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It’s weird to think that for the first seven years of my mother’s life, women were not allowed to vote in this country. Even now, we don’t utilize our full power, repeatedly voting to elect men who belittle us.

In 2020 we are recognizing our first measly hundred years with the vote, in honor of which, the League of Women Voters is sponsoring a traveling exhibit about a mostly unknown woman who probably had more influence on the trajectory of our country in the 20th century than any other individual, male or female. Fierce determination got results under the radar.

Meghan Sorensen of the Boston Globe wrote a tidy summary of Frances Perkins’s life and accomplishments to let readers know that the Perkins exhibit is at the State House, but only until February 7.

“Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in the US Cabinet, a signature achievement in a groundbreaking life.” she writes. “The Massachusetts State House is hosting a traveling exhibit through Friday on the ‘Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the National League of Women Voters.

“Here is a brief overview of Perkins’ life and accomplishments. (Historical information from the Frances Perkins Center in Maine.)

“Perkins was born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880. Although her parents were from Maine, she was raised in Worcester and attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, earning a degree in physics while turning to economics and activism after learning about the lack of protections against women and children in factories.

“While her parents expected her to move home after college, Perkins moved to Chicago, [where] she worked with the poor and unemployed at the Chicago Commons and Hull House.

“In 1907, Perkins began working as the general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, which fought to stop newly arrived immigrant women and black women from the South from being forced into prostitution.

“Two years later, she began a fellowship with the New York School of Philanthropy, where she investigated childhood malnutrition among children living in Hell’s Kitchen. Alongside the fellowship, she earned her Master’s degree in sociology and economics at Columbia University. …

“In 1910, Perkins became the executive secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she sought sanitary regulations for bakeries, fire protection for factories, and limiting work hours to 54 hours per week. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, she followed Theodore Roosevelt’s suggestion and became the Committee on Safety’s executive secretary.

The group’s work led to what was referred to as ‘the most comprehensive set of laws governing workplace health and safety in the nation.’

“When Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1929, he hired Perkins to be the state’s Industrial Commissioner and oversee the labor department, [and] when Roosevelt became president in 1933, he asked Perkins to serve as labor secretary. She said yes, but with a condition — that he endorse her policy priorities, which included a 40-hour work week, minimum wage, unemployment compensation, the abolition of child labor, Social Security, and universal health insurance. …

“Under Roosevelt, Perkins achieved most her goals. The Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 established a minimum wage and maximum work hours while banning child labor. As the head of the Committee on Economic Security, Perkins helped draft the 1935 Social Security Act, which offered unemployment, disability, and workers’ compensation. …

“ ‘A government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life,’ Perkins said in a lecture titled ‘Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier.’ ”

More here. And do read Kristen Downey’s biography. It’s great. For my GoodReads review of that book, email me at suzannesmom@lunaandstella.com.

 

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Art: Bradshaw Crandell
Jane Hall, a screenwriter at Hollywood’s most glamorous studio, would be lost to us but for her daughter’s painstakingly researched biography. Here she is on the cover of the October 1939 edition of
Cosmopolitan magazine.

I’ve been thinking about the unacknowledged accomplishments of women.

Having just finished a great biography on Frances Perkins, a trailblazer in FDR’s administration, I find myself not at all surprised that she is almost unknown today. Perkins is just one more example of accomplished women throughout history who have failed to get their just due. It’s complicated.

Being dismissed by men is not the only reason, Dear. Sometimes you were dismissed by women, too. Sometimes you didn’t sign your poem or your art and so became known as “Anonymous.” Sometimes, like Perkins, you were determined to do the most possible good for the most people in need by the most effective means.

Thinking about this led me to a New Yorker article on women in the early days of Hollywood.

Margaret Talbot writes, “One of the stranger things about the history of moviemaking is that women have been there all along, periodically exercising real power behind the camera, yet their names and contributions keep disappearing, as though security had been called, again and again, to escort them from the set.

“In the early years of the twentieth century, women worked in virtually every aspect of silent-film-making, as directors, writers, producers, editors, and even camera operators. The industry — new, ad hoc, making up its own rules as it went along — had not yet locked in a strict division of labor by gender. Women came to Los Angeles from all over the country, impelled not so much by dreams of stardom as by the prospect of interesting work in a freewheeling enterprise that valued them. …

“Some scholars estimate that half of all film scenarios in the silent era were written by women, and contemporaries made the case, sometimes with old stereotypes, sometimes with fresh and canny arguments, that women were especially suited to motion-picture storytelling.

“In a 1925 essay, a screenwriter named Marion Fairfax argued that since women predominated in movie audiences — one reason that domestic melodramas, adventure serials featuring acts of female derring-do, and sexy sheikh movies all did well — female screenwriters enjoyed an advantage over their male counterparts. They were more imaginatively attuned to the vagaries of romantic and family life, yet they could write for and about men, too.

“After all, men ‘habitually confide in women when in need either of encouragement or comfort,’ Fairfax wrote. ‘For countless ages woman’s very existence — certainly her safety and comfort — hinged upon her ability to please or influence men. Naturally, she has almost unconsciously made an intensive study of them.’

“Alice Blaché, the French-born director behind some six hundred short films, including ‘The Cabbage Fairy’ (1896), one of the first movies to tell a fictional story, … wrote in 1914, ‘There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.’

In a way, the early women filmmakers became victims of the economic success that they had done so much to create.

“As the film industry became an increasingly modern, capitalist enterprise, consolidated around a small number of leading studios, each with specialized departments, it grew harder for women, especially newcomers, to slip into nascent cinematic ventures, find something that needed doing, and do it.

“ ‘By the 1930s,’  Antonia Lant, who has co-edited a book of women’s writing in early cinema, observes, ‘we find a powerful case of forgetting, forgetting that so many women had even held the posts of director and producer.’ …

“Trying to figure out who actually worked on films is not as easy as you might think. Credits were assigned haphazardly in the early days of filmmaking. …

“In the tendentious but mostly persuasive book ‘Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood’ (Oxford), J. E. Smyth … tots up an impressive array of women film editors, costume designers, talent agents, screenwriters, producers, Hollywood union heads, and behind-the-scenes machers. … It’s little wonder that studios of the era catered to female audiences, with scripts built around the commanding presence of such actresses as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and with stories thought to reflect women’s prevailing concerns.

“Smyth quotes Davis, who pulled enough weight in Hollywood to have been dubbed the Fourth Warner: ‘Women owned Hollywood for twenty years,’ she said in a 1977 interview, so ‘we must not be bitter.’…

“Smyth burrows enthusiastically into humble sources that, she suggests, other scholars have looked down on: studio phone directories, in-house newsletters. Researchers on similar quests have come upon evidence in still more unlikely forms and places. Reels of film forgotten or lost sometimes turn up randomly — interred in an archive in New Zealand, or sealed into a swimming pool in a remote town in the Yukon.” The search goes on.

It’s a long article. Read it here. And while we’re on the subject, be sure to read Robin Cutler‘s wonderful book, Such Mad Fun, about her mother’s role as a writer in Hollywood.

 

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Photo: Diaa Hadid/NPR
Farahnaz Mohammadi (left) and her cousin Fatima Almi, seen in a peaceful Kabul park, hope that the gains made by Afghan women in recent years will remain after a peace deal.

This story is about a peaceful garden in Kabul, Afghanistan, a city where peace is at a premium. Erik’s sister works for the UN in that city, helping women gain leadership skills, so of course, I want to believe in islands of peace like this taking over the danger zones.

Diaa Hadid and Khwaga Ghani reported on the Gardens of Babur at National Public Radio (NPR) in October.

“Farahnaz Mohammadi, 17, and her cousin Fatima Almi, 19, dress identically, from their patterned headscarves to their shoes with matching bunny ears. They also share the same opinions on Afghanistan’s future, which may be nearing a critical phase as a deal between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents appears to be reviving.

“That deal would likely see most American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, where they have been at war for 18 years. In exchange, the Taliban would not host global militant groups like al-Qaida and may adhere to some sort of ceasefire. It would also likely to allow the Taliban to reenter political life.

“The two young women don’t like it at all.

” ‘We will go back to what we were,’ says Mohammadi, referring to a time before she was born, when the Taliban ruled much of Afghanistan and imposed harsh rules against women. …

“Mohammadi’s view was echoed by other women interviewed by NPR in Kabul. The capital is more liberal than other quarters of Afghanistan, yet the uniformity of the opinions suggests a broadly held concern. …

“Mohammadi says she craves safety and security. But she has also benefited from the advances women have made with American forces helping to secure Afghan cities. Describing it as a ‘half-peace,’ she says even in those conditions, ‘girls can go out.’ She gestures around where she stands in Kabul’s Babur Garden, a centuries-old park where orchards and grassy lawns provide a shelter of sorts from the city’s dusty chaos.” More from NPR.

Wikipedia explains that the Garden of Babur “is the last resting-place of the first Mughal emperor Babur. The gardens are thought to have been developed around 1528 AD [when] Babur gave orders for the construction of an ‘avenue garden’ in Kabul …

“Since 2003, the focus of conservation has been on the white marble mosque built by Shah Jahan in 1675 to mark his conquest of Balkh; restoration of the Babur’s grave enclosure; repairs to the garden pavilion dating from the early 20th century; and reconstruction of the … Queen’s Palace. In addition, a new caravanserai was built on the footprint of an earlier building at the base of the garden …

“Significant investments have been made in the natural environment of the garden, taking account of the historic nature of the landscape and the needs of contemporary visitors. A system of partially piped irrigation was installed, and several thousand indigenous trees planted, including planes, cypresses, hawthorn, wild cherry (alubalu — allegedly introduced by Babur from the north of Kabul) and other fruit and shade trees. Based on the results of archaeological excavations, the relationships between the 13 terraces and the network of paths and stairs have been re-established.

“Since January 16, 2008, the garden has been managed by the independent Baghe Babur Trust and has seen a significant increase in visitor numbers. Nearly 300,000 people visited the site in 2008 and about 1,030,000 people visited the site in 2016.”

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Photo: NTV
Led by a grandmother, an amateur theater group in Turkey is raising awareness about climate change and the lives of rural women.

Wherever you live, whatever age you are, you have the power to do something valuable for the world. A grandmother in rural Turkey understood that from an early age and is making her voice heard.

The BBC garnered this story from NTV, the Turkish television news channel.

Dilay Yalcin and Krassi Twigg reported, “A 62-year-old grandmother from rural Turkey who rose to national fame with her all-women village theatre group is now set to stage a play raising awareness about climate change.

“Ummiye Kocak from the village of Arslankoy in the Mediterranean province of Mersin recently began rehearsals for her new play ‘Mother, the Sky is Pierced!’

“She told Anadolu news agency that she wanted ‘people to realise just how serious it is.’

The climate crisis is ‘not only our problem, it is the world’s problem,’ she says. ‘I am shouting as loud as I can — this world is ours, we need to take good care of it!’

“Ummiye Kocak has written plays for many years, always aiming to change perceptions. Her previous works have tackled issues from poverty and domestic violence to Alzheimer’s Disease. … In 2013 she won an award at a New York festival with a film focusing on the difficulties of women’s lives in a Turkish village. …

“Ummiye Kocak grew up in a conservative rural area, and only got primary education ‘by chance — as each family was required to send one girl to school.

“But she says her father was open-minded enough to take all his children to the cinema at a time when no other dad in the village would, sparking her love of drama.

“She says that when she first arrived in the village of Arslankoy as a young bride, she noticed that women there had to do all the work — in the fields as well as in the house. She thought that wasn’t right and told herself: ‘Ummiye, you have to make the voices of these women heard!’

“Her village doesn’t have a stage, so she gathers her performers under a walnut tree in her garden for rehearsals while they do their domestic chores. …

“People in other parts of the country want a piece of the action, issuing invitations on social media for the group to perform locally.

“One woman in Istanbul wrote: ‘I’m proud and honoured on behalf of all women every time I see you, Aunt Ummiye. … I hope all women lead their lives knowing they have this power like you do.’ ”

More at the BBC, here.

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Photo: Guenter Schneider/Kaoru Akagawa
An artist rediscovers kana script, used in medieval Japan by women for secret communications. “I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA,” Kaoru Akagawa says.

In childhood, I loved the idea of secret languages, mainly for hiding thoughts from grownups, I believe. I never learned Pig Latin, but when I was about 10, my friends and I spoke almost nothing but Goose Latin, which involved throwing a lot of f’s into words.

In medieval Japan, women developed a secret script to hide their thoughts from other authority figures — men. Today the artist Kaoru Akagawa, among others, is giving the mostly forgotten kana calligraphy new life.

Elizabeth Dearnley writes at the Guardian, “Anyone who has ever fired off a text in haste will sympathise with the first point on 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s list of ‘infuriating things’: ‘Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent off a reply to someone’s message.’

“This list, her messages, and her Pillow Book in which they’re recorded – a sparklingly acerbic, blog-style frolic through the lives of Heian-era aristocrats – were written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life.

“Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji – characters modelled on written Chinese which represent individual words – and began using kana, which transcribe words phonetically. A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.

“ ‘Reading my grandmother’s letters was always difficult for me as a teenage girl,’ recalls Akagawa. ‘Her handwriting looked like scribbling, and I used to ask her to write properly.’ But years later, during Akagawa’s calligraphy training, she had a revelation while taking a journey along Himekaido, a historic trading route favoured by women travellers. Reading documents written in kana housed in castles and temples, Akagawa says: ‘I felt as if I were reading a history of my DNA.’ Far from being scribbles, she realised, her grandmother had been writing to her using the same script.

“Akagawa uses the forgotten kana in a style of calligraphy called kana shodo, and also fuses traditional calligraphy with new techniques in a style she’s named kana art, where thousands of minutely painted kana form larger images and paper sculptures

“ ‘When people talk about Japanese calligraphy, they normally mean kanji shodo,’ Akagawa explains, ‘a style imported from China, practiced by samurais and monks.’ Kana shodo uses a script which was known by the 10th century as onnade, or ‘woman hand’, she continues, which became ‘the backbone of a female-dominated literary culture’.

“Sei Shōnagon’s contemporary Murasaki Shikibu wrote her masterpiece The Tale of Genji – often called the world’s first novel – using kana, which were often associated with private and emotional life. Men who wanted to reply to love letters sent by noblewomen used kana themselves to reply. And the tradition lasted for hundreds of years; the 19th-century novelist Ichiyō Higuchi used kana script for her sympathetic portrait of the life of a geisha, Nigorie (Troubled Waters).

“Japan’s government standardised writing in 1900, establishing the system of kanji, hiragana and katakana characters used side-by-side in modern written Japanese. … By the second world war, knowledge of the older kana had almost vanished. One of the last generation to use the script in daily life was Akagawa’s grandmother, born in 1921: ‘When I told her I was learning kana shodo, she was very pleased.’ …

“Whether writing Japanese classics, love letters or embroidered messages, women have circumvented official communication channels in creative ways throughout history. As Akagawa remarks, such handwritten texts frequently feel very personal: ‘I’m always surprised how such a simple action as handwriting can affect audiences’ emotions so deeply.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Cliff Grassmick
Lucy Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, incorporates jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop into the dance classes she offers in women’s prisons.

My friend Asakiyume has been a tutor in a women’s prison for several years, where she has learned that many inmates got in trouble after suffering repeated abuse or gross failure by the educational system. Most students, she says, are grateful for any attention from outside and are determined to do better on release. I think she would like this story about a dancer serving incarcerated women in the South.

Maria Di Mento writes at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Lucy Wallace is a dancer who has spent a lot of time in prison. That’s because Wallace, the co-founder of Dance to Be Free, travels the country teaching dance classes to incarcerated women to help them cope with depression, despair, PTSD, and complex trauma. …

“Despite her assumption that most prisons would turn her away, not one has.

‘I’ve never had a warden say, “No, we don’t want your program,” ’ Wallace says. ‘They’re grateful to get programming, especially in rural areas that are so remote no one goes there to volunteer.’

“A former dance major who has a master’s degree in psychology, Wallace incorporates a mix of movement styles into her dance classes, including jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop, and a variety of musical genres. …

“The program involves writing exercises and group discussions that let the women talk about their lives, how they coped with their first few weeks in prison, their biggest challenges, and what they’re getting out of the classes. She provides the prisons with DVDs of the classes and has certified about 400 prisoners who can lead the courses.

“Dance to Be Free is in 13 prisons in eight states and operates on a budget of about $100,000 a year. Few prisons will pay for the programming, something Wallace would like to change. For now, the charity receives all of its funding from individual donors, raising roughly $175,000 since 2015. …

“Wallace is holding off expanding the program for the time being and is instead focusing solely on the South, especially Mississippi and Florida, where she says women’s prisons are in deep need of programs.” More here.

From the Dance to Be Free website: “Our mission is to radically improve the lives of incarcerated women through the healing power of dance. We use ‘Cathartic Choreography’ to both train the inmates and teach them a new skill. We have seen this technique help our students deal with physical and mental illness, including PTSD and complex trauma.

“During our teacher trainings inmates gain confidence as they experience leadership and responsibility, often for the first time in their lives. That sense of accomplishment flourishes as our students learn to not only express themselves through dance, but to free others to do the same.

“Throughout this transformative experience, we teach the nuts and bolts of choreography, timing and flow, and just as importantly we facilitate journaling and sharing exercises that nurture introspection and self-awareness that inmates often need.”

I found the nonprofit organization’s video very moving.

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daniella

Photo: Paige Pfleger/The World
Puerto Rican farmer Daniella Rodríguez Besosa says Hurricane Maria “was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us. We need to help ourselves.”

Americans expect and deserve government help when there is a natural disaster, and often they get it. But Puerto Rico was pretty much out of sight, out of mind after Hurricane Maria. I do know someone who went there to help with logistics as part of a Federal Emergency Management team, but I also know several someones who lost everything and came to the mainland with their children.

Puerto Ricans who stayed behind have been managing as best they can. I was impressed with Paige Pfleger’s story at Public Radio International (PRI) about women farmers working together to build resilience.

“High in the mountains of Puerto Rico,” Pfleger writes, “a group of women struggles to keep their balance as they drive pickaxes deep into the earth of a hillside guava orchard. They’re digging a narrow trench called a swale on the steep terrain of this 7-acre farm. It’s a low-cost, low-impact way to retain rain water and reduce erosion in a place where both can be a challenge.

“With a swale ‘you end up storing most of your water in the soil itself, so the plants can access it whenever they need it,’ said Daniella Rodríguez Besosa, who has her own farm nearby. Besosa is part of a group called the Circuito Agroecológico Aiboniteño — all farmers, mostly women — who’ve been working together since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 to help each other’s farms recover and become more sustainable

Maria ‘was an eye-opener for a lot of people,’ Besosa said. ‘It was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us; we need to help ourselves.’

“Farms in Puerto Rico were devastated during Hurricane Maria. It’s been estimated that 80 percent of the crops on the island were destroyed, and $1.8 billion of damage was done to agricultural infrastructure.

“ ‘The best part from this hurricane crisis was this, that we get to organize to help each other recover,’ said Janette Gavillan, the owner of the guava orchard the Circuito is working on.

“Gavillan is a retired chemistry professor and is relatively new to farming. But she says working with the Circuito has taught her ways to be more sustainable. …

“Since Maria, the Circuito’s members have come to see sustainability as synonymous with resilience and independence. They hope that if they’re able to rely only on themselves, they’ll be better prepared for the next big storm, or at least be better able to recover. …

“A few miles from Gavillan’s farm, Jessica Collazo works a small plot dotted with baby chicks and thin beds of fruits and vegetables. … Collazo and her husband support their family by selling their produce at local markets, but she says after Maria, they had to start from zero.

“ ‘We were left with nothing,’ Collazo said. The storm washed her crops, seeds and soil over the side of the mountain.

“The brigade of local farmers helped her clear fallen trees and get new seeds. Circuito members also built banks on the edges of the mountain and dug swales that Collazo hopes will reduce the damage from the next hurricane.

“ ‘On my own, that would take me months,’ Collazo said. ‘But with help, it took only a few hours.’

“Collazo hopes the expertise and extra hands of the Circuito members will help her family reach its goal of building a completely self-sustaining farm. She says she wants to dig her own well so she doesn’t have to depend on the government for water, and install solar panels so she doesn’t have to rely on the local electric utility.” More at PRI, here.

I can’t help thinking of the Little Red Hen (“All right, then, I’ll do it myself!”) and wondering if it’s unfair to say that this is more likely to be a woman’s experience than a man’s. In any case, it’s the women farmers arming themselves against a sea of troubles here. I hope that like the Little Red Hen, they reward themselves.

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