O.P. Recommends – The Good Wife: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages, by Peter Adamson

Young Lady Writing in an Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

One of Peter Adamson’s most recent podcast episodes for his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps particularly delighted me, in the surprises sprinkled richly throughout and its thoughtful yet lively and sometimes humorous exploration of a wide range of religious, social, and literary topics. The history of sexuality and gender attitudes in the medieval Western world was more varied than we might realize, both in sacred and secular contexts.

And don’t stop with this one, by any means: every episode I’ve ever heard of Peter’s multitudinous podcasts are fantastic! Enjoy!

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Happy Birthday, Mary Fairfax Somerville!

Mary Fairfax Somerville by Thomas Phillips at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mary Fairfax Somerville, born on December 26, 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, was a mathematician of uncommon brilliance. After a very limited formal education, Fairfax educated herself from the family’s library. Though she initially was a poor writer and speller, she was an avid reader and an accomplished painter. Her interest in mathematics was sparked by a series of algebraic symbols and equations used as decoration in a fashion book. Once she began to uncover their meanings, she was hooked, and mathematics became one of the ruling passions and pursuits of her life.

Mary spent much of her time in youth and young adulthood in nearby Edinburgh. She married a cousin, Samuel Greig, at age 24, who didn’t actively interfere with her intellectual pursuits but didn’t support or approve of them, either. He died only three years later.

Back in Scotland, with a newfound independence purchased by her late husband’s money and her respectable status as a young widow with two children, Mary immersed herself in her intellectual pursuits in earnest, despite her family’s disapproval. She solved a mathematical problem placed in the Edinburgh Review by Dr. William Wallace, professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh; her successful solution won her a medal and the interest of the mathematical community. Wallace guided her continuing education and introduced her to other mathematicians and scientists. She began to publish articles and books on a wide variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, including for the Royal Society, and would continue to do so for the rest of her life.

Mary received more moral and financial support when she married again in 1812. Her second husband, William Somerville (another cousin, whose mother nursed Mary as an infant), delighted in her work. They initially settled in Edinburgh, where Mary regularly communed with a small but noteworthy circle of intellectuals which included Wallace, Adam Ferguson, and Sir Walter Scott (a long-time family friend). Mary and William later moved to London for his job, where her impressive intellect and accomplishments brought her greater fame. She became friends with other luminaries such as Sir John Herschel and Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), who engaged Mary to tutor her daughter. This daughter, Ada Lovelace, also became a noted mathematician and a founding mother of computer science.

For the rest of her long life (she died on November 29th, 1872, about a month before she would have turned 92), Mary continued her research, problem-solving, and writing in science and mathematics, publishing many important works. Her success enabled her to support her family after her husband lost his money in an unsuccessful investment, then had to retire from work due to ill health. She became an active feminist, joining London’s General Committee for Women’s Suffrage and signing John Stuart Mill’s 1866 petition for women’s right to vote.

Learn more about this brilliant woman at:

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 – 1872. Writer on science ~ site page for her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mary Fairfax Somerville ~ by Shane Wood for Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes College

Mary Somerville: British Science Writer ~ by Erik Gregersen for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Mary Somerville: Pioneer Woman Mathematician and Scientist ~ by Jone Johnson Lewis for ThoughtCo.com

Mary Somerville: Queen of Science ~ by Ruth Boreham for DangerousWomenProject.org

Mary Somerville, Scientist, Writer and a Woman of Her Time ~ by Alice Prochaska, Somerville College, Oxford

Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville ~ by Mary Somerville, edited and annotated by her daughter Martha Somerville, published in 1874

Scientist Mary Somerville to Appear on Scottish £10 Note ~ by Rob Davies for The Guardian, Feb 10th,  2016

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!

In Memory of Lucrezia Marinella

Young Lady Writing in a Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

Lucrezia Marinella was an Italian Renaissance writer of poetry, devotional literature, and philosophy. She was born in Venice on an unknown date in 1571, and lived a richly intellectual, family-oriented, long life there until her death on October 9th, 1653.

She wrote on a wide range of subjects, including Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and Mary and her parents’ life family as she imagined it: happy, virtuous, a model for all families to emulate. She identified Mary closely with her beloved native Venice, that lovely city of elegance and refinement, incubator of knowledge and beauty, and welcome refuge to the traveler and those fleeing hardship and strife, referring to both as ‘La Serenissima’ (the Serene) and ‘Star of the Sea.’ Her Life of the Virgin Mary, Empress of the Universe was written two years after her most famous and influential work The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published in 1600. Her book about the natural and superior virtues of women no doubt inspired her, in turn, to write another about the woman who most exemplified Christian and Renaissance ideals of femininity. Marinella’s conception of feminine virtue included those typical of her religion and culture, such as modesty and dedication to home and family, but went far beyond that, as it did later feminist thinkers and activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Ernestine Rose.

Marinella’s Nobility was a response to Giuseppe Passi’s anti-woman polemic The Defects of Women, published the year before. Anti-woman treatises such as Passi’s had become a literary tradition at that point, but his stood out for its harshness, to the point that he advocated treating women as little better than other animals since they were likewise naturally devoid of reason and self-control. Defenses of womankind against such attacks had, in turn, also become a literary tradition, but Marinella’s stands out for its clarity, systematicity, and intellectual rigor, so much so that it achieved its standing as a foundational work in feminist philosophy.

Title page of 1601 edition of Lucrezia Marinella’s La Nobilita, et L’eccellenza delle Donne

One element of Marinella’s fascinating and innovative defense of femininity that stood out for me was her case for how the female body itself demonstrated the moral and intellectual superiority of women. Many anti-woman polemicists referred to Aristotle for their arguments to demonstrate the natural inferiority of women, and Aristotle bases many of his arguments on women’s supposedly inferior physical makeup. No doubt, such biological arguments stood out for Marinella; she was the daughter, sister, and wife of physicians, and she was an accomplished and virtuous intellectual, a living counterfactual to the negative conceptions of women of Passi, Aristotle, and their anti-woman ilk. So, she was not going to put up with silly arguments based on such demonstrably untrue empirical claims, from Aristotle or from anyone else. She uses Aristotle’s own arguments, invoked by Passi, against both of them, demonstrating how misogynistic ideas about women as the weaker, less rational, and less virtuous component of the human species are both inconsistent with Aristotle’s other arguments and with observable reality.

For example, Aristotle claims that women’s lower average body temperature revealed their weakness and passivity. Yet Aristotle elsewhere associates heat with vices such as anger and rashness. Marinella grants that women’s average temperatures were lower than men’s (we now know that this isn’t necessarily true), but she argues that this doesn’t at all show that women are less virtuous. In fact, according to Aristotle’s own ethical system, that would imply that women are more virtuous: more temperate, moderate, reasonable, and able to control their passions. For another thing, Aristotle argues that financial well-being, physical attractiveness, and other circumstances that promote happiness are important for promoting virtue. Financial security promotes and enables generosity; exterior beauty inspires appreciation of that which is noble, orderly, balanced, good. Well, Marinella replies, women are generally more beautiful than men, as poets and artists attest, and the beauty of their bodies both reflect the natural superiority of their inner natures as expressed by their divine designer, and the love and passion they evoke echo the love and passion of the soul’s for the ultimate Good.

Learn more about the brilliant and fascinating Lucrezia Marinella’s case for the excellence of women, and about her life, ideas, and accomplishments at:

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Marguerite Deslauriers for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Maria Galli Stampino for Oxford Bibliographies

Lucrezia Marinella ~ by Lindsay Smith for ProjectContinua.org

Who Is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary ~ by Vittoria Colonna, Chiara Matraini, and Lucrezia Marinella

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More sources and inspiration:

Bodnar, Istvan, ‘Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Normal oral, rectal, tympanic and axillary body temperature in adult men and women: a systematic literature review’, by Märtha Sund-Levander, Christina Forsberg, and Lis Karin Wahren. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, Vol. 16, Issue 2, pages 122–128, June 2002

Parry, Richard, ‘Ancient Ethical Theory‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Price, A W. ‘Moral Theories: Aristotle’s Ethics.’ Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985, Vol. 11, p. 150-152

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

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large family with 11 surviving children, to a Catholic mother and an atheist father. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her tubercular mother died too early because she was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies.

She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw these women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support most compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis or even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Unfortunately, she did initially advocate forced sterilization of criminals and of those she believed could not make rational choices for themselves, such as the insane. Except in this awful instance of very poor judgment, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She did her nursing and much of her social justice work in poor immigrant communities, and worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. To discover more about this complex and fascinating woman, please see my History of Ideas Travel Series following Sanger in the places she lived and worked in New York City.

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:

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version by Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.

Happy Birthday, Amy Cassey!

Joseph and Amy Cassey historical marker, Old Town Philadelphia, 2015 Amy Cools

Amy Cassey, anti-slavery and civil rights activist, was born in New York City on August 14, 1808. Born Amy Williams to an elite family, she married a wealthy Philadelphia businessman named Joseph Cassey in 1825. This partnership was very happy and fruitful, and the Casseys used their wealth and prestige to do much good, particularly in the antislavery movement. She outlived her husband, who was twenty years her senior, and married Charles Lenox Remond, a mutual friend and co-activist of herself and Frederick Douglass (and namesake of one of his children), continuing her work until her death on August 15, 1856, just one day after her birthday.

I couldn’t find any images of Amy Cassey or her first husband, but there are many of Remond who, by the way, had particularly awesome hair.

Amy and Joseph Cassey House at 243 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA

Learn more about this great woman:

Amy Matilda Cassey Album – a treasure trove of poetry, drawings, and various writings by herself and many famous human rights activists of her time, from the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Cassey, Amy Matilda Williams (1808-1856) – by Janine Black for Black Past

A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (selections) – Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Yale University Press, 2008

Cassey House – in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

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!

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!

New Podcast Episode: Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

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…. Read the written version here

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!