Thursday, December 19, 2013

206: The Self-Empowered Woman: My Holiday Wish for You

Dear Followers,

I received this amusing email from my late father-in-law's widow, and thought I'd pass it along.  Helen is in her 80s, and it's nice to know that a good sense of humor doesn't fade.  Enjoy...

Merry Christmas To My Female Friends

If I were ol' Santa, you know what I'd do
I'd dump silly gifts that are given to you
And deliver some things just inside your front door
Things you have lost, but treasured before.

I'd give you back all your maidenly vigor,
And to go along with it, a neat tiny figure.
Then restore the old color that once graced your hair
Before rinses and bleaches took residence there.

I'd bring back the shape with which you were gifted
So things now suspended need not be uplifted.
I'd draw in your tummy and smooth down your back
Till you'd be a dream in those tight fitting slacks.

I'd remove all your wrinkles and leave only one chin
So you wouldn't spend hours rubbing grease on your skin.
You'd never have flashes or queer dizzy spells,
And you wouldn't hear noises like ringing of bells.

No sore aching feet and no corns on your toes,
No searching for spectacles when they're right on your nose.
Not a shot would you take in your arm, hip or fanny,
From a doctor who thinks you're a nervous old granny.

You'd never have a headache, so no pills would you take.
And no heating pad needed since your muscles won't ache.
Yes, if I were Santa, you'd never look stupid,
You'd be a cute little chick with the romance of a cupid.

I'd give a lift to your heart when those wolves start to whistle,
And the joys of your heart would be light as a thistle.
But alas! I'm not Santa. I'm simply just me,
The matronest of matrons you ever did see.

I wish I could tell you all the symptoms I've got,
But I'm due at my doctor's for an estrogen shot.
Even though we've grown older, this wish is sincere,
Merry Christmas to you and a Happy New Year.

Save the Earth; it is the only planet with chocolate!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

205: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Dear Followers,

Practically everyone knows that Dr. Ruth--who studied at the Sorbonne and rose to fame in the 1980s--is America's most popular sex therapist. But few know about her life before success and stardom.
Her birth name was Karola Ruth Siegel, and she was born in Wiesenfeld, Germany in June 1928. Her parents (she was an only child) were Orthodox Jews (3: Belief In The Unbelievable), and soon afterwards Hitler began actively promoting genocide against the Jews. When she was ten years old, her father was taken by the Nazis (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and in January 1939, her mother and grandmother sent her to an orphanage in Switzerland. Letters from her parents stopped arriving by September 1941, and four years later she learned that her parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, probably at Auschwitz (12: Hard Times).
As a teenager, she emigrated to Palestine, where she joined the Haganah as a scout and sniper (11: Risk Addiction). When an exploding shell seriously wounded her in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, she was unable to walk for several months. Two years later she moved to Paris, and six years after that she immigrated to the United States (14: Selective Disassociation).
Dr. Ruth speaks English, French, German and Hebrew, and has written a number of books on human sexuality. She received her master's degree in sociology from The New School; her doctorate in education is from Columbia. She completed her post-doctoral work in human sexuality at New York-Presbyterian Hospital (10: The Critic Within).
In 1980, Maurice Tunick, who was the program coordinator at WYNY (NBC Radio's New York City station) joined with Betty Elam to launch a fifteen minute program at midnight on Sunday night starring Dr. Ruth and called "Sexually Speaking" (4: Supportive Someone). Within two months the show was expanded to an hour, and soon Dr. Ruth was appearing on TV shows like David Letterman. By 1982, Lifetime cable gave Dr. Ruth her first TV show, and she has also appeared on Israeli TV, PBS and has made guest appearances on a wide variety of programs (13: More Than Meets The Eye). 
Dr. Ruth is only four foot seven, wears size four shoes, has been married three times, and has a son and a daughter (who both have earned doctorates in education, just like their mother) and several grandchildren. At 85, she remains active, and recently allowed a New York Times reporter to write about her three-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights, Manhattan.
Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

204 The Self-Empowered Woman: Mary Poppins/ P.L. Travers

Dear Followers,


Since there's been a great deal of publicity lately regarding the new film Saving Mr. Banks (starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as the irritable P.L. Travers), this seems like a good time to learn more about the woman who created Mary PoppinsPamela Lyndon Travers was born on August 9th, 1899 in Queensland Australia, and her birth name was Helen Lyndon Goff. Her mother was the niece of the Premier of Queensland, and her alcoholic father was an unsuccessful bank manager who died of influenza when Helen was only eight years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net).
Biographers believe that her creative career choice actually began only a few weeks after her father died. Her grief-stricken mother (who planned to drown herself in a nearby creek) had left her alone at home and in charge of her two younger sisters on a dark stormy night. To entertain her sisters she told them a fairytale about a magical white horse that could fly even though it had no wings--26 years later she would write about a magical nanny who could also fly without wings. And as a teenager, she also wrote poems and articles for local publications (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).
After her father's death, the family moved to New Zealand, but soon Helen changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers, and moved to Sydney where she began a career as a writer, dancer and model. When she was 24, she travelled to England with only ten pounds in her pocket (11: Risk Addiction). The gamble paid off, and she began writing newspaper columns for The Sun.
She began travelling to Dublin, and became friends with George Russell, the editor of The Irish Statesman. He became her mentor, and introduced her to a wide variety of accomplished writers, including Yeats (4: Supportive Someone). During her visits to Ireland she became exposed to various forms of astrology and mysticism; she also became an acolyte of the spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).
In 1934, while recuperating from pleurisy (a lung disease), she moved out of London and into a cottage in Sussex, where she entertained two visiting children with a story about a nanny with an umbrella and a carpetbag. The story turned into Mary Poppins, was illustrated by the daughter of the Winnie the Pooh artist, and was published in 1934. The Mary Poppins books published from 1934 through 1989 became wildly successful (7: Magnificent Obsession).  
She had an unfortunately turbulent love life, and her lovers included a much older man, then an American bookshop owner, followed by an Irish poet (15: Forget About Prince Charming). As A broken-hearted 40 year old, she travelled to Killiney, Ireland where she was going to adopt a baby boy from a poor family. When she arrived she discovered there were twins, and on the advice of her astrologer she chose to adopt only one. Her new son's name was Camillus, but both his young years and adulthood were unhappy.
Travers was constantly able to change homes and locales during her life--to England, Ireland, New York, Arizona, Russia, Harvard, Japan, etc... (14: Selective Disassociation). Walt Disney's daughter fell in love with the book Mary Poppins, but it took him twenty years to persuade Travers to give him movie rights. She was notoriously difficult to work with, and made no secret about her dislike of everything connected with the movie. Richard Sherman who over a two and a half year period co-wrote the musical score for the movie told an interviewer, "She didn't care about our feelings, how she chopped us apart." She hated all the music, including Chim Chim Cheree, A Spoonful Of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). In spite of her disdain, Mr. Sherman and his brother won two Academy Awards for their work on Mary Poppins.  Julie Andrews  also won an Oscar.
Even though  her life was full of adventure and success, she definitely suffered. She told an interviewer that "Mary Poppins is the story of my life...Sorrow lies like a heartbeat behind everything I have written." She and Disney fought so bitterly that she wasn't even invited to the Mary Poppins premier. She begged for an invitation, but spent her time at the 1964 screening crying with her gloved hands clenched into fists (12: Hard Times).
All in all, Travers wrote 21 books, and died in 1996 (she was 96) from an epileptic seizure.
Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

203: The Self-Empowered Woman: Whoopi Goldberg/Moms Mabley

Dear Followers,

I don't know how many of you watched Whoopi Goldberg's amazing HBO special on Moms Mabley, but it was a real eye opener. Mabley was the first successful female comedian, and she paved the way for women to be both financially secure and funny. So today's blog will take a brief look at both of these talented women.

 Whoopi Goldberg's real name is Caryn Elaine Johnston, and she and I both share a November 13th birthday. Some records indicate that she was born in 1949, while others say her birth year is 1955. Her mother was a nurse and a teacher whom Whoopi has described as "stern, strong and wise." Her father was a clergyman, but left the family, which meant that Whoopi was raised by a single mother (1: No Paternal Safety Net). 

When her career was in its early stages, she was trained by acting teacher Uta Hagen, and later she was "discovered" by director Steven Speilberg (4: Supportive Someone). During her varied and impressive career she has earned a reputation for creating controversy--especially when it comes to gender, personality or political issues (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

Whoopi has had a bumpy love life--with three divorces and two high-profile romances--Ted Dansen and Frank Langella (15: Forget About Prince Charming). When she was 18 years old, she and her then-husband had a daughter (Alexandrea), and Whoopi became a grandmother at the age of 34, when her first granddaughter arrived on her November 13th birthday. She has three grandchildren, and has always lived near them (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Whoopi's amazing career has involved almost every aspect of popular entertainment, and she is one of only a handful of entertainers to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award. In 1993, when she made Sister Act 2, she was one of Hollywood's highest paid movie actresses (13: More Than Meets The Eye). These days, she is best known for her appearances on The View.

Goldberg is the first African American actress to have received Academy Award nominations for both "best" and "best supporting roles." She has continually pushed herself to excel in almost every aspect of her life from activism (comic relief, LGBT, acting, directing, producing and writing(10: The Critic Within). Since the age of eleven--When she was supposed to go see The Nutcracker, but she went exploring instead (11: Risk Taking).

Now here's some information about Moms Mabley, who was born in 1897 and died in 1975.  She was a star at Harlem's Apollo Theater, and also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  She was born in North Carolina, had 15 siblings, and her father--who was a volunteer fireman--died when a fire engine exploded when she was only eleven years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  When she was 18, her mother was run over by a truck while returning home from church on Christmas day.

By the time she was 14 years old, she had been raped twice and had two children who were given up for adoption (12: Hard Times).  When she was 27, and working as a comedian on the Chitlin' Circuit of African-American vaudeville, she came out as a lesbian and wore male clothing (11: Risk Addiction). 

Her brother, Eddie Parton, helped her polish her routine and become more popular (4: Supportive Someone).  At her most successful, she was making $10,000 a week, and recorded more than 20 albums of comedy routines.  She became famous for her stage persona--where she wore a baggy house dress, a floppy hat, and removed her false teeth (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Contest).

When she was 75 years old, Moms Mabley became the oldest person to ever have a U.S. top 40 hit with her recording of "Abraham, Martin and John" (13: More Than Meets The Eye).  She died in 1975, and is credited as being the first successful female American stand up comic.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

202: The Self-Empowered Woman: S. Josephine Baker

Dear Followers,

When most of us hear the name "Josephine Baker" we think of the exotic cabaret dancer who set Paris on fire decades ago. But I'd like to introduce you to S. Josephine Baker, who changed the face of public health medicine. Born on November 15th, 1873, to a wealthy Quaker family (3: Belief In The Unbelievable), as a young teenager she had planned to accept a scholarship to attend Vassar. But when she was 16, both her brother and her father died of typhoid (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and she decided to pursue a career in medicine (2: An Early Sense of Direction).  
Her family did not support her decision to become a physician (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream), but in spite of their skepticism about female doctors, she enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1894. This school had been founded by America's first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Baker was able to meet other inspiring women doctors. After her graduation in 1898, she interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. That is where she first understood the connection between poverty and poor health, which became her life-long passion (7: Magnificent Obsession).
In 1899, she opened a private practice in New York City, and also worked as a medical examiner for the New York Life Insurance Company. She also worked part-time as a medical inspector for New York City, and by 1907, was made assistant commissioner of health. Dealing with small pox vaccination was part of her responsibility during this time, and she had a major role in identifying "Typhoid Mary," a cook who had unknowingly spread typhoid throughout the city.
In 1908, Baker was appointed director of the new Bureau of Child Hygiene, where she developed important public health programs. She started the Little Mothers League, which was a program that helped siblings care for younger brothers and sisters so that mothers could go to work and help support their families. In 1917, she told an interviewer that babies born in The United States faced a higher mortality rate (12%) than American soldiers fighting in French trenches in World War I (2%). During that time 1,500 babies routinely died of diarrhea every week during the summer. That same year she became the first woman to earn a doctorate in public health from NYU (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
Baker met with a great deal of resistance, and at one point several dozen Brooklyn doctors petitioned the mayor to shut down her agency. But she was widely credited with saving the lives of 90,000 inner-city children, and soon other cities began to follow her suggestions. By the time she retired from city government (in 1923), all 48 states had a bureau of child health patterned after Baker's (8: Turning No Into Yes).
Baker was the driving force behind helping educate inner-city immigrants, distributing formula to infants and milk to children, preventing gonorrhea-created infant blindness, licensing midwives, and placing nurses in schools. Because so many male doctors were hostile (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest) to both Baker and her work (she was in charge of supervising a staff that included many dismissive male doctors), she eventually went out of her way to wear clothes that minimized her femininity.
Baker died in 1945, and if you'd like to learn more about her contributions to the world of public health, Fighting for Life (her autobiography, originally published in 1939) has just been reissued by New York Review Books.         
Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

201: The Self-Empowered Woman: Marin Alsop

Dear Followers,

Since September 2007, Marin Alsop has been the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is notable because she is the first woman ever to hold this position with a major American orchestra. Her tenure has been so successful that her contract has been extended through the 2020-2021 season. In 2005, she became the first conductor to ever receive a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant."

She was born on October 16th, 1956, in New York City to parents who were professional musicians, and began studying the violin when she was a toddler. Her first exposure to sexism came when she was only nine years old, and her father took her to a Young People's Concert that was conducted Leonard Bernstein. She told her parents "That's what I want to be!" (2: An Early Sense of Direction) and they were supportive, but her violin teacher said, "Girls don't do that." Alsop's mother not only insisted that Marin could be anything she wanted to be, she even bought a box full of batons for her daughter the very next day.

Alsop earned her Master's degree in violin from Juilliard, but still dreamt of becoming a conductor (7: Magnificent Obsession). Carl Bamberger, a renowned conductor and music teacher became a mentor as did Leonard Bernstein (4: Supportive Someone),  and in 1984, her orchestra (The Concordia) had it's first concert in New York's Symphony Space. When she took part in a forum on creative leadership at George Washington University, she told students, "Pound and pound and pound at the front door, and while no one's looking, just walk around the side and climb in the window. That's sort of what I did."

A great deal of controversy surrounded her selection as music director of the Baltimore Symphony because many members of the orchestra questioned her abilities (13: More Than Meets The Eye). It was a humiliating situation, but Marin insisted on meeting with the orchestra so she could tell them about her plan and vision. The musicians told her, "You have 110 percent of our support," and after her first performance with them (in September, 2007), the crowd gave her a standing ovations both before and after the orchestra's performance (8: Turning No Into Yes). She has been the music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California since 1992, as well as the principal conductor of the Sao Paolo State Symphony Orchestra.

Marin prides herself on "reinventing" things that are ready for change, including her maestra's jacket. She insisted that her black jacket and trousers be different than those traditionally worn by (male) conductors, and against the advice of others her suits now have "flashes of crimson silk at the collar and cuffs." She has also been criticized for choosing dissonant music that many attendees at Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall find irritating (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Marin has almost made a habit of taking chances. From creating CSI-inspired concerts to donating 20 percent of her MacArthur prize money to help fund Baltimore's OrchKids children's music program, to sponsoring BSO Academy, which allows fans to sit with the orchestra during rehearsals, eat lunch with the musicians, and attend master classes, she is not afraid to break barriers (11: Risk Addiction).

Marin and her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, have a ten year old son, Auden, and when asked recently what her "dream life" would look like, she answered, "Aren't I living it now?"

Looking forward to your comments...


Sunday, October 13, 2013

200: The Self-Empowered Woman: Diana Nyad

Dear Followers,

First of all, let me thank all of you for supporting this blog so enthusiastically--this is my 200th posting, and I'm sure that I will never run out of interesting stories about amazing women! 
Today, I'd like to celebrate 64 year old marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who became--after four failed attempts--the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida.  Her father was a stockbroker who died when she was an infant (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  When her mother remarried, Aristotle Nyad adopted her, became her stepfather, and told her that Nyad--in Greek--meant that she would conquer the sea.
The family moved from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and she began swimming seriously in the seventh grade (2: An Early Sense of Direction).  She won three Florida State high school championships in the backstroke, and dreamed of swimming in the 1968 Summer Olympics.  But in 1966, she was forced to spend three months in bed with endocarditis, an infection of the heart.  By the time she was able to start swimming again she had lost her championship speed (12: Hard Times).
She entered Emory University, but was expelled for jumping out of a 4th-floor dormitory window while wearing a parachute (11: Risk Addiction).  She then transferred to Lake Forest College in Illinois, where she majored in English and French, played on the tennis team, resumed (distance) swimming, and graduated in 1973.
Buck Dawson, who directed the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida introduced her to marathon swimming (4: Supportive Someone) and she set a women's world record (four hours and 22 minutes) in her first event (8: Turning No into Yes).  In June 1974, she set a women's record of eight hours 22 minutes in the 22 mile Bay of Naples Race, and the next year (when she was 26) she swam 28 miles around the Island of Manhattan in just under eight hours.  Her first attempt to swim from Havana to Key West (in 1978) was in a shark cage, but ended after 42 hours and 76 miles.  In 1978, she was an honoree of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.  In 1979, on her 30th birthday, she set a world record for distance swimming by swimming 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas to Juno Beach, Florida.  It took her 27 and one-half hours.  She then stopped swimming (14: Selective Disassociation) completely for 30 years.
She then began working as a successful sports broadcaster (NPR and CBS) and journalist (Newsweek and The New York Times), and earned over $10,000 for her motivational talks (13: More Than Meets the Eye)After her mother's death, Nyad couldn't stop thinking about the Cuba to Florida swim, and began training in the Caribbean.  Her August, 2011, September, 2011 and August, 2012 attempts all failed due to asthma, strong currents or dangerous jellyfish stings (7: Magnificent Obsession).  While swimming, she has a mental soundtrack of songs that she sings to herself over and over again (9: Music).
To get a better feel of Diane Nyad's personality, watch her two-part interview with Oprah on "Super Soul Sunday" or her TED lecture.  And a Showtime Channel special, "The Other Shore" will be broadcast the first week of November.
Looking forward to your comments...

Friday, October 4, 2013

199: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jane Franklin Mecom

Dear Followers,


In the last post, I recommended a movie that I felt would give all of us something to think about as well as a new perspective. Today, I'd like to recommend a book about a woman whose life has fascinated me for years, the sister of Benjamin Franklin, Jane Mecom.

They grew up in Boston in the early 1700s where they were known in the neighborhood as Benny and Jenny. Their parents had 17 children; he was the youngest boy and she was the youngest girl. We all know how famous and accomplished Benjamin Franklin was--some people have called him "the most interesting public man this country has ever produced." But his sister--like so many women of that era--never left home, married a man who was no great bargain, gave birth to 12 children, struggled with poverty for most of her life, and helped raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I first learned about Jane Mecom from an Op-Ed article in The New York Times written in 2011 by Gail Collins, but when I began to search for more information about her life there wasn't much to be found. Now, Jill Lepore (a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker) has written a lengthy biography about Jane Franklin Mecom that is titled Book of Ages (Knopf, 442 pp, $27.95), which tells us a great deal about the era and as much as possible about this almost-invisible woman. The title comes from a record that Mecom kept about the births and deaths of her children--almost all of whom died before she did, many when they were young and some who had mental illnesses, as well.

Benjamin Franklin cared deeply for his sister and for 63 years sent her many letters, which she kept. He, however, lost most of her correspondence. According to the author, "He loved no one longer...she loved no one better. He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone." Mecom was born in 1712, but no letter written by her before 1758 has survived, which is why Ms. Lepore had such a hard time writing this book. In her words, the "paper trail is miserable scant."
It may have been hard for the author to have found specific information about Mecom, but she is able to tell us a great deal about what life was like for women during that era. At that time, Boston's schools did not enroll girls, and while some girls did learn how to read (at home), they were not taught how to write. How different Franklin siblings' lives were--he signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Treaty of Paris, while she struggled to write her own name.
At 15, she married Edward Mecom, a saddle-maker who frequently fell into debt, and there is no trace that she "ever wrote anything about him at all." In her few letters that have survived, she apologizes for her poor grammar and spelling, and many of her statements are sad ones. For example, "I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could not Recollect it," and "Sorrows roll upon me like the waves of the sea."
The good news is that Benjamin Franklin tried to help take care of his sister by sending her books, money, and help finding housing. He did not, however, mention her in his autobiography, and we have no idea where she is buried. For anyone who needs a reminder of how lucky we are to live in a world where women are no longer denied educational opportunities, Book of Ages is a brilliant historical reminder.
Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

198: The Self-Empowered Woman: Wadjda

Dear Followers,

Today, instead of profiling a Self-Empowered Woman, I'd like to tell you about an inspiring new movie that deserves our support. Wadjda is the first full-length feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia and, more importantly, it's the first film directed by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour.

As anyone who has watched my YouTube video knows, I'm a great fan of ten year old little girls. And this film tells the story of a ten year old girl who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who dreams of owning a green bicycle. But in her culture--where women are constrained by custom, family "honor" and Islam--this becomes a complicated and challenging goal. As readers of this blog know, I've often lamented the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to drive, are discouraged from being seen in public unless a man is with them, laughing and talking in public is prohibited, travel is only permitted if a male relative allows it, and women are expected to all wear black abayas to maintain or honor chastity. Obviously, for a young girl to ride a bicycle would be considered a threat to her virtue.
The movie, which has been applauded by everyone from Gloria Steinem to the Tribeca Film Festival, introduces us to an assertive young girl who wants to find herself and enjoy life. In the photo above, where you can see Wadja's Converse trainers, those shoes serve as a symbol of her independence streak.
For al-Mansour to make this film was no easy feat. Because women are not supposed to be outside--and certainly not in positions of authority or power--she would have to stay in a parked van with a monitor and communicate with the film crew via walkie-talkie while filming. And unlike most of the films from the Middle East, this is actually a happy movie.
The star, Waad Mohammed, is perfect for the role, but it was challenging to cast an adolescent girl because so many parents were reluctant for their daughters to be in a groundbreaking movie. Fortunately, Mohammed had cooperative parents, wore jeans to the audition, and was able to sing (in English) a Justin Bieber song for the director.
What this movie really represents is the lengths that females in Saudi Arabia must take in order to cope with the political structure, protect themselves and invent strategies of subversion. The movie's heroine finds a creative way to blend obedience and rebellion, but the audience knows all too well that the walls of restriction are closing in on her a little bit more every day.
A few repressive rules against women have recently been lifted by King Abdullah, who approved the film. For example, women will be able to vote in municipal elections in the year 2015, Saudi female athletes competed in the London Olympics (for the first time), women are now allowed to work on supermarket checkout lines, at lingerie stores, as well as at cosmetic counters. And in July, the authorities announced that women could (finally) ride bicycles but a) they would have to be clothed head-to-toe, b) could only ride in restricted areas, c) bicycles could be used only for recreational activities, and d) riders would have to be accompanied by a male guardian.
Obviously, Wadjda's relationship with Abdullah, the little boy who is her friend, will soon be taboo, and she will have bigger problems than trying to find out a way to beat him in a race. But in the meantime, we--and our daughters--need to support this 97-minute movie as a way of saying thank you to Haifaa al-Mansour for both her bravery and her creative approach to a troublesome situation.
Looking forward to your comments... 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

197: The Self-Empowered Woman: Queen Latifah

Dear Followers,

Queen Latifah has a new afternoon talk show that is already receiving good reviews. Her real name is Dana Elaine Owens, and she was born in East Orange, New Jersey on March 18th, 1970. She chose the name Latifah (which means delicate and very kind) when she was only eight years old  Her mother was a high school art teacher and her father was a police officer; they separated when she was eight, and divorced two years later. As a teenager she was estranged from her father (1: No Paternal Safety Net), but now he helps provide security for Latifah and has worked as her driver. 

Although she was raised in the Baptist church, she attended Catholic school in Newark, New Jersey (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). As a teenager she indulged in some risky and unpalatable behavior--she experimented with drug dealing twice "to see if I could," and at 16, had sex with a 40 year old man (11: Risk Addiction). In high school, she performed the song "Home" from "The Wiz," and soon afterwards began beat-boxing for the hip hop group Ladies Fresh (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). Her first album (All Hail The Queen) was released when she was 19 years old.

As one of the few females in the hip hop world, her albums were enthusiastically supported by her fans. Soon she was appearing on TV sitcoms, and by 1991, she had broken into the movies (Juice, Jungle Fever). She helped her older brother purchase a motorcycle for his 24th birthday, but in 1992 he was killed while riding it. For the next five years, she told an interviewer, she was " but not here" (12: Hard Times). She and her mother established the Lancelot H. Owens Foundation in her brother's name to help provide funding for academically gifted but financially underprivileged children.

The 5 foot 10 inch Latifah had breast reduction surgery in 2003, and worked with Jenny Craig's Ideal Size campaign to lose close to ten percent of her body weight (6: Life is Not A Beauty Contest). Her endorsement deal with Cover Girl makeup (the Queen Collection) has been one of the fastest growing lines for ethnic cosmetics.

Latifah once told an interviewer that when young she'd learned that she "had to work harder than the white kids and harder than the boys (10: The Critic Within). Her hard work has insured that Latifah has become a triple-threat talent, excelling in film, music and television. She has earned a Golden Globe Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Image Awards, a Grammy Award, six additional Grammy nominations, an Emmy Award and an Academy Award nomination (13: More Than Meets The Eye). 

Queen Latifah has recorded seven albums, made close to 20 television appearances, and acted in 36 movies so far, and she's only 43 years old!

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

196: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ruth Asawa

Dear Followers,

On August 6th, the celebrated artist Ruth Aiko Asawa died in San Francisco, and I'd like to share a remarkable life story with you. Born in Norwalk, California on January 24th, 1926, she was the fourth of seven children born to Japanese immigrants who worked as truck farmers in California. They grew seasonal crops--strawberries, carrots, green onions and tomatoes--but were not allowed to become U.S citizens or to own land in California.

In 1935, Asawa's third grade teacher recognized and encouraged her artistic talent, and in 1939 she won a school competition by drawing the Statue of Liberty in a contest designed to represent what it meant to be an American (2: An Early Sense of Direction). As a young girl she attended a Saturday Japanese Cultural School, where she learned calligraphy and Japanese, but whenever she wasn't at school or working on the farm she would draw. Her mother would have her work alone because she was considered "argumentative"  (5:Life is Not A Popularity Contest), but Asawa liked doing chores by herself because she could daydream.

In February of 1942, her father was arrested by FBI agents and in April the rest of the family was interned--first at the Santa Anita Race Track and then to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. She did not see her father again until 1948 (1: No Paternal Safety Net). During this time she graduated from high school (where she had been the art editor for the year book), and won a scholarship from the Quakers to Milwaukee State Teachers College to study to be an art teacher. To support herself during this time she worked in a leather tanning factory and as a domestic servant. In 1945, she and her sister traveled to Mexico City to study Spanish and learn more about Mexican art. To get her teaching credentials she was required to practice-teach in a school, but is told that because of the anti-Japanese prejudice there is no position for her and she will not be able to complete her degree (12: Hard Times).

She then decided to finish her education at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she lived for three years. During that time her mentors included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline and Josef Albers (4: Supportive Someone). In 1947, she returned to Mexico and learned techniques for crocheting baskets, which for the next decade she used in her wire sculpture experiments.

At this time, she met her future husband Albert Lanier, and they moved to San Francesco where they married even though both of their families disapproved (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). Their first home was a loft above an onion warehouse. They had six children, and more than their share of financial difficulties. Late at night and in the early mornings while her children slept, Asawa would draw, paint, experiment with paper, and make crocheted wire sculptures. She chose to work at home to be near her children (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Gradually, her work began to be recognized, and by 1966 she had been commissioned to make the fountain at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco (pictured above). Her popularity grew, and so many commissions followed that she became known as " the fountain lady." Her sculptures are in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Earlier this year one of her pieces sold at  a Christie's auction for $1.4 million (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Asawa joined several parents to create the Alvarado Arts Workshop by bringing throwaway objects (milk cartons, egg cartons and scrap fabric) and having artists work with the students. And even though her education had been "challenged," she wanted other children to develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers (7: Magnificent Obsession).She organized the Music, Art, Dance, Drama and Science (MADDS) festival, and soon began focusing her energy on building a public high school for the Arts. In 2010, the school was named for her and is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (8: Turning No into Yes).

In 1985, she was diagnosed with Lupus, and spent a year on her recovery (12: Hard Times). Although the illness went into remission, she never totally regained her strength and died at age 87. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and is widely admired for her unique abstract sculptures.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

195: The Self-Empowered Woman: Julia Margaret Cameron

Dear Followers,

I don't know about you, but when I hear the name "Julia Cameron" I automatically think of the brilliant author of "The Artist's Way," a life-changing book for any creative person. So I was surprised to learn that there was an earlier creative woman of the same name who played a pivotal role in the early days of photography. Currently, 38 of her works are on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, and you all know how much I love Self-Empowered Women who were born before 1900...    
Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815, and didn't even begin taking photographs until she was 48 years old. But first, let me tell you a little bit about her life. She was born in Calcutta, India, where her father was a British official of the East India Company. Her mother was a descendant of a man who had been a page at the court of King Louis XVI, and was thought to have been one of Marie Antoinette. Julia was born into a family of celebrated beauties, but she was considered the ugly duckling of her family (6:Life Is Not A Beauty Pageant).
She was educated in France, but returned to India. In 1836, she traveled to Cape Town, where she met the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel, who became a life-long friend. He is considered to be the one who introduced her to a variety of photographic processes, and he also became the subject of many of her portraits (4: Supportive Someone). Julia returned to India, where she met  (and in 1838) married Charles Hay Cameron, a member of the Law Commission, who was 20 years her senior. Ten years later he retired, and the family moved to London where-- thanks to her sister, Sarah Prinsep-- Julia was able to meet a wide variety of artists and writers. After she visited the estate of Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Isle of Wight, Julia fell in love with the location, and she and her husband bought a home near Tennyson's Estate.
In 1857, the photographer Reginald Southey visited their home, and began teaching Julia even more about photography.  When Julia was 48 years old her daughter and son-in-law bought her a camera, and wrote "It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph..." During those days Julia often entertained her great-nieces Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and the rest of the Bloomsbury Bunch. Julia began to get her subjects to sit for countless exposures as she carefully coated, exposed and processed each wet plate (10: The Critic Within). These long exposures led other contemporary photographers to make fun of her work because of the Pre-Raphaelite feel that they had, i.e., far-away looks, limp poses and soft lighting (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest.)
Even though many critics dismissed her work because of her "out of focus" style, Julia's work received a number of honorable mentions, awards, and she even won a gold medal at the Berlin competition in 1866 (8: Turning No Into Yes). Unlike so  many of her era, Julia was smart enough to register each of her photographs with the Copyright office and keep detailed records. She compulsively persuaded her friends and family to pose for photographs, and thanks to her we have many of the only existing shots of historically important people of her era (7: Magnificent Obsession).
In 1875, the Camerons moved back to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) (14:Selective Disassociation), but she was not able to enjoy photography the way she had before their move. It was hard to get the necessary chemicals and pure water that she needed, and there was no way for her to market or register her work. She was cut off from her family and the large circle of creative friends she'd had in England, and even though she tried to take photographs of posed Indian people, but almost none of her work from those years survived (12: Hard Times). 
Julia caught a bad chill while in Ceylon and died in 1879. Seven years later her niece Julia Prinsep Stephen (Virginia Woolf's mother) wrote a biography of Cameron that appeared in the first edition of the "Dictionary of National Biography, 1886" (13: More Than Meets The Eye). And for those of you who'd like to know more about the premier female photographer of our own era, just click on this link
Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

194: The Self-Empowered Woman: Cyndi Lauper

Dear Followers,

Millions of us danced—back in the 80s—to “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by the irrepressible Cyndi Lauper. And she deserves to be celebrated as a Self-Empowered Woman for a variety of reasons, but in particular because earlier this year she capped her long career by becoming the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Score on her own (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper was born on June 22nd 1953, and raised in Ozone Park, Queens in New York City. Her parents divorced when she was five years old, and although her mother remarried, she divorced again (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

As a little girl, Cyndi grew up listening to music at home that included Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and The Beatles. By the time she was twelve, she had begun to write her own songs and play an acoustic guitar that had been a gift from her older sister (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

When young she attended Catholic school (3: Belief In The Unbelievable), but was later accepted at a special public high school for students with talent in the visual arts. She dropped out, but later earned her GED. And when she was 17 years old she left home, moved to Canada, and soon settled in Vermont where she took art classes at Johnson State College (14: Selective Disassociation).

By the early 1970s, she was back in New York and singing with a variety of bands, but she did not enjoy covering other people’s songs. By 1977, Lauper had damaged the vocal cords and had to take a year off—three different doctors told her that she would never sing again, but with the help of a vocal coach she regained her voice (8: Turning No Into Yes). Lauper had several great things going for her: she had a four-octave singing range, perfect pitch, as well as a unique vocal style and stage presence. In 1981, she met David Wolff who became her manager (and later her boyfriend), and he arranged for her to sign with a subsidiary of Epic Records (4: Supportive Someone).

 By 1984-1985, her career was red hot. She won the 1984 Best Female Video at the MTV Music Awards, was on the covers of Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek and People magazines, and was named Ms. Magazine’s 1985 woman of the year. In 1988 , she made her debut in the comedy “Vibes” (11: Risk Addiction), and since then she appeared in a long, list of documentaries, films and television programs—including NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

 Obviously, music would qualify as Lauper’s lifelong magnificent obsession, but her other passion has been supporting LGBT Rights. Her sister, Ellen, who gave her that first guitar, is gay, and Lauper has worked tirelessly through her True Colors Fund to raise money and awareness (7: Magnificent Obsession). Lauper was romantically involved with David Wolff for six years, and was deeply depressed when they broke up. Then she started dating a man who she admitted “was mean as hell to” her. When that relationship also ended she “felt ugly, dull and a mess. I was convinced I was through as an artist” (15: Forget About Prince Charming). In 1991 she married David Thornton, an actor who studied at Yale and Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. His father taught English at Harvard and at her wedding Lauper told her father in law, “Dad, don’t cry. You’re not losing a son, you’re gaining somebody who don’t speak English too good.” The couple has a teenage son, Declan, and even though she has been named as one of the 100 most important women in Rock ‘n Roll, Lauper routinely woke up at four am to drive her son to his early-morning hockey games (16: Intensive Motherhood).

It would take several long blogs to mention all of Lauper’s achievements over the past 30 years—as an actress, composer, fundraiser, live performer and recording artist! And if you can’t get tickets to see her hit musical Kinky Boots on Broadway, make sure to catch the terrific movie that inspired the play.

Looking forward to your comments…

Sunday, August 11, 2013

193: The Self-Empowered Woman: Women in Our Lives

Dear Followers,

In light of the unexpected challenges I've faced  the past month, the following story (sent by my good friend Donna Agins--who flew 3,000 miles for a long-delayed visit only to see me propped up in a hospital bed recovering from surgery--and slightly edited by me) seems to be a good reminder of how important the women in our lives truly are.

A young wife sat on a sofa on a hot humid day, drinking iced tea and visiting with her mother. As they talked about life, about marriage, about the responsibilities of life and the obligations of adulthood, the mother clinked the ice cubes in her glass thoughtfully and turned a clear, sober glance upon her daughter…'Don't forget your sisters,' she advised, swirling the tea leaves to the bottom of her glass. 'They'll be more important as you get older.

“No matter how much you love your husband, no matter how much you love the children you may have, you are still going to need sisters. Remember to go places with them now and then; do things with them. And remember that 'sisters' means ALL the women...your girlfriends, your daughters, and all the other women in your life, too. You'll need other women. Women always do.”

“What a funny piece of advice!” the young woman thought. “Haven't I just gotten married? Haven't I just joined the couple-world? I'm now a married woman, for goodness sake! A grownup! Surely my husband and the family we may start will be all I need to make my life worthwhile!”

But she listened to her mother. She kept contact with her sisters and made more women friends each year. As the years tumbled by, one after another, she gradually came to understand that her mother really knew what she was talking about. As time and nature work their changes and their mysteries upon a woman, sisters are the mainstays of her life. And after more than 60 years of living in this world, here is what I've learned:

Time passes.
Life happens.
Distance separates.
Children grow up.
Jobs come and go.
Love waxes and wanes.
Men don't do what they're supposed to do.
Hearts break.
Parents die.
Colleagues forget favors.
Careers end.
Illness comes to visit, and sometimes it stays.

Sisters are there, no matter how much time and how many miles are between you. A girlfriend is never farther away than needing her can reach. When you have to walk that lonesome valley and you have to walk it by yourself, the women in your life will be on the valley's rim, cheering you on, praying for you, pulling for you, intervening on your behalf, and waiting with open arms at the valley's end. Sometimes, they will even break the rules and walk beside you....Or come in and carry you out.

Girlfriends, daughters, granddaughters, daughters-in-law, sisters, sisters-in-law, Mothers, Grandmothers, aunties, nieces, cousins, extended family and friends—they all bless our lives! The world wouldn't be the same without women, and neither would I….When we began this adventure called womanhood, we had no idea of the incredible joys or sorrows that lay ahead. Nor did we know how much we would need each other. Every day, we need each other still. Pass this on to all the women who help make your life meaningful. I just did.

Looking forward to your comments…

Monday, August 5, 2013

192: The Self-Empowered Woman: Home Sweet Home

Dear Followers,

Wow! How have I ever missed writing about Self-Empowered Women! 

As many of you know, I have just returned home from an unexpected 8-day hospital stay, and I will begin sharing my online love letters to high-achieving women as soon as I dig myself out of my backlogged paperwork.

In the meantime, thank you for you calls, cards and gifts and for being so supportive to Tony--known throughout the hospital as "Mr. Wonderful."

By this time next week I plan to have a new "Introduction" ready to send your way...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

191: The Self-Empowered Woman: Olympe de Gouges

Dear Followers,

It’s no secret that there’s a special place in my heart for the brave Self-Empowered Women who were born centuries ago. Today I’d like to introduce you to Olympe de Gouges, who was born in Southwestern France in 1748—I find her story of particular interest because she bravely argued for women’s rights, and (unfortunately) paid the ultimate price for doing so. Plus, it’s worth remembering that French women had to wait for the right to vote until (!) 1944, which is almost 200 years after de Gouges’ birth.

Although she was raised by a butcher and a mother who was the daughter of a cloth merchant, there was always speculation that Olympe was the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc (the Marquis de Pompignan) (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He, however, rejected her claim and many believe this was why she worked so hard on behalf of illegitimate children (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Little is known of her childhood, but when she was 17 she “was married to” Louis Aubry, a caterer whom she didn’t really love, and they had a son, Pierre. When he died less than two years afterward (in 1770), she and her son moved to Paris, and she changed her name from Marie Gouze to Olympe de Gouges.

Three years later, she had a long relationship with a wealthy man (Jacques Bietrix de Rozieres), who was one of several men who supported—but never married—her (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Her putative biological father died in 1784, and that's when she began to write articles, essays and socially-conscious plays. During this time she began to move among the aristocracy and supposedly worked to lose her provincial accent. One of her notable works was “Zamore and Mirza,” which was an anti-slavery play that was so controversial it was renamed three times, and only performed on rare occasions (11: Risk Addiction).

She was a passionate advocate of human rights (7: Magnificent Obsession), and was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. But when “egalite” (equal rights) was not extended to women she was deeply disappointed. Even though the government would not listen to her, in 1791 she became a member of The Society of the Friends of Truth, which fought for equal political and legal rights for women. This is where de Gouges’ most famous controversial statement (“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform”) originated (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

Later that year she wrote and published “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen,” which was a 17-point manifesto that addressed her idea of gender equality. For example, the second “right” is “The purpose of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of woman and man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and especially resistance to oppression.” This gender-inclusive call to action was an alarming stand for a woman of that era, especially one from the provinces (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Her political activity seemed to anger both sides of French politics. Because she opposed Capital Punishment, she was against the execution of Louis XVI, but since the Republicans opposed any political participation by women they (like the Royalists) also loathed de Gouges. One critic even wrote that “She allowed herself to act and write about more than one affair that her weak head did not understand.”

By 1793, she was arrested, spent three months in jail, and without the help of an attorney she tried to represent herself (12: Hard Times). She was sentenced to death on November 2nd 1793, and guillotined on the next day. More recently, in March 2004, the junction of Rues Beranger, Charlot, Turenne and Franche-Comte in Paris’ Third Arrondissement was proclaimed "Place Olympe de Gouges" (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Looking forward to your comments…

Thursday, July 4, 2013

190: The Self-Empowered Woman: Rachel Barton Pine

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to an amazing American musician, who has had more than her share of challenges, but has survived them beautifully. Rachel Barton Pine was born on October 11th, 1974 in Chicago. When she was only three years old she heard a group of older girls (who were dressed "in beautiful dresses") play violin when she and her family were at church (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). She loved the music so much that she asked her parents if she could have lessons.

Her family didn't have much money, and they were sure that her infatuation with the violin would end by the time she started kindergarten, so they rented a violin for her, and found a local teacher for her lessons. Instead of losing interest, when she was five years old she began signing her name "Rachel Violinist" (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

As a child, she would arrange stuffed animals on the sofa, and then stand on top of the coffee table to pretend it was a stage. She would bow and then play (9: Music) for her "audience," so she never suffered from stage fright even though she was such a young performer.

By the time she was seven, she debuted with the Chicago String Ensemble, and by ten she had performed with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which is the training arm of the Chicago Symphony. While most of her peers were in junior high school, she was receiving the equivalent of a graduate-level education. When she was 14, she was named concertmaster. Because she was homeschooled, by the time she was eleven years old, Pine was able to practice as much as eight hours a day (10: The Critic Within).

Her parents later divorced, but when she was a child her father had trouble holding down a job, so (as an adolescent) Rachel actually became the major breadwinner for the family. She took jobs playing at weddings and orchestras to earn money, and said "I put on a lot of makeup and pretended I was older then I was. I was responsible for the mortgage, the utilities, the groceries...there was so much pressure growing up like that" (1: No Paternal Safety Net). In spite of those challenges, at 17 she was the youngest violinist and first American to win a gold medal at the Johann Sebastian Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany (13: More Than Meets The Eye). 

When she was 20, and her career was just beginning to really take off, she was severely injured in a train accident in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, where she taught violin lessons. As she was leaving the commuter train with her violin case over her shoulder, the door closed on the strap of her case, which pinned her left shoulder to the train. She was dragged 366 feet by the train, before she was pulled underneath and run over. One leg was severed and her right foot was mangled. When the train finally stopped passengers rushed to apply tourniquets, which saved her life (12: Hard Times).

After a number of operations, she was able to leave the wheelchair behind, and walk with a prosthetic leg; fortunately, her upper body was not hurt in the accident. Only two years after being injured, she began touring with the help of her mother (8: Turning No Into Yes). She is now married to Greg Pine, a former minor league pitcher she met at church, and he travels with her for her performances, and manages his computer business when they are on the road. 

In the music world, Pine is known for her amazing versatility. She has played with rock bands, and even performed her own arrangement of Metallica's "Master of Puppets." She is admired for incorporating orchestral versions of rock music into her coaching sessions with chamber music groups and youth orchestras.

In 2001, she started the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation to help deserving young musicians as well as promote the study and appreciation of classical music, including string music by black composers. It provides grants, loans and scholarships to help cover everything from sheet music to instrument repair, travel expenses and supplemental lessons for musicians between the ages of 10 and 30. Awards are given on the basis of great musical talent and accomplishment, artistic aspirations, and serious financial need (7: Magnificent Obsession).

In stark contrast to her orchestral and heavy metal leanings, her latest album "Violin Lullabies" features work by a wide range of both well-known and obscure composers. Ms. Pine researched the unusual collection of lullabies around the world and on the Internet. The album was inspired by the birth of her daughter, Sylvia, in September 2011 (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Looking forward to your comments...