Wednesday, January 30, 2013

177: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma Goldman

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a genuinely unique Self-Empowered Woman who devoted her entire life to fighting against the status quo. Emma Goldman was born on June 27th, 1869, in what (today) is called Lithuania, but at the time of her birth was Russia.

Emma's mother, Taube, had been married and widowed (and the mother of two young girls) before she met Abraham Goldman, the man her family had "arranged" for her to marry. She had married her first husband when she was only 15, and Emma later wrote that "whatever love she had died with [him]." It was a tense marriage, at best. Their first child was Emma, but Abraham had set his heart on having a son.

He was an extremely violent man whose bad investments had lost Taube's inheritance. The couple eventually had three sons, but Abraham was a violent father and frequently whipped Emma because she was, according to him, the most rebellious of their children (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

As a little girl, Emma witnessed a peasant being beaten, and the event so traumatized her that she actively fought against violent authority for the rest of her life (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Even as a schoolgirl she was often punished by her teachers, even though she loved going to school.

Because of the family's poverty she was forced to go to work instead of continuing her education. When she begged her father to let her return to school, he threw her French book into the fireplace and told her "Girls do not have to learn much! All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children." In spite of his opinion, she studied on her own and refused to marry the man he chose for her when she was only 15 (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream).

When she was 16, she and her older sister emigrated to Rochester, New York (14: Selective Disassociation), to live with their other sister and her husband. Soon the rest of the family moved to America to escape antisemitism. Emma began work as a seamstress, making overcoats for ten hours a day but only earning two and a half dollars a week. When she asked for a raise but was refused, she took a job at a smaller shop nearby.

That's where she met Jacob Kershner, who shared her love for books, dancing, and traveling; they also shared a deep frustration with factory work. They married in 1887, but within the year they were divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). When Emma refused to take him back her parents criticized her "loose" behavior, and refused to let her in their home. With her sewing machine and five dollars, she left Rochester and moved to New York City.

On her first day, she met Alexander Berkman who invited her to hear a lecture by Johann Most, who advocated violence to create change. Berkman and Goldman would remain close for decades, and Most helped Emma become an active anarchist. In her early 20's, she was already considered "a dangerous woman," and was actually sentenced to one year in Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. During her time there a visiting doctor helped her study medicine, and she began work reading dozens of books by American activist-authors (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.).

Since nursing students in the U.S. couldn't study massage or midwifery, she moved to Europe and lectured in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. She also went to Vienna and Paris, and even helped to organize the International Anarchist Congress.

She returned to America but in 1901, she was arrested on charges of influencing the man (Leon Czolgosz) who shot President William McKinley, and held in jail for two weeks. Because she refused to condemn the shooter, she was vilified by newspapers as well as by other anarchists. After he was executed she retreated because "It was bitter and hard to face life anew." Depressed, defeated and alone (Berkman was in jail), she used the name E.G. Smith, vanished from public life, and worked as a private nurse (12: Hard Times)

In 1906, she decided to start a publication for young idealists. Mother Earth was a platform for writings about anarchism, atheism, feminism and sexuality. In 1907, after Berkman was freed, Emma went on a national fundraising tour and left him in charge of the magazine, but while she was gone he had an affair with a 15 year old anarchist (15). In 1908, she fell in love with Ben Reitman (the Hobo doctor), but he was unfaithful as well (15).

She opposed WWI, and was arrested for two years for doing so. She and Berkman were deported in 1918, along with 249 others, and sailed from New York to Finland before arriving in Russia. Her experiences there led to her 1923 book My Disillusionment in Russia. In her book Anarchismm and Other Essays she wrote that anarchismm stood for "... the liberation of the human mind from the Dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government."

She paid a big price for her beliefs (7: Magnificent Obsession), including those about contraception and homosexuality. Goldman died in 1940, at the age of 70; to learn more about her turbulent life, dip into Vivian Gornick's new biography Emma Goldman (Yale, 151 pp., $25).

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

176: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a woman who broke lots of barriers long before Americans were ready to accept racial or sexual emancipation. If you've seen the movie Lincoln, you might be familiar with the name Elizabeth Keckley, who was the dressmaker (or "modiste") for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Born in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia, Keckley was the daughter of a house slave (Agnes, known as Aggy) owned by Mary and Armistead Burwell. He had been a colonel in the War of 1812, and was a successful planter; he was also Elizabeth's father.

When Elizabeth was a young child, Agnes was later permitted to marry a literate slave (George Pleasant Hobbs) who worked at the home of a neighboring family. But when the neighbor decided to move far away, Hobbs was separated from his wife and stepdaughter ( 1: No Paternal Safety Net ).

Keckley lived in the Burwell's home along with her mother, and began to tackle chores when she was only four years old. By the time she was fourteen years old she was sent "on loan" to the home of the Burwell's eldest married son who lived in North Carolina. His wife intensely disliked Elizabeth, and spent four years making her life as difficult as possible (12: Hard Times).

When she was 18, Margaret Burwell asked a neighbor to beat out Elizabeth's "stubborn pride." The  teenager was ordered to undress, but angrily refused, and was then tied up and beat until her back bled. This happened several times until the neighbor realized that "it would be a sin" to beat her anymore, and actually asked for her forgiveness (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

When she was 20, she was raped by a local prominent white man and gave birth to a son. They were sent back to Virginia to live with the Burwell's married daughter, Ann Burwell Garland, and her husband. The family was always short of money, and Keckley's sewing helped support them.

In 1847, the Garlands moved to St. Louis and took Elizabeth, her son, as well as mother with them. Spending twelve years in St. Louis introduced Elizabeth to many free black people, and also gave her a chance to become a dressmaker for a variety of women in the white community. Lizzie LeBourgeois became her patroness, and worked hard to help Elizabeth find new clients and earn her freedom (4: Supportive Someone). She worked for two years to persuade Mr. Garland to let her buy her freedom, and in 1852 he agreed to release Elizabeth and her son if she could raise $1,200.

In November of 1855, she had earned enough money to pay for both her freedom and her son's (8: Turning No Into Yes). At this point she began to make plans to leave St. Louis (14: Selective Disassociation), and to divorce her husband (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

She moved to Baltimore, Maryland and decided to open a school to teach "young colored women" her way of cutting fabric and fitting dresses, but it was a failure (11: Risk Addiction). She barely had enough money left to get to Washington, D.C., where she thought she would find more work. In the mid-1860's she had to buy a license as a free black woman to stay in the city for more than 30 days.

Once Elizabeth had her license work began flowing in, especially from society women; she met Mary Todd Lincoln on March 4th, 1861, the day of her husbands first inauguration. Soon she began to help Mrs. Lincoln with receptions and social events, and for six years she spent a great deal of time with the First Family. Mary Todd Lincoln (for whom Elizabeth once made sixteen dresses in sixteen weeks) was known to be difficult, but observers noted that Keckley was "the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln."

In 1862, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association, which was designed food, shelter, clothing and emotional support to recently freed slaves and/or sick and wounded soldiers.  She devoted countless hours to the success to the CRA (7: Magnificent Obsession).

After the President was assassinated, Mrs. Lincoln insisted that Keckley move to Chicago with her. Keckley's son had died as a Union soldier in the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln had lost both her son, Willie, and her husband.

In 1868, Elizabeth published Behind the Scenes, a book designed to help readers better understand Mrs. Lincoln's decision to sell her husband's clothes. Unfortunately, many people felt the book was a betrayal because Keckley was both and employee and a friend who should not have revealed what went on in the White House. At the age of 50, Keckley became overwhelmed by all the negative publicity that her had book generated (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

She struggled (both personally and professionally) for the rest of her life, and died in May 1907. A photograph of her estranged friend, Mary Todd Lincoln, was always displayed wherever she lived, and the dress she'd made for the First Lady to wear at her husband's second inauguration ceremony and reception is at the Smithsonian American History Museum. Several books have been written about Elizabeth Keckley, and in Steven Spielberg's movie she is portrayed by Gloria Reuben.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

175: The Self-Empowered Woman: New Hampshire

Dear Followers,

Tomorrow will mark a milestone for American women in politics.  Why?  Because that's when New Hampshire will become the first state in our nation's history to send an all-female delegation to Washington, D.C.  AND, the state's new governor, the speaker of the State House, and the chief justice of the State Supreme Court are also women.  Talk about a first!

Pictured above from left are Maggie Hassan (governor), Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter (congresswomen), and Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen (senators).  Katharine Q. Seelye wrote about this historic trend in today's New York Times, and I just wanted to share the good news with all of you.

According to Seelye, women will make up 17.9% of the new House and 20% of the new Senate.  These are the highest percentages ever, but it's important to remember that 50.8% of America's population is female.

Six states (Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota and Vermont) have never elected a woman to the House of Representatives, and four of those (Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont) have never sent a woman to the Senate.  Currently, 16 states have no women in Congress, but Maine, Missouri and Washington's delegations are made up of at least 1/2 females.

Even though New Hampshire is small, the State House has 400 members--more than any other state in the Union and the fourth-largest governing body in the English-speaking world (1.United States Congress, 2.British Parliament, 3.Indian Parliament).

Seelye writes that most of the women in New Hampshire politics grew up with mothers who worked, and are mothers themselves. Obviously, this has helped them learn how to reach compromises and solve problems.  They were also lucky enough to have supportive families who encouraged their political ambitions.

As governor-elect Maggie Hassam has often said "Never underestimate the power of a woman with a mini-van and a cell phone."

Looking forward to your comments...