaRosa Parks (1913-2005)
Rosa Parks was an African-American civil rights activist, most famous for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, AL in December 1955. Her action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an important symbolic action in the history of American civil rights. Rosa and her husband, Raymond, steadily campaigned for equality in Alabama, Virgina, and Michigan throughout their lifetimes.

Alaska: Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911-1958)
Elizabeth Peratrovich was a Tlingit Native Alaskan who fought for the end of discrimination against Native-born persons. Disgusted by the oppressive civil and employment discrimination in Alaska, Peratrovich lobbied for the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945. Speaking before the Territorial Senate, Peratrovich began, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights.” The senate passed the Act on February 16, with a vote of 11 to 5.

California: Sally Ride (1951-2012)
Sally Ride was an astronaut, science writer, and barrier breaker. Ride ventured into space twiceaboard the Challenger, first in 1983 and again in 1984. The following year, Ride had the unenviable task of serving on the Presidential Commission investigating the tragedy of the Challenger explosion. Later in life, she was a professor at University of California, San Diego and CEO of Sally Ride Science.

Colorado: Madeleine Albright (1937-2001)
Though born in the Czech Republic, Albright spent her adolescence in Denver. Albright’s political career included positions as a staff member for Ed Muskie’s campaign, work for the National Security Council, and diplomatic endeavors as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Her crowning achievement, though, was her appointment as Secretary of State by Bill Clinton in 1996. Albright became the first woman to serve in this post, forging the way for subsequently famous female secretaries, Condolezza Rice and Hilary Clinton.

Florida: Zora Neale Hurston (1925-1960)
Born in Alabama, but raised in Eatonville, FL, this Harlem Renaissance author is most famous for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, Hurston was also a top-knotch folklorist and traveled throughout Southern America and the Carribean collecting and recording the stories of the cultures she encountered there.

Georgia: Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
I’m breaking the guidelines a little here by including a woman whose initial significance to American civil rights was deeply connected to her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. Her work following her husband’s death, however, is equally admirable. She traveled on goodwill missions to Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, advocating for human rights the world over. Scott King also successfully lobbied for the institution of a national holiday in her husband’s honor. MLK, Jr. Day has since become synonymous with voluntarism and the the continued efforts of ordinary citizens to “be the change.”

Illinois: Jane Addams (1860-1935)
An ardent feminist and crusader for the dignity of the materially poor, Jane Addams was the founder of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois. The organization provided a space in which troubled and impoverished people could seek out assistance and fellowship. (The building ultimately included a public kitchen, art gallery, gym, swimming pool, music school, library, boarding area for girls, art studio, book bindry, employment bureau and labor museum.) Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her efforts.

Iowa: Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894)
Though best known for her activities in western New York State, Bloomer moved to Iowa later in life and transplanted her feminist spirit and savvy journalism to her new home. A temperance reformer, newspaper editor, and suffragist, Bloomer is perhaps best known for her invention of a more “healthful costume” for 19th-century ladies. The “bloomers” that bear her name consisted of a short skirt and pantaloons that allowed women freer movement than the corseted, bustled dresses of her era.

Kentucky: bell hooks (1952- )
bell hooks is a feminist, activist, and author. Ever attentive to systems of power, hooks turns a lens on racism, sexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation in her many works. hooks is a controversial figure, for sure, but has persistently injected the American feminist movement with the much-needed perspective of a woman of color, a woman of the south, and a woman of the postmodern era.

Maryland: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Holiday was a jazz singer with a golden voice. “Lady Day” consistently recorded hits like “My Man” and “Autumn in New York with Columbia records, often working with the jazz greats like Count Basie or Charlie Parker. Holiday, though, has become a justice legend for her courage in recording her emotive version of “Strange Fruit.” Initially barred from recording the song with Columbia due to the song’s subject matter (the original poem reflects upon the lynching of a black man), Holiday sought out Commodore records and turned out this haunting ballad.

Massachusetts: Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)
Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan mother, midwife, and theologian. Well-educated and encouraged to pursue theology by her father, Hutchinson adopted and further developed the “gospel of grace” (in opposition to a focus on works) preached by John Cotton in England and the New World. Hutchinson’s theology – and her practice of teaching women, and eventually men, in the privacy of her home – proved to be at odds with Gov. John Winthrop’s vision for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson was consequently tried for her beliefs and banished from the colony.

MichiganHarriet Quimby (1874-1912)
Quimby was the first licensed woman pilot in the U.S. and the first woman to fly solo across the English channel in 1912. Though she perished in an unsanction aviation race in Boston, Quimby’s example paved the way for future women aviators, including Amelia Earhart.

Minnesota: Sister Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952)
Kenny was an Australian nurse who later worked in Minnesota, in part to escape the criticism of the British Medical Association and her colleagues down under. Kenny’s work was controversal. She suggested that infant paralysis might be cured not through traditional prescriptions for rest, but through the exercise of children’s limbs. Her theories, and ultimately success, served as the foundation for modern rehabilitative medicine.

Practicing Feminism.

It’s taken me awhile to come out and say, in life and on this page: I am a feminist.

Largely because I, like many of my peers, grew up believing that feminism meant one and only one thing: bra-burning. Aside from being an expensive and potentially dangerous habit, as one of my dearest friends pointed out years ago, this seemed like an action of rather limited efficacy. It wasn’t until I caught myself persistently beginning sentences with, “I’m not a feminist, but…” that I began to grasp how many issues of injustice feminism might address and therefore how utterly essential feminism remains in the U.S. and the world as a whole.

And yet, the movement, and the men and women who espouse feminist values, are greeted with increasing hostility in the twenty-first century. I made the mistake of reading the comments posted to various Slate articles related to women’s concerns this morning. The authors who contributed to today’s “Double X” category received complaints that they were only playing the victim; they were told they needed to stop whining, as commenters scolded them for for believing there is still gender inequality. The authors were upbraided for thinking feminism was anything but an academic solution for antiquated problems.

True, some of the original issues are, or are becoming, antiquated, at least in the United States. Women have been able to vote for nearly a century, for example, and that in itself is a massive victory. There are a number of women in positions of influence and affluence at major corporations, including the internet giants Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. Women’s sports are not only accepted, but encouraged and even well-funded at many institutions of higher education.

But there is work to be done, at home and abroad. The number of women in poverty – yes, even in the U.S. – far exceeds the number of men. Women’s health issues – maternal mortality rates, the availability of preventive exams, access to contraception – remain a central concern. Women’s freedom to choose what to wear, or not to wear, might be added to the list with sincerity.

I should be clear: I do not think American feminists need to fix everything. Nor are we capable of doing so. We can offer celebration and support, though, and insightful education for people in our own spheres.

But this has all been a bit of a rant, largely inspired by some thoughtless and unrepresentative commenters on the ever-fickle web. What I would like to communicate, in closing, is at least a framework for how I hope to practice what I preach. I hope to:

  • integrate women’s voices and stories into the histories I teach and write in authentic and nuanced ways
  • actively engage in and financially support those already doing work that broadens possibilities for women of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, and ethnic heritages
  • listen, understand, and attempt to empathize with women’s choices that are different from my own…long before I ask them whether or not they have a political agenda
  • welcome, encourage, and celebrate men who treat women as equals and work to annihilate gender injustice
  • hold on to the anger I feel against injustice, refuse to equivocate or analyze away wrongdoings perpetuated against women (however small these may seem), and direct my passion towards betterment
  • be open to celebrating women’s accomplishments, as individuals and a group, however small or substantial

Okay, so I’m an optimist and a big-picture thinker who likes to give myself lofty, improbable goals. The specifics are still a little fuzzy, so I’m open to suggestions on how to live out my principles as an academic, a friend, an educator, and (soon enough) as a wife and (someday) as a mother.

‘Tis the Season: A Grad Student’s Bracket for March Madness

Alas, this is a too small to read the font! But it preserves a little mystery. Just click to enlarge.

In honor of the ever-contagious March Madness, and inspired by the quirks and shenanigans of M.L. and his Singapore colleagues, I’ve created a bracket. One that unabashedly exposes my own biases and will, with any luck, generate controversy among the intellectual historians, philosophers, and brainy men and women I’m fortunate enough to call friends.

Said bracket is a tournament of the intellectuals. Composed of sixty-four European intellectuals from the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s one possible way of exploring the levels of influence each thinker has had on our lives in the 21st century.

The intellectuals are grouped by birthplace. (I attempted to organize it by language of writing, but it was too hard to limit the French and German lists that way.) I tried to choose a wide range of trends by including leftists, conservatives, phenomenologists, existentialists, feminists, and people who are simply defy categorization. I also sought to make sure, at least in the first round, that the two thinkers going head to head were as equal in influence as possible. Putting Kant or Hegel, for example, up against anyone except one another would have been an unfair fight right from the start.

Although the decisions as to who won each round were largely arbitrary, I did have a few criteria in mind:

  • Did this person’s ideas cause a war? (If so, s/he will not advance to the next round.)
  • How much influence did this thinker have on future intellectuals? (The greater the influence, the better the chance of advancing.)
  • Is this intellectual’s name “common currency” outside a philosophy or history department? Or have the been a major influence on a popular social movement? (Bonus points for popular appeal
  • How much influence has this person exerted on my perception of the world? (Yes. In the end, it’s just personal.)

There you have it. I’d be really curious to hear how other people might have worked this. Are there intellectuals you would have included that I have not? Would you have chosen other winners in different rounds? How would you rank the influence of these women and men?

Alternatively you can play along yourself using this Google Doc. Please download or copy the document to change it. And then do share your own!

They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the night hunting for a new topic for my research paper for a course in modern British cultural history this semester and stumbled on a plethora of public information films produced between 1945 and 2006. These proto-PSAs, covering everything from the institution of the National Health Service to the dangers of taking more than a five-pound note overseas, are some of the most entertaining pieces of cultural documentation I’ve seen. So, for your own viewing pleasure:


The National Archives also provides access to dozens of public information films, a number of which were animated and produced by Halas and Batchelor, the same duo responsible for Animal Farm. My personal favorites though are the bizarre and darkly humorous pieces featuring Richard Massingham, such as “Coughs and Sneezes.” Contemporary PSAs seems so deadly serious next to these cultural artifacts, but perhaps that is a matter of retrospect.