Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought, at the San Francisco Public Library

I just finished this book about Frederick Douglass by scholar Leigh Fought. I’m at the library right now, about to turn it back in, and have that feeling of afterglow which follows reading a fascinating story while gaining much deeper understanding of a subject that’s long inspired me.

Not only did I get to know the character and work of Douglass much better, his struggles, triumphs, mistakes, virtues, flaws, and motivations, I learned about the ways in which women shaped his life and ideas and made his work possible. I had uncovered pieces of this larger story when following his life and ideas last year, but Fought’s work tells this larger story fully and compellingly and then some. This not only a book about these personalities and how they met, fell in love, collaborated, clashed, helped, betrayed, and so on, but it’s about the real human side behind the various social movements Douglass and the women in his life were a part of. And for many, still a part of, through their memory and influence. It’s about the antislavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movements, the worker’s rights movement, the Civil War, the formation of the Republican Party as a free soil, pro-Union party and its after-war (what I consider) devolution into the economy-above-all party, and many other potent movements shaping and reshaping American society.

I very highly recommend this book, and think you’ll love it as I do.

Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

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Sources and inspiration: 

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Crown, Daniel. ‘The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc‘. The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

de Pisan, Christine. Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc), ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Joan of Arc‘, episode 51 of The History Chicks podcast

Harrison, Kathryn. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc, 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Murray, T. Douglas. Jeanne d’Arc. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

The Passion of Joan of Arc. 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Richey, Stephen Wesley. Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

Saint Joan, 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Part I, 1591. Via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft!

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, April 27, 1759, I share two works about this great feminist thinker which I’ve published here at Ordinary Philosophy.

One is the Traveling Philosophy series in which I followed the life and ideas of Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson in Revolution-era Paris, France in 2015.

The second is the following essay:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974

O.P. Recommends: Why Radio’s Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship with Guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why Radio Podcast website

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why? Radio podcast website

I was recently thrilled to discover Why? Radio‘s podcast. It’s about time I did, since it’s eight years and more than 100 episodes in. Thanks for the share, Laura of Bismarck, ND!

For the 100th episode this February, host and creator Jack Russell Weinstein interviews Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, journalist, writer, and feminist extraordinaire; and Suzanne Braun Levine, first editor of Ms. magazine, author, and authority on feminism and gender issues. The topics covered in this episode are summarized in the title ‘Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship‘. Weinstein is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and created the IPPL radio show and podcast Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life for very similar reasons I created Ordinary Philosophy, as you can see from the subtitle.

My readers may often wonder why my philosophy/history of ideas blog and podcast are at least as devoted to the life and ideas of activists and civil rights leaders as they are to philosophers and theorists. Steinem sums up a conviction I share near the beginning of the interview: ‘To be part of any social justice movement is probably to be on the forefront of philosophy’. Social justice movements are founded on ideas that have not yet been understood and accepted widely enough to be embodied in law and social practice. Many activists, then, can be understood as philosophers in the public square, and activism as philosophy in action. They are part of the same noble tradition, forcing us to consider uncomfortable questions and raising our consciousness, as Socrates’ gadfly questions, awakening his fellow citizens from their ‘dogmatic slumbers‘. I’m also gratified to hear Steinem cite Louisa May Alcott as one of her earliest influences, as she was for me; the story of Alcott’s principled stand at Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass’ wedding is among my favorite examples of philosophy in action, a perfect demonstration of the right way to think and act towards our fellow human beings.

Steinem also challenges the way that second-wave feminism is often characterized as a middle-class white movement. She points out that polls revealed that black women, especially in the early days of the movement, shared feminist and civil rights convictions in far greater proportions than any other group, and were more likely to demonstrate their convictions through action; it’s just that they were not recognized in the media nor did they have the opportunities that white women, as well as white and black men, had to rise to leadership positions. Steinem shares an anecdote from her participation in the March on Washington, in which a black woman in the crowd angrily points out that not a single black woman was chosen to address the crowd from the stage, which illustrates this paradox.

Women are still expected to wear ‘feminine’ clothing that pushes, pulls, and presses their bodies into fashionable shapes, sometimes painfully, and to wear heavy makeup and crippling and uncomfortable shoes in order to be considered well-dressed and sexy, especially for public figures. The problem is not necessarily these fashions themselves, it’s that women are generally required to adorn themselves this way in order to achieve their goals. Photo exhibit at Women’s Rights Historical Park, Seneca Falls, NY.

I also love what Braun Levine says about being a ‘tomboy’ as a young girl; she says it shows she was on the ‘wrong path’. She wasn’t saying that she was wrong to want to play with the boys and wear pants, to the contrary. I interpret her statement as her commentary on how we’ve long divided healthy, active pursuits such as sports and wanting to wear clothing that permits bodily freedom into the category ‘boy’, and daintiness constrained in clothing and shoes that limit bodily freedom into the category ‘girl’. It was only with the hindsight and wisdom made possible by her own evolving consciousness, which she, in turn, awoke in her readers, which made her realize that these ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ qualities, instincts, and preferences, are universal human ones. People of all genders, or of none depending on how you describe it, love to be very physically active or they don’t, like to wear constrictive and elaborate clothing, makeup, and shoes or don’t, and so on.

This wonderful discussion about the history and evolution of feminism, as Steinem and Braun Levine experience it, wraps up with an exchange with two budding activists, eleven-year old Faith and Adina. What a great way to show just how influential these two women are and how the young are moving their cause forward and applying it to the modern world!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites.

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Regency Center, at Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, CA

Stairway and elevator at the Regency Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Temple at Sutter and Van Ness, San Francisco

I: Sanger in Oakland and San Francisco

Friday, March 31st, 2017

I head first to San Francisco, a quick and easy trip on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System, our subway/ell) across the Bay, and take a pleasant walk on this spring day from Montgomery Street station east, first along Post through Union Square, then on Sutter. December 16th, 1928, Sanger spoke at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco, at Sutter and Van Ness. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple moved into its new quarters in the early 1960’s, and this building became the Regency Center, a multi-purpose venue. In fact, I was here just a few years ago when I saw John Cale, one of my very favorite musical artists of all time, perform in the ballroom, but Sanger likely spoke in the Social Hall. It’s also likely she delivered more or less the same speech she delivered at Oakland Civic Auditorium three days later, the story of that speech will follow below. Perhaps the speeches and corrections she scribbled onto the speech, which I link to here, constitute the differences between her addresses at the San Francisco and Oakland venues.

Small upper room in the Scottish Rite Temple, now the Regency Center, San Francisco

I write to people who manage and organize events at the Regency Center but am unable to line up a day to meet soon that will work with all of our schedules.

But since I have this free afternoon on a glorious spring day, I head over anyway, in case I luck out and end up there at a good time. Turns out, the very helpful man I find here, who’s in charge of setting up events, regretfully tells me there’s just too much going on for me to head upstairs and poke around to the rooms where she may have spoken; various contemporary sources designate the venue as the Scottish Rite ‘Hall’ and ‘Auditorium’, so the exact site is unclear. So I take photos in the places he allows me to wander: the hallway, the main stairway, and a meeting room just off the main landing now converted into a small bar.

About 22 years earlier, in August of 1916, Sanger wrote to her friends Charles and Bessie Drysdale, ‘In San Francisco [on a birth control lecture tour] I had a collapse, and was three days in bed under medical care, but recovered sufficiently to hold six meetings.’ As you may recall, Sanger suffered from recurrent tubercular infections, and from time to time they made her quite ill and exhausted. I have yet to find a record of specific locations she visited or stayed in San Francisco on that trip. Sanger didn’t mention her time in Oakland in this letter, though she may have meant to include the greater Bay Area when she said ‘San Francisco’, as visitors often do. Since she delivered her Oakland speech only three days after this San Francisco tour, this may have been one of the six meetings she spoke of.

So I return to Oakland to follow in Sanger’s footsteps there.

Margaret Sanger Hotel Oakland appearance, Oakland Tribune, Thu Jun 15, 1916, evening edition, front page. For the full article, click here. The drawing looks nothing like Sanger, and what’s up with the silhouette of celery? Yes, I know it’s meant to be a vase…

Hotel Oakland Ballroom, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

On June 15, 1916, Sanger gave a speech in the ballroom of the Hotel Oakland at 270 13th St. I don’t find a transcript of this speech, but I do find a newspaper article about this event, which includes a summary of its main points as well as a review. The speech was well received by the audience, according to Gene Baker, writing for the Oakland Tribune. He compared Sanger favorably to Emma Goldman, Sanger’s one-time friend and ally from whom, truth be told, Sanger co-opted the mantle of birth control advocate-in-chief. As Baker commented in his article, Sanger was much more traditionally ‘feminine’ than Goldman in appearance, ‘slight’ and prettily dressed. Sanger was both a committed sex-positivist and a straight woman and saw no contradictions between her feminist convictions and in making herself attractive to men. Baker also described Sanger as speaking with intensity (which indicates she was feeling better since her collapse in San Francisco) and with scientific coldness. Perhaps she did convey a sense of scientific detachment, given her habit of buttressing her calls for action with a barrage of facts and statistics, or perhaps he perceived her keen grasp of the issues and her memory for detail as unfeminine and therefore ‘cold.’

Baker also wrote of her outspoken opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s beliefs about childbearing in this speech; she frequently published rebukes and rebuttals to the President’s public stances against birth control and in favor of large families. (Baker mentioned that she spoke out against Roosevelt in San Francisco as well.) Both Sanger and Roosevelt were eugenicists but of different types: Sanger believed in negative eugenics, in curing human ills through having less children, especially if the parents were ill, disabled, or too poor to bring up well-nourished, well-educated, and well-housed children, and Roosevelt believed in positive eugenics, improving the human race through intelligent and hardworking people having as many children as possible.

Hotel Oakland, now Hotel Oakland Village senior citizen community

 

Hotel Oakland Village main lounge, Oakland, CA

Hotel Oakland, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

Hotel Oakland Historical Plaque, Oakland, CA

The Hotel Oakland, which opened as a luxury hotel on December 23rd, 1912, is now a senior community residence. Its grand edifice is little changed, but its garden is no longer so sumptuous and much of its interior is much plainer, having been stripped of its chandeliers and fancy furniture and painted plain white, though the lounge ceiling is painted a lovely antique-gold color. I sign in at the desk and walk around the first floor, greeting each person I see with a hello, a smile, and a nod, everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no one questions my presence. I take photos freely on the ground floor except in the large back room converted into an activity and physical therapy area, which, it so happens, appears to be the former ballroom I seek. I ask the person who works there if I may take pictures; she’s a Spanish speaker, and I ask in that language (unforgivably clumsily, given that I’m a California native and I should be more adept) if I may take pictures. She explains that the person that could authorize this won’t be back in until Monday, so I depart. As much as I am historically nosy, I make it my practice never to infringe on the territory of working people. They have enough to worry about without wondering if they could get in trouble on my behalf.

I do, however, take photos of the front lobby, in full view of everyone there who appears not the least concerned with my presence except to return my smile when they happen to catch my eye. Most of the residents are Chinese. This is no surprise since the Hotel Oakland Village, as it’s now named, borders Chinatown, and like the neighborhood in general, it is family-oriented, with visitors of all ages coming and going, often taking the elderly residents for local outings, such infirmities as they have lovingly supported by wheelchairs, walkers, arms, and hands. The parks in this neighborhood often contain large groups, sometimes very large, of older people going through the graceful, slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi. It’s likely they include many of the residents of this hotel. The sight of these people, something like colorful wildflowers waving in the wind, something like windmills if windmills were endowed with personalities, intention, and rich history and could move deliberately to music, warms my heart on my morning walks.

Oakland’s Chinatown at the time of the Hotel Oakland’s heyday; many of these old houses stand today. This photo is on the wall of the Oakland Hotel Village main hallway

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Next, I visit the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later called the Kaiser Convention Center, also just a few blocks from my house, near Lake Merritt. On December 19th, 1928, Sanger delivered the speech ‘The Necessity for Birth Control‘ here. It was a least as dedicated to eugenics-based arguments about the ill effects of ‘feeble-minded’, ill, disabled, and poor people having children to whom they passed down these traits and which they could not care for properly, as it was about preventing suffering.

The eugenics arguments and opinions she used in this speech are hard to take now, just as they were for many then. Yet to be fair to Sanger, we must remember that her arguments were informed by her experiences working as a visiting nurse in the slums where the poorest of the working poor lived in NYC, where the best efforts of public charities often seemed to hardly make a dent in relieving suffering, especially when, as Sanger believed, so much of it was preventable:

In her speech, Sanger said:

To define Birth Control, we say it is the conscious control of the birth-rate by scientific means that prevent the conception of human life. Prevent, remember. Prevent does not mean to interfere. It does not mean to destroy. There is no more interference with life through birth control than there is to remain unmarried or to live a celibate life. We also say “to control.” Control does not mean that you limit. When you control your furnace you do not have to put the fire out. When you control your motor you do not necessarily stop your car. To control the birth rate means that there shall be the same right for those who do not wish to have children as for those who do wish to have them. There are no objections to those who wish to increase the size of their families, but on the other side there seems to be a great deal of question and controversy as to the right of those who wish to limit or control the number of their children. ~ Margaret Sanger, ‘The Necessity for Birth Control’

Booklet for the Oakland Civic Auditorium and Opera House, now Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland Public Library

Oakland Civic Auditorium as it appears today

The Oakland Civic Auditorium had stood for 14 years when Sanger spoke here in 1928 and she had become very well known indeed in the dozen intervening years since she spoke at the Hotel Oakland. The Auditorium is a huge venue, as we can see in historical photos: it held Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Barnum and Bailey circus, symphony orchestras, and other large-scale entertainments. The history of this place is wonderful, with so many other amazing activists, artists, speakers, and performers appearing here over the years: Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Grateful Dead… It’s no longer in use, standing empty since just before the turn of this century, but I hope this beautiful Beaux-Arts edifice is reclaimed, restored, and put to as good a use as it once was.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, photo from booklet at Oakland Public Library

II: More About Sanger in NYC at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library

Research & photos: gathered on various dates from November 2016 to March 2017

And now, here’s my follow-up on two sites associated with Sanger in NYC:

Margaret Sanger Letter to Noah Slee on Barclay Hotel Stationery, excerpt, from the Sophia Smith Microfilm Collection

From Day 1, Part 3‘I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy’

I finally get around to tracking down the microfilm collection, stored deep in the archives at the Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley, with the assistance of the ever- kind and helpful Nancy Oanh Tran. In looking through the microfilms of documents dated around the time of Sanger’s stay at the Barclay Hotel, I find a phone message for Sanger and many chatty letters to her husband Noah Slee written on Barclay Hotel stationery. The letters discussed visits to and from friends, a visit from her son Grant, how much less pleasant it was to drive a car in New York City than in Tucson, how disorganized she was, and so on. Most of the contents of these letters are of little interest to anyone outside of their relationship, their circle of friends, and of course, dedicated historians, except, I think, for one thing: she begs him not to join her in New York City, and not to ask her to leave her work there yet. In her second marriage, she demanded the freedom she wanted that she did not find enough of in her first, and she got it through endearments, compliments, even sappiness, so that Noah would feel loved and not abandoned; through cajoling; through explanations and arguments about the importance of her work and her need to do it unimpeded; and even through what reads to me like a guilt trip.

o I American Eugenics Society journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

From Day 2, Part 2: ‘According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which include ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’ ‘

In doing further research, I find there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal also in the collections of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library.

Mary Louise Inman, who wrote an account of and commentary on the meeting for the Eugenics Journal, wrote:

‘Most of our adult generation can remember when [the birth control movement] was chiefly characterized by determined looking ladies selling The Birth Control Review on metropolitan street corners, Margaret Sanger being held up for her propaganda, and a general feeling in the lay breast that the whole thing was not quite respectable.

Here we see before our eyes the evolution of an idea. That the movement has undergone a decided moral, social, and intellectual transformation is evidenced by the presence on the speaker’s platform of some of our foremost religious leaders, together with eminent writers, physicians, educators and scientists, as well as other professional and non-professional men and women of the highest social standing.’ ~ Inman, Eugenics, Jan 3oth ed, p 12

As I read further, I take notes. They go:

National Birth Control article for Eugenics journal by Mary Inman, 1930

‘In his speech, one Dr. E. Bord Barrett, a former Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, held out hope that the Church would be flexible and adaptable on the birth control issue. He was a believer in the social benefits of birth control, and based his hope on the fact that so many Catholics used birth control, that Church-mandated celibacy for priests and others indicated that the Church recognized it was not always in the best interests of individuals and communities for everyone to have children, and that the Church blessed marriages of couples who could not have children.

Dr. Hannah Stone, director of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and Sanger’s long-time colleague who was arrested in the raids on the W. 15th Street clinic, was among the speakers, but her talk was not recorded or described in Inman’s article.

Ministers and rabbis voiced their support for birth control on humanitarian and personal responsibility grounds.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to issues related to eugenics. They discussed the questions of whether it was desirable to ‘breed geniuses at will’, if it could be done at all; who would be qualified to decide what are ‘desirable’ human traits and types beyond those which impart health and the ability to take care of ones’ self; whether ‘spiritual values’ should be brought to bear on the issues, and much more.

Albert Edward Wiggam, worried that birth control might exacerbate a differential birth rate between those who are prudent, far-sighted, intelligent and self-controlled enough to be more likely to use birth control, and those who conceive and bear children thoughtlessly. He believed these traits were largely transmissible, predicting the likely behavior of the next generation. To counteract this problem, Wiggam believed that birth control needed to be universally and readily available as well as easy to use.’

Margaret Sanger, from Eugenics journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

The article ends by noting that Margaret Sanger could not attend the conference, which surprises me! Instead, she sent a telegram which was read to the attendees since her attendance was sorely missed given her role as a founder of the movement and the most important activist of her time for women’s rights, since the suffragists. Inman predicted that birth control would become as readily accepted in society as women’s right to vote, however controversial its past. She was mostly right. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with publicly funding birth control since we believe so firmly in the right to religious dissent, most Americans actually do use birth control, at least at some point in their lives. And as Sanger hoped, it has become readily available, easy to use, mostly every cheap, and all very safe. And she played a very significant role in bringing this about.

Thank you, Margaret Sanger.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

Duchsherer, Aimee. ‘Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement‘. July 16, 2015, Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickenson State University blog.

The Hotel Oakland Village website: ‘History: Grand Hotel‘ and ‘Historical Photos

Inman, Mary Louise. ‘The National Birth Control Conference’ from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, January 1930, pp 12-17.

Kaiser Convention Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition: Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, Peter Engelman, and Anke Vass Hubbard, 1996. #Microfilm 77685 , S15:0042. Reel S15: May 1938 – Nov 1938

Brochure for the Kaiser Center, one the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, Oakland Library collection

 

‘The Regency Ballroom: About‘, from their website

The Regency Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Regency Center: Venue Overview: History‘, from their website

Sanger, Margaret. ‘A “Birth Control” Lecture Tour‘, Aug 9, 1916. Published article: Malthusian, Sept. 1916, 83-84. (Sanger’s letter to Charles and Bessie Drysdale published as an article)

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Necessity for Birth Control,’ Dec 19, 1928. Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0226

Social Hall SF: Venue Info‘, from their website (part of the Regency Center)

Tillmany, Jack. ‘Regency I: 1320 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109‘. Cinema Treasures website

Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Philosophy Resonates Today, by Skye C Cleary

Simone de Beauvoir is rightly best known for declaring: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ A less well-known facet of her philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism, a viewpoint that follows directly from her metaphysical stance on the self, namely that we have no fixed essences.

The existential maxim ‘existence precedes essence’ underpins de Beauvoir’s philosophy. For her, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, we are first thrown into the world and then create our being through our actions. While there are facts of our existence that we can’t choose, such as being born, who our parents were, and our genetic inheritance, we shouldn’t use our biology or history as excuses not to act. The existential goal is to be an agent, to take control over our life, actively transcending the facts of our existence by pursuing self-chosen goals.

It’s easy to find excuses not to act. So easy that many of us spend much of our lives doing so. Many of us believe that we don’t have free will – even as some neuroscientists are discovering that our conscious will can override our impulses. We tell ourselves that our vote won’t make any difference, instead of actively shaping the world in which we want to live. We point fingers at Facebook for facilitating fake news, instead of critically assessing what we’re reading and reposting. It’s not just lazy to push away responsibility in such ways, but it’s what de Beauvoir called a ‘moral fault’.

Since we’re all affected by politics, if we choose not to be involved in creating the conditions of our own lives this reduces us to what de Beauvoir called ‘absurd vegetation’. It’s tantamount to rejecting existence. We must take a side. The problem is, it’s not always clear which side we ought to choose. Even de Beauvoir failed to navigate through this question safely. She adopted questionable political stances: she once, for example, dismissed Chairman Mao – responsible for the murder of over 45 million people – as being ‘no more dictatorial’ than Franklin D Roosevelt. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of political commitment has a dark side, and she personally made some grave errors of judgement, yet within her philosophy, there’s an opening to address this issue.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) she argues that to be free is to be able to stretch ourselves into an open future full of possibilities. Having this kind of freedom may be dizzying, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. We share the earth, and have concern for one another; if we respect freedom for ourselves, then we should respect it for others, too. Using our freedom to exploit and oppress others, or to support the side that promotes such policies, is inconsistent with this radical existential freedom.

With oppressive regimes, de Beauvoir acknowledged that individuals usually pay a high price for standing up to dictators and the tyranny of the majority, but demonstrated concretely – through her writing and political engagement – the power of collective action to bring about structural change. An intellectual vigilante, de Beauvoir used her pen as a weapon, breaking down gendered stereotypes and challenging laws that prohibited women from having control over their own bodies. She authored and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, which paved the way for birth control and abortion in France. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), sparked a new wave of feminism across the world.

Today more than ever it’s vital to recognise that freedom can’t be assumed. Some of the freedoms that de Beauvoir fought so hard for in the mid-20th century have since come under threat. De Beauvoir warns that we should expect appeals to ‘nature’ and ‘utility’ to be used as justifications for restrictions on our freedom. And she has been proved correct. For example, the argument that Donald Trump and others have used that pregnancy is inconvenient for businesses is an implicit way of communicating the view that it is natural and economical for women to be baby-making machines while men work. However, de Beauvoir points out ‘anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation’, and making birth control, abortion, and parental leave unavailable closes down men’s and women’s ability to reach beyond their given situations, reinforcing stereotypical roles that keep women chained to unpaid home labour and men on a treadmill of paid labour.

In times of political turmoil, one may feel overwhelmed with anxiety and can even be tempted with Sartre to think that ‘hell is other people’. De Beauvoir encourages us to consider that others also give us the world because they infuse it with meaning: we can only make sense of ourselves in relation to others, and can only make sense of the world around us by understanding others’ goals. We strive to understand our differences and to embrace the tension between us. World peace is a stretch, since we don’t all choose the same goals, but we can still look for ways to create solidarities – such as by working to agitate authoritarians, to revolt against tyrants, to amplify marginalised voices – to abolish oppression. Persistence is essential since, as de Beauvoir says, ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.’ De Beauvoir is surely right that this is the risk, the anguish, and the beauty of human existence.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Skye C Cleary is a lecturer at Columbia University, the City College of New York, and Barnard College, and is the managing editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog. Her latest book is Existentialism and Romantic Love (bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date… Read the complete bio and a wonderful selection of poems here

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!