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Photo: Smithsonian
This quilt, “Solar System,” was created by E.H. Baker in 1876 and is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Astronomy was a field of science that was more open to women historically than other fields were.

Women have always been interested in science, but they have not always been welcomed as equals. Consider Beatrix Potter, who was more knowledgeable about botany (mushrooms especially) than most men of her time.

But a determined woman could still learn and contribute. It seems that many were interested in astronomy, sometimes translating that interest into the art form they knew best.

At the Smithsonian’s website American History, you can read about Ellen Harding Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, and the quilt of the solar system she completed in 1876 after years of research to make it as accurate as possible.

“The wool top of this applique quilt is embellished with wool-fabric applique, wool braid, and wool and silk embroidery. … The lining is a red cotton-and-wool fabric and the filling is of cotton fiber. The maker, Sarah Ellen Harding, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 8, 1847, and married Marion Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, on October 10, 1867. They lived in Cedar County until 1878, and then moved to Johnson County.  …

“The design of Ellen’s striking and unusual quilt resembles illustrations in astronomy books of the period. Ellen used the quilt as a visual aid for lectures she gave on astronomy in the towns of West Branch, Moscow, and Lone Tree, Iowa. New York Times (September 22, 1883) mentioned this item from an Iowa paper: ‘Mrs. M. Baker, of Lone Tree, has just finished a silk quilt which she has been seven years in making. It has the solar system worked in completely and accurately. The lady went to Chicago to view the comet and sun spots through the telescope that she might be very accurate. Then she devised a lecture in astronomy from it.’ ” More.

Good news, bad news. Maria Mitchell of Nantucket garnered international recognition for discovering a comet, but her female students were generally shut out of work in the field.

Smithsonian reports, “Mitchell was born on Nantucket in 1818. Her family was Quaker, which meant that they believed both girls and boys should go to school. Her father, a teacher and an astronomer, taught her about the skies when she was very young. In terms of equipment, at-home astronomers weren’t at a disadvantage; Harvard’s telescope was roughly the same size and power as the Mitchells’. When she was 12, she and her father observed a solar eclipse.

“From there, Mitchell’s ascent as an astronomer was swift. In 1847, the prince of Denmark awarded the 29-year-old Mitchell a medal for reporting a comet that was too far away to be seen without a telescope (the comet became known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’). The next year, she became the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. …

“[Mitchell] used the rhetoric of the time to argue for more women in the sciences. ‘The training of a girl fits her for delicate work,’ Mitchell wrote in 1878. ‘The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.’ ” More.

Quilters! Be sure to check out other solar-system quilts at Barbara Brackman’s blog on blogspot, here.

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Photo: Glenn Castellano
A design by Meredith Bergmann of suffragists Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the first Central Park statue depicting real women.

Other than fictional characters like Alice in Wonderland, females have not been represented among Central Park’s statues. A new sculpture, of suffragists Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is the first step in changing the all-male array of historical figures in the park.

Nadja Sayej reports at the Guardian, “In 1995, the artist Meredith Bergmann was working on a film set in Central Park when she noticed something was off.

“ ‘I noticed then there were no statues of women,’ said Bergmann. ‘There was a wonderful Alice in Wonderland sculpture, but there were no sculptures of actual women of note and accomplishment.’

“Now, 23 years later, Bergmann has created the winning design for a bronze statue of New York suffragists Elizabeth C Stanton and Susan B Anthony, who fought for women’s right to vote. Bergmann’s creation will be erected in Central Park on 26 August 2020, coinciding with the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment ‘Votes for Women.’ …

“There are only five public statues of real women in New York City (excluding fictional characters like Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose), while there are 145 sculptures of men, including statues of William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, who are both in Central Park.

“ ‘We are happy to have broken the bronze ceiling to create the first statue of real women in the 164-year history of Central Park,’ said Pam Elam, the president of the Monumental Women campaign, which is backing the statue. …

“The statue has a long scroll that snakes from a desk down to a ballot box, which is meant to represent the change they made to the 19th amendment – but it doesn’t stop there. The scroll will detail the voices of over 20 other women, including Ida B Wells-Barnett and Sojourner Truth, with quotes written chronologically from 1848 to 2020. …

“While the quotes are currently kept under wraps, a few potential teasers have been posted on the group’s Instagram account. For example, Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, once said: ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining, you make progress by implementing ideas,’ while Maya Angelou once said: ‘We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.’ …

“[Says] Elam, ‘Women’s history is such a treasure chest of inspirational stories, it gives us courage to keep fighting for women’s rights and achieve equality in our lives. We want to get their stories out there for people to be energized by their contributions.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

I’m in New York this week to be with my sister as she winds up six weeks of radiation and chemo. If I see any statues of women, I’ll be sure to share a picture.

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Photo: Boston Society of Architects
This open staircase is pretty cool. Unless you are wearing a skirt.

A recent twitter series gave me a laugh. It sure shows how your perspective may change with a change of clothes.

At the Los Angeles Times, Carolina A. Miranda wrote how she hit a nerve with one frustrated tweet.

“A couple of weeks ago, after viewing an architectural schematic that featured a pair of elevated glass catwalks, I posted a tweet that invited male architects to navigate their own designs in a skirt.

Carolina A. Miranda
@cmonstah
Idea: All male architects should be required to navigate their own buildings in a skirt.

“The post ignited a flurry of responses from women, including Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times assistant managing editor and former television critic, who suggested adding heels to the mix. To that challenge, design writer Alissa Walker of Curbed added babies. …

“I took [a picture] at the Nicanor Parra Library at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, in 2015. The building was designed by Chilean architect Mathias Klotz and was completed in 2012 — in other words, at a point in time when male architects should know better. Yet the library features glass floors in locations throughout the building. …

“John Hill, who writes the blog ‘A Daily Dose of Architecture,’ pointed out the use of see-through walkways in Rafael Viñoly’s building for the architecture school he designed for the City College of New York — which he completed in 2009. City College isn’t the only school of architecture to employ transparent walkways. …

“This not only affects the women who work and study in those buildings — according to the Assn. of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 42% of accredited architecture degrees were awarded to women in 2013 — but it normalizes the idea among architecture students that transparent walkways are just a benign architectural feature. They are not. …

“In 2010, technology writer Joanne McNeil wrote about this very topic in a post that ran on her blog ‘Tomorrow Museum,’ later reprinted by Mediaite.

” ‘If I were commissioning the interior of any kind of store and someone brought me blueprints including glass staircases, I’d tell him to take a hike,’ she wrote then. ‘I wouldn’t give him a second shot. If he’s not intuitive enough to grasp that women in skirts will be uncomfortable walking upstairs, clouded glass or not, then what other errors has he made in his design?’

“So, if there are a few good men out there (within driving distance of Los Angeles) willing to walk around one their own or someone else’s buildings in a skirt — while wearing high heels and holding a purse and a baby — my lines are open.”

More here. Let me know if you have encountered similar architectural challenges. Although I wear pants more often these days, I have memories of negotiating the green staircase above in a skirt — uncomfortably.

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Art: Mary Delany (1700-1788)
Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) paper collage.

I’m not sure how I learned about the extraordinary botanical collages of Mary Delany, but as soon as I saw photos of her work, I headed straight to Wikipedia.

There I got enraged for the umpteenth time about the helplessness of women in past centuries (Delany was forced to marry a 60-year-old when she was 17). Finally, I came to this description of her late-blooming avocation.

“In 1771, a widow in her early 70s, Mary began on decoupage, a fashion with ladies of the court. Her works were detailed and botanically accurate depictions of plants.

“She used tissue paper and hand colouration to produce these pieces. She created 985 of these works, calling them her ‘Paper Mosaiks,’ [from] the age of 71 to 88, when her eyesight failed her.

‘With the plant specimen set before her she cut minute particles of coloured paper to represent the petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant, and, using lighter and darker paper to form the shading, she stuck them on a black background. By placing one piece of paper upon another she sometimes built up several layers and in a complete picture there might be hundreds of pieces to form one plant. It is thought she first dissected each plant so that she might examine it carefully for accurate portrayal.’ [Hayden, Ruth. Mrs Delany: her life and her flowers] …

Frances Burney (Madame D’Arblay) was introduced to her in 1783, and frequently visited her at her London home. … She had known many of the luminaries of her day, had corresponded with Jonathan Swift [among others], and left a detailed picture of polite English society of the 18th century in her six volumes of Autobiography and Letters (ed. Lady Llanover, 1861–1862).”

More pictures at Wikipedia, here. You may also be interested in this post, about the botanical art of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter. Potter, as a woman, failed to receive the attention men in science achieved — a century after Delany.

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I went to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln Friday to see what New England women had been doing with abstract art since 1950.

I was drawn to the painting above, and no wonder. It turned out to be Cynthia Bloom’s way of seeing New Shoreham, Rhode Island, my favorite place in the smallest state. The explanatory text says the artist “incorporated the natural materials and textures she found there into her work, including dried petals and butterfly wings.”

The gigantic heart sculpture looks sweet enough from a safe distance, but when you get close to Jim Dine’s “Two Big Black Hearts” (1985) and see all the broken tools, horseshoes, ladies shoes, etc., smashed roughly into the surface, you may feel a chill.

What’s nice is that on a summer’s day, you can walk in the shady woods on the deCordova grounds and see art along the paths. The serene head is “Humming,” by Jaume Plensa (2011), and the more abstract piece is “Maiden’s Dream,” by Isaac Witkin (1996). That one makes me ask, “Is it a good dream?”

After spending time on the grounds and in the galleries, I took the elevator to the roof deck and photographed the romantic turrets of what was once the home of art collector Julian de Cordova (1851-1945). I don’t think I had ever been on the roof before. The view over Flint’s Pond is amazing.

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Photo: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Malika MacDonald is director of the Amal Women’s Center, which provides shelter for Muslim women and children in need of temporary housing.

When I was working at the central bank, we had a Hubert Humphrey Fellow visit us from Bahrain. One aspect of America she was studying was homelessness. She said there was no homelessness in her country. She said families would never let it happen; they would take people in.

Having no way to know whether that was true in every case, I was nevertheless intrigued. Was it something about the culture in a Muslim country?

One thing I do know is that in this country, alas, Muslim women and children like other women and children, sometimes find themselves in need of temporary housing. That was the impetus for a new center in Boston, the brainchild of an Egyptian-American college student.

Lisa Wangsness wrote about the initiative at the Boston Globe. Here is the part of the article that touched me the most.

“The project began six years ago, when Mona Salem, then a 20-year-old Egyptian-American college student, was trying to help a young Muslim friend who wanted to escape a foster home where she felt unsafe.

“Salem thought her friend would feel most comfortable in a Muslim-run shelter for women, but soon discovered none existed in Boston. So she began raising money to start one, and teamed up with [Malika MacDonald, the national director of the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA’s Transitional Housing Network.] …

“Donations poured in from every direction. Dishes and pots and pans for the kitchen arrived from families affiliated with the Framingham and Wayland mosques. A man offered his Home Depot credit card to pay for lighting. Various groups and individuals sponsored each of the bedrooms, furnishing them with bright-colored bedding and art for the walls.

“Salem said she was near tears when she saw the finished house the other day.

“ ‘That place was a dump when we first got there, and now it’s beautiful — absolutely beautiful,’ she said. ‘That says a lot about . . . how strong we are as a community to help one another.’

“Help arrived from beyond the local Muslim community as well. An artist in Texas sent an Arabesque Moroccan ceiling medallion for the living room. A board member of the interfaith group Kids4Peace Boston donated a lacquered dining table and banquette. The founder of a planned shelter for transgender people in Indiana sent along bathroom towels, MacDonald said.”

I suspect many of those donors know what it’s like to feel different and look for comfort.

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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After 46 years of marriage, I can say I have a husband who is the same guy he always was, just with more life experience. But among my small circle of friends, including my blog friends, many women are dealing with extraordinary changes.

It may be true that, overall, women are as likely to develop dementia as men (see study) and present their husbands with unexpected caregiving challenges, but so far those stories are not the ones I’m hearing.

A college friend married to a brilliant scientist who has known for some time he was developing Alzheimer’s recently told me, “I finally realized he is completely dependent on me.” She is biting the bullet, reaching out for more helpers and planning an altered future.

Another friend whose husband has dementia made the decision to leave behind all her East Coast activities and relocate to Minnesota, where there is a network of family members. She intends to keep her husband in their new home, which has become a safe place in his mind. When her husband no longer recognizes anyone at all, she says, she will get full-time care, move herself out, and come visit him.

I reconnected last month with a high school friend who suffered a bitter divorce decades ago. She told me her ex’s wealthy girlfriend has been able to provide high-quality care for him for the 15-plus years since he was diagnosed with dementia. Although the divorce is still raw enough that there are topics my friend can’t discuss with her children, she goes to the Alzheimer’s facility regularly to read to her ex. She wants to become a better person.

Dementia has not been the only challenge for women I know. In one case, after a relative discovered her husband’s multiyear dalliance with a blackmailing call girl (and he then suffered a physical and emotional collapse), the wife made heroic efforts to rebuild the shattered relationship. A year later, they are both enjoying life together a little more every day.

Then there is the friend whose husband’s rare disease progressed to the point that he can no longer be left alone. She has had friends come in for an hour or two so she can shop for groceries and walk the dog, but the cost of a few hours coverage from a trained home-health-care aide has to be parceled out frugally as this friend has lost one income, is trying to build a home-based career, and needs to pay for two children’s colleges.

I can’t say enough about how much I admire these women who are rising to meet unanticipated disruption despite their sorrow and fear.

Art: William Utermohlen
In 1995, U.K.-based artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He created a series of self-portraits over five years, before his death in 2007. (Caution: This is the first in the series. The others may be painful.)

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