June 26, 2016

Capital Dames

        Cokie Roberts has written about women from various periods of American history. Her most recent book, Capital Dames, tells the story of women in Washington, D.C. around the Civil War era. I had never considered how fearful the people of D.C. were during that time period, sure that they were to be attacked at any moment. Nor had I seen a sympathetic portrayal of First Lady Mary Lincoln. In history books she is presented as a confused, ineffective wife and mother, but Roberts shows her wielding power behind the scenes, one reason she was so disliked.

         Prior to the war women were largely responsible for the social life of the city and they were honored for their efforts. They received preferential admittance to the galleries of Congress, discussed politics at their parties, and swayed their husbands.  

        According to Roberts, Dolley Madison was the first woman who “ruled Washington.” She had “a seat of her own in the House of Representatives, the privilege of sending the first personal telegraph, the presentation of a specially cast silver medal in memory of the War of 1812. Heads of state called on her to pay her homage. And her funeral shut down the city.”

        During the years leading up to the Civil War, one of the women who ruled the city was Varina Davis. She held aspirations for the position of First Lady—and she was successful, but not in her beloved Washington. She was First Lady of the Confederate States of America. It was not a choice she might have mad,e as leaving D.C. was a difficult event for her.

        During the war women’s roles shifted from managing social functions to public service. It was women who organized hospitals, cared for the wounded, and raised funds to provide services to veterans. As a result of women’s work during the war, nursing became a profession for women. This was the age of Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix. Barton organized hospitals and nursing in Washington D.C. and then provided medical care in field hospitals. Dix was Superintendent of Army Nurses.
It was a time when Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, was invited to speak before the United States Congress. A gifted orator, she spoke on the need to abolish slavery and the chambers were packed. Later Clara Barton would testify before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, perhaps the first woman to speak before a congressional committee. She lobbied (successfully) for funds to help locate missing soldiers and identify their remains.

        Women did not hesitate to lobby for their positions, in their homes and at political conventions. They worked to have their husbands, fathers, and friends elected to office. After the war some, like Varina Davis, advocated for the release of their Southern husbands from prison; they knew their ways around the city from before the war when they had been some of the movers and shakers in Washington society.

        Roberts makes the argument that the changing roles of women during the Civil War led to the suffrage movement’s resurgence after the war. It occurs to me that this is similar to World War II when women took on unconventional roles and, rather than go back to their domestic pursuits, began the women’s rights movement.

February 2, 2016

Citizen of the World: Yo Yo Ma's Road to Peace

     I was seated in the center of the auditorium, perfectly placed, due to the grace of a gracious benefactor. As the crowd poured into every available seat to hear Yo Yo Ma, the din of conversation remained reverential, a soft buzzing as in a holy place. When Yo Yo Ma entered the stage, the audience embraced him with their applause and he returned the embrace with his gracious bows and motions toward the audience. Like a good guest, he bowed and extended his arm toward the three abstract paintings of musical instruments on the backdrop, acknowledging the tasteful décor. Silently he had said, “You have made me feel welcome.”

     The stage was bare except for a chair and the simple backdrop. Yo Yo Ma settled and began a simple, repetitive, partita by Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun. When the short piece ended, the cellist’s bow hung in the air over the cello, as if the vibrations from the instrument that we could no longer hear kept it airborne. No one breathed, respecting the musician’s artistic breath before applauding. But then the bow lowered to the strings and a vibrant unaccompanied Bach cello suite rumbled out from the belly of the cello and floated around and into the ears of those in the seats.

     I was breathless and it took some time before I realized that the breathing of everyone else in the theater was also suspended. I have never been in a more silent audience. In a season ripe with colds, there were some quiet coughs during the evening but each time, the offender sounded almost embarrassed, muffling the body’s expression that was just as natural and explosive as the sound of Ma’s cello.

     The applause arose from the hearts of the audience and extended down their arms into their hands. A communion of unspoken words. Yo Yo Ma patted his heart. There were no words, but we all heard them. “Your joy, your approval is what makes my heart beat.” He then applauded the audience and bowed, acknowledging reciprocal affection.

     Ma then paired Mark O’Connor’s “Applachia Waltz” with another Bach suite. and finally he paired Chinese composer Zhao Jiping’s “Summer in the High Grassland” with a third Bach suite.

     At the end of the concert, the audience stood in unison and demanded an encore. It has long puzzled me that audiences effectively says to a musician, “Gee, you played really well. You did your very best. So, now we demand more.” Good job, but it’s not enough? Ma closed with a Catalan folk song made famous by Pablo Casals, “Song of the Birds,” a song of freedom. At the end he once again touched his heart, applauded us, and made a special point to acknowledge the people in the balcony seats.

     A reception for major donors followed the concert and we whizzed into the room with the special stickers on our lapels, provided by our benefactor. When Yo Yo Ma entered he acknowledged the skills of the musicians who were playing, high praise for a group of university students. His tribute to the accomplishments and importance of liberal arts education to our society was stirring. Then he spoke individually to each of the elderly ladies who waited to greet him. He held their hands in both of his, bowed to hear their words, as if the rest of the room had disappeared and they were the only person he wanted to engage. Finally he hugged each warmly.

     I floated home, carried certainly on the notes still ringing in my head, but also buoyed by the grace and magnanimity of this artist. Yo Yo Ma embraces each person he meets, each audience he enthralls, each culture he visits. He combines the music and civilizations of the world.

     It feels like a path for peace.

December 8, 2015

Perceptions of Family

Most of November was graced by time with family. It made me think about how those connections bind us together and enrich our lives.

 The month of November began with a special time, a trip I made with my brother to San Juan Island. We visited the sites prominent in the Pig War and spent the afternoon sitting on a rooftop watching boats glide into the harbor, bundled in our warm coats and sipping bourbon. We have been united as siblings since I was six years old, but our relationship has changed: the exuberance of youth has settled into a cozy companionship.

After my brother flew away for a week, my husband and I traveled South—to California. First we visited my husband’s cousin and they talked genealogy. We had a dinner with the cousin’s wife, sister, brother-in-law, daughter, son-in-law and their two children, a sizable gathering around a large circular table in a Chinese restaurant. The participants ranged in age from our own to new baby. Next we visited my cousin and she and I discussed genealogy. It seems that as we age those connections become more essential to our sense of self.

The following week, right before Thanksgiving, we spent eight days with my brother (who had returned from a jaunt to Las Vegas) and my two sisters. The four of us had visited each other in the interim, but it had been eight years since we had all been together at the same time. Eight days to compensate for eight years.

Pam and Hank Delcore
We traveled first to Fresno for a surprise party. Our cousin Pam and her husband Hank were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Hank says the marriage lasted because “I married a saint.” I suspect his sense of humor added some seasoning to that soup that is a relationship. I celebrate their faith in one another, their sacrifices, their flexibility, and just downright endurance. They are an inspiration to my own marriage that is now just twenty years old.

Barbara Massey telling the stories behind the photos
The next day we had a gathering with just family, sharing photos, stories and food.I spent time with my Aunt Barbara who is now 95-years old and whose memory is better than mine. It is impossible not to see my departed Mother’s face in hers, nor to sense the passing of family through generations.

It was also a time for cousins, and it struck me how the years and time have not destroyed our connections, even though we live throughout the country and see each other rarely. I don’t think I’ve ever been told, “I love you” that many times in one weekend—and my husband uses those words freely.

Michele, Stephanie, James, Gary & Deirdre
After the extended family events my brother, sisters and I (with my husband in tow) went to San Francisco. We shared three days of joking, of touring, of sharing, of hugs. We had our picture taken together, but with Alcatraz in the background, I can’t help thinking it looks a bit like we are all gathered to celebrate someone’s release from prison. Fortunately, my siblings have a wonderful sense of humor, so I can say that about these upright citizens.

The extended week demonstrated family at its warmest and richest. It showed the many ways in which we are related and connected. Then we went home to Thanksgiving dinner with my son, and the woman he newly loves, the granddaughter my husband bequeathed to me when we married, and a friend of hers. As we sat round the table and gave thanks several of us mentioned “family,” the family of our youth, the family of our adulthood, the family of blood, and the family that comes together and gives meaning to the word without any of those earlier connections.

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 naïve. 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.