Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

11 MARCH, 2013

How Our Government Helps Us, in Vibrant Vintage Illustrations from 1969

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“As our country grows and changes, our government has more work to do and more laws to make.”

At a time of political tension that has exposed some of the ways in which our government doesn’t help us — at least not all of us — here comes a charming vintage reminder of all the ways it does, or at least is intended to. How Our Government Helps Us (public library), originally written in 1969 by Muriel Stanek as part of the same Social Studies Program series that gave us How People Earn and Use Money, How People Live in the Suburbs, and How We Use Maps and Globes, explores the various divisions and purposes of government — from healthcare to education to taxes — with a lens on how they affect our daily lives and what the ideals of good citizenship might be. The vibrant illustrations by Jack Faulkner bespeak in equal measures the era’s civic idealism and its typical gender stereotypes.

Some of the pages exude a bittersweet sense of a bygone era, like this memento from the golden age of the Space Race, a grim reminder of the critical condition of space exploration today:

Others embody “the problem that has no name,” depicting women’s sole purpose in civil society as mothers and girls’ destiny as seamstresses-to-be:

Others still come as a fine complement to these vintage infographics delineating the structure of government:

Complement How Our Government Helps Us with Maira Kalman’s illustrated chronicle of the Constitution.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2013

Oppression by Omission: Women Soldiers Who Dressed and Fought as Men in the Civil War

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“Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.”

Conventional narrative has framed the Civil War as a man’s fight, with historical accounts focusing almost exclusively on the men who fought as Yanks and Rebs in the 1860s. But such commonly accepted accounts present, like all history, a revisionist history that excises the stories of the women who, despite the extraordinary obstructions of the era, took to the battlefields. In They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (public library), historians DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook chronicle and contextualize more than 250 documented cases of women who served in the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies dressed as men, “the best-kept historical secret of the Civil War” — an act at once rebellious and patriotic, using this usurped male social identity to claim full status as citizens of their nation and access male independence in an age when neither was available to women. Blanton and Cook write in the introduction:

Popular notions of women during the Civil War center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining their home front in the absence of their men. This conventional picture of gender roles does not tell the entire story, however. Men were not the only ones to march off to war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Women lived in germ-ridden camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserably, but honorably, for their country and their cause just as men did.

To pass as a man, Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted with her husband in 1861 as 'Jack Williams,' took up gambling, cigar-smoking, and swearing.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Sarah Edmonds Seelye, one of the best-documented female soldiers, served two years in the Union army as Franklin Thompson and received a military pension 25 years after the war ended.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

So why did women do this? For some, like their male counterparts, the motivation was purely patriotic. Others did if for love, taking to the battlefields in order to remain close to a husband, lover, fiancé, father, or brother. But for many, the reason was economic — an army private made $13 a month, roughly double what a seamstress, laundress, or maid would make. At the time of the Civil War, women, unable to vote or have bank accounts and still subject to Victorian ideals of homemaking and motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence, had neither personal nor political agency. In fact, these female soldiers tended to come from particularly marginalized groups — immigrants, the working class, farm girls, and women living below the poverty line. The freedom to make and spend their own money, Blanton and Cook argue, was a source of unprecedented, if private, empowerment as they gained access to social opportunities and privileges previously unavailable to them. Blanton and Cook write:

Society placed enormous restrictions on females. While upper-class and educated middle-class women might find a small measure of independence through employment as teachers, writers, or governesses, working- and lower-class women had few appealing options outside of marriage. Their employment prospects were usually limited to sewing, prostitution, or domestic servitude. Statistically, the majority of unmarried working-class women chose the latter. In New York City in 1860, maids received received between four and seven dollars a month, ‘good’ cooks earned seven or eight dollars a month, and laundresses might earn up to ten dollars per month. … On the other hand, three months’ service as a private in the Union army yielded a hefty sum of thirty-nine dollars in an age when most monthly salaries for men ranged from ten to twenty dollars.

Union soldier Albert Cashier, who was really Jennie Hodgers, fought in dozens of battles during the Civil War. In 1913, she made headlines upon being discovered as a woman in an old soldiers home.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Though once found out, these female soldiers were discharged from the army for “congenital peculiarities,” “sexual incompatibility,” or the unambiguously termed offense of “unmistakable evidence of being a woman,” most of these women went undetected, at least for a while — a fact not all that astounding in the context of Victorian society where the single most revealing litmus test, nudity, was a rarity given bathing was a rare occurrence and people often slept in their clothes. (But today, in an age when the tip of the devastating iceberg that is sexual assault in the military is only beginning to emerge, one has to wonder what happened to the women who did get found out.)

Thanks to the poorly fitted uniforms, some women were even able to disguise their pregnancies until the very end, startling their male platoon mates with the delivery. Others chose to continue dressing as men after the end of the war, raising gender identity questions also not discussed in the book. But perhaps most interesting of all is the question of how women got the idea for this in the first place. Blanton argues that much of it had to do with cultural influence — cross-dressing female heroines permeated Victorian literature, with military and sailor women often celebrated in 17th-century ballads, novels, and poems.

They Fought Like Demons goes on to explore the complex motivations, realities, and untold stories of women who fought as, and fought like, men, reminding us that omission is as much a tool of political oppression in the construction of cultural mythology as propaganda.

Some images via Smithsonian Magazine

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19 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Feminine Mystique Half a Century Later

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How Betty Friedan “pulled the trigger on history” and awakened women to the freedom to question what it means to live a full life.

In 1957, turning the corner on her own 15th college reunion, reconstructionist Betty Friedan set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and general life-satisfaction. Wading through the responses, she noticed an odd, discernible undercurrent — a kind of quiet but intense unhappiness described by women in the golden age of the housewife, which Friedan termed “the problem that has no name.” On February 19, 1963, she gave shape to the problem with the landmark publication of The Feminine Mystique (public library) — a centerpiece of modern gender politics, which sparked the second wave of the feminist movement, taught generations how to be a woman, and went on to become one of the most important and influential social critiques in contemporary history. In an age when women were reduced to a fertile uterus armed with lipstick and an oven mit, it championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life. Though many of Friedan’s ideas may appear tired and painfully familiar today, that’s precisely the point: Like every cornerstone of social science, the true feat of The Feminine Mystique was identifying, articulating, and speaking up against the problem long before the problem had permeated the awareness of our collective conscience.

Today, some dismiss the spirit of feminism as a thing of the past, a social crutch we’ve outgrown and left behind — after all, in the decades since Friedan’s landmark manifesto, the world has seen its first female president, first woman in space, first female Secretary of State, and first woman to win an Academy Award as best director. And yet, even half a century later, we still witness gobsmacking gender generalizations, gaping gender gaps in education, egregiously unequal media coverage and profiling, and enduring bias in the scientific academy. The problem, it seems, has long been named — but it is yet to be solved.

In her excellent exploration of Friedan’s legacy, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (public library), historian Stephanie Coontz puts things in no uncertain terms:

The Feminine Mystique has been credited — or blamed — for destroying, single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home. Friedan’s book ‘pulled the trigger on history,’ in the words of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler.

Coontz sets out to tell the story of the women directly impacted by the iconic book through the countless, fervent letters they sent Friedan, seeking to understand why these women, despite the comforts and privileges of their material circumstances, felt “so anxious about their femininity and so guilty about their aspirations.” Coontz frames the necessity for such an approach, contextualizing Friedan’s work:

Many books have been written and movies made about ‘the greatest generation.’ But the subjects of these stories are almost invariably men — the army, navy, and air force men of WWII (only 2 percent of the military in that era were female); the ‘Mad Men’ of Madison Avenue who pioneered America’s mass consumer culture in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy; the ordinary husbands and fathers who created a middle-class life for their families after the privations of the Depression and the war.

What do we know about these men’s wives and daughters? As their husbands and fathers moved into a new era, many women felt suspended between the constraints of the old sphere of female existence and the promise of a future whose outline they could barely make out. They were, as one of the women I interviewed told me, ‘a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world.’ Some were content to provide love and comfort when the men came home. But others felt that something was missing from their lives, though they could seldom put their finger on it.

These women — mostly white, mostly middle class — were at the eye of a hurricane. They knew that powerful new forces were gathering all around them, but they felt strangely, uneasily becalmed. …

To modern generations, these women’s lives seem as outmoded as the white gloves and pert hats they wore when they left the shelter of their homes. Yet even today, their experiences and anxieties shape the choices modern women debate and the way feminism has been defined by both its supporters and its opponents.

Friedan pulled into question the core tenets of The Century of the (male) Self and the ideals of suburban utopia:

Friedan told these women that their inability to imagine a fuller, more complete life was the product of a repressive postwar campaign to wipe out the memory of past feminist activism and to drive women back into the home. As a historian, I knew her argument ignored the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s. But as I interviewed women for this book and read more about the cultural climate of the era, I came to believe that Friedan was correct in suggesting that there was something especially disorienting — ‘something paralyzing,’ as one of the women I interviewed put it — about the situation confronting women at the dawn of the 1960s. Freudian pronouncements about the natural dependence and passivity of females and the ‘sickness’ of women who are attracted to careers maybe have coexisted with sympathetic assurances that women were in fact capable and deserve equality. But such assurances only made it harder for women to figure out whether anyone besides themselves was to blame for their feelings of inadequacy.

Friedan captured a paradox that many women struggle with today. The elimination of the most blatant denials of one’s rights can be very disorienting if you don’ have the ability to exercise one right without giving up another.

Betty Friedan in junior high school

Image: Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Still, Princeton professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter observed in brushing up against a “rude epiphany” that feminists might have sold young women an impossible ideal and much has to change if we are, indeed, to have equal opportunity in every aspect of life. In Slaughter’s own brave and eloquent words:

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great’).

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions — those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

But, ultimately, at the heart of Friedan’s message with The Feminine Mystique lies a tireless insistence on the freedom to find one’s purpose and do meaningful work as the bedrock of what it means to be human:

The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.

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