September 28, 2015

Benjamin Franklin and his Sister Jane

        I am indulging in Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin a second time. As is the case with many beautifully written books, there are different things that grab my attention on this reading, little details I missed before. One tale of Jane’s brother, Benjamin Franklin, leads me to a question and an observation.

        When Ben Franklin was still in his minority, he wanted to write for the Courant newspaper, where he was apprenticed. Assuming his brother, the printer, would not accept his youthful prose, he posed as Silence Dogood and slipped his essays under the door of the print shop.

        Silence Dogood was a woman, a widow with three children and a strong will. When Widow Dogood related her biography, through Benjamin Franklin’s words, she confided that she had worked for a minister who gave her free rein of his library and “deny’d me no Accomplishment that could be attained in a Country Place.” The Widow Dogood, believing she was as entitled as any man, rarely kept her silence.

        History is sprinkled with stories of women who posed as men, in order to have their writings published and read by others. But how often did a man pose as a woman for the same reason?

        Benjamin Franklin, behind the mask of a woman, expressed his support for the education of women. The word feminist was not part of the English vocabulary until almost a century after he lived, but perhaps he would not mind if we christened him a colonial feminist.

September 9, 2015

Lesson from J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance’s popularity was evident yesterday at the Redmond Library. A room full of fans, almost all women, came to hear her talk about her new book Dance of the Bones.

In addition to talking about the origins of her book and how she came to combine two of her characters, she related a story that seemed to me to propose a juicy moral (or perhaps a warning). Jance said that she was denied admission to a creative writing class in 1964 by a professor who explained, “Girls become teachers or nurses. Men become writers.” Years later, in one of her books, a creative writing professor appears—as a corpse.

Moral: Never mess with writers!

September 7, 2015


     As soon as the prohibition of alcohol went into effect in this country, some enterprising citizens found their way around it. Unfortunately, many of them were major criminals and this country experienced a crime wave that raged in the streets. Law enforcement’s hands were full, so maybe that’s why they hired a few women. Two of them are featured in the American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition exhibit touring the United States.

     Daisy Simpson worked for the Bureau of Prohibition and was an expert at catching violators of the prohibition law. She had an ensemble of 100 disguises and used them to entice men to serve her alcohol. Sometimes she would feign faintness outside a speakeasy and then arrest the proprietor when he offered her a bit of whiskey to relieve her condition. Or she might spend a few nights in a targeted establishment, waiting to see if anyone offered her alcohol. (Talk about entrapment!)
She led raids into bars, restaurants, and private parties as well as speakeasies. She worked in Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The exhibit says that she resigned when the San Francisco office decided it would not hire women. However, her methods were so suspect that judges reprimanded her in court. It makes one wonder why she really quit.

     Simpson had been a recovered addict before enlisting and when she became ill and bedridden after leaving the Bureau of Prohibition, she relapsed. An arrest followed, for receiving narcotics through the mail. Despondent, she smuggled a gun into jail and shot herself in the stomach. After a long recovery, she paid her bail and disappeared.

 Mabel Walker Willebrandt was an assistant attorney general who supervised US attorneys taking cases to courts. The Volstead Act, passed by Congress as a guide to enforcing prohibition, brought a record number of cases to federal courts and, at that time, the federal system had little experience in prosecuting crimes.

     Willebrandt rated the work of the attorneys and dismissed inefficient attorneys and those who were opposed to the Volstead Act. This brought her criticism from prosecutors and she left her position, although it is not clear why. Some sources say President Hoover fired her; others say she resigned after Hoover did not promote her to Attorney General—a boon she expected after campaigning for him.

     She was the second woman appointed as an assistant Attorney General, but the first to serve an extended term. She also holds other firsts: first female public defender in Los Angeles, first woman to chair a committee of the American Bar Association, and first woman to head the Tax Division.

Do I hear an undercurrent of tough women not being appreciated?

August 30, 2015


My Granddaughter, Elizabeth,
Rocking the Vote at MOHAI
      Fortunately, we made it to the MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry) exhibit on “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” when the tour came to Seattle. I learned more the impact women had on the enactment of the two amendments to the Constitution regarding prohibition: first the eighteenth amendment to prohibit it, and later the twenty-first amendment to repeal the earlier amendment and permit alcohol consumption once again.

     I had known that the Suffrage Movement and the Prohibition Movement coincided and both were led by women, but I had not realized before how intertwined they were. Alcohol consumption in the early part of the twentieth century was much more extreme than it is today. The average drinker guzzled the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor a year (four shots a day), and its impact was felt largely by women. The women (and men) who pushed for prohibition used grisly statistics, emphasizing the deleterious effects of alcohol on family and on women. They asserted that men went into saloons, where women were not allowed, drank up their paychecks, came home affected by liquor, and wreaked havoc and even abuse on home life. Alcohol directly endangered women and their children, so the movement was led largely by women.

     Women, however, were not na├»ve. They knew they were unlikely to persuade men to give up their alcohol and men made the laws. Men even held political meetings in saloons, where women were barred. Women had long wanted the vote, but realized that the time was ripe to renew the fight for suffrage. And so the two were wed. The eighteenth amendment banning alcohol took effect in 1920. The nineteenth amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified later that same year.

     If anyone remembers stories of the history of the 20’s, they were swinging times and yet alcohol was forbidden for the entire decade and a few years beyond. Access to inebriating beverages, however, did not disappear. Some alcohol was legal. Sacramental wine was exempt and so was alcohol for “medicinal” purposes. The number of drugstores and pharmacies increased and women were able too purchase Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a 14-oz. bottle with 10.6% alcohol, for “female complaints.”

     Illegal alcohol also abounded. Homemade brew became acceptable, as did the speakeasy, a place where, with the right password or nod of the head, one could be admitted to clubs filled with dancing and liquor. The irony was that women were allowed in the speakeasy, whereas they hadn’t been allowed in saloons. So, women gained the right to vote and the right to drink as well. Perhaps this is why women were as active in the movement to repeal prohibition as they had been in the efforts to secure its implementation. And perhaps, once they had gotten inside a drinking establishment, it was their tempering influence that kept alcohol consumption below the levels of the early part of the century, even after the amendment was repealed.

August 4, 2015

A Woman's World in 1960

Offbeat is a website with slide shows, surrounded by ads. Sometimes they are clever art, sometimes historical facts, sometimes the inevitable cat pictures. In order to grab attention, they often have eye-catching titles, like “30 Terrifying Mythical Monsters that People have actually Believed in” or “19 Historical Coincidences that sound too Bizarre to be True—but are.”

Recently, thanks to Facebook, I encountered a quiz about what women could and could not do in 1960. Here’s a partial list:


·      A woman could not cohabitate with her boyfriend.
·      A woman could not serve on a jury.


·      A woman could not have a credit card in her own name. The account had to be in
          her husband’s name.
·      A woman could not become an astronaut.
·      A woman could not attend Princeton or Yale as an undergraduate.
·      A woman could not run in the Boston Marathon.


·      A woman could not charge her husband with rape.
·      In some states, a woman did not have the right to use contraceptives with her husband.


·      A woman could be denied paid maternity leave.
·      A woman could not sue her workplace for sexual harassment.
·      A woman could be fired when she got pregnant.
·      AND, a woman could be denied a job—for being a woman.

For those women who don’t remember 1960, ask your grandmothers about that year. This is how life was for them. It was only 55 years ago. Thank them for helping to bring about the changes that keep women from living under these same conditions today.

July 26, 2015

Mark Kelly, Husband

In the days of my young adulthood women were identified in conjunction with their husbands. For example, a newspaper might mention “Mary Brown, wife of John Brown.” Times have changed and many women stand in their own right, without reference to husbands or partners, but I was surprised last Friday to hear the tables turned.

On the PBS Newshour, during the part of the program my husband and I refer to as “the pundits’ section,” Judy Woodruff, while talking with commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, referred to a statement made by “Mark Kelly, wife of Gabby Giffords.” Not Mark Kelly, former astronaut. Not Mark Kelly, former Navy captain. Not Mark Kelly, brother of Scott Kelly, who is in space for a year, while Mark comprises the control group back on this planet. No, “Mark Kelly, wife of Gabby Giffords.”

Granted the topic was gun control and Mark Kelly, after his wife was almost assassinated, is now an advocate for some gun control measures. For that reason, it was a natural description, but it was so unusual it surprised me. Do you think Bill Clinton will become the “husband of Hillary Clinton?”

June 28, 2015

What a Soccer Star Looks Like

          In a recent issue of Time, Alex Morgan was the subject of the magazine’s featured interview. Even those readers like myself who don’t usually keep up with soccer, might have heard her name recently. The United States soccer team has just won the World Cup quarterfinals, and Alex Morgan is one of the team’s stars.  

          In 2011, she was the youngest player on the United States team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. In 2012, she scored the game-winning goal in a semifinal match against Canada and became an Olympic gold medalist. That same year she joined Mia Hamm’s record in accumulating goals and assists. This was the year that she was honored as one of the top three women players in the world.

          In the Time interview, she recalls attending the FIFA World Player of the Year event in 2012, where she learned that Sepp Blatter, FIFA president, did not know who she was. One of the top three women in soccer and the head of the soccer organization did not know her. Now many of you may know the name Sepp Blatter because, even though you—like myself—may not follow soccer, his name has been plastered all over the news recently when he resigned as president of FIFA after the organization was exposed for taking bribes when awarding the site for the World Cup.

          This little blog post is an effort to help make Alex Morgan’s name better known outside her usual circle of enthusiastic fans. Maybe she will become as well known as Sepp Blatter. (It’s so hard not to make a disgusting pun on that name!) And maybe she will be famous for good sportsmanship, rather than dishonesty.