Where Do I Go From Here?

 

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First came the shock. The stunned silence. The disbelief.

Then came more anger and rage than I felt I was capable of holding within the confines of my body.

Yet that quickly dissipated, leaving me a mere shell, empty of feeling, devoid of hope.

 

I have been advocating for the rights of girls and women my entire adult life. I was too young to experience the tremendous gains made by second wave feminists. Instead, as a young woman I stood in disbelief as our country failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and then I was forced to listen to all of the hate spewed at the first woman to be nominated for Vice President, Geraldine Ferraro. I watched William Kennedy Smith declared innocent of rape charges after his defense lawyers held up his victim’s underwear during a nationally televised trial and said that because she chose to wear nice lingerie she was “asking for it.” I died a little bit as I listened to the harsh interrogation of Anita Hill by older white men in positions of power who took pleasure in humiliating her and denying her experience of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas, a man who still sits on the Supreme Court today.

Those were my first lessons regarding the worth of women in US society. There were plenty of painful, ugly moments in my personal and work life as well. In my very first job out of college, a male superior told me I would never be promoted unless I slept my way there; that was the only way women were ever promoted.

And in the decades since? While I have experienced full-on aggressions and countless micro-aggressions on a personal level, this country has continued its relentless backlash. The first of many equal pay acts was passed in 1963. I am still waiting, because you can’t legislate behavior. A woman’s guaranteed access to safe and legal abortion has all but disappeared, and you can be sure that now it will. And time and time again men are not held accountable for the violence they commit against women. There are too many names to list—yet our country just elected one of them to be president.

People will point to the gains women have made. Yes, women have certainly made gains. Yet today we shouldn’t have to settle for meager “gains.” The question of equality should not even be a question. We are over 50% of the population. We should make up 50% of the government at all levels—local, state, federal. Yet we won’t reach that point in my lifetime or my daughter’s lifetime. child-1311854_1280

I made a critical error in judgment regarding this election. I truly believed that the backlash against women had reached its peak. The level of misogyny I witnessed during this election cycle was the most blatant and horrific that I had ever seen. Clearly, this was the turning point; I honestly thought we were going to see the most beautiful shift back toward equality, kindness, respect, empathy, and basic human decency. Instead I felt sucker punched—driven to my knees one last time—hit with the stark realization that this backlash will not end in my lifetime. My generation of women will not experience that moment. I don’t know how to begin to process that grief.

I wish I had experienced the hopelessness first, and then the anger. I could have done more with that.

Now? I simply do not know where to go from here.

 

The Empathy Gap

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Last night I attended a film screening of the documentary The Empathy Gap: Masculinity and the Courage to Change. The filmmaker, Thomas Keith, whose other films include The Bro Code and Generation M, introduced the film and held a discussion after the screening. Keith’s previous films examined the impact that society’s sexist and misogynistic messages have on boys and men. The Empathy Gap goes even further, and looks at the ways in which men are taught the Manhood Script; they are told to acquire material wealth, meet conflict with aggression, suppress all emotion except anger, and view women as sexual objects, all of which can cause harm to both women and men. The film also offers concrete suggestions regarding how we can work to shift the message in order to help boys and men develop more empathy—for women and for other men.

man-1171625_640Because the screening was held on a college campus, there were a large number of young men and women in attendance, likely because their professors or coaches required it. The auditorium was filled to capacity. During the film, I noticed that the men remained fairly quiet, while the women at times reacted with audible gasps, sharp intakes of breath, or loud sighs. The women’s reactions didn’t surprise me; they were similar to the reactions I experienced when I previously screened Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film Miss Representation. We witness sexism every day of our lives, but when we see it or experience it on a personal level, one incident at a time, we often ignore it. It isn’t worth speaking up, or it could be dangerous to speak up, or perhaps we have become so desensitized that we don’t even notice all of the microaggressions we witness and are subjected to each day. Yet when we are bombarded with over 60 minutes of blatant sexist behavior thrown in our faces all at once in a film, it’s enough to cause a visceral reaction.
When the film ended and the lights came up, I knew that many of the students wouldn’t remain for the discussion, so I got up and hurried out so that I could listen to their reactions as they left the auditorium. It’s important to note something here. The film directly addresses the impact of group mentality on men. When men are in a group, they are much more likely to act in a hostile manner than when they are alone. They feel pressured to adhere to the Manhood Script. As the students filed out, I realized that most of the women, even if they were with others, were silent. The men, on the other hand, were not, especially the men who were part of a group. I listened as they joked about the film and its message, playing off of one another, reinforcing their Manhood Script that had been called into question: “F*** that. My Manhood Script says let’s go eat.”

victory-day-1396495_640Will these young men stop and reflect on the film’s message at some later point, perhaps when they are alone? Will it have any positive impact at all? I would like to think so, yet I’m afraid that the Manhood Script is being reinforced to a painful degree by our society at this particular moment in our collective history. One approach that could possibly make a difference, and Keith points this out in the film as well, is to reach out to one another on an individual level. If one man hears the story of how another man suffered horrific bullying as a result of the Manhood Script, or the story of a woman who endured humiliating sexual harassment—if one person can connect with another human being’s pain—then empathy becomes possible.

And right now, we are in dire need of empathy.

 

 

 

Z is for Zitkala Sa

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 26 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Zitkala Sa.

For the past six months, I have challenged myself to write a new blog post each week about a woman or group of women that I believe we should know about, but likely do not. As I start my last entry, I can honestly say that while the last 26 weeks have been among the most difficult weeks of my own life, having this one grounding project helped get me through this incredibly tough time. Learning about these women—their struggles, their tenacity, their incredible talent—provided me with the strength I needed, and I am grateful to them. While I don’t believe very many people read the posts, it made me feel good to write them, and to realize that these 26 women are just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless others who deserve recognition they have not received. In fact, I could start all over at the letter A and continue this project every week for the rest of my life, and it would still just be the tip of the iceberg.

Zitkala Sa (Gertrude Simmons) was born in 1876 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the third child of Ellen Tate Iyohiwin Simmons, a full-blood Dakota Sioux who raised her children in the traditional Indian culture. There is little known about her father, who was white (aktalakota.stjo.org). Zitkala Sa, which translates to Red Bird, was sent to a Quaker Missionary School for Indians in Wabash, Indiana when she was 12. While her mother was reluctant to send her, she also realized that she needed to prepare her daughter to make her own way in a hostile society. Red Bird returned three years later with a newfound ambivalence toward her own heritage: “The assimilationist schooling left her ‘neither a wild Indian, nor a tame one,’ as she later described herself in ‘The School Days of an Indian Girl’” (facstaff.bucknell.edu).

Four years later she returned to school, eventually attending Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where she studied to become a teacher before moving to the east coast: “As a student at the Boston Conservatory she went to Paris in 1900 with Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) as violin soloist for the Paris Exposition. Increasingly, she devoted herself to her people’s cause and to overcoming her own cultural alienation through her fiction, as expressed in her 1901 collection Old Indian Legends: ‘I have tried to transplant the native spirit of these tales–root and all–into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a new tongue.’ She realized the need to ground political rights in a recovered cultural identity by revitalizing oral traditions” (facstaff.bucknell.edu). She eventually taught at CIIS; however, when she published autobiographical stories in the Atlantic Monthly that were critical of the boarding school experience for Indians, her employer removed her from her teaching duties and reassigned her as a recruiter, which eventually led to a decision to end her service at Carlisle (nativeamericanwriters.com).

joseph_t-_keiley_zitkala-saIn 1901 she published Old Indian Legends, “the literary counterpart of the oral storytellers of her Sioux tribe…. These legends include stories of Iktomi, the Dakota Trickster, and are traditionally told as entertainment rather than as sacred tales. Zitkala-Sa retells these tales with the intention of reaching a culturally diverse audience of young people” (nativeamericanwriters.com). While she began her writing career with the intention of building a bridge between cultures, as she aged she increasingly took on the role of Indian activist. Unable to obtain a teaching position at the reservation in South Dakota, she accepted a position as an issue clerk at Standing Rock Reservation, where she met her husband, Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, also a Yankton Sioux. The couple transferred to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation near Fort Duchesne, Utah, where they spent the next 14 years, and where their son Raymond O. Bonnin, was born in 1903 (nativeamericanwriters.com).

In 1914 Zitkala-Sa became a member of the advisory board of the Society for the American Indian (SAI), which eventually led to a move to Washington, DC. She became secretary of the organization while her husband served in the army and later clerked at a Washington law firm: “As secretary and as editor of its publication, American Indian Magazine, she aired such controversial issues as enfranchisement, Indian military service in World War I, corruption in the BIA, and allotment of tribal lands” (facstaff.bucknell.edu).

After the SAI disbanded in 1920, she joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and founded the Indian Welfare Committee in 1921. She also published her autobiographical stories and other short fiction in American Indian Stories: “In addition to showing the Sioux from the inside, her stories reveal the cruelties that white schooling imposes on Indian children, as well as the feelings of alienation that this education had engendered in her” (nativeamericanwriters.com).

Zitkala Sa remained an activist throughout her life: “Her tireless advocacy of improved education, health care, resource conservation, and cultural preservation led President Hoover to appoint two Indian Rights Association representatives to the BIA. Kaw Indian Congressman Charles Curtis then introduced the Indian Citizenship Bill; after its passage in 1924, he became U.S. Vice President. Zitkala-Sa meanwhile canvassed away the fear of and skepticism toward the vote and tried to persuade her people to use their right of suffrage to vote in Roosevelt. In 1930, she formed the National Council of American Indians and served as president until her death in 1938. A relentless lobbyist, she secured the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ support which, along with the Indian Rights Association and the Indian Welfare Committee, investigated government tribal treatment and abuse” (facstaff.bucknell.edu).

Z is for Zitkala Sa, writer, advocate, and social reformer.

 

 

 

 

Y is for Yoshiko Uchida

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 25 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Yoshiko Uchida.

I wish I could write children’s books, and I have tremendous respect and gratitude for those who do. If you spark children’s interest in reading when they are young, they will become lifelong learners. Some of my most treasured memories are of reading with my twins as we snuggled together in bed at night—Beatrix Potter stories, Frog and Toad’s adventures, Roald Dahl’s wild rides, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Stellaluna, Amelia Bedelia, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Giving Tree—so many wonderful journeys we shared.

And as my children grew, we ventured into some tough life lessons delivered to them in a way they could understand. Yoshiko Uchida had this amazing gift—she wrote about difficult issues in a way that children could begin to make sense of them. Yoshiko Uchida was born in 1921 to Issei parents who had both immigrated to the US and agreed to an arranged marriage in 1917. Yoshiko and her older sister lived a fairly privileged childhood in an area of Berkeley, California that had once been restricted to whites. They all spoke Japanese at home, but even Yoshiko’s parents had learned English and spoke it well. In fact, they were considered leaders in the Bay Area Japanese community (encyclopedia.densho.org).

Yoshiko graduated from high school in two and a half years, and entered UC Berkeley at the age of 16. While there, she was restricted to friendships with other Nisei students. However, before she could complete her education, she and her family were swept up in the frenzy that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because her father often hosted visitors from Japan, he was immediately arrested and eventually moved to an internment camp in Montana. The rest of the family was forced to leave without any of their possessions in April of 1942. They were sent to one camp briefly, then settled into another, Topaz. They were reunited with their father, and Yoshiko, who received her diploma from Berkeley through the mail, began teaching in the camp: “I worked hard to be a good teacher; I went to meetings, wrote long letters to my friends, knitted sweaters and socks, devoured any books I could find, listened to the radio, went to art school and to church and to lectures by outside visitors. I spent time socializing with friends and I saw an occasional movie at the Coop. I also had a wisdom tooth removed at the hospital and suffered a swollen face for three days. I caught one cold after another; I fell on the unpaved roads; I lost my voice from the dust; I got homesick and angry and despondent. And sometimes I cried” (qtd. in encyclopedia.densho.org).

In 1943, she gained acceptance into Smith College on full scholarship, at the same time her sister received a job offer at Mount Holyoke College, so both sisters left the camp on the same day. Her parents were allowed to leave the camp a few months later, and they settled in Salt Lake City. Yoshiko graduated with a Masters in Education in 1944. She eventually moved to New York and took a job as a secretary, which allowed her time in the evenings to pursue her interest in writing: “After taking a class on writing for children at Columbia University, her instructor encouraged her to submit to a publisher a manuscript she had written of Japanese folk tales she had learned from her mother adapted for American audiences. The Dancing Kettle, and Other Japanese Folk Tales was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949 to great acclaim, setting Uchida on the road to a successful career as a writer of children’s books. Her second book, New Friends for Susan (1951), illustrated by Issei artist Henry Sugimoto, was her first with Japanese American characters and was set in prewar Berkeley” (encyclopedia.densho.org).

After spending two years in Japan on a Ford Foundation fellowship, she settled in Oakland, where her parents had since moved, in order to help care for them. She began writing full time, and after her parents’ deaths, she moved to an apartment in Berkeley, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1992: “She is perhaps best known for her books on the concentration camp experience, the first such books for children written by a Japanese American author. The changes in American society in the 1960s, along with questions raised by the Sansei about their parents’ experiences, led her to write Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese-American Evacuation (1971). While its protagonist, Yuki Sakane, was a decade younger than Uchida when incarcerated, she drew on her own family’s experiences in writing it. She followed it up with Journey Home (1978), which follows the same characters upon leaving the camps. A picture book for younger children also set partially in Tanforan, The Bracelet, was published posthumously in 1993. She also wrote a camp memoir for children, The Invisible Thread (1991)” (encyclopedia.densho.org).

She occasionally wrote books for adults, including her memoir, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. She continued to write up until the end of her life, receiving numerous literary awards.

Y is for Yoshiko Uchida, survivor, author, speaker, and educator.

Image courtesy of encyclopedia.densho.org.

 

X is for Xaviera Simmons

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 24 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Xaviera Simmons.

I was tempted to write this post about Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker. Who wouldn’t be? But since she has shared so much of her life’s philosophy already, I instead chose artist Xaviera Simmons. There is not too much information available about her early life, but I do know she was born in New York City in 1974: “Simmons received her B.F.A. from Bard College in 2004 after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade with Buddhist Monks. She completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art in 2005, while simultaneously completing a two-year actor-training conservatory with the Maggie Flanigan Studio” (foundationforcontemporaryarts.com).

Xaviera’s work “spans photography, performance, video, sound, sculpture and installation. She defines her studio practice, which is rooted in an ongoing investigation of experience, memory, abstraction, present and future histories-specifically shifting notions surrounding landscape-as cyclical rather than linear. In other words, Simmons is committed equally to the examination of different artistic modes and processes; for example, she may dedicate part of a year to photography, another part to performance, and other parts to installation, video, and sound works-keeping her practice in constant and consistent rotation, shift, and engagement” (davidcastillogallery.com).

I am particularly drawn to her performance art. In 2012, she got on a train in Sri Lanka wearing very little in comparison to other women who were conforming to the social norm. The story of what happened next is told through a number of still photographs titled Number 14 (When A Group Of People Comes Together To Watch Someone Do Something): “In the first few frames of the series, we see Simmons sitting on a crowded train wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. Sensitive to the contrast between her Western outfit and what is commonly worn in the more socially conservative nation, Simmons gradually wraps her body and hair with fabric to cover exposed skin, a gesture that paradoxically sheds light on unspoken cultural norms. As the action progresses, Simmons’s willingness to conform elicits help from Sri Lankans who help her cover her body with additional clothing and scarves. Number 14 reflects Simmons’s continued interest in the relationships between physical spaces and the invisible social codes that structure them” (radicalpresenceny.org).

I also enjoy her installations that use LP artwork: “In 2006, she created How to Break Your Own Heart, stapling classic jazz albums covers on the walls of New York City’s Art in General gallery, where she frequently deejays. ‘I constructed this installation as a site of sensorial intervention in a heavily trafficked landscape,’ she explained to the New York Foundation for the Arts. ‘My intentions were also to create a space that was immediately educational to the passerby, a space that engages as well as surprises’” (www.2corcoran.org). You can listen to Xaviera discuss how music influences her by clicking here.

She has received numerous awards for her art, including A Grants to Artists Award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2015 (foundationforcontemporaryarts.org). I encourage you to check out her vast body of work. You won’t be disappointed.

X is for Xaviera Simmons, a photographer, sculptor, and performance artist who asks us to examine societal institutions more closely through art.

Image courtesy of artnet.com

W is for Wilma Webb

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 23 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Wilma Webb.

I have wanted to focus on a local Colorado woman for at least one letter in my A to Z Challenge, and I found the perfect opportunity to do so with Wilma Webb. Wilma Gerdine was born in Denver on May 17, 1943. Her mother, Faye, was a nurse’s assistant, and her father, Frank, worked for the government. She was raised in the city’s Five Points Neighborhood, attended the University of Colorado at Denver and later received a graduate degree from the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (capitolwords.org).

Wilma married Wellington Webb in 1969, and by that point she was already involved in public school reform and was co-founder of the committee on Greater Opportunity. She became a Democratic Committeewoman in 1973 and served as the Democratic Party Secretary, editor of the Democratic State Newsletter, and chair of the Democratic Committee on Housing. In 1980 she was elected to the Colorado Legislature, and while in office, she became the first minority woman appointed to the Colorado Joint Budget Committee. As the first woman to represent House District 8, “she was also a champion for the rights of women and led legislation to make it unlawful to discriminate against women in the workplace or in the pursuit of an education. Wilma fought to help women and minority professionals lead successful businesses in Colorado. Additionally, Wilma served as an advocate to end discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or physical disability” (capitolwords.org). While accomplishing all of this, she also raised four children.

During her 13 years in the House, she sponsored 44 bills, “including the Comprehensive Anti-Drug Abuse Program; Elderly Frail People to Receive Care at Home as Opposed to Nursing Home Placement; and Improvement of Living Conditions for Troubled Youth. In one of her hardest battles, Webb fought for four years before the State of Colorado adopted the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday” (thehistorymakers.com). “Founding the Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission along with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Governor Richard D. Lamm, Wilma committed 18 years to serving as its President and Chairman. The commission, helmed by Wilma, was responsible for organizing the annual Marade in the heart of Denver and has served to unite and educate communities across Colorado on the spirit and contributions of Dr. King. The Marade, uniquely named for being both a march and a parade, is one of the largest celebrations of its kind across the country” (capitolwords.org).

Wilma was also instrumental in her husband’s campaign for mayor of Denver. The two walked through the city of Denver in a grassroots effort that earned Wellington Webb the honor of becoming the first African American mayor of Denver in 1991. In that same year, Wilma was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. As Denver’s first lady, Wilma “worked tirelessly on anti-drug abuse programs and youth and family issues. Webb’s efforts to promote the arts resulted in the creation of the Denver Art, Culture, and Film Foundation in 1994. In 1998, Webb became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Department of Labor as the primary official for Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming; her duties included the administration and enforcement of federal statutes governing workplace activities, including pension rights, health benefits, and job training” (thehistorymakers.com).

In 2012, the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States Office presented Wilma with the prestigious Civil Rights Award. As she was set to receive that award, Senator Mark Udall made the following remarks: “I am proud–and Coloradans are proud to count Wilma among our numbers. She has earned the 2012 Civil Rights Award through her years of dedication, innovation and persistence in making Colorado a better place. She is a pioneer for civil rights and a forward-thinking public servant who has etched her mark on the lives of Colorado’s families, youth and marginalized communities. I commend Wilma for advancing the rights of every Coloradan and for a lifetime of service to others. On behalf of all Coloradans, I extend hearty congratulations on Wilma’s well-earned honor, with full confidence that she will continue her groundbreaking work” (capitolwords.org).

She has continued that groundbreaking work. In 2015 she received the Colorado Black Arts Movement’s first Wilma J. Webb Award for Excellence in the Arts, and in 2016 she and her husband were named Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professors at Metropolitan State University of Denver (The Denver Post).

To hear Wilma speak of her passion as a public servant, click on the video below.

W is for Wilma Webb, legislator, first lady, and tireless advocate.

Image courtesy of YouTube.

V is for Victoria Woodhull

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 22 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Victoria Woodhull.

V was a particularly challenging letter, as my research led me to so many interesting choices of women, including Violette Leduc, Violette Anderson, Vinita Gupta, and Violet Palmer. Each of these women is deserving of a place in the A to Z Challenge. However, because we are in the middle of a presidential race that includes the first woman to run on a major party ticket, I felt the honor this week should go to the first woman who ran for president of the United States, Victoria Woodhull. Many believe that Hillary Clinton is a controversial candidate; I wonder what in the world they would think of Victoria Woodhull.

Victoria California Claflin was born in Homer, Ohio in 1838, the seventh of ten children. Her mother was illiterate and her father was known as a petty thief. Victoria didn’t begin school until she was eight, and she only attended sporadically for three years. She and her younger sister Tennessee were often forced to travel with their father in his painted wagon, performing as faith healers and fortune tellers: “Their lives were tumultuous, impoverished, unpredictable and nomadic” (politico.com).

Victoria’s parents forced her into her first marriage at age 15, to Canning Woodhull, “a philanderer, drunk and morphine addict” (politico.com). She had two children with Woodhull, a daughter and a son, and her son suffered from serious disabilities. Defying societal convention, she divorced Woodhull, becoming a single mother to her two children before marrying again sometime around 1866. Her second husband, Colonel James Blood, was a Civil War hero and a spiritualist: “Blood was a political and social radical—he called himself a ‘free lover’—who encouraged Victoria’s self-education and interest in women’s rights. He also encouraged the sisters to move, in 1868, to New York, where he lived at times, and where their lives took shape in a way that no one who observed them paraded and exploited in their father’s ‘creaking medicine show wagon’ could have predicted. What makes those lives so extraordinary is that they managed to emerge from the physical and spiritual abyss of their childhood; Victoria especially, from a poisonous first marriage, transformed into a woman with a mission—determined and fearless in her demands that women have an equal place in the country” (politico.com).

In New York, the sisters caught the attention of railroad and shipping millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, in 1870, set them up in business as “the first women to found and run a Wall Street brokerage firm” (politico.com). With the money they made, they founded a radical newspaper,  Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which remained in business for six years.

victoria-woodhull-by-bradley-rulofsonIt was also in 1870 that Victoria announced that she was running for president as a member of the Equal Rights Party, which she helped organize: “The heart and soul of her platform was a society free of a government that makes laws which interfere with the rights of any individual, man or woman, black or white, ‘to pursue happiness as they may choose.’ She believed that women should be free to find their true love, with or without marriage. Ideally, she lectured, they might remain monogamous, although monogamy was not a realistic goal in most marriages, which, she added, are riddled with ‘miseries’” (politico.com). She believed that the 14th and 15th Amendments already guaranteed women the right to vote, and she made this argument before Congress.

In one of her speeches delivered in New York City, she declared that she had “an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please” (qtd. in politico.com). I’m not sure what today’s pundits would make of that, but she would have earned my vote. Three days before election day, she and her sister published details about the alleged adultery committed by Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher, who had condemned Victoria’s views of love and marriage: “In getting her revenge, she explained that she objected, not to Beecher’s adultery, but to his hypocrisy. ‘I am not charging him with immorality—I applaud his enlightened views. I am charging him with hypocrisy’” (qtd. in politico.com).

The sisters, along with Victoria’s husband, who wrote many of the newspaper’s articles, were then arrested and charged with indecency as well as publishing an obscene newspaper and sending it through the mail: “Police took the sisters into custody on November 2, and they remained in jail for about a month. Additional arrests followed, including one after a briefly on-the-lam Woodhull snuck up on stage in disguise in order to give a speech. The sisters were eventually found not guilty, but not before taking a beating in the press. Their harshest critics included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beecher’s sister and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who called Woodhull a ‘vile jailbird’ and an ‘impudent witch,’ and cartoonist Thomas Nast, who depicted Woodhull as ‘Mrs. Satan’” (history.com).

She divorced Colonel Blood and closed the newspaper in 1876, and then escaped the increasing criticism directed at her by traveling to London in 1877. There she married a wealthy Oxford educated banker named John Biddulph Martin: “She resided there until her death in 1927, devoting her later years to running a new newspaper and preserving the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Woodhull also became an automobile enthusiast, donated money and services to the townspeople around her estate, traveled overseas to run again for U.S. president in 1892, founded a short-lived agricultural school and volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I” (history.com).

“I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow.” ~ Victoria Woodhull

V is for Victoria Woodhull, a woman who still today would be considered generations ahead of her time.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

U is for Ursula K. Le Guin

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Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 21 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Ursula K. Le Guin.

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

I have a framed print of this sentiment on the wall of my office, and I read it every day to remind me to be present and experience every moment. Ursula K. Le Guin is probably the most well known woman I have written about thus far in my A to Z Challenge, but I chose her because she has recently received an honor awarded to very few writers who are alive, and very few women writers at all. Her work is being published by the Library of America: “Founded in 1979, the nonprofit organization was created with a unique and unprecedented goal: to curate and publish authoritative new editions of America’s best writing, including acknowledged classics, neglected masterpieces, and historically significant documents and texts…. Library of America was long a dream of the literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), who was concerned that many works by America’s best writers were either out of print or nearly impossible to find. Without a deliberate publishing effort to preserve American writing and make it widely available, many important works would disappear from the cultural conversation. As a consequence, deprived of an important part of their cultural inheritance, Americans would lose a collective sense of the country’s literary accomplishments and the vital role writing has played in our history” (loa.org).

Library of America is so sure of the lasting significance of Ursula’s writing that she is receiving the honor now, while she can have some influence over what is published. In fact, while LOA wanted to start with some of her classic works, she pushed back, telling them she wanted them to publish her lesser known work: “There’s some innate arrogance here: I want to do it my way. I don’t want to be reduced to being ‘the sci-fi writer.’ People are always trying to push me off the literary scene, and to hell with it. I won’t be pushed” (qtd. in nytimes.com).

Ursula Kroeber was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. Her father was an anthropologist, and her mother was a writer. Ursula attended Radcliffe College and did graduate work at Columbia University. She married historian Charles A. Le Guin in Paris in 1953. They settled in Portland, Oregon in 1958, where they raised three children. She remains a resident of Portland today (ursulakleguin.com).

She has always been a prolific writer: “she writes both poetry and prose, and in various modes including realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, young children’s books, books for young adults, screenplays, essays, verbal texts for musicians, and voicetexts. She has published seven books of poetry, twenty-two novels, over a hundred short stories (collected in eleven volumes), four collections of essays, twelve books for children, and four volumes of translation” (ursulakleguin.com). What is so striking to me is that she has experienced tremendous success across genres.

Ursula_K_Le_GuinWhile she is best known for her fantasy writing, in particular the six books of Earthsea, the work that has always intrigued me is The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that is “considered epoch-making in the field for its radical investigation of gender roles and its moral and literary complexity” (ursulakleguin.com). With the publication of this work, she became one of the earliest feminist voices in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness presents “a thought experiment by introducing a world inhabited by an androgynous race of beings (the Gethins). In a later essay written about this novel, Is Gender Necessary Redux, Le Guin observes some interesting things: First, the absence of war. Second, the absence of exploitation. Third: the absence of sexuality. While she came to no definitive conclusions, the novel remains an interesting examination of the interplay of sex, gender, and sexism” (womenshistory.about.com).

You may have been exposed to her work through the well-known short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” her parable about a society whose successful existence requires keeping one child locked away. It is a deeply disturbing story that has often been anthologized: “Her work is often concerned with individual freedom. In her fictitious worlds, there is a limitless range of choices, but none are without results. To ignore this fact is to be not human” (womenshistory.about.com).

Many of her fans believe she has never received the recognition she deserves. Her response? “I published as a genre writer when genre was not literature. I paid the price, you could say. Don DeLillo, who comes off as literary without question, takes the award over me [at the 1985 National Book Awards] because I published in genre and he didn’t. Also, he’s a man and I’m a woman” (qtd. in nytimes.com).

When she won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, she used her acceptance speech to criticize the current publishing environment: “Who was I to spit in the publishers’ punch bowl at the annual industry party? Well, I was, in fact, the one to do it. So I did it.” (qtd. in nytimes.com). Her speech went viral: “A writer in her mid-80s simply has less to lose. An author in midcareer who defies the hegemony of Google and Amazon, and names their immoral or unfair practices as such, takes an immediate risk of vengeance from them and of enmity from fellow writers who are cozy with them. I’m taking the same risks, but what the hell. My work is out there — visible, existent” (qtd. in nytimes.com).

Yes, her work is out there, and it is amazing.

U is for Ursula Le Guin, who will become one of the few living writers to be inducted into the Library of America canon when The Complete Orsinia is published on Sept. 6th, 2016.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and YouTube.

T is for Tania León

 

Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 20 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Tania León.

“I am who I am, thanks to my mestizo heritage and my ancestors from China, Nigeria, France, and Spain. I’m a citizen of the world with a global consciousness, and I do not like to be categorized by race, gender, or nationality. My music is my contribution to mankind. This is my heritage and I’m proud of it.” ~ Tania León

When I began researching women whose name began with a T for my A to Z Challenge, I paused when I came upon Tania León, because I had never heard of her. How is that possible? Yet another amazing woman whose story I did not know. As soon as I began reading about her incredible journey, I knew it was a story I had to share.

Tania Justina León was born in May of 1943 in Havana, Cuba. Her parents, Oscar and Dora, were of mixed heritage, which provided Tania with exposure to a variety of cultural influences. It didn’t take long for her family to recognize her musical talent, and when Tania was five years old they pooled all of their resources to purchase a piano for her. She took piano lessons at the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory, and later pursued a formal education there, receiving degrees in solfège and theory in 1961, and in piano in 1963. Studying Cuban music was a key piece of her training: “You know, one of the things that I believe…happens in the smaller countries is that those that become their classics are really nourished…It’s some kind of cultural pride to understand or know what can happen with the local music in all spheres, not only in the popular, but in what we term the serious music…So therefore, for us to study Chopin and to study [Ernesto] Lecuona, it was on equal terms” (qtd. in Spinazzola 2). She eventually earned a Masters degree in Education from the National Conservatory in Havana in 1964 (Spinazzola 2).

Tania remained in Cuba for two more years, beginning a career as a concert pianist while also obtaining a degree in accounting and business administration. When she was given the opportunity to take a Freedom Flight to Miami in 1967, she left her homeland, and eventually found her way to New York City. After continuing her career as a concert pianist in New York, she made the difficult decision to stop performing and to turn to conducting instead. During an eleven year career with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she worked as a pianist, conductor and composer.

maxresdefaultThere is not room enough in a blog post to include all of her achievements. While she made a concerted effort to find her own compositional voice and separate herself from her heritage, she had a change of heart during a final conversation with her father before his death, in which he shared with her that while he had heard a recording of her music, he could not hear her within the composition. In 1979 she visited Cuba: “I felt an explosion inside of me…and I felt the sounds of my environment, the sounds of my childhood, starting to come back to me” (qtd. in Spinazzola 4). Her unique style soon brought her national attention in the US, and the rest is history: “In 1998 León earned the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and in the same year held the Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome. Other awards include those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, ASCAP, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the National Women’s History Project, the Coalition of 100 Black Women, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. In 2004, she was featured in a Composer Portrait concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. She holds honorary doctorates from Colgate University and Oberlin College, has been Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University and the Musikschule in Hamburg, Visiting Professor at Yale University, the Karel Husa Visiting Professor of Composition at Ithaca College (1997-98), and Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan (2005). In 2000 she was named Claire and Leonard Tow Professor at Brooklyn College, where she has taught since 1985. In 2006, she was awarded the rank of Distinguished Professor by the City University of New York board of trustees” (Spinazzola 6).

While she does not often speak of the challenges she faced along her journey, she did address issues of race and gender in one interview given to Ebony magazine: “It’s not common for a woman of my skin color to conduct serious music, so I have to know the score inside-out, or work twice as hard as male conductors” (std. in Spinazzola 9). Yet she does not accept the labels other try to place upon her: “I am tired of all our labels…I am not a feminist, am not a black conductor, and am not a woman conductor. I am nothing that the people want to call me. They do not know who I am. The fact that I am using this physical costume does not describe my energy, does not describe my entity…. I speak with an accent, so my music might have an accent, which might not be understood by many people. And if the accent has to…be roots or folklore or whatever you want to call it at some point, fine. That’s okay…That’s how I define this type of situation. I think that labels – going back to the Afro-Cuban thing – is selling short what the whole thing is about” (qtd. in Spinazzola 10-11).

Tania León defies labels. She lets her creations speak for her: “I am the vehicle and make myself subservient to the sound which passes through myself.”

T is for Tania León, pianist, composer, conductor, and musician extraordinaire.

Spinazzola, James M. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MUSIC OF TANIA LEÓN AND A CONDUCTOR’S ANALYSIS OF INDIGENA. A Monograph. Louisiana State University, 2006.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia and YouTube.

 

 

 

S is for Susette La Flesche

S-2

 

Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 19 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Susette La Flesche.

When I first contemplated whom I would choose for the letter S in my A to Z Challenge, I started researching Sophia Duleep Singh. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that much has been written about her since her notable absence from the recent feature film Sufragette. So I kept digging, searching for a woman of equal significance who was lesser known. I found that woman in Susette La Flesche.

Susette was born in 1854 near Bellevue, Nebraska. Her native name was Inshta Theumba, which translated to “Bright Eyes.” Both of her parents were of mixed heritage. Her mother, Mary Gale, was the daughter of an army contract surgeon and an Omaha-Iowa woman. Her father, Joseph La Flesche, also known as Inshtamaza or Iron Eye, was the last chief of the Omaha tribe: “Although Joseph La Flesche was a chief of the Omahas and lived as an Indian, he believed that the Omahas should adapt to the dominant white culture. His children, therefore, were raised at home according to Omaha tradition, but they received a formal education at the reservation’s Presbyterian missionary school, where they learned to speak English and to read and write. Susette and two of her sisters were later also sent to a private finishing school in Elizabeth, N.J. After graduation, Susette returned to the reservation and took a teaching position at the government-run Omaha Indian School” (infoplease.com).

In 1878 Susette and her father visited members of the Ponca tribe in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Ponca tribe was closely related to the Omaha tribe; they had been forcibly removed from their homeland in Nebraska the previous year and were sick and starving in their new location. Witnessing this injustice firsthand moved Susette to act. The following year she wrote a petition on behalf of the Omahas, calling attention to the federal government’s mistreatment of the Ponca tribe (infoplease.com).

The Principal Chief of the Ponca Tribe, Standing Bear, left Oklahoma in the winter of 1878 with other members of his tribe, attempting to walk back to their homeland. When they arrived at the Omaha Reservation two months later, the La Flesche family offered them food and shelter (nrcprograms.org). The army came to the Omaha Reservation the following spring to force Standing Bear to return to Oklahoma. Susette made a name for herself at Standing Bear’s trial in 1879, where she testified on behalf of the Ponca tribe, and subsequently wrote several articles about the case: “The court’s decision was the first one acknowledging the human rights of Native Americans, and stated that Native Americans were free to choose where they wanted to live” (nrcprograms.org).

Thus began Susette’s dedication to Native American advocacy. Following the trial, Susette and her brother Francis accompanied Standing Bear on a lecture tour of eastern cities. It was during this tour that she met Thomas Tibbles, a reporter from the Omaha Herald. Both Susette and Thomas (T.H.) testified before Congress about the violation of Native American rights (nebraskastudies.org).

After the lecture tour was completed, Susette and Thomas married, and together they continued to fight for Native rights and the allotment of tribal lands to individuals. They believed it would be more difficult to take away an individual’s land than land owned by an Indian nation. They were influential in the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, at the time considered a progressive law of benefit to Native American tribes. The Act authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians (nrcprograms.org).

In 1887 Susette and Thomas embarked on an extensive lecture tour of Great Britain: “T. H. and his wife demanded the abolition of the reservation system which placed the inhabitants at the mercy of the ‘Indian Ring’ – a nebulously defined complex of licensed traders, administrators and politicians, all of whom were alleged to derive huge and fraudulent profits from funds appropriated to be expended for the exclusive benefit of the Indians. Instead, they proposed that the Indians should be placed upon an equal legal footing with whites – ‘law is liberty’, as Bright Eyes wrote in her introduction to T. H.’s The Ponca Chiefs. Instead of being a protection to them, confinement on the reservations kept the Indians in a perpetual state of misery and degradation, and isolated them from all progressive influences” (chiefstandingbear.org). What those who supported the legislation didn’t understand at the time was that while the Dawes Act was passed with good intentions, the results actually eroded Native American culture even further.

Following their return to the states, Susette and Thomas were present in South Dakota during the winter of 1890-1891: ” T.H. was personally present at Wounded Knee during the hours leading up to the infamous massacre and was alerted by an explosion of gunfire as he rode back to Pine Ridge. The Indian survivors, five men and fifty-one women and children, were brought into the agency that evening. All but one old woman and a baby were injured. The men were taken for treatment in the soldiers’ quarters but no one quite knew what to do with the women and children. It was at T.H.’s suggestion that the Rector was approached for permission to tend them in the Episcopalian church, where Bright Eyes laboured to comfort them. T.H.’s pronouncements on the subject, in which he mostly attributes blame for the tragedy to the army, were several generations ahead of its time for their enlightened and sympathetic perspective. The honest journalist got his story just the same, being one of the very first, or even actually the first, to break the news of the tragedy to the outside world” (chiefstandingbear.org).

In later years, Susette continued to write, lecture, and advocate for Indian causes. She and her husband moved to Bancroft in 1902 to live among the Omaha, where she died on May 26, 1903 at the age of 49. Following her death she was eulogized in the U.S. Senate, and today she is recognized as the first woman to speak out on behalf of Native Americans (nebraskastudies.org).

“Peaceful revolutions are slow but sure. It takes time to leaven a great unwieldy mass like this nation with the leavening ideas of justice and liberty, but the evolution is all the more certain in its results because it is so slow.” ~Susette La Flesche Tibbles

S is for Susette La Flesche, writer, lecturer, and advocate for Native American rights.

 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.