Saturday, September 22, 2012

167: The Self-Empowered Woman: Harriet Tubman

Dear Followers,

I recently read an item about a new movie project that will profile the life of Harriet Tubman, legendary Abolitionist and Civil War spy. The actress Zoe Saldana has been chosen to portray the woman who helped so many slaves reach freedom via the Underground Railroad, but several critics felt that Saldana is too light-skinned and pretty to accurately portray the brave woman who had been given the name "Moses" because she'd "never lost a passenger." Reading about the controversy surrounding the movie piqued my curiosity about this 19th century American heroine.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820. Her maternal grandmother had arrived in America on slave ship from Africa, and her mother worked "in the big house" as a cook while her father was a skilled woodsman who managed the timber work on the plantation where he lived. Harriet had eight siblings, and by the age of six she was assigned to work as a nursemaid for an infant. Once, when the baby cried, Harriet was whipped and later (as a youngster) she was lashed--before breakfast--so cruelly that she carried the scars on her back for the rest of her life. She often wore extra layers of clothes to protect herself from beatings, and one time she even ran away for five days.

As an adolescent, she was once sent to a store for supplies, and while there she saw a slave who had left the fields without permission. When she was told to restrain the young man, she refused, and the furious overseer threw a two pound metal weight at him--but, instead, it struck her head instead. Bleeding and unconscious, she was returned to the plantation, but received no medical care. Her boss said she was worthless, and her owner was unable to sell her. She began having seizures, would appear to fall asleep without warning, and suffered from mental "episodes" (which included headaches, narcoleptic attacks and seizures) for the rest of her life (12: Hard Times).

Harriet was a devout Christian, in part because--as an illiterate child--her mother had told her countless Bible stories. She, however, rejected the idea that slaves should be obedient, and preferred the Old Testament stories of deliverance (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). One abolitionist wrote, "I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. Throughout her life she felt that the dreams and visions she experienced after the attack were revelations from God."

In 1849, Harriet and her brothers (Ben and Harry) had been "hired out" to a different plantation owner and escaped.  After a reward of $100 had been posted, the three returned because Ben and Harry wanted to go back. But Harriet soon left again, and was able to warn her friends of her escape plans by singing coded messages that seemed like gospel songs. She later used spirituals to warn fellow travellers on the Underground Railroad of danger ahead or to signal a clear path (9: Music).

Using the Underground Railroad (which was organized by free and enslaved blacks, Quakers and white abolitionists), the 90 mile journey to Pennsylvania probably took close to two weeks because she could only travel at night--guided by the North Star. In December 1850, Harriet bravely returned to Maryland, where she was able to help other family members escape (11: Risk Addiction). Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison named her "Moses" because in the book of Exodus the prophet "led the Hebrews to freedom from Egypt."

In 1851, she returned to Dorchester County with the plan of helping her husband, John Tubman, escape. She had saved money and purchased a suit that he could wear on the way to Philadelphia. But she learned that he had married another woman, was happy with his life, and had no interest in going North with Harriet (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Tubman used the opportunity to lead another group of slaves into Pennsylvania instead.

During this time, Fredrick Douglass became her strongest supporter. In a letter to her he wrote, "most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day--you in the night...The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism" (4: Supportive Someone).

During her trips to Pennsylvania she carried a revolver because slaves were not allowed to change their mind or turn back. She did not hesitate to point a gun at a man's head and say, "You go on or die" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). There was a large ransom (or bounty) for the five foot tall disabled former slave, but she was never captured--nor were any of the slaves she guided to freedom (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

In 1863, while the Civil War was raging, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Harriet began to work for the Union Army under orders from Secretary of War Edwin W. Stanton. At that time she became the first woman to ever lead an armed assault during the Civil War, and her efforts helped over 700 slaves escape (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Tubman was eventually able to purchase a home in Auburn, New York, but during a train ride after the Civil War a conductor told her to move back to the smoking car. She refused and cited her government service, but he became angry and grabbed her, while enlisting the help of two other passengers to force her to move. During the scuffle her arm was broken, she suffered other injuries, and passengers cursed her while urging the conductor to kick her off the train. So even though she was regarded as a heroine by many, there was no shortage of people who saw her as a troublemaker.

Tubman's last years were spent in Auburn, where she worked various jobs and took in boarders so she could care for her elderly parents, other family members, and local people in need.  One of her boarders was a bricklayer named Nelson Davis who was a Civil War veteran.  Although he was 22 years younger than she, they married in 1869 and spent the nest 20 years together; in 1874, they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.
After her death in 1913, she was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery, and Booker T. Washington paid tribute to her groundbreaking work. At the end of the 20th Century she was named as one of the most famous civilians in American history before the Civil War--third only to Betsy Ross and Paul Revere. In 1944, the SS Harriet Tubman became the first Liberty Ship to be named for a black woman. And in 1978, The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of her as the first in a series honoring African Americans. Her name has been included on a list of the 100 greatest African Americans, and two movies (A Woman Called Moses and The Quest For Freedom) have already been made (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, September 14, 2012

166: The Self-Empowered Woman; Muslim Brotherhood

Dear Followers,

Muslim Brotherhood

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens

This week, after the tragic death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others at the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, all eyes have been on the current unrest in the Middle East. Anti-American protests have erupted in Yemen and Egypt, and some believe it was due to outrage over an "inflammatory" YouTube video while others believe it was a Taliban 9/11 "reminder."

Before the demonstrations began last week, I had been planning on blogging about what I consider to be an alarming situation in Cairo. A botany professor at the University of Cairo, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been holding "premarital counseling" classes that are a clear indication of how women in that part of the world are regarded.

The workshop is called "Bride and Groom Against Satan," and is sponsored by Family House, a charity financed by the Brotherhood. Family House also offers financial support to those in need, a matchmaking service, and group weddings for low-income couples.

The new President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, was a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even though the "Arab Spring" protests included many women, the chances of females faring well in Egypt's future social agenda are looking pretty grim.

During his lectures, Mr. Abou Salama asks his class, "Can you, as a woman, take a decision and handle the consequences of your decision?" Then, he lectures, "No. But men can. And God created us this way because a ship cannot have more than one captain." During the seminars men sit at the front of the room, and women sit in the back. The overall message is that women were created to be "obedient wives and mothers while men were created to fend for their families."

Since Mr. Morsi was elected in June, Family House's social outreach programs have grown dramatically, and in less then a year they have gone from one office to 18 different branches all around Egypt. They are encouraging all young couples to attend these seminars.

When Mr. Morsi was elected, he told voters that he would protect the rights of women, include them in political decision making, and appoint a female Vice President. Instead, his 21-member team of aides included only three women--one of whom has been a member of the Brotherhood
since 1981. She told The New York Times that "A woman can work as much as she wants, but within the framework of our religious restrictions."

The new President's political program (called "The Renaissance") has placed heavy emphasis on a woman's "Authentic role as wife, mother and purveyor of generations." It's worth noting that during the former Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed.

Walaa Abdel Halim, the coordinator who organizes the Family House's youth counseling workshops, has said "Shaping a religious individual leads to shaping a righteous family, and by shaping a righteous family, you get a righteous society that can choose a righteous leader."

The vast majority of women in Egypt already cover their hair and stay separate from men in coed environments. They sit quietly in Mr. Abou Salama's classes, and appear to understand and agree with him when he tells them "I want you to be the flower that attracts a bee to make honey, not the trash that attracts flies and dirt."

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

165: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Blackwell

Dear Followers,

Today, most of us take going to a female physician for granted, but the photo above will serve as an introduction to Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first (English born) woman in America to receive a medical degree. Born in Bristol, England in 1821, she was the third of nine children and grew up in an unusual family. Her father (a sugar refiner) was what was then called a "dissenter," because he refused to accept the authority of the Church of England. Because of his strongly Quaker (3: Belief In The Unbelievable) politics, his children were not accepted at public school and had to be tutored at home. Against English tradition, he gave his daughters the same education that his sons received, and his wife tutored the children in music and literature (9: Music).

When Elizabeth was eleven years old, a fire destroyed her father's business and the family moved to New York. But when the economy faltered in 1837, he lost most of his wealth so they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. As Quakers, they valued that Ohio was against slavery, and they hoped to rebuild their business. Unfortunately, within only a few months he died of biliary fever, which left the family in a precarious financial position (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

During these difficult years, Elizabeth and her sisters supported the family by operating a boarding school for young women. When she was 21 years old, she accepted a teaching position in Kentucky, in order to earn money for medical school--but she only stayed one year because the racial attitudes there offended her strong Abolitionist (and Quaker) beliefs.

When she returned to Ohio, a friend who had undergone treatment for a serious gynecological disorder told Elizabeth that she wished she could of had a female doctor treat her because it would have spared her enduring "an embarrassing ordeal." Even though, at first, Elizabeth rejected the idea of studying medicine, it soon became her only goal. Even though there were no female doctors (friends suggested that she travel to France and disguise herself as a man to get into medical school), the study and practice of medicine soon became the most important thing in her life (7:Magnificent Obsession).

Three years later she moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she taught school. She lived (and studied medicine in her spare time) at the home of Doctor John Dickson, where she had access to his medical library. The next year she moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to teach at a girls school and continue her medical studies with Dickson's brother, Samuel (4:Supportive Someone).

Determined to become a doctor, she applied to 29 different schools, but was rejected by all of them. Finally, in 1847, she was admitted to the Geneva New York Medical College, but learned later that she had been admitted as a "practical joke" because no other woman had ever even tried to gain admittance to a medical school (11: Risk Addiction).

At first, denied permission to attend classroom demonstrations, and most of the people who heard about her goal considered her to be either immoral or crazy (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). Fortunately, her quiet personality and strong work ethic turned her classmates and teachers into fans. When (in 1849) she graduated at the head of her class as the first woman in the United States to ever earn a medical degree, it made news on both sides of the Atlantic (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Unable to find a job or work at a hospital, she moved to Paris, France and continued her training at La Maternite Hospital. While working with young children there who had conjunctivitis, she contacted the eye disease purulent ophthalmia. As a result, she was left blind in one eye, was forced to have it removed, and replaced with a glass eye. This put an end to her hopes of being a surgeon (12: Hard Times).

She returned to New York City, but again was rejected whenever she applied for work as a doctor. So in 1857, she and her sister, Emily, opened a private practice in a rented room; their dispensary, which was originally called The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, later became The New York Infirmary and College for Women. Located near Tompkins Square, it was unique for being a practice "operated by and for women."

In 1856, she adopted Katherine "Kitty" Barry, an orphan, who became her devoted companion for the rest of her life (16: Intensive Motherhood). There is no record that Blackwell ever fell in love or married (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

As a Quaker, Blackwell (and her entire family) was active in the anti-slavery movement. One of her brothers married suffragette Lucy Stone, and another married Antoinette Brown, who was also important to the struggles of women's rights movement at that time. When the Civil War broke out, Doctor Blackwell organized a unit of female nurses/field doctors to help the Union Army. By 1868, she was able to establish a Women's Medical College at the infirmary.

In 1869, she left her sister in charge of the college and returned to England. With Florence Nightingale she opened the Women's Medical College and also taught at the London School of Medicine for Women. In addition she also opened the first training school for nurses in the U.S. in 1873, published a number of books about hygiene, diseases, and women's issues, and became the first female physician in the U.K. Medical Register (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 1907, she was injured in a fall and never fully recovered. After a stroke, she died at her home in Hastings, England, in 1910.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

164: The Self-Empowered Woman: Lisa Murphy

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorite people, Lisa Murphy. A little over a year ago, Lisa contacted me because she needed help telling a story that was extremely near to her heart. She had heard, through the South Florida literary grapevine, that I often helped aspiring authors "structure and polish" their book projects. Some of my writers call me their "Book Doctor," and others have nicknamed me "Coach."

Since I've started working with other people on their projects, several of these (very different) books have happily made their way into print. Naturally, I get deeply invested in these manuscripts, and so far my fingerprints (and red-ink scribbles) have been all over two cookbooks, two advice books, two memoirs, one biography and one novel. But Lisa's project, which turned into With An Open Heart, is a book that has touched me as no other collaboration has. 

Lisa's goal was to write a loving book about the profound effect that her adorable, little adopted son from China, Daniel, had on everyone he met. Even though Daniel only lived with his loving American family for four short months, his death saddened--literally--what seemed like half of South Florida's population. (Not to mention the out-of-state and Internet friends and family who had grown to love this adorable toddler who just happened to have an ailing heart.)

Every week, without fail, Lisa would arrive at my house (a 45-minute drive each way) with a new chapter in need of "doctoring." Some sessions would be devoted to tempo, some to syntax, and others to simply finding the best way to tell the story of a family denied its dream of giving unlimited love to an orphaned little boy. Along the way, the project helped Lisa pay tribute to Daniel, and taught me that the most heroic heart I'd ever met was buried deep inside the facade of an outwardly ordinary 46 year old housewife. 

As all of you know, for decades I've been fascinated by accomplished women who have chosen to live "unusual" or "unorthodox" lives, and have (usually against all odds) achieved some level of "success" while doing so. So imagine my surprise to discover that Lisa Murphy, whose only dream was to give a loving home to children in need, would develop--during our weekly sessions--into one of my most-admired Self-Empowered Women. 

Perhaps it's because I'm adopted (or maybe because Lisa never even tried to mask the kaleidoscope of feelings that her book project brought to the surface), or maybe because her words made Daniel's spirit come alive on each and every page she brought to our book sessions. Whatever the reason, I became Lisa's biggest fan--both personally and professionally.

With An Open Heart has just been published, and I hope that you will support Lisa's endeavor by ordering a copy for yourself and/or someone else who loves children. The link to her beautiful, inspiring book appears above. For anyone who has lost a child, considered adoption, or wondered what it's like to travel to China as a couple and then make the trip back home as a parent, this lovely book is nothing less than required reading.

Looking forward to your comments...