Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘women’

17 JULY, 2015

The Illustrated Life of Trailblazing Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Paved the Way for Women in Media

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A warm celebration of the fearless pioneer who championed journalists’ responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

As a lover of picture-book biographies of cultural icons and an ardent admirer of trailblazing journalist, proto-feminist, and daring media stuntwoman Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922), I was thrilled to come upon The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter (public library) by writer and artist Bonnie Christensen.

In elegant prose and beautiful illustrations that invoke the aesthetic of editorial art from Bly’s era, Christensen tells the story of one of the most remarkable humans our world has ever produced.

We meet young Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, long before she took the pen name Nelly Bly, in her native Pennsylvania, where her mother’s tumultuous second marriage instills in the young girl a longing for self-reliance. To render herself impervious to similar tumult, she decides to pursue an independent career.

We follow her as she impresses a newspaper editor into giving her a job after she writes her magnificent letter to a patronizing chauvinist at the age of only twenty.

As she rises up the ranks of journalism, she decides to move to the profession’s epicenter: New York City, a place as competitive then as it is now.

It is there that she writes her now-legendary exposé on asylum abuse for The World — one of the most courageous feats of investigative journalism ever performed, which nearly cost Bly her life, went viral by the era’s standards, resulted in a grand jury investigation, and forever changed how we treat the mentally ill.

Next, Bly plunges into an equally yet very differently daring assignment — her astonishing race around the world in under eighty days, with nothing more than a well-tailored dress and a duffle bag.

Christensen writes:

On January 25, 1890 — seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after the start of her journey — Nellie Bly set foot in the Jersey City train station. A huge, cheering throng greeted her. Cannons roared. “The American girl will no longer be misunderstood,” declared the mayor. “She will be recognized as pushing and determined, independent, able to take care of herself wherever she may go.” Nellie Bly had won much more than her race against the clock… The newspaper described her as “the best known and most widely talked of young woman on earth today.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Her picture appeared on games, toys, cigars, soaps, and medicines. A racehorse, hotel, and train were named after her. The name Nellie Bly was heard and recognized everywhere.

To be sure, Bly’s was not the kind of vacant fame associated with the notion of popular celebrity — she was widely celebrated for the monumental work she did and the selfless spirit in which she did it. Until her last breath, Bly continued to champion the rights of women and the working class. When her industrialist husband died, she transformed his manufacturing empire into a pioneering model of socially conscious business, a mecca of fair wages and humane working conditions amid an era that habitually denied workers both. Half a century before Hedy Lamarr rose to fame as one of history’s most prominent women inventors, Bly invented the first steel barrel — one of twenty-six inventions for which she held patents by the end of her life.

Christensen writes:

During World War I, Nellie Bly, at fifty, was the first woman journalist to report from the Eastern Front. After the war she returned to New York City, where she wrote a column for the New York Journal and crusaded tirelessly to find permanent homes for orphans.

Although she was in and out of the hospital from exhaustion, Nellie Bly continued her work, writing that each individual has a moral responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

Complement Christensen’s intelligent and inspiring The Daring Nellie Bly with Bly’s groundbreaking Ten Days at the Mad-House and an illustrated field guide to packing like the pioneering journalist, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other exceptional humans: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Paul Gauguin, and more.

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10 JULY, 2015

When Woman Is Boss: Nikola Tesla on Gender Equality and How Technology Will Unleash Women’s True Potential

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The legendary inventor predicts “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women” and “their gradual usurpation of leadership.”

Engineer, physicist, and futurist Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856–January 7, 1943) is among the most radical rule-breakers of science and is regarded by many as the greatest inventor in human history. His groundbreaking work paved the way for wireless communication and imprinted every electrical device we use today. Without Tesla, I wouldn’t be writing these words on this keyboard and you wouldn’t be reading them on this screen. But like all true geniuses, Tesla envisioned not only the practical applications of his inventions but the profound cultural shifts that any successful technology precipitates.

One of the most surprising, most obscure, yet most incisive of Tesla’s predictions peers into the future of society’s changing gender roles and considers how the advent of wireless technology would empower women, liberating us to develop our full intellectual potential repressed by the patriarchy for centuries.

In January of 1926, a reporter named John B. Kennedy interviewed Tesla about these very ideas. The piece was published in Colliers magazine under the title “When Woman Is Boss” and is discussed in Margaret Cheney’s excellent Tesla: Man Out of Time (public library), which remains the most insightful and dimensional perspective on the great inventor’s mind and spirit.

After reflecting on the future uses of wireless technology and practically predicting the iPhone, Tesla points to the empowerment of women as one of the most significant effects of technology on the world of tomorrow:

It is clear to any trained observer, and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the World War.

This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.

It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.

Tesla goes on to predict “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women” and “their gradual usurpation of leadership” as the inevitable result of that previously repressed potential, newly uncorked by the interconnectivity and educational empowerment that wireless technology would make possible:

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men. But the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded; the average woman will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Woman will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.

Only a decade later, Hedy Lamarr — herself a brilliant inventor who paved the way for wifi — would prove Tesla right, as would the growing numbers of women who would enter STEM fields and take leadership positions in the generations to come. Exactly twenty years later, Einstein would echo Tesla’s prescient words in his heartening letter of advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist.

Tesla: Man Out of Time is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of history’s greatest creative anarchists — a story, of course, starring Tesla.

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01 JUNE, 2015

Gaston Bachelard on the Meditative Magic of Housework and How It Increases the Human Dignity of Everyday Objects

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“Consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.”

When faced with a poetic image, writes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) in his 1957 classic The Poetics of Space (public library), “we are in the presence of a minuscule phenomenon of the shimmering consciousness.” Bachelard is himself the proprietor of a shimmering consciousness, but although he is one of the most wonderful — in the literal sense of “full of wonder” — minds of the twentieth century and a major influence for such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, he remains thoroughly underappreciated.

Trained as a philosopher of science, Bachelard is palpably drawn to the Eastern spiritual traditions, his mind seemingly the self-contained scene of Einstein and Tagore’s famous conversation. There is a meditative quality to his writing, reflecting a deeply meditative mind. In his 1957 masterwork, he extends an invitation to embodied presence, triply timely amid our disembodied digital culture, and beckons the attention not by screaming but by seduction — nowhere more so than in the passages celebrating the enchantment of housework.

Three decades before Ursula K. Le Guin framed housekeeping as a “complex art [learned] only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice,” Bachelard writes:

[The] daydreams that accompany household activities … keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being.

What confers this imaginative dignity upon housework, Bachelard argues, is the quality of attention we bring to its simple tasks:

How can housework be made into a creative activity?

The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.

Perhaps because he came from a family of shoemakers, Bachelard finds especial allure in the tactile transcendence of menial work:

How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when [one] rubs a piece of furniture — even vicariously — when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household.

It bears noting that Bachelard’s use of “he” is what Le Guin calls “the generic he” in her spectacular essay on being a man. Here, too, “he” really means “she,” for it is the housewife — an inherently feminine archetype by both etymology and demographic distribution, especially in his era — that Bachelard celebrates as the chief practitioner of this creative activity:

Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.

Illustration by Yaroslava from 'A Stocking for a Kitten' by Helen Kay. Click image for more.

Bachelard considers “women’s construction of the house through daily polishing” and writes:

If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization.

[…]

We can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. A little more beautiful and we have something quite different.

By tending and attending to objects in this way, Bachelard argues, we reawaken to their beauty, essentially reimagining them and creating them anew:

Through housewifely care a house recovers not so much its originality as its origin. And what a great life it would be if, every morning, every object in the house could be made anew by our hands, could “issue” from our hands. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh tells him that we should “retain something of the original character of a Robinson Crusoe.” Make and remake everything oneself, make a “supplementary gesture” toward each object, give another facet to the polished reflections, all of which are so many boons the imagination confers upon us by making us aware of the house’s inner growth. To have an active day I keep saying to myself, “Every morning I must give a thought to Saint Robinson.” … A dreamer can reconstruct the world from an object that he transforms magically through his care of it.

The Poetics of Space is an indispensable read in its entirety. Complement it with Bachelard’s followup, The Poetics of Reverie, then revisit the delightful 1935 proto-feminist children’s book The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.

For a living testament to Bachelard’s faith in the worldbuilding capacity of housework, see Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler’s magnificent The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.

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12 MAY, 2015

Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers

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A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

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