December 20, 2012

Connecting with the World

     My laughter was spontaneous when Lynne Rossetto Kasper closed her recent “Splendid Table” program with a quote from Erma Bombeck: “No self-respecting mother would run out of intimidations on the eve of a major holiday.” It bubbled up from that self-recognition that prompts the deepest amusement—and a little embarrassment. As I thought further about the truism, my head filled with questions.

     Why do women behave this way? Could the frustration that results in intimidations arise from tension over the extra work that holidays entail? Why do we shop for special food? Why do we decorate the house, the windows, the table? Why do we plan, clean and cook? Is it expected of us? Or are we the ones who add extra chores to already full workloads?

Angel Askew
     Asking these questions led me back to an observation I made when decorating my tree this year. One of my favorite teddy-bear ornaments, among the one hundred and seven that adorn the tree, is an angel with a cock-eyed halo, flopped over one ear. For more than a decade I had assumed that her untidiness was indicative of her general disposition, a carelessness about her appearance. This year as I hung her on the branch I wondered if she was truly careless, or merely overworked. Perhaps she is so busy hanging stars that there is no time to attend to her own appearance. Another woman, burdened by the holiday.

     Then I heard Erma’s joke about women’s tactics to manage the holiday burden and wondered how far back traditions relied on women for implementation. Mental pictures from literature written in the 1800’s occupied my imagination:  Mrs. March maintaining the holiday hearth for her Little Women and Mrs. Cratchit, making the best of a meager situation for Tiny Tim’s family in The Christmas Carol. Before recorded history, fictional or factual, in the time of hunters and gatherers, women remained at the hearth while the men were away and were responsible for organizing the household. Perhaps the habit of preparations is now ingrained in our genes.

     The theme of this blog is how women are connected to one another, but my reflections on Erma Bombeck’s quote made me realize that it is women who also preserve the connections within families—perhaps the principal reason we are so concerned about maintaining the holidays. It is also women who safeguard connections within communities and within faith traditions. Women are the resin that binds the tree of life. Our connections extend beyond other women into the world—a world we envision at peace, for the sake of our children, even of we do sometimes employ intimidations to keep them in line!

November 28, 2012


At first glance you notice our differences. Her dark, straight hair peeks out from her headscarf. My blond hair curls toward the sun. She wears a long-sleeved knit shirt and peasant skirt. I wear a shiny purple blouse and slacks. She is an innkeeper’s wife, I a woman on a research mission. I came across this picture recently and it drew me back into the moment it was taken in Cappadoccia, Turkey in 2010. For me it represents a moment when two dissimilar lives merged.

While I explored the fairy chimneys, hermit caves and churches hewn from rock, Biset swept and washed and cooked. When we went down to breakfast in the morning, she was standing over a wood-stoked stove, turning out eggs and meats to accompany plates of cheese and olives. The men served the tables and she stood silently in the background, orchestrating everything without speaking a word.

Biset was shy around the men and did not speak to them, neither those who ran the inn nor the guests, but when I went out to sit on the porch to read, she approached me timidly. With her halting English and my almost total absence of Turkish, we still managed to share the facts most important to women: the numbers of our children, their genders, their ages.

On the second day, I had my camera with me. She pointed to the camera and to herself, but when I pointed my camera toward her, she shook her head. Waving her arm toward me in an inclusive motion, she indicated that we should both be in the picture. I stepped into my room and secured the services of my husband to snap our photograph. When we two women stood side by side, with our arms around each other, I could have been embracing my sister. 

November 7, 2012

Elena Piscopia’s Mother

     There is an adage that “History is written by the winners.” This might be more precise if we added that the winners were men of means. I am in the midst of drafting a novel centering around Elena Piscopia, the first woman to receive an academic degree (in 1678). The protagonist in my novel is Elena’s mother, Zanetta Boni, and I have been struck by how little is known about her. 

Loggia for Theatre
Zanetta Boni's Padova Home
     Historical records about Elena’s father, Giovanni Cornaro, are easy to locate in Venetian archives. He was a nobleman with an extraordinary library and the means to hire the best tutors for Elena. He served in government, as did all wealthy Venetian men, so his exploits are documented in official records.

     Elena’s mother, however, was a not a woman of the noble class and is not much more than a footnote. Historical records do not even give us a record of her birthplace. Of course, a dearth of historical records is actually a blessing for a writer, justifying the fabrication of facts, so I should not complain. It does make me think about how history is not only colored by the winners rather than the losers, but by men rather than women, and by powerful nobility rather than ordinary citizens.

October 22, 2012

Traveling to Venice in Comfort

This year summer clung to Seattle like a shy toddler, refusing to relinquish its hold. In ten days November will arrive and only now is it 37° outside. Fortunately, I rescued the last of my rosebuds two days ago and brought them into my warm kitchen where they could bloom. Today I have resurrected my socks; I am wearing my winter slacks and an extra layer under my shirt.

I sit in my centrally-heated office writing about my Venetian women and I imagine them in wintertime. How many layers would they have worn to keep warm? How had the temperature of the room shifted as they stepped away from the wall that contained the fireplace? How early in the season would they have been deprived of flowers?

The Seattle Times this morning verified that the rainy season has finally arrived and reported that local officials are asking citizens to help the wastewater system by clearing debris from our neighborhood drains. I imagine the water rising through the paved areas of Venice, lifting water so high under the bridges that a gondolier must bend over to pass under. Were my women even more confined than usual? Could they smell the garbage that washed back towards their homes? Did the walls of their rooms exude dampness?

The change of the seasons, so dramatic for us on Puget Sound this year, transports my mind back to earlier days in another part of the world. I travel there in my imagination, grateful that my body lives in the present time, warm, dry and smelling the last of the roses.

October 10, 2012


     History is not what happens around us. It is the things remembered by those who write it down. While reading Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, this fact struck me full force once again. This novel, about the relationships between slaves, is set in the free state of Ohio, at a resort called Tawawa House, near the city of Xenia (pronounced like the flower). The summer vacation spot flowed with healing waters and attracted both Northerners and Southerners. Because the Southerners brought their slaves, even sharing cabins with their slave mistresses, it became uncomfortable for the Northern guests and the resort closed after four years of operation.  

     I lived in Yellow Springs, Ohio for seven years, only 9.2 miles away from Xenia (11 minutes according to Google) and I never heard this piece of history. I did hear that there were resorts in former times because many believed the water had healing powers. Benefits from the waters were hard to imagine in modern times since the water smelled acrid and ruined the pipes in our houses. I traveled to Xenia weekly for errands but never knew if its connection to slavery.

     Today Wilberforce University, self-described as an African Methodist Episcopal Church University, is on the site. An online search led me to a copy of the Ohio Historical Marker whose text explains how the land came to be owned by the University. (See: for more information.) I feel connected to the history because I am connected to the place, but it took a novel to tell me its history.

September 26, 2012

Standing with the Sisters

Last month demonstrators marched down the streets of Seattle to show support for Catholic nuns who are being investigated by the Vatican for their feminist views. When I heard about the march, I counted back. It had been more than three decades since my last participation in a protest of any kind. A member of the sixties generation, I wore my hair down my back then, draping its flowing waves over my colorful muumuu. Not certain I wanted to return to those days, I gave the matter serious thought.

Before I could make this march I would have to believe strongly in the cause. The voices of reason supporting the sisters helped me to decide that they represented the ideals for which I had campaigned in my own life, not on the streets, but by living out my ideals and mentoring other women to develop their own inner power.

The website about the march suggested bringing a flower for each nun who had made a difference in your life, so I started a list. I only included the important nuns and, when my list got to a dozen and I was far from finished, I had made my decision. I would participate in the march and I would bring a whole bouquet. It was a very civil crowd, of all ages and genders. Tears wet my cheeks as we chanted, “We are the Church” and, as bouquets accumulated on the lawn at St. James Cathedral, I realized that I was not alone in acknowledging the impact religious women had on my life nor in my hope for change.

For more information on the march, go to:

August 29, 2012

Connected Women

One woman leads to another and all women flow in a circle. I am drafting a historical novel about Elena Piscopia, the first woman to receive an academic degree and she was on my mind when I was reading Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. When he referenced Hypatia I saw an immediate connection to Elena (see previous posting). Curious, I explored Hypatia’s story further and uncovered a reference to Catherine of Alexandria. Because I had selected Catherine of Alexandria as the patron saint for another of my protagonists, all my novel women became connected.

Intrigued, I questioned the relationship between Catherine of Alexandria and Hypatia and found they have similar biographies. Both were beautiful, virginal, well-educated women murdered for their beliefs. Their lives diverge somewhat because Catholics murdered Hypatia and pagans murdered Catherine.

Now I read that historian Harold Thayler Davis and others believe that the Catholic Church invented Catherine to counteract the popularity of Hypatia. In 1969 the Church removed Catherine’s feast day from the church calendar, so perhaps they had compunctions. She was restored in 2002, but only as an “optional” celebration.

Upon further investigation of Catherine of Alexandria, I learned that she was one of the three saints, along with Saint Michael and Saint Margaret, to appear to Joan of Arc. And so the circle of women continues. 

August 6, 2012

Connecting Elena Piscopia and Hypatia

After reading about her in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I have been pondering the story of Hypatia. Sensing some parallels between Hypatia’s life and Elena Piscopia’s, I researched further to clarify my suspicions.

Many of the facts of Hypatia’s life in the 4th century are disputed, lost in historical records, reported from both pagan and Christian viewpoints. What is certain is that she was murdered. A learned woman, she wore scholar’s robes rather than women’s clothing and may have driven her own chariot. A pagan, as Christianity spread through Alexandria, she publicly sided with the civil authorities against Cyril, the presiding bishop.

Angered, Cyril preached against her and subsequently, whether at his prodding or not is uncertain, a mob of Christians attacked her and dragged her to the church. Her skin was flayed (either with “tiles” or oyster shells), then she was dismembered; her body was scattered throughout the city and burned.

The Church later made Cyril a saint, just as they sanctified Cardinal Barbarigo who denied Elena a theology degree. [See “An Irony of Sainthood,” March 31, 2011 on this blog.] My question is: Did the Church reward anti-feminist behavior or simply ignore these behaviors as irrelevant?

Words attributed to Hypatia:
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

July 10, 2012

Ann Dunham Was the Mother of . . .

On the cusp of the women’s movement, a young anthropologist, an idealistic woman from Kansas and other parts of the country, travels to Indonesia. She studies textiles and blacksmithing in small villages. She creates microcredit programs while working for the United States Agency for International Development. She advises banks and international organizations on creating microcredit programs. Bank Rakyat Indonesia, one organization she advised, is now the second largest bank in Indonesia in terms of assets. Because of its emphasis on microfinance it was largely untouched by the East Asian financial crisis of 1997.

The woman’s name, Ann Dunham, elicits questioning eyebrows whenever I mention her. Then I say, “Barack Obama’s mother,” and everyone nods in understanding. Ann Dunham’s work was not recognized until after her son became famous. I wonder how many women today are still defined by their children’s accomplishments rather than by their own.

(For more details about Ann Dunham, read A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, by Janny Scott.)  

February 8, 2012

Mrs. Nixon as Archetype

The book Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life provoked my thinking about women’s stories. I read the book because I was intrigued by the title, imagining an autobiography with an imaginative twist. I was surprised to find that Mrs. Nixon was simply the coatrack on which Ann Beattie draped some sturdier garments, essays about the writing craft. It was a creative way to talk about writing and the book absorbed me from beginning to end. I studied a writer at work in a way that is rarely possible; I learned new vocabulary; and I delighted in the author’s style.

Although the book centered on writing, it provoked serious thoughts for me about Mrs. Nixon as a juxtaposition to the Venetian women who have been the subjects of my research: Caterina Cornaro, who became Queen of Cyprus; Elena Piscopia, the first woman in the world to receive a degree; and Anna Maria dal Violin, who became a music master in the eighteenth century. All are women who stepped outside the traditional roles assigned to women.

Thinking about Thelma Catherine “Pat” Ryan Nixon, whose husband referred to her as “Mrs. Nixon,” defining her as an appendage to himself, made me pause. “Mrs. Nixon” would be unknown to us if her husband had not been President of the United States. Her life was not noteworthy, except as “Mrs. Nixon,” the woman who suffered the shame of her husband’s crimes, though she was blameless. 

The majority of women up until the modern era were defined likewise, as appendages to men. I write of women who were more than appendages, women who found their own way, but women whose stories are not widely known. I promulgate their stories in hopes that we might learn something productive from them. But what about the “Mrs. Nixon’s” of history? Who will tell their stories—especially those who were not married to a prominent historical figure?