They Don’t Make Father’s Day Cards for My Dad

Earlier this week, I found myself standing in front of a display of greeting cards, trying to find the perfect Father’s Day card for my dad.  I wanted something that said, “Here, Dad, I spent time thinking about you and looking for the right card that made me think of you,” but CVS didn’t have that card in stock.  Not for my dad, at least.  There were cards about golf, cards about grilling, cards about fixing things around the house, cards about handing all parenting duties off to Mom, but none of these made me think of my dad.  It’s an issue I’ve faced year after year: greeting card companies make cards about “things dads do,” but my dad doesn’t do those things.  And they don’t really make cards for dads like mine.  For dads who play Candyland with their daughters instead of golf with their buddies.  For dads who fix scraped knees and broken hearts instead of leaky faucets.  For dads who would never need a “dad proof” baby onesie (this actually exists) because they are completely committed to sharing the parenting duties and playing an active role in their children’s lives.

Corny jokes notwithstanding, my dad has always defied stereotypes of fatherhood.  He doesn’t fit any of the “dad tropes” you might see in pop culture.  He’s not some absentee workaholic with no time for his kids; in fact, he was a stay-at-home dad for much of my childhood, and has never missed a graduation, a chorus concert, or any important event in his daughters’ lives.  He’s not a gruff, hypermasculine patriarch who has trouble showing affection for his kids; he’s a kind, nurturing caregiver who has always made my sister and me feel safe and loved.  He’s definitely not an inept, bumbling oaf who has no idea how to take care of his kids and just makes more work for his wife; he’s actually a very competent parent who did a great job of raising his girls.  I mean, he’s the dad of two girls, so there were certain “girl” things he didn’t come into parenthood knowing, like how to do our hair, but he always learned how.  And sure, there was a learning curve, and yes, I definitely went off to kindergarten with some very lopsided ponytails, but the important thing is that he learned.  He learned because he loves his daughters, and he loves my mom, and he really cares about being a good dad.

I may not have appreciated it when I was growing up, but my sister and I pretty much won the dad lottery.  Our dad read us Winnie the Pooh, with different voices for all of the characters.  He played with us, even when we wanted to play Pretty Pretty Princess.  He packed our lunches, helped us with our homework, took us to get our hair cut, and picked us up from dance class.  He coached my fourth grade basketball team and tutored my sister for her bat mitzvah.  He did all of these things for us and never once acted like he was special or deserved some sort of award or recognition for being a dad who did these things.  He did all of these things for us because, even if pop culture and greeting card companies don’t see it, those things are all part of being a dad.

But here’s the thing: as wonderful as my dad is, he’s not the only dad in the world like him.  It’s 2017, and plenty of dads are changing diapers, cooking dinners, braiding hair, reading bedtime stories, and driving soccer practice carpool.  So maybe it’s time to change the way we think about dads and fatherhood.  Maybe it’s time to stop joking that dads have no idea how to take care of babies.  Maybe it’s time to stop saying that dads who look after their kids are “babysitting.”  Maybe it’s time to start seeing dads as active, competent, loving caregivers who play an important role in their children’s lives.  Maybe it’s time to start making Father’s Day cards that actually reflect all the wonderful little things dads do every day.

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Growing Up with the World’s Smartest Mom

A recent study showed that by the age of six, young girls see themselves as less intelligent than their male counterparts.  They begin to associate brilliance with maleness and start shying away from activities that are perceived as requiring high levels of intelligence.  It was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read.  The think pieces on this study all seemed to suggest that the reason for this phenomenon is because girls aren’t given smart female role models to look up to.  Because the contributions of women in history have long been overlooked.  Because everyone can name several male geniuses from fiction or pop culture, but girl genius characters are few and far between.  Because this gender imbalance in how we perceive intelligence is so rampant in our society that little girls are picking up on it in kindergarten.

Reading these articles made me even more thankful for the smart female role models I’ve had in my life.  More specifically, it made me extremely grateful for the smartest woman I know: my mom.  I think that as a child, I managed to escape the message that girls weren’t as smart as boys because every day I had living, breathing proof of women’s intelligence telling me to hurry up and put my shoes on.  When I say my mom is a genius, I mean it.  And it’s not just because she’s a doctor, or because she went to Harvard, although both of those things are true, and I’ve always admired her for them.  Boys couldn’t be smarter than girls, because no boy in the world could possibly be smarter than my mom.  In a society where girls are under enormous pressure to be pretty, popular, feminine, and non-threatening to boys, my mom showed me that one of the coolest things a girl could be was smart.

My mom is frequently the smartest person in the room, but she’s never one to make a big deal out of it.  Smart isn’t something to hide or lord over other people; it’s just who she is. I remember her talking once about a scholarship she won in high school that was given to one boy and one girl in each state.  She jokingly said that that made her the smartest girl in New York, but I’ve always thought it was possible that she actually might have been the smartest girl in the entire state of New York.  I wanted to be smart and successful like my mom.  I wanted to know all the big words she knew.  I wanted to be the smartest girl in Maryland.  Most of all, I wanted my mom to think I was smart.  I wanted her to be impressed by the things I knew, the words I could spell, the books I read.  She often was, or, at least, she pretended to be in order to encourage me to keep reading and learning.

Because of my smart mom, I’ve never felt like I had to dumb myself down for anyone.  Because of my smart mom, I was never afraid to raise my hand in class when I knew an answer.  Because of my smart mom, being teased for my “nerdy” interests never deterred me from wanting to learn more.  Because of my smart mom, I won awards for foreign language in high school.  I took three languages my senior year.  I got into good colleges and got merit scholarships.  I frequently made the dean’s list.  I graduated cum laude.  Because of my smart mom, I have the knowledge, the critical thinking skills, and the audacity to write and publish about politics and social issues.  Because of my smart mom, I am where I am today.  I am so proud of my brilliant mother and so eternally grateful for such a wonderful role model in my life.  I will never stop learning, never stop thinking, never stop trying my hardest to be the smart daughter my smart mom deserves.

A History Lesson on the Civil War, Because Apparently Our President Needs That

Okay, so, I know most of us learned a bunch of stuff in school and then promptly forgot it.  I know I’m guilty of that.  And I like to think I’d be pretty forgiving if the president of the United States revealed in an interview that he didn’t know something like the quadratic formula or the chemical symbol for magnesium or who Robert Browning was, even when that president is Donald Trump.  But I feel like there are some parts of your grade school education that you just don’t forget, like what the Civil War was and when and why it happened.  Apparently, I am wrong about this.  At least, that’s the only logical explanation for Trump’s bizarre comments on the subject:

I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.  He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.”  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?

Okay, so, first of all, what the actual fuck?  Has Donald Trump never taken a history class?  Since Donald Trump clearly does not know anything about the Civil War, allow me to explain American History 101.  I realize that this may seem like kind of a pointless blog post to make: Donald Trump will almost certainly never read this blog, and I doubt I have many readers who need a review of the Civil War (primarily because I don’t have many readers, period).  Still, as a proud history nerd, I feel I have an obligation to clarify any misconceptions people might have about the Civil War.  So let’s dive right in, shall we?

The Civil War was an armed conflict between the United States military and an army of secessionist insurgents that was fought on American soil between 1861 and 1865.  The Civil War was about one thing: slavery.  Some people may try to tell you that it was about states’ rights.  They are referring to the fact that some states wanted the right to allow white people to literally own black people as property.  Some people may try to tell you that it was about economics.  They are referring to the fact that wealthy plantation owners in the South depended on slave labor in order to keep their cotton and tobacco plantations running.  This map shows how the cotton boom in the South and the Industrial Revolution in the North expanded slavery in the US and divided the country into free states in the North and slave states in the South:

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By 1860, the country was so divided between the Free North and the Slave South that no candidate was able to shore up support on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line, and in fact the Democrats were so divided that they basically ended up with two candidates: Stephen Douglas in the North, and John Breckinridge in the South.  The 1860 electoral map ended up looking like this:

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With significantly more of the American population, the northern states that voted for Lincoln carried the election.  This upset the southern states very much, and rather than settle their grievances like mature adults or, I don’t know, stop owning slaves, the southern states decided to secede.  South Carolina was the first to secede in 1860, and they were quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas in January and February of 1861.  In April of 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, which prompted Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee to secede with the rest of the South.  They broke off from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America.  There were four slave states which did not secede, but instead chose to remain part of the Union.  They were Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri.  If you went to school in Maryland, there’s a good chance you learned this fact, and also that it was very important that Maryland did not secede, because that would have put the United States capital in an enemy country.  There were also a few counties in Virginia that did not want to secede, and in 1863 they broke off from the rest of the state and rejoined the Union, and that, kids, is the story of how we got West Virginia.

Here is a map of Union states vs. Confederate states:

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Image from Scholastic, Inc.

And now just for reference, here’s a map of free states vs. slave states:

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Notice any similarities between the two?  Support for secession was strongest in the places where there were lots of slaves, like South Carolina and much of the Mississippi Delta, and weakest in areas where slavery was less common, like eastern Tennessee.

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If you still think the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, the only conclusion I can draw is that you never learned how to read a map.

In case you were wondering: Yes, secession from the Union was an act of treason.  The people who fought for the Confederacy committed treason.  All of them.  Even your great-great-grandfather.

In April of 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, which set off four years of civil war.  I guess it was difficult to “work that one out” when one side was literally willing to commit treason just so they could keep owning other human beings as property.  Major battles of the Civil War included the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Antietam in 1862, Vicksburg and Gettysburg in 1863, Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864, and Appomattox in 1865.  On April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War.  And because, amazingly, there seems to be some confusion about this: The North absolutely, 100% won the Civil War.  And really, with the North’s enormous economic advantage, the South never even stood a chance.

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Although the Civil War was absolutely fought over slavery and anyone who tells you otherwise is whitewashing history, it did not actually end slavery.  It just stopped the southern states from breaking off from the rest of America and forming their own country where they could own as many slaves as they wanted.  In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in Confederate territories except for Tennessee and parts of Louisiana and Virginia.  The Emancipation Proclamation was less a triumph of human rights and more a strategy for depriving the South of crucial human capital.  It may have freed most of the slaves, but it did not end slavery.  Slavery was not abolished in the United States until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which guarantees that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That’s basically Civil War 101.

This man is Andrew Jackson:

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You might know him as the guy behind the Trail of Tears.  He was the seventh president of the United States, and served from 1829-1837.  That is not when the Civil War happened.  He was a Class-A racist and one of the worst presidents this country has ever had.  He is also one of Donald Trump’s favorite presidents.

Andrew Jackson had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War, primarily because he had been dead for over a decade.  If he had been alive, he almost certainly would have sided with the secessionists.  He was a Tennessee slave owner who despised the abolitionists and ordered that the US Post Office stop publishing and distributing abolitionist pamphlets.  Jackson would not have stopped the Civil War.  In fact, he probably would have fought in it.  For the South.  His protege, James K. Polk, was also a Tennessee slave owner, and was responsible for campaigns in the 1840s to increase the influence of slave owners in the US and expand the parts of the country where slavery was allowed, campaigns which eventually led to–you guessed it–the Civil War.

Trump’s comments about Jackson and the Civil War are not only baffling; they’re dangerous.  They present a very whitewashed, revisionist version of history.  It’s a narrative that is used to ignore our country’s legacy of white supremacy and human rights violations.  At best, it leads to misguided folks idolizing traitors and flying the flag of a losing army that no longer exists.  At worst, it leads to acts of horrific violence against people of color.  It’s a narrative that’s been allowed to fester for way too long, and the fact that the current leader of our country is promoting this narrative is absolutely unacceptable.  So, my fellow history nerds, like just about everyone else in this country, we have a moral obligation to stand up and fight back.

I’m Done With Bernie Sanders

I used to feel the Bern.  I liked that he advocated for universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and a much more progressive tax system.  I liked that he took student debt seriously and seemed committed to making sure my generation didn’t have to spend the rest of our lives paying off college loans.  I liked his record on civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, and the environment.  I liked his positions so much that for a while there, I was totally willing to overlook the fact that, as an Independent, he had no business trying to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.  Yes, that’s right: Bernie Sanders had no right to seek the Democratic nomination, for the simple reason that he is not a member of the Democratic Party.  But putting that aside for a second, he initially ran a very good campaign, and I liked him a lot.  But these days, when we truly need all the dedicated progressive champions we can get, I’m finding him an extreme disappointment.  And with his latest “unity tour” stunt, it’s official: I’m done with Bernie Sanders.

In case you missed it, Sanders is currently traveling around the country with DNC chair Tom Perez to promote unity within the Democratic Party, a party which Sanders is not a member of.  And yes, the left does need to unite, reorganize, and fight like hell in every battle this administration throws at us, but none of that changes the fact that Bernie Sanders is technically not a Democrat.  I get why he would feel like he’s not aligned with the Democratic Party; I really do.  I often find myself at odds with “establishment” Democrats who are not nearly progressive enough for my liking.  But I’m a registered Democrat because currently in this country, the Democrats are as far left as you can go and still win most major elections.  Politically and ideologically, Sanders isn’t that different from far-left members of the Democratic Party like Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and, well, me.  But unlike Sanders, Warren and Ellison have prioritized political strategy and attainable results over ideological purity and rejecting “the establishment.”  Warren and Ellison are Democrats; Sanders is not.  That’s an important distinction.  If the Democratic Party wants to promote unity between its centrist and far left factions, Warren and Ellison would be appropriate headliners for the unity tour.  Sanders is not.

If headlining this “unity tour” were the only bad thing Sanders had done lately, I’d be pretty pissed off, but I doubt I’d be infuriated enough to swear off Sanders altogether.  No, I’m done with Bernie because he’s throwing women under the bus in the name of “party unity” in a party he doesn’t even belong to.  While on this mess of a unity tour, Sanders and Perez stopped in Omaha, where Sanders has been campaigning for Heath Mello for Omaha mayor.  Mello is a member of the Democratic Party, but has a record of voting for anti-choice legislation.  And while he seems to have softened somewhat on his anti-abortion positions, he hasn’t satisfied many prominent advocates of reproductive justice, including NARAL president Ilyse Hogue, who said, “It’s not enough to issue a statement for political expediency when your record is full of anti-choice votes.  The Democratic Party’s support of any candidate who does not support the basic rights and freedoms of women is disappointing and politically stupid.”  Especially in the age of Trump, the Democratic Party must defend safe, legal, accessible abortion, and we can’t afford to compromise on that.  But Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to see it that way, and he’s been all too eager to support Mello, despite his anti-choice history.

It would be one thing if his support of Mello came as part of some sort of “any Democrat will do” push to get candidates elected, but that’s not what he’s doing.  In between campaigning for Mello, he’s slammed Georgia Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff as “not a real progressive.”  For the record, Ossoff is a pro-choice, pro-women, pro-LGBT, pro-environment, anti-corruption Democrat who is backed by multiple progressive organizations and counts Civil Rights icon John Lewis as one of his mentors, and he is currently working to flip a solidly red Congressional district in Georgia.  But he’s apparently not progressive enough for Sanders, who reluctantly endorsed Ossoff last week, saying that it’s “imperative” for the Democrats to win this seat, but not walking back on his previous statements.  So why was Sanders so hesitant to support Ossoff?  Well, according to some of his supporters, it’s because Ossoff hasn’t been vocal enough in his support of some of the key economic issues Sanders ran his campaign on.  He has not, for example, taken a definitive stance on a single-payer healthcare system or a $15 minimum wage, although he has pledged to defend Medicare and Medicaid, and he does support increasing the minimum wage.  Apparently, this is where Bernie Sanders draws the line.  What bothers me about this isn’t so much his support of Mello or his criticism of Ossoff, or even the fact that he’s willing to compromise on certain issues in order to get Democrats elected in places where they normally wouldn’t.  It’s the fact that by throwing his weight behind one but not the other, he’s sending a pretty clear message about where he thinks women fit in “real” progressive politics.  “Oh, sure, sweetheart, we’ll get you your bodily autonomy and your basic rights and freedoms, but you see, first we have to take down these billionaire bastards and get money out of politics.”  That’s not a progressive movement I want to be part of.

In fairness to Senator Sanders, I do believe that he is genuinely trying to help.  I think he recognizes that Trump’s administration is a threat to the country and the whole world, and he understands the need for a strong, organized, anti-Trump resistance from the left.  And it’s great that he wants to play a role in leading that resistance, but he’s going about it all wrong, and he’s been doing it completely wrong for about a year now.  Even before Trump got elected, he was doing it wrong.  When it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee and she would be facing Trump in the general election, Sanders could have conceded and thrown his full support behind Clinton, but he didn’t.  Instead, he took his primary campaign all the way to the convention, and doubled down on his argument that the primaries were rigged (they weren’t) and that if non-Democrats had been able to vote in Democratic primaries, he would have won (maybe, but that is so not the point of primary elections).  Once he finally did concede, he did the right thing by endorsing Hillary Clinton, attending her campaign events, and encouraging his supporters not to cast “protest votes,” but he could have and should have done more.  He was willing to appear in a pro-Clinton video, but refused to say “I’m with her” because he found the campaign slogan “phony.”  Okay, Holden Caulfield, putting aside the fact that men have spent centuries dismissing things women say and do as shallow and insincere, and the fact that “fake” was right up there with “shrill” on the list of coded misogynist critiques of Clinton, is your iconoclastic pride really that important that you can’t bring yourself to say three simple words?

And since November, he hasn’t gotten much better.  He’s stuck to his guns on the misguided notion that Clinton lost because Democrats are “out of touch” with the “economic anxiety” of white working class voters.  Never mind the fact that working class voters of color who are also experiencing economic marginalization voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, or the fact that several of the states she lost had recently enacted racist voter suppression laws, or the fact that it took interference from both Russia and the FBI to defeat her, or the fact that in spite of all that, she still won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.  No, none of that matters to Bernie Sanders.  It’s true that white working class voters overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  It’s also true that among politicians on the left, Sanders polls remarkably well with that demographic, and because of that, he has a very unique platform that he could use to help the Democrats resist Trump’s agenda and win important elections.  But by urging Democrats to ease up on “identity politics” and pandering to working class Trump voters, he’s doing more harm than good.  Economic inequality and marginalization of the working class are real, pressing issues in this country, but so are sexism, racism, and homophobia, and you can’t break that down into “identity politics” and “actual politics.”  Economics alone won’t fix everything.  I don’t know how many more times and how many more different ways women, people of color, and LGBTQ people can try to explain that to Bernie Sanders.

This isn’t the Bernie Sanders I wanted.  This isn’t the revolution I was promised.  I’ve spent months mentally separating Bernie Sanders the actual United States senator from the Sanders that sexist “Bernie Bros” thought would save us from four years of listening to Hillary Clinton’s shrill voice, but recently that’s been getting harder to do.  It’s a shame, because I think that at his core, Bernie Sanders is a great guy with a good heart and some wonderful ideas that could really help move this country in the right direction.  But it’s becoming quite clear that he is not the progressive champion we thought he was.  And as long as his revolution is willing to further endanger marginalized groups in the name of helping the working class, I want no part of it.  It’s not “elitist” to reject bigotry.  It’s not “out of touch” to prioritize the rights and safety of women and minorities.  What’s “out of touch” is thinking you can put women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and LGBTQ folks on the back burner and still depend on our support and our votes.  That’s what Bernie Sanders is currently doing, and that’s why I’m done with him.

Earth Day in the Age of Trump

The first Earth Day was celebrated with rallies, protests, and environmentalist demonstrations.  It was 1970, and the counterculture movement was in full swing.  Across the country, students and other young activists protested for equal rights and against the Vietnam War.  The previous decade had seen Civil Rights, Stonewall, the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and The Feminine Mystique.  It had also seen oil spills, nuclear weapons tests, and an actual fire on the Cuyahoga River.  Still, most Americans had been more or less unconcerned about environmental issues, if they were even aware of them.  In 1970, the first Earth Day was organized by grassroots activists and student volunteers.  Rallies in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and most other major American cities aimed “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”  Rallies included speeches and performances from celebrities including Paul Newman and Pete Seeger.

In recent decades, Earth Day has become more mainstream and lost some of its political edge.  Stream clean-ups and nature walks have replaced student protests and teach-ins.  Earth Day is now “the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year.”  It’s so mainstream that it’s now something kindergartners celebrate in school.  In a way, that’s great.  More people are taking time to appreciate this planet we live on, and kids are learning from a young age that recycling is good and littering is bad.  And for a while, it seemed like that might be enough for one day.  We had a president who believed that climate change was real and posed a genuine threat.  We felt safe and secure that the EPA and environmental protection legislation weren’t going anywhere.  And though we worried about the effects of climate change and had to fight to protect our planet, we could at least feel like maybe our climate marches and environmental activism were pushing things in the right direction.  Earth Day could afford to be an apolitical celebration of nature and recycling.

We are living in a very different world now than we were last Earth Day.  Much like the National Parks Service, the once uncontroversial Earth Day has unexpectedly become subversive and rebellious.  Our government is run by climate change deniers who seem hell-bent on destroying the environment.  Facts and science have become political.  Things like climate change and environmental protection are seen as topics for political debate instead of just objective fact.  Science isn’t supposed to be political.  Facts aren’t partisan.  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”  We shouldn’t need to be organizing protests for something as objective and unwavering as science, and yet, that’s exactly what happened around the world today.

Lat year on Earth Day, Barack Obama signed the Paris Climate Agreement.  This year, we’re marching to urge our leaders to listen to facts.  In our current political climate, it’s not enough to celebrate Earth Day by appreciating nature and picking up trash.  The time for uncontroversial, apolitical Earth Day is over.  We’re on the defensive now, and it’s time we return Earth Day to its political, radical roots.  In the Age of Trump, Earth Day, like just about everyone and everything else, can’t afford to shy away from the political.  Earth Day under Trump is an act of rebellion.  A revolution led by rebel scientists and rogue park rangers might not be what anyone expected, but it’s exactly what we need to save the world.

Women You Missed in History Class: Aphra Behn

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Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”  So who was this woman that we all have to thank?  Well, she was many things: She was a playwright, poet, novelist, and possibly the first woman to earn a living by writing.  She was also a spy for King Charles II.  Very little is known about Aphra Behn’s early life, and it seems she wanted it that way.  She is believed to have been born in 1640, but nobody knows her exact birth date, who her parents were, or even if her name really was Aphra Behn.  Some versions of her childhood have her growing up in Suriname for a few years, possibly as the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson, who was appointed lieutenant general of Suriname.  She returned to England in 1664 and married a Dutch merchant, but their marriage was short lived.  It’s unclear whether he died or the couple separated, but either way, Behn was left destitute, and she began writing to support herself.

Behn wrote many poems, plays, and novels, but her most well-known work is Oroonoko, which she published in 1688.  It’s a short novel which follows the journey of its eponymous protagonist, an African prince who is captured and sold into slavery in the British colony of Suriname.  Behn said the story was inspired by a slave she met while living in Suriname, and its nuanced treatment of slavery, race, and gender have secured it a place in the British literary canon.  She wrote a total of 19 plays and was one of the most prominent dramatists of the English Restoration era.  Her early plays were mostly tragicomedies, but over the years, she shifted more towards comedy and farce.  Her witty, lighthearted comedies enjoyed great commercial success, and the theater provided her with the bulk of her income until her death.  Her most successful play was The Rover, a comedy in two parts which was first performed in 1677.  As a poet, she earned a reputation as a successor to Sappho, and published two collections of her poetry.

During her life, Behn was the subject of some scandal and curiosity, both because of the novelty of being a woman writer, and because of the themes and content of her work.  She wrote about contemporary events, often thinly veiled as allegory or satire, but still recognizable to her audience.  She wasn’t afraid to voice her opinions on contemporary social issues, and was often mocked for writing in a “masculine” style.  She shocked readers and audiences by writing about female sexuality and sexual pleasure, and arguing that women had a right to sexual pleasure.  Her poem “The Disappointment” is the story of a sexual encounter told from the woman’s point of view.  Readers decried it as “vulgar” and “improper,” but Behn maintained that her poetry would not have caused any such problems if it had been written by a man.  Homoeroticism was a common theme in Behn’s work, and she wrote openly about her love for both men and women.

In addition to being a trailblazing writer, Behn was also a spy.  She was recruited by King Charles II in 1665 to be a spy in Antwerp.  Her work as a spy is the first clear, well-documented record of Behn’s life and activities.  She was sent to Antwerp to establish a relationship with William Scot, the son of a conspirator of the murder of King Charles I, who was living in exile.  It was believed that Scot could be recruited as an English spy and report on the activities of English exiles plotting against the king.  Although it appears she succeeded in the mission, she was unprepared for the cost of living, and received little support from the king.  He was supposed to pay for her travel to and from Antwerp, and pay her for her services while there, but it appears that Behn was never compensated for her labor.  After one month of living abroad, she had to pawn her jewelry, and had to borrow money for her trip back to England.  Some records have a warrant being issued for her arrest as a result of her indebtedness.  Although she definitely wrote her way out of debt, there is no evidence that she was ever arrested or put in debtor’s prison.

In her later years, her health began to decline, and she reached a point where she struggled to hold a pen.  Still, she continued to write until her death on April 16, 1689.  She is buried in Westminster Abbey.  Aphra Behn’s life may have been a mystery, but her legacy is clear.  She was one of the most important English dramatists of the 17th century, and her prose work played a key role in the development of the English novel.  She broke barriers, challenged gender roles, and paved the way for future generations of female writers.  It’s easy to see why Virginia Woolf believed women, especially women writers, owed a debt of gratitude to Aphra Behn.  If I’m ever in Westminster Abbey, you can be sure I’ll follow Virginia Woolf’s direction.

Women You Missed in History Class: Caroline Herschel

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Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

One of the greatest astronomers in history spent virtually her entire career in the shadow of her older brother.  And sure, her brother discovered the planet Uranus, and that’s a pretty big deal, but that doesn’t excuse Caroline Herschel’s erasure from history.  Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on March 16, 1750.  Her father was an oboist, and the entire Herschel family inherited his musical inclination.  When Caroline was 10, she fell ill with typhus, which stunted her growth and left her blind in her left eye.  As an adult, she stood only 4’3″.  Her mother assumed she would never get married, and believed she should prepare for a life as a house servant, so young Caroline was tasked with much of the household upkeep.  Her father attempted to educate her at home in between chores, but Caroline only received a cursory education.  She could read, write, and do basic arithmetic, but that was about it.  She never even finished learning her multiplication tables.

After the death of her father in 1772, Herschel moved to Bath, England to live with her brother William.  William was 12 years her senior, and had moved to England to work as a music teacher and church organist.  Herschel trained as a singer and began singing in William’s church.  William organized several concerts, and Caroline quickly became his principal soloist.  She acquired a reputation as a talented vocalist and was offered several singing engagements.  In the late 1770s, William began to shift his focus from music to astronomy.  He organized fewer and fewer concerts, and since Caroline refused to sing for any conductor but William, her music career began to decline as well.  Caroline and William gave their last performance in 1782, at which point William became an astronomer in the court of King George III, giving up music and pursuing astronomy full time.  Caroline, who was extremely devoted to her brother, followed him in this new pursuit.  She started out just polishing telescope lenses and recording William’s observations, but as William taught her more about astronomy, she began doing some work of her own.

What started out as just helping her brother became a lifelong passion for Herschel.  William eventually built her a telescope of her own so she could search the night sky.  On August 1, 1786, Herschel noticed an object traveling through the sky.  The next night, it was there again, and she began studying its path.  She informed William and several other astronomers of what she had found.  As it turned out, Herschel had just become the first woman to discover a comet.  After that discovery, her scientific contributions began to get noticed.  In 1787, King George III officially employed her as William’s assistant and paid her a salary of 50 pounds a year.  She was the first British woman to be paid for her contributions to science.  Between 1786 and 1797, Herschel discovered eight comets.  The 35P/Herschel-Rigollet comet is named after her.  In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her its Gold Medal for her work producing a catalog of nebulae.  She was the first woman to win the award, and it would not be given to another woman until Vera Rubin in 1996.

By the time of her death in 1848 at the age of 97, Herschel had discovered or contributed to the discovery of over 2000 celestial objects.  She lived long enough to see her work earn the recognition it deserved: By the time of her death, she was one of the most well-known and respected astronomers in Europe.  She had been awarded several medals and was the first woman elected as an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society.  Today, however, she is not nearly as well known as she should be.  Although an asteroid, several comets, and a crater on the moon all bear her name, the name Caroline Herschel should be one that we all know and remember every time we look up at the night sky.

Women You Missed in History Class: Arabella Mansfield

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Arabella Mansfield (1846-1911)

The courts have played a crucial role in the fight for women’s rights.  From Reed v. Reed to Roe v. Wade, landmark court cases have shaped the status of women’s rights for decades, but courts haven’t always been accessible to women.  Until Arabella Mansfield came along, women were not allowed to practice law anywhere in the US.  Mansfield was born May 23, 1846 on a farm in Burlington, Iowa.  Her father abandoned the family for the California Gold Rush, so Mansfield and her brother, Washington Irving Babb, were raised by their mother, Mary.  Mansfield and her brother were extremely close their whole lives and attended the same schools.  In 1862, Mansfield enrolled in Iowa Wesleyan University along with her brother.  The Civil War had taken many young men away from academia, so Iowa Wesleyan was one of many universities that began admitting women to fill those spots.  Mansfield and her brother both graduated in 1866.  She was valedictorian; he was salutatorian.

After graduation, Babb joined a law office in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, while Mansfield taught English, history, and political science at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa as one of the first female college professors in America.  In 1868, she returned to Mount Pleasant and spent two years studying law in her brother’s office.  Her brother and her husband, John Mansfield, both encouraged her to pursue her study of law.  At the time, the Iowa State Bar Exam was restricted by law to “white males over 21,” but Mansfield took it anyway.  She scored very high, which upset several male attorneys who challenged her status in court.  The court ruled that women and minorities could not be excluded from the Iowa state bar, and Mansfield was admitted to the bar.  Iowa became the first state in the nation to allow women to practice law, and Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States.

Although she was the first woman to be admitted to a state bar, she never actually practiced law.  Instead, she became a professor of law at Iowa Wesleyan University, and later served as Dean of the School of Art at DePauw University (then Indiana Asbury University), making her one of the first female college administrators in the United States.  She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement and joined the executive committee of the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869.  In 1870, she chaired the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention and later helped organize the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Society.  She served as the group’s secretary, and campaigned for voting rights and educational opportunities for women.

In 1869, Mansfield was the only female lawyer in the United States, but just a few decades later, there were enough women practicing law that they had a National League of Women Lawyers, which Mansfield joined in 1893.  Mansfield died August 1, 1911, nine years before the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote.  Though she didn’t live to see the women’s suffrage movement achieve its ultimate goal, her life and work transformed American society and opened doors for women in law and academia.  Since 2002, the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys has awarded the Arabella Mansfield Award to recognize exemplary female lawyers in the state of Iowa.

Women You Missed in History Class: Laura Bassi

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Laura Bassi (1711-1778)

18th century Europe was a pretty good place to be a scientist.  The scientific revolution had brought about huge advances in physics, astronomy, biology, and medicine.  The Age of Enlightenment was sweeping across the continent producing great thinkers, writers, and inventors.  This was the environment in which Laura Bassi, the first female professional scientist, grew up and lived her life.  The exact date of her birth is uncertain, but she was born in 1711 in Bologna, Italy.  Her father, a wealthy lawyer, recognized his young daughter’s academic gifts and hired a private tutor for her.  For seven years, Bassi studied with Gaetano Tacconi, a friend of the family and prominent professor at the University of Bologna.  Tacconi was able to introduce Bassi to some of the most prominent minds of the time, including Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, who spread word of Bassi’s intelligence.  Bassi was particularly interested in Newtonian science, and became a subject of some fascination as a woman who understood Newton, especially given that few men at the time were able to understand Newton.

On April 17, 1732, a 21-year-old Bassi stood before four University of Bologna professors in the Palazzo Pubblico and publicly defended her thesis, which showed the influence of Newton’s work on optics and light.  At the time, it was customary for students to defend their theses in the churches before educated clergy, but because Bassi had become famous in Bologna for her intelligence and scientific achievements, her thesis defense was made public.  She was awarded a doctorate of philosophy, making her only the second woman in the world to earn a PhD.  When she earned her PhD, Bologna celebrated her tremendous accomplishment with public celebrations in the streets and collections of poetry published in Bassi’s honor.

That same year, Bassi was offered a position at the University of Bologna, making her the world’s first female physics professor.  She gave her first lecture on the properties of water, but as a woman, she was not allowed to lecture in the university.  Instead, she began conducting lectures and research in her home, which became a laboratory for her students.  She hosted some of the most prominent scientists of the time, including Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery.  Bassi was also an early advocate of equal pay for women.  As her fame and contributions to the university grew, she petitioned for regular pay raises, eventually earning the highest salary in the university of 1,200 lire.  She used her extra pay to buy more advanced equipment for her students in her home laboratory.

In 1776, she was appointed chair of experimental physics at the University of Bologna, a position she held for only two years until her death in 1778.  She was the first woman to hold such a position.  Over the course of her career, she wrote or co-authored 28 papers, mostly on physics and hydraulics.  She played a crucial role in spreading Newtonian physics through Italy and made enormous scientific contributions, but today her name is not well known outside of the world of physics.  And that’s really a shame, because this trailblazing female scientist is a role model for smart girls everywhere.

Women You Missed in History Class: Senda Berenson Abbott

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Senda Berenson Abbott (1868-1954)

Since March is both Women’s History Month and March Madness, it is only appropriate that I highlight Senda Berenson Abbott, the mother of women’s basketball.  She was born Senda Valvrojenski on March 19, 1868 in Vilna, Lithuania, and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven years old.  Her father then changed the family name to Berenson as part of their Westernization.  Abbott’s father had been an observant Jew in Lithuania, but in Boston, he insisted that his family assimilate, and Abbott grew up observing some Jewish rituals, but speaking only English and attending Boston Latin Academy.  As a child, Abbott was described as “frail and delicate” and was often sick.  She showed little interest in athletics, preferring art and music, but when her poor health prevented her from taking piano lessons, she began attending the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1890 in an attempt to improve her physical health.  Though she really struggled with the exercises at first, by the end of her first year she had shown such a profound improvement that she enrolled for a second year.  She studied anatomy, physiology, and hygiene, and was hired as the head of the Gymnastics program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1892.

Abbott began working at Smith College just one month after James Naismith invented a new game called “basket ball” in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts.  Abbott met Naismith at a physical education conference at Yale University in 1892.  Berenson was finding it difficult to convince the students and faculty at Smith of the importance of exercise for young women at a time when exercise was seen as unfeminine.  Her students were often unenthusiastic about the gymnastic exercises she taught.  When she heard about Naismith’s new game, she wondered if it would be a good activity for her students.  Naismith encouraged her to try it, and in 1893, Abbott organized the first game of women’s basketball at Smith College.  Although the first game was played by Naismith’s rules, subsequent games were played by a modified set of rules designed to make the game more “appropriate” for women.  The court was divided into three regions, and players were not allowed to leave their assigned region.  Players could not dribble the ball more than three times or steal the ball from an opponent.  These modifications were made with the intention of avoiding the “roughness” of Naismith’s game and preventing “nervous fatigue” among female players.

That may not sound like the most progressive view of women’s basketball, but keep in mind that this was the 19th century.  Team sports for women were virtually unheard of and were considered too rigorous for women.  Abbott’s students were not accustomed to playing team sports, and didn’t take to Naismith’s rules, although they enjoyed the concept of the game.  Abbott’s modified rules made basketball more accessible to women of the time, who had never played a team sport before in their lives and had more or less been discouraged from any athletic activity at all.  Abbott’s goal wasn’t to get women playing sports at the same level as men, but rather to get them playing at all.  She believed women’s sports could combat gender inequality.  She noticed that one of the reasons given for refusing to hire women and paying them less than men was than women were perceived as weak and sickly, so she believed that women “need, therefore, all the more to develop health and endurance if they desire to become candidates for equal wages.”  She also saw team sports as a way to foster cooperation, decision making, and emotional and intellectual development in women.

After Abbott’s success introducing basketball to the women of Smith College, the game became so popular that Berenson published the first official rule book for women’s basketball, which was published by the Spalding Athletic Library in 1901.  In 1905, Berenson formed the United States Basket Ball Committee and served as its chair until 1917.  She retired from physical education in 1921 and died in 1984 at the age of 86.  By that time, women’s basketball had spread to colleges and clubs around the country.  Senda Berenson Abbott revolutionized women’s sports, opening doors for women and girls to participate in athletics in ways that had previously been available only to boys and men.  the success of women’s basketball inspired the development of field hockey, women’s volleyball, and other team sports for women.  For her contribution to basketball and to women’s sports, Abbot became the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.