Signal Boost: Barbara Sicherman on the Persistence of Little Women

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Louisa_May_Alcott

via UNC Press Blog

November 29th was the 180th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth.  In honor of this occasion, UNC asked Barbara Sicherman, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita at Trinity College and author ofWell-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, to write a guest post on how Little Women has influenced other women writers since its publication. Sicherman begins, “What do Simone de Beauvoir, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Petry, and Patti Smith have in common? The French existentialist, Jewish American author, African American novelist, and punk rock star are all celebrated writers. Beyond this, each woman has acknowledged the importance of Little Women, and its heroine Jo March, in their imaginative lives and their identities as artists and intellectuals. They are not alone.

Numerous women, some famous, most not, have vouched for the novel’s appeal since its appearance in 1868-69 (initially in two parts). As early as 1875, fifteen-year-old Jane Addams, future settlement leader and Nobel Peace prize winner, anticipated the formulaic pattern of rereadings when she observed: “I have read and reread ‘Little Women’ and it never seems to grow old.” Even friends growing up in the 1940s and 1950s claim they read the novel yearly when they were young and returned to it periodically as adults.”

I was one of those who grew up reading and loving Alcott, identified totally with Jo, and was thrilled when my grandmother took me and my sisters to visit Orchard House.  I’ve continued my fascination with Alcott into adulthood.  For those interested in finding out more, I highly recommend Eve LaPlante’s new books on Alcott and her mother, as well the book and film, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women.

I asked my women’s history students if they had read and/or seen any film adaptations of Little Women.  Alas, most had not.  So, I showed the opening of the 1994 film version and walked through the first two chapters with them in class.  They also read Alcott’s riveting account of her work as a Civil War nurse, Hospital Sketches.

Many agreed with Sicherman’s suggestion that “Alcott, who modeled Jo in her own image, created a character that continues to appeal. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and herself a “Jo,” observed: ‘It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a bad temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.'” Nearly all of the students were familiar with the Harry Potter books and films and could easily see how Jo helped inspire Rowling to create the brainy tomboy Hermione Granger.

Historiann asked her readers to give their thoughts and recollections of Little Women, so I invite my readers to do the same.

Michelle Obama’s speech at #DNC2012 reminded me of Black Women’s Club Movement

via History News Network, which quotes the best line in Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC convention: “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

HNN traces this view to the Progressive Era, which spread the message that “Lack of success was a sign of failure not by the individual but by societal structures and institutions that limited the individual’s opportunities, no matter how hard he or she worked. . . in the Progressives’ view, the helping hand had to be extended by the body politic as a whole. And the obvious agent of the body politic is government.”

Excellent points.  Furthermore, I think  the First Lady’s remarks harken back to a specific organization that originated in the Progressive era and continues today — the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.  The organization’s motto — “Lifting As We Climb” — reflected their belief that their work didn’t end with self-improvement: they had a duty to uplift their communities as well as themselves.

Now, Michelle Obama didn’t mention race in her speech.  Perhaps, as Sophia Nelson has argued, she didn’t need to. Still, it’s worth placing her words within a longer tradition of black women’s activism.

Happy Women’s Equality Day

via National Women’s History Project  who reminds how recently women received the right to vote in the U.S.  Don’t take it for granted!

Presidential Proclamation – Women’s Equality Day, 2012

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
A PROCLAMATION

On Women’s Equality Day, we mark the anniversary of our Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which secured the right to vote for America’s women. The product of profound struggle and fierce hope, the 19th Amendment reaffirmed what we have always known: that America is a place where anything is possible and where each of us is entitled to the full pursuit of our own happiness. We also know that the defiant, can-do spirit that moved millions to seek suffrage is what runs through the veins of American history. It remains the wellspring of all our progress. And nearly a century after the battle for women’s franchise was won, a new generation of young women stands ready to carry that spirit forward and bring us closer to a world where there are no limits on how big our children can dream or how high they can reach.

To keep our Nation moving ahead, all Americans — men and women — must be able to help provide for their families and contribute fully to our economy. That is why I have made supporting the needs and aspirations of women and girls a top priority for my Administration. From signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law and creating the White House Council on Women and Girls to combatting sexual assault and promoting women’s economic and political empowerment at home and abroad, we have worked to ensure women have the opportunities they need and deserve at every stage of their lives. As women around the world continue to fight for their seat at the table, my Administration will keep their interests at the core of our policy decisions — and we will join them every step of the way.

Today, women are nearly 50 percent of our workforce, the majority of students in our colleges and graduate schools, and a growing number of breadwinners in their families. From business to medicine to our military, women are leading the fields that were closed off to them only decades ago. We owe that legacy of progress to our mothers and aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers — women who proved not only that opportunity and equality do not come without a fight, but also that they are possible. Even with the gains we have made, we still have work to do. As we mark this 92nd anniversary of the 19th Amendment, let us reflect on how far we have come toward fully realizing the basic freedoms enshrined in our founding documents, rededicate ourselves to closing the gaps that remain, and continue to widen the doors of opportunity for all of our daughters and sons.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim August 26, 2012, as Women’s Equality Day. I call upon the people of the United States to celebrate the achievements of women and recommit to realizing gender equality in this country.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-fourth day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.BARACK OBAMA

 

Signal Boost: Our Bodies, Our Votes Campaign

From Judy Norsigian:

Our Bodies Ourselves has just launched : OUR BODIES, OUR VOTES.

The goal of this campaign is to retain and restore women’s access to reproductive health care and rights, now under attack in almost every state across the country.

Please read our press release, which quotes both Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, and Dr. Timothy RB Johnson. Both are medical leaders who are deeply troubled by recent trends to undermine the provision of evidence-based reproductive health care and the doctor/patient relationship.

The Our Bodies, Our Votes campaign includes: 

* Our Bodies, Our Votes bumper stickers. Order stickers here with a donation to OBOS:  — only $10 for 3 stickers!

* OurBodiesOurVotes.com, with information on contraception and abortion, plus news and activist resources and free virtual stickers you can add to your blog or social media.

* OurBodiesOurVotes.Tumblr.com, where everyone can post and view photos of Our Bodies, Our Votes stickers appearing across the country.

I hope you will join us in spreading the word by forwarding this email to friends and colleagues who care about women’s access to reproductive health care, and by sharing the links with your networks. If you’re on Twitter, here’s the campaign hashtag: #obov2012

Finally, please make a donation to support our ongoing work to preserve access to reproductive health care.

Thanks, as always, for your support and for your own efforts to improve reproductive health care for all.

 

Best wishes,
Judy

P.S. To stay up to date with OBOS news, sign up here (with options about how often you will be contacted):

P.P.S.  As some of you may know already, the Library of Congress included “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in its new exhibition of Books That Shaped America, and Time magazine named the book one of the 100 best and most influential nonfiction English books written since 1923.  The 2011 edition has received critical acclaim and was selected by Library Journal as one of the eight best consumer health books of the year.

If you want to earmark a generous donation towards a new initiative to get this book into the hands of 10,000 young college-age students, please contact me directly. Thanks so much for your interest and support!

Judy Norsigian, Executive Director

Our Bodies Ourselves

5 Upland Rd, Suite 3

Cambridge, MA 02140

tel: 617-245-0200 x11  fax: 617-245-0201

Email:  judy@bwhbc.org

Website: www.ourbodiesourselves.org

Blog: www.ourbodiesourblog.org

Review of Leslie Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America

via H-Disability

Leslie J. Reagan. Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. xv + 372 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-25903-4.

Reviewed by Heather Munro Prescott (Central Connecticut State University)
Published on H-Disability (March, 2012)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

Prescott on Reagan

This book continues the compelling story of the history of abortion in the United States that Reagan began in her award-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime (1998). The title Dangerous Pregnancies refers not to pregnancies that were dangerous to the lives or health of mothers, but to the “dangers” to home, family, and society posed by the birth of “defective” babies. Focusing on the responses to the German measles epidemic in the United States during the early 1960s, Reagan shows how fears of disability helped lend legitimacy to the abortion rights movement.

Reagan goes beyond her earlier work by linking the history of reproductive rights to two other fields of scholarship: the history of epidemics and infectious disease; and the history of representations of people with disabilities. She shows that in marked contrast to earlier epidemics, the German measles outbreak did not single out nonwhite or other stigmatized groups as sources of infection. Nevertheless, race was at the center of media representations of the disease. Responses to the epidemic highlighted how the birth of a disabled child wrecked havoc on the status of white, middle-class, heterosexual, nuclear families. The epidemic came closely after alarming reports about severe birth defects in infants born to women who had taken the sleeping pill thalidomide while pregnant. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved the drug, some American women were able to obtain the drug from overseas. The story of Sherri Finkbine’s efforts to obtain an abortion after she discovered she had taken thalidomide while pregnant with her fifth child, helped transform attitudes towards abortion in the United States. During the pronatalist 1940s and 1950s, media coverage emphasized the deviant nature of abortion and of the women who sought these procedures. Finkbine’s story, along with that of other white, middle-class mothers who had contracted German measles while pregnant, transformed the image of abortion “from a shameful, thoughtless, and sick action to an ethical and responsible one” that protected families from the “burden” of raising a severely disabled child (p. 104).

Despite these changing attitudes towards abortion, significant barriers remained even for those who sought to terminate “dangerous pregnancies.” Reagan contrasts the cases of Barbara Stewart and Sandra Gleitman, who with their husbands filed “wrongful birth” cases against the hospitals that refused to provide abortions after the women had been exposed to German measles while pregnant. Both cases showed that hospital abortion committees were fickle and arbitrary. For the Stewarts, an African American couple, race posed an additional hurdle. While they had private health insurance, racial discrimination denied them access to physicians who had connections to hospital abortion review committees. By demonstrating the central role that race played in these deliberations, Reagan answers Chris Bell’s suggestion that disability studies scholars need to pay more attention to the experiences of “people of color.”

Reagan is less successful in showing how the German measles epidemic contributed to the emerging disability rights movement. She describes the work of “rubella parents”–most of whom were white and middle class–who fought for and won the right to public education for children with physical, sensory, and intellectual impairments. These parents were successful largely because rubella and its effects were not confined to the poor or to “people of color,” and because their arguments focused on the core middle-class value of access to education. Reagan also periodically mentions persons with congenital rubella syndrome and other disabilities, including those who objected to the “humane” and “merciful” reforms that made it easier for women to abort fetuses with birth defects. Reagan claims that even the suits filed by the Stewarts and Gleitmans reflected an aspect of this rights movement, since their aim was to get resources for their children. Yet Reagan underestimates the countervailing power of terms like “therapeutic abortion” and “wrongful birth” to reinforce prevailing beliefs that disability is a fate worse than death. Rubella immunization campaigns weakened the disability rights perspective even further. They used sentimental images of “pathetic” rubella children and played into popular notions of disability as a “tragedy” that could be prevented through universal vaccination against German measles.

Reagan shows how the rhetoric about “dangerous pregnancies” backfired during the 1980s and 1990s. Opponents of vaccination have seized on these same fears by alleging that vaccines cause autism, and that by refusing to vaccinate their children, they are saving themselves from the “heartbreak” of raising a disabled child. The discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome and other defects caused by environmental factors “erased” the history of women fighting for accurate information about potential threats to their babies and the right to abort “defective babies.” Public health campaigns by the March of Dimes and other organizations recast pregnant women themselves as risks to the unborn. Reagan rightly concludes that German measles acted as a “crucible for change” by prompting dialogue about reproductive rights, civil rights, and disability rights, but this change was incomplete. Abortion rights are increasingly under assault, and stigmatizing language about disability and misconceptions about persons with disabilities remain with us today.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.

Citation: Heather Munro Prescott. Review of Reagan, Leslie J., Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. March, 2012.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33916

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Blog for International Women’s Day 2012: the Girl Scouts have always had a feminist agenda

via Gender Across Borders.  The theme for 2012 is“Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures” and Gender Across Borders asks us to address one or both of the following points:

  • How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?
  • Describe a particular organization, person, group or moment in history that helped to inspire a positive future and impact the minds and aspirations for girls.

Since it’s the 100th anniversary of Girls Scouts of America, I’ve decided to use this organization as the focus of my post.

By now most of you have heard of the  accusations by Rep. Bob Morris (R-Indiana) and other conservatives that the Girl Scouts have a “radical feminist lesbian agenda” (and if you haven’t, here’s an article that summarizes the issue, and Stephen Colbert’s hilarious commentary)

Those of us who remember our days in the Girl Scouts are naturally puzzled by this statement — seriously, what’s radical about selling cookies or singing songs by the campfire?

However, it is true that since it’s beginnings the Girl Scouts of America in 1912, the organization has promoted a feminist ideology for girls, although the term “feminism” needs to be placed in historical context. According to Rebekah Revzin, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts of America during a time of significant change in women’s social and political roles. Low’s life was a microcosm of the southern women’s movement: raised to be a good southern belle, her disastrous marriage impressed upon Low the necessity of training girls and women to be self-sufficient.  Furthermore, Low’s disability (she was deaf in one ear) ensured that the Girls Scouts were ahead of their time for promoting inclusion for girls with disabilities.  The organization welcomed girls from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds as well.  Revzin observes that while a significant portion of Girl Scout literature focused on traditional notions of femininity, the literature also contained “a significant amount of material that challenges the more conventional feminine doctrine espoused at the time.” The most persistent theme that runs throughout Girl Scout literature is the notion of self-sufficiency: “Because traditional view of women, particularly in the South, implied that dependent or weak women were more desirable, the Girl Scout emphasis on female self-sufficiency appear particularly progressive” Revzin argues.  Providing for oneself included “cultivation of the body through physical activities that further empowered girls by giving them a sense of strong physical ability.” This support for physical fitness, says Revzin, “attributes a ‘natural’ desire for outdoor exercise to young girls, an innovative idea for its time.”  In order to ensure that girls would be economically as well as physically self-sufficient, the Girls Scouts “advocated professional careers for women.” The Career section of the handbook advised girls to pursue occupations that traditionally been reserved for men — physician, stock broker, managers, accountants, architects, even fire chief!  Revzin concludes that the Girl Scouts was more than a social club for girls: the leaders and participants aspired to go beyond “true womanhood.” Many of the “new women” of the early twentieth century “began their path toward social activity and political participation under the guiding influence of the Girl Scouts of America. These young women desired a forum in which they could express their independence, take part in outdoor activities, and provide help to others.”  Although the GSUSA never explicitly endorsed feminism, the organization “did advance women’s place in the public arena and their right to lead strong independent lives.”

Today, the Girl Scouts continues to empower girls — see its latest campaign, To Get Her There. In honor of its 100th birthday, Girl Scouts is also “setting out to raise $1 billion to achieve, in five years, a generational leap in opportunities for girls. This initiative will ensure that every girl in this generation will have the opportunity and the tools and the access she needs to reach her fullest potential. That is our promise. Together, we can make 2012 the Year of the Girl.”

Yet another reason to buy some cookies. . .