Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull

Remember all those times I swore I had left the nineteenth century behind?  Well, if you look at a calendar, we’re sitting in the 21st century in Quiverfull, but most of the time it feels like the nineteenth (or maybe even the seventeenth).

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce is a gripping and horrendous outsider approach to the complementarian evangelical Protestant church — a world in which I sometimes occupy space.  Joyce approaches Christian patriarchy with an investigative eye, but she warns in the introduction that she’s interested in extremists and fundamentalists.  This book is by no means representative of the whole; rather, it is an exploration of a small subset within Christianity.  That being said, to my own personal chagrin, I was disturbed by how much seemingly neutral Christian culture that I grew up with made it into the book.  At one point, Joyce even mentions a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.


Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce

Joyce herself is not a Christian, but she is fluent enough in “Christianese” to both communicate with her contacts and to convey their stories to people outside of evangelical Protestantism.  At times, she is too quick to boil everything down to five-point Calvinism, perhaps because John Piper and Wayne Grudem of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (and editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism) are themselves five-point Calvinists.  There are Calvinists who are egalitarian (like myself, hovering between three and four points of agreement usually) and there are Arminians who are complementarian.  Other than discussing the five basic tenants of Calvinism and the doctrines regarding men and women, Joyce avoids theology and never blames Christianity itself (or Jesus, for that matter) for the injustices of the complementarian church.

The book is divided up into three sections, WivesMothers and Daughters.  Joyce works through the flagship Bible verses defending complementarian hierarchy while simultaneously telling the stories of women within the confines of the patriarchy movement.  The wives either meet with each other for weekend retreats where their male pastor has to supervise their activities or they contribute food to potluck lunches or they keep quietly to themselves at home.  In some of the extreme churches that Joyce visits, women are discouraged from having any relationships with other women.  Female friendship leads to gossip, nagging, discontent — the women must be available for their husbands at all times, and the husbands alone are to provide for their wives’ emotional needs.  This kind of power monopoly, instead of leading to the healthy lives that the CBMW proposes, damages subjugated women psychologically.  Isolation, defined as controlling what you do, who you see and talk to, where you go, limiting your outside involvement; using jealousy to justify actions, and sabotaging new and old relationships, is considered a type of abuse.  In these patriarchal churches, men are admonished to treat their wives exactly like that.

With power comes the abuse of power, and Joyce gives several examples of places where psychological abuse becomes physical.  The church tells women that their duty as Christians is to be sexually chaste until marriage, but then suddenly sexually available whenever their husband desires sex (whether or not she wants it).  Wives in some of these patriarchal communities become the victims of spousal abuse, marital rape and murder plots.  Going to the church instead of to law enforcement, they are asked about whether or not they have been nagging their husbands, or if they were being as submissive as they could be.  In one of Grudem’s essays in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (because I own a copy of this book), he provides a list of things that submission shouldn’t be, and these abuses are considered wrong in theory.  But in practice, the submission preached by the extremist complementarians is dangerous.

This book is not really a response to anything.  The CBE's affiliated work came after.

This book is not really a response to anything. The Christians for Biblical Equality‘s affiliated work came after.

The mothers and daughters in this patriarchal world fare no better than wives, and most women are expected to fulfill all three roles at the same time.  Daughters must remain faithful to their fathers until they marry, usually at an early age after a courting period instead of dating.  New wives must be sexually available to their husbands, and birth control is considered evil.  Thus, wives become mothers quickly and over and over again.  This constant pregnancy has become a part of the complementarian system.  Good Christian families must have many children, a full quiver of them, as prolonged spiritual warfare.  Because naturally, if you are a part of the elect chosen ones of God, then your offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, will all be valiant Christian soldiers as well (because salvation by faith is not, you know, an individual choice or anything, right?  I guess not, if you’re a hyper-Calvinist).

So why did I bring up the nineteenth century at the beginning of this post?  Because extreme complementarianism, as it is being practiced in the United States, is like a photoshopped version of the nineteenth century.  Men and women are in separate spheres.  Men lead public lives, women lead private ones.  Nuclear family is the key building block of society.  Young men and women seek parental approval to court one another (and of course are not having sex until marriage).  In some of the communities, strong and intimate female friendships exist and are reinforced by women’s retreats and same-sex Bible studies.  They believe that men should be paid a “family wage” to support their whole family, while women should be paid much less, because her income does not contribute to the family.  A real woman should not work at all.  Some of the male leaders of the extreme complementarian churches Joyce researches in Quiverfull actively pursue recreation of the past, including the Jamestown settlement, as a part of God’s mandate to take dominion over the earth.  These same men wish that the technological advances of the forties and the fifties, like laundry machines and dishwashers, had never been invented.  The fanciful obsession with nineteenth century life, in this airbrushed form, becomes an oppressive way of life defended as biblical (despite some glaring misinterpretations and a rejection of large portions of Old Testament scripture.  Deborah, anyone?).

Quiverfull is a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the theological debate over manhood and womanhood, and to anyone — especially Christians — who is interested in the way our society works.

Crying During 4 Little Girls is Actually Mandatory

Spike Lee’s first documentary, 4 Little Girls, tells the tragic and highly personal story of the April 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that stole the lives of four African American children.  Told through the eyes of the parents, siblings and friends of the victims, 4 Little Girls delves into the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement and its implications for the daily lives of African Americans living under the oppression of structural racism.

This movie will cut straight to your heart, and you will cry.  Through the memories of friends and families, each of the four girls who passed away in the bombing comes back to life as bright, vibrant young women with vast amounts of potential for brilliant lives.   Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), Addie Mae Collins (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) each had distinct voices and characters, but all four of them were robbed of the chance to develop them further.  Denise, in particular, is the most developed of the four girls as a character in the film, due to Christopher McNair’s extensive involvement in production.

Spike Lee and his team spend a majority of the film exploring the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates had a particularly difficult time convincing the Birmingham adult African American population that they needed to take a public stance against oppression, so the movement quickly became youth-led.  First, college students became involved, then the high schoolers, then the middle schoolers, until elementary school children were marching against racism.  And getting arrested, too.  A classmate of Denise who participated in the documentary recounted spending the day in jail when he was eleven years old.  Throughout 1962 and 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had become the Civil Rights Movement headquarters.

Within this framework of timid adults and bold children, the documentary begins to prepare for the day of the bombing.  Addie Mae’s sister describes the morning of the bombing as she and her sister headed to church and played catch, messing up their hair and dresses.  Other family scenes — getting to church late, mothers scolding daughters for unkempt hair, parting ways for Sunday school — permeated all four of the girls’ mornings.  The bomb went off in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where all four were late coming out of Sunday school before the regular service.  The documentary includes photos from the church as well as photos of the girls in the morgue.  One of the girls (I’m pretty sure it was Denise, but don’t hold me to that) had a piece of stone from the building lodged in her skull.  The photographs are pretty intense, and squeamish viewers might want to look away from the screen when they come up.

A non-graphic post-bombing photo, found via The Washington Post

These four deaths became the catalyst that moved the entire nation toward supporting the Civil Rights Movement.  Institutional racism and the harm that it caused to adults could be rationalized or moralized out of importance, but the nation collectively balked at the unashamed murder of innocent children.

Despite the collective horror of the nation, the Ku Klux Clan members who planted the bomb went untried for decades.  The first culprit to be tried, Robert Chambliss, was arrested, tried and convicted for the 1963 crime in 1977.  Three other men were also responsible, but by the time 4 Little Girls was released in 1997, no further arrests had been made.  Shortly after the release of this documentary, the FBI revealed its ongoing investigation into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  They pinned guilt on Chambliss and three others, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry.  In 2000, Blanton and Cherry were both convicted; Cash had already died.

Robert Chambliss

One of the most impressive things about this documentary was its inclusion of an interview with George Wallace, then governor of Alabama.  Wallace, who had during his career as governor barred students from integrating public schools and universities, was determined to convince his audience that he was not racist.  Indeed, Wallace’s interview seemed more like a deathbed confession of sins and struggles to do right by the citizens of Alabama, and in the special features of the DVD, you can watch his entire interview.

I’m going to close this out by saying that 4 Little Girls is the most powerful documentary that I have watched.  I would highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, but be forewarned: you will cry during this movie, and if you don’t, I’m not sure that you are really human (Update: I accept the humanity of those with reluctant tear ducts).

Here’s a video clip of Spike Lee and Christopher McNair talking about 4 Little Girls before it opened in theaters in 1997:

Sarah Hale, I Love You

I know, I know.  I have now announced that I am leaving the 19th century.  Why should I go back there?  Why bring up Sarah Hale again, considering the fact that I posted about her five weeks ago?  Well, I can’t help it; I have to let you all know what I’ve been up to with regards to Mrs. Hale.

At Vassar College, in Special Collections, there are sixty-three letters, each in separate folders, split into two boxes.  They’re the letters that led to Vassar College being called “Vassar College,” as opposed to “Vassar Female College.”  Most of the letters are typescript copies that (I think) were made in the 1930s (based on some notes on the bottom of a handful of the letters in the second box), but a few at the beginning of the collection are original letters.  They are the letters that Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, sent to Matthew Vassar, John Raymond, Benson Lossing and others.  She was campaigning for the institution’s 1866 name change, and she led the charge for six years.

See how there’s no center plaque on the top and the brick has faded? That’s where “Female” used to be.

I was fortunate enough to visit Vassar’s Special Collections and read through the Hale letters on two different occasions, and it was quite an experience.  I learned in late middle school that there are people who do primary source research and write books, and then there are people who take those books and make textbooks, and then there are students who consume history from tertiary sources.  Which never really seemed like the best situation.  Why do I have to read about something that has been summarized in a textbook when I could read the thing itself?  This is why I’m an English major — you don’t learn about Christian mysticism in the fourteenth century; you read The Book of Margery Kempe.

Getting into Sarah’s letters (because she quickly became Sarah to me) was perfect and beautiful and it made me cry.  I love her.  I don’t know how to explain it, because she’s dead.  But it’s like a mixture of the attachment you get to a beautiful fictional character, but then you realize that the person is real and was alive and passionate about things, and it gets you.  It hammers this timeless poignancy into your heart because look!  This woman was alive and was breathing and writing and living a life.  Nobody made her up; she just was.  She was alive.  When Matthew Vassar wrote in 1867 that he was worried about her health and his own, and afraid they might not see each other in person again in this life, it is real.  It’s not fiction.  The sorrow is real.  It’s real, and it’s so beautiful.

Apart from being entirely emotionally affected by the experience of reading Sarah’s letters, I learned a lot about the process of studying history.  For example, did you know that when you go into Special Collections at Vassar, you’re not allowed to use your own notebook paper?  They provide paper for you to use.  The sheets are pink and approx. 4″ by 5″ in dimension (I measured with my thumbs, so whatever standard paper measurement is close to that, that’s what these sheets are).  You have to use a pencil, and you can have a laptop and a digital camera.  You can take photos of the documents, providing there is no flash and you fill out the right forms.  So I have photos of almost every letter in the Hale collection now!  But I’m not going to post one, because I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.

I can post a photo of my notes, though

For both of my research dates, I had to make an appointment ahead of time.  I did so by first calling, then emailing Dean Rogers at Special Collections.  Dean, who was more than incredibly helpful with all of my initial questions, also gave me advice on how I could get to Vassar from Nyack by public transportation if I needed to, and when I emailed him this past Wednesday about coming in again on Friday, he replied to me so quickly that I couldn’t believe it (yes we have power, and yes we have space; I don’t think the train lines are working.  Let me know what time you’ll get here).  The first time I went, I spent about an hour and a half in the morning reading through letters and taking photos of them.  When my camera died, I transitioned to more handwritten notes.  When I went up yesterday, I spent the larger part of the day with the Hale letters and a full-batteried camera.

Special Collections is in the basement of Vassar’s library building (which looks like a castle).  When you walk into the room, there are a handful of tables with lamps on them, and all of the chairs face the back wall.  This wall is made of glass, and Dean’s desk is on the inside of the next room.  The door to the reading room and the door to the second room are controlled by buzzers at Dean’s desk.  Each letter, whether it was five paragraphs or five pages, was in a separate folder, and I could only take one folder at a time.  Dean kept the rest of the folders in their boxes behind the glass wall.  As soon as I finished working with a folder, we traded out for the next one (side note: Dean Rogers is one of the most helpful individuals I have met this year.  I hope your research takes you to Vassar College, because he’s great to work with).

Dean Rogers in Special Collections at Vassar College.

I snapped pictures of each page of the letters, but that didn’t stop me from taking the time to read them all and write down a handful of fun quotes.  I realized quickly that Sarah Hale has a sense of humor all her own, and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s being sarcastic, or if she really believes what she just said.  She likes to be dramatic, too.  Here are some quotes:

“It has never seemed to me that a lady should claim the same amount of salary as a gentleman professor.” — to Milo P. Jewett on Feb. 20, 1864.

“Men have never yet considered woman’s learning of much benifit.  Loveliness was worth more than Latin.”  — to John H. Raymond on Nov. 3, 1864.

“I have suffered too much by this misnomer, using female for woman, to see, with indifference, the blot on the escutcheon of an Institution that I love and honor so truly.” — same letter as previous quote.

“If this ‘consummation,’ so deeply desired —  even devoutly supplicated, should be reached before the College is opened, it will add a bright ray on the fast deepening twilight of my life” — to John H. Raymond on Feb. 24, 1865.

“In his views he may of course be mistaken.  They do not agree with my own.” — to John H. Raymond (no date) about her son Horatio Hale’s critique of Vassar.

Other fun things I learned about Sarah Hale:  She has perfect handwriting.  I mean perfect.  She started to lose control of her eyesight in the mid/late 1860s.  She did concordance word studies to prove her points.  She wrote letters to four or five different people consistently over the course of six years about the name change of Vassar College.  She  wanted the word “Professoress” to exist.  She thought that the position of Deaconess needed to be reinstated in the Christian church.  She got on Matthew Vassar’s case about his health (and he got on hers).  She sent essays with her letters to further prove her points.  She sent poetry to friends when she wasn’t feeling well.  She had pneumonia for a month in either 1866 or 1867.  She promised to visit Poughkeepsie if and only if the name of the College was changed and the “Female” plaque was taken down.  She personally took care of Matthew Vassar’s subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She was against uniform dress codes and Bloomers.

If you’re interested in the Hale collection, here’s a link to the Special Collections guide, and here’s a link to the Vassar Female College entry in the Vassar Encyclopedia.

“Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum

Earlier this month, I had the amazing opportunity to travel with my professor Bethany Johnson to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend The Connecticut Forum’s panel discussion titled The State of Women 2012.  Wow.  What a trip.  Here’s a couple of clips to get you started:

Clip #1 features Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem talking about the question “Can women have it all?”

Clip #2 features Ashley Judd and Michelle Bernard discussing why it is important to talk about women.

Clip #3 features Gloria Steinem and Connie Schultz talking about team sports and women’s bodies.

As you can see, the four panelists at the Connecticut Forum (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) have a lot of brilliant things to say about women.  There are a couple more clips from the conference on Youtube — check them out.

Getting to this conference was an experience itself.  Prof. Johnson found out about it in mid September, and I had to decide within the next few days if I could go.  Three questions: how much did it cost, how would I get there, how would I get home?  Thankfully, Prof. Johnson arranged for the cost of my ticket to be covered, and I managed to find a ride with a friend halfway there, where I met up with Prof. Johnson and she drove the rest of the way.    I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at my friend’s house in Woodbridge.  The whole weekend was fantastic.

But this trip to the CT Forum was the decided highlight of the weekend.  I’m (un)lucky enough to have no experience with Gloria Steinem’s work, and I made the choice to do no googling before the event.  I knew her name and not much more.  I wanted to be surprised/impressed/untainted.  I wanted some first hand experience before reading the Wikipedia article about her.  I still haven’t read the Wikipedia page, but I do know what I am reading over summer this year, and it will include a lot of Gloria Steinem.  (By the way, I think it is heinous that women in my generation don’t know who Gloria Steinem is, myself included.)

So, still knowing minimal about Steinem, I am seriously and thoroughly impressed/awed by her at the CT Forum.  How to describe her?  Words that came to mind during the event included grace, beautiful, wisdom, magical.  I have met very few people as astute or as knowledgeable as Gloria Steinem on the stage.  She was more impressive than Bill Clinton when I saw him four years ago speaking in support of Obama at Penn State, and President Clinton has a reputation for being a fantastic speech-maker (which he is).  Gloria Steinem ruled the night.

But let’s not cut the other panelists short; they were all fantastic.  Michelle Bernard, the sometimes-conservative and the only panelist of an ethnic minority, was loud and boisterous, thoroughly engaging.  She was hilarious, as was Connie Schultz.  Schultz dominated the personal anecdote, telling stories about teasing Rush Limbaugh, naming cabbage patch dolls “Gloria Steinem” and getting phone calls from reporters asking how she knew her husband.  Ashley Judd added a beautiful layer of poise and dignity, referring to “the candidate of my choice” and “the god of my understanding,” instead of openly endorsing a politician or religion (this level and type of tact impressed me).

Even if the topic of the panel had been something completely different, something that I am only marginally interested in (like the zombie apocalypse panel I attended last November at Philcon), I would have had a good time at the Connecticut Forum.  Luckily for me, the topic was the state of women, which is something that (as a woman) I am highly interested in.  But being at the panel felt like a breath of fresh air to me.  Don’t get me wrong — I love attending a Christian college.  The socio-political atmosphere and student religious culture, however, make it ridiculously difficult for me to express myself as a woman and as a feminist.  NOTE:  This isn’t on the college.  This is on the student culture.  For the most part, I think that Nyack College is fairly decent in its acceptance and support of female professionals and women in academia (for the most part).  I’ve talked about it with some professors and the Dean of Students.  Nyack is a great place to work (it even won an award for it or something).  But student culture is pretty darn oppressive.  This is a “ring-by-spring,” MRS degree institution, and although Liberty University is over ten times the size of Nyack College, Nyack’s student culture is very similar to that depicted by Kevin Roose in The Unlikely Disciple.  So you can imagine that being an outspoken liberal feminist is difficult on this campus.  Being at the Connecticut Forum was like a validating breath of fresh air.  There are people in the world who think like me?  There are people in the world who see the ways that women are being mistreated in our society?  I’m not alone?

One of the things that I remember the panelists talking about is the attitude that feminism isn’t needed anymore when it most definitely is.  Women’s rights, I have been (accurately) told, are really human rights.  And that’s the attitude that I’m coming up against pretty regularly.  It makes me think of the 1920s.  Suffrage finally happens, but the women’s movement shrinks.  When NAWSA becomes the League of Women Voters after the 19th amendment, is membership goes down to 10% of what it had been.  The next generation of women stopped caring or something.  Feminism lulled.  It lulled again in the 1980s.  It’s lulling again now.  It’s uncool to be a feminist.

More than anything, The State of Women 2012 panel felt like an inauguration.  I felt like I was taking on the mantle of great women who have come before me, like I was becoming a part of something bigger and greater than myself.  I felt like I was being inducted into the proud ranks of a beautiful and ancient society structured on the principle that all people deserve fair treatment as people, regardless of sex, race, sexuality, economic class, et. al.  The whole event had the flavor of a ceremony or rite of passage.  It was wonderful, and I am so glad to have gone.

Iron Jawed Angels’ Missing Details

WARNING:  Here be spoilers and a reference list at the end!

HBO’s 2004 TV movie Iron Jawed Angels follows the life of Alice Paul in the last eight years of the American campaign for women’s suffrage.  Although the sequence of events in Iron Jawed Angels is largely accurate thanks to the aid of Vanderbilt University’s Marjorie Spruill, it still contains some glaring gaps and inaccuracies (Owens 2004).  In the film, for example, Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as antipathetic but indifferent.  However, Wilson was far from indifferent on the topic of suffrage; he was staunchly against it and only caved to political pressure from the American Women’s Party.  Alice Paul, portrayed by Hilary Swank, is charged with a level of sex appeal that seems to come from Hollywood rather than history.  And the film’s treatment of race is almost nonexistent.

Woodrow Wilson in the film is much more sympathetic than the real Wilson was.  In the early stages of the picket, Wilson did tip his hat to the picketers as portrayed in the film.  He even once invited the picketers into the White House on a cold day.  However, either he or his administration played a much larger role in containing the women’s movement.  Wilson and his administration have been linked to several different abuses of power, including the false arrests depicted in the film, political censorship of the press and using the Secret Service to maintain surveillance on suffragist sympathizers (Graham 1983).

The real suffragists

Woodrow Wilson said that.

The Wilson administration worked to keep news of the mob riots against picketers out of print.  The riots, which were consistently on the front page of national newspapers, created huge amounts of negative press for the presidency and the Democratic party.  The president’s administration and possibly the president himself contacted newspapers and news organizations including the Associated Press, encouraging the press to leave the riots uncovered.  Realizing that the sudden disappearance of picket news would cause more harm than good, papers were instructed to keep coverage as sparse as possible and no further front than the fourth page.  Iron Jawed Angels shows the difficulty that Paul had securing space in newspapers for editorials, but the attempts at censorship by the Wilson administration are never mentioned (Graham 1983).

The surveillance of Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York and Wilson supporter, was one of the Wilson administration’s largest abuses of executive power.  Malone began to show support for the suffrage movement, and he was placed under surveillance for over a month.  This same Malone resigned from his position and charged to the president that the first wave of arrests were the result of careful planning on the part of the DC District Commissioner.  Within twenty-four hours of Malone’s meeting with the president, Wilson pardoned the prisoners (Graham 1983).  This first wave of arrests and the work of Dudley Malone is skipped in Iron Jawed Angels.

Alice Paul. In a hat.

Along with Wilson’s surreptitious actions, racial tensions are nearly ignored throughout Iron Jawed Angels.  At the start of the film, Alice Paul organizes a parade in DC for women’s suffrage.  During the organizational stage of the parade, we see an African American woman come to Paul’s headquarters and challenge Paul’s decision to segregate the parade based on race.  Paul explains that the decision was a concession to the Southern states, who would only march if the parade was segregated.  The woman informs Paul that she will march with her peers or not at all.  At the parade, the woman joins from the audience toward the front of the parade, causing Paul to smile.  In this exchange, the issue of race is glossed over and the African American woman is never named.  However, the character is Ida B. Wells—a famous suffragist and human rights activist (Roberson 2004).  The altercation between Wells and Paul happened, but the treatment of it in the film lacks the weight and merit it deserves because Wells is not named, nor is her work referenced.  In this moment, Iron Jawed Angels fails to illuminate the race dynamic present in the suffrage movement.

Hilary Swank as Alice Paul. In a hat.

Iron Jawed Angels does a brilliant job of connecting the suffragists with modern women.  However, the penalty for this is a character development flaw in Alice Paul.  Alice Paul was a Hicksite Quaker (Alice Paul Biography 2012).  Paul, as portrayed by Swank, constantly goes against Quaker traditions, though the film twice brings up Paul’s Quaker religion.  Paul’s outfits in the film contradict acceptable Quaker attire.  In one scene of intercut footage, Paul learns to dance and masturbates in a bath tub.  Though Hicksite Quakers were more liberal than Orthodox Quakers, it is unlikely that Alice Paul would have done either of these things out of religious convictions.  The Hicksite Quaker lifestyle is well-portrayed in Paul’s stay at home after the death of Inez Milholland, but for the majority of the film, Paul’s character does not stay consistent with her Quaker convictions.

Despite these larger inaccuracies and some minor flaws, Iron Jawed Angels is a strong film that sticks close to history.  Iron Jawed Angels has the opportunity to expose more people to the often ignored fight for universal suffrage in the United States, and thus can be a great tool for the advancement of women’s history.  The film must be taken with a grain of salt, but overall this portrayal of Alice Paul’s work is worthwhile and powerful.



Alice Paul Institute. “Alice Paul Biography.” Accessed October 3, 2012.

Graham, Sally H. “Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 665-679.

Owens, Ann Marie D. “Vanderbilt women’s history professor consultant for HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels.” Vanderbilt News (2004).

Roberson, Amaya N. “Iron Jawed Angels.” Off Our Backs 34, no. 3/4 (2004): 62-63.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

In A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich transports readers across time to a moment when Maine was still the frontier and midwives were still major providers of medical care. Ulrich carefully weaves information from Martha Ballard’s diary together with other diaries from the same time, legal records, local histories and even comparative fiction to tell the story of Martha’s life in a fast-paced and readable format. The book sets events into a rough chronological order, but within chapters Ulrich moves freely within the diary to recreate the atmosphere of Martha’s work and family. The result is a quaint and curious book about a midwife who delivered over eight hundred babies in the course of her career.

Ulrich frequently pulls material from other diaries and legal records that either cross-reference or fact-check the information from Martha’s diary; she is constantly bringing up external sources to flesh out Martha’s narrative. These extra sources vary from chapter to chapter. Ulrich uses the novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett in the first chapter as a focal point for midwives in New England society, especially the tense relationships between herbalist midwives and academic doctors. The novel’s interpretation of New England midwifery, through the character Mrs. Todd, is firmly entrenched in a mystic tradition, but Ulrich tears the mysticism out of midwifery with Martha and her humanity. This comparison, as well as those later in the book to eighteenth century seduction novels, adds to Martha’s story by showing the fantasized version of the eighteenth century and breaking it down. Martha is a real woman, and her midwife practice, as well as other aspects of eighteenth century medicine, are described in detail. Some of these scenes are graphic, including childbirth details and a mass murder.

Apart from some disturbing moments, A Midwife’s Tale is a readable book. Ulrich uses the English language not only as a means to convey plot and dialogue, but also as a tool to show how Martha grows and develops over time. Martha’s original spelling and grammar is a fun puzzle to decipher, and though Ulrich provides the reader with enough tools to understand Martha’s English, she rarely translates the language into modern English. The haphazard linguistics of Martha’s diary entries become entertaining as Ulrich’s writing constantly reaches high quality standards. Because Ulrich pulls not only from Martha’s diary, but from several other diaries and legal papers, there is a wide variety of diction in this book. The variety adds to the entertainment value, though a less-secure reader might feel threatened by the different and notably strange spellings found in the diaries.

Martha Ballard lived an exciting and exhausting life as a midwife, and her character grows through different trials in her life. Not only does Martha form an integral part of the Hallowell community due to her calling as a midwife, but she is a pillar in the female community both economically and socially. She struggles for attention from her husband and children, fights with her son and trains her daughters, niece and a series of hired helpers how to be good housekeepers. She becomes the main witness in a publicized rape trial and is one of the first responders on the scene of a mass murder. Martha delivers her last baby shortly before her death at the age of seventy-seven, leaving behind a legacy of medicine and maternal love.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat that Ulrich accomplished in A Midwife’s Tale is her ability to create a working narrative out of the chronological happenings in the life of one woman. Ulrich digs to the heart of each epoch in Martha’s life and distills them into plot progression, character development and story. As Martha ages, she becomes freer in her journaling, allowing herself emotional exclamations of weariness or joy; Ulrich uses the shifts in Martha’s tone over time to her advantage. By focusing on one aspect of Martha’s life for each chapter, as they occur in chronological order, Ulrich maintains Martha’s timeline and reveals her character growth in progressive stages.

“Well behaved women seldom make history”

There are only two issues with A Midwife’s Tale. The first problem is the amount of text actually available from Martha’s diary. Each chapter begins with two to three weeks’ worth of diary entries, but each entry ranges from roughly two to twelve sentences, so the sum total of diary entries at the beginning of each chapter hold the length of about three pages. Though there are a considerable number of other entries sprinkled heavily throughout the bulk of each paragraph, a decided majority of the text is Ulrich’s retelling of Martha’s life as opposed to Martha’s telling of her life. Ulrich’s text is solid and thorough, but sometimes the book wanted for lack of Martha’s original work. An extra page of original material per chapter would have helped to balance the dichotomy of the original diary and Ulrich’s narrative.

The second difficulty with this book is its graphic content. As a midwife, Martha is constantly exposed to the workings of life and death. During her career, Martha observes four autopsies, two of which are described, one in extensive detail. Ulrich explains some aspects of Martha’s medical career, including treating patients by bleeding and puking, in vivid detail, providing supplementary medical records from the time period that promote the same practices. Martha regularly treats patients with intestinal worms, and in some places gives account to how many worms a patient vomits up. On top of the medical content, Martha is one of the first responders at the scene of the Purrinton (also spelled Purington or Purrington) murders near her home. Though Martha’s own description of the scene is characteristically terse, Ulrich includes and analyzes the newspaper stories of the same event. The other sources provide graphic detail about the manner of killing and the state of bodies.

A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a fascinating book that will enchant several different audiences from the casual reader to the professional historian. Martha herself is enchanting with her meticulous record of daily life. There are some graphic explanations of Martha’s midwifery practice, and the murder scene receives heavy treatment that may cause discomfort for some readers, but even a squeamish reader will be entranced by Martha’s world.