Admirable Women – Going Old School

27 02 2011

The life of Catherine the Great (Catherine II), the eighteenth century Russian empress, reads like an opera libretto. Lots of violence and lust, at least one illegitimate child, and grasping for power. That was what politics was in the days of yore. Modern day sex scandals look kind of pathetic in comparison to the lives of the imperial court. Catherine acknowledges having hidden away a child fathered by one of her lovers and puts the paternity of her first son in question as well in her autobiography. Political rivalries were an issue unsurprisingly, but whereas now your political rival will scour the internet until they find a picture of you in college looking drunk and stupid with a really dated hair style or hunt around for a sex tape just in case you didn’t realize that sex + video camera = your career, no matter what it is, being DOA, in imperial Russia the preferred method of killing a rival’s career was to kill the rival and perhaps start a rumor that they died of something really embarrassing. After some of Catherine’s allies killed her husband, her supporters started a rumor that he died of a sever case of hemorrhoids, thus adding insult to forced expiration.

Theatrics aside, the reason I admire Catherine the Great is actually her skills as a politician. Far from being the heir apparent, she was born a German princess named Sophie whose marriage to the prospective tsar, Peter III, was arranged by her family. Once the plans were made she essentially crafted a Russian identity, changing her name, her, religion,and her language while developing a taste for all things Russian not only to ease her assimilation and enable her to make some friends in her new home, but because she knew that, without allies, as soon as she birthed a male heir, she could become expendable and expendable people didn’t live too long. Once she arrived at the Imperial Court, she started to learn the politics of the court. By the time things with her husband had broken down to the point that her life was in danger, she had made enough connections and maintained enough popularity that there was a bloodless coup which installed her into power. Eight days later, her husband was killed by a close friend of hers. It is not known whether or not she was aware of the murder plot, but she certainly gained safety and peace of mind from his death because he couldn’t attempt to seize power from beyond the grave. Her astute political sense and aptitude as a leader allowed her to do what few famous monarchs of the day got the chance to do – die of natural causes. She died of a stroke at the age of 67 after a reign of more than 34 years. She was smart, brutal, effective, ambitious. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in eighteenth century Russia, but as a historical figure, I’m impressed by her story and how she made herself into a world leader in a time when women were viewed by everyone as the “weaker sex”.

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Admirable Women – The Real Trailblazers

25 02 2011

2008 brought a lot of attention to the role of women in the highest levels of elected office. That’s great – I’m all for furthering gender equity – but we got a bit caught up in how historic a moment it was for women. “Oh. My. God. A woman senator is running for President. A woman governor might be Vice President. Oh, we’re soooooo enlightened.” Yeah, not quite. We’d forgotten that we’ve seen women as governors and senators for a while now and we’d seen them running for President and be nominated as vice presidential candidates before too. Time to take a serious look at all the ’08 hype before we get buried in BS of 2012. I’m not trying to diminish the accomplishments of either of these women, but there are a few things that need clearing up.

Hillary Clinton was sworn in as the junior Senator from New York in 2001 and served in the Senate for 7 seven years until 2009 when she was asked to become Secretary of State by President Obama. So, she served a full term, was re-elected, and was then picked to fill a position within the incoming administration. Yes, that’s impressive. What it isn’t is unheard of – at least the different pieces of it aren’t. Let me explain.

  • Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR), after serving in the Senate for a year to fill the seat left open by her husband’s death, won a special election in 1932 and became the first woman elected to the United States Senate. She won re-election in 1938, but lost the 1944 primary.
  • Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for the office of President of the United States… in 1872. Some say the she doesn’t count because her name was never on the ballot.
  • Ok, if you want to be one of those picky people, fine. Belva Ann Lockwood ran in 1884 and 1888. Her running mate in her first attempt also happened to be a woman.
  • Frances Perkins was the first woman to be appointed to a position in the US Cabinet. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt named her Secretary of Labor, a position she held until 1945.
  • *In 1972, Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) became the first woman to get delegate votes at national convention for a major party. To date, six women have had that honor – Shirley  Chisholm in 1972, Barbara Jordan (D-TX) in 1976, Koryne Kaneski Horbal (D-MN) and Alice Tripp (D-MN?) in 1980, Martha Kirkland (D-AL?) in 1984, and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in 2008. * (Updated as promised.)

Hillary Clinton is admirable – she’s done a lot and I’ll get into that in another post – but not for being the first woman to run for president, or becoming a famous senator, or being asked to be a high-ranking official in a presidential administration because she wasn’t first. She’s the one that got the farthest along thus far, but there were many who came before her. She took the individual achievements others had attained and strung them all together in one ten-year period – a feat that in itself is admirable.

Sarah Palin has become not only a celebrity, but something close to a deity in the eyes of many of her supporters. I think any sort of rabid political fandom is a little misplaced – they write laws, not pop songs – but the Palin worshipers really take it to the next level not only in their devotion to the former Governor, but also in the level of their disdain for those who aren’t moved to support her no matter how rational or genuine their reasons for not doing so are. To fail to support Sarah Palin is, to many of her diehard fans, to reveal yourself as everything anti-American. Yeah, that’s crazy. So, what has she done. Well, in addition to being chosen by AZ senator John McCain to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election – the event which propelled her into the national spotlight – she served as governor of Alaska from December of 2006 until her resignation in July of 2009. With the fuss that was made over her governorship and vice presidential nomination, you’d think it had never happened before. Well, it had.

  • Nellie Tayloe Ross (D-WY) and Miriam A. Ferguson (D-TX) both became governors in January, 1925. Mrs. Ross, sworn in of January 5th, succeeded her late husband.
  • Miriam A. Ferguson, sworn in on January 25th, succeeded her impeached husband. Her first term was plagued with allegations of corruption and she was defeated twice before winning a second two-year term in 1933. That term was also tainted by alleged corruption. (Might it have run in the family?)
  • The first woman to win a governor’s race without being previously connected to the office by marriage was Ella Grasso (D-CT) who was elected in 1975 and won re-election in 1978. She resigned in December of 1980 due to a worsening battle with ovarian cancer which she succumbed to several weeks later in February 1981.
  • At the time of the 2008 presidential race, Mrs. Palin was one of eight women serving as state governors.
  • The first woman to be chosen as a vice presidential running mate was Marietta Stow, the running mate of Belva Ann Lockwood in 1884.
  • The first woman to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate for one of the country’s major political parties was Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY)in 1984 when she was chosen by Walter Mondale to be his running mate.

Dismiss this all as “Palin Derangement Syndrome” if you will, but while there are some things about her life that are admirable, after comparing her to the other women who actually broke down barriers in politics, I’m not singing Mrs. Palin’s praises. She is also still rather young as far as politicians go, so she may yet accomplish something of merit, but for right now I remain highly unimpressed with the political career of the woman people are comparing to everyone from Washington, to Lincoln, to Jesus. Sorry!

There are many women who have done a lot with their lives before what they did was common or even accepted. Being politically involved and female is a combination that just came about four, or ten, or twenty years ago. We’ve just gotten better at it.

These are a couple other links.

A list of women presidential and vice presidential candidates , a list of women state governors, and a fact sheet about women in government as of 2011 from the Center for Women in Politics.





Admirable Women – Fount of Wisdom

24 02 2011

The first time I ever heard of Dr. Maya Angelou I was in second grade. I was sitting in front of a TV along with the rest of my classmates watching Bill Clinton being sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States. I didn’t know what I liked about the poem she’d written called On the Pulse of Morning which she was reciting for the nation that day. To this day I have no clue what drew my seven-year old self to it enough for me to remember it now, but that was the best part of the whole, long thing for me. (Second-grade-me wasn’t very impressed by the new President himself, by the way. I thought he was goofy and had a funny voice.)

Now that I’m grown enough to fully appreciate her poetry and the life experiences with which she has filled several autobiographies, Dr. Angelou is, in my opinion, one of the most accomplished individuals in this country. It isn’t merely how far she’s come in her life, her fame, or  her wealth, but the way she uses her experiences to inspire others to try to rise above whatever obstacles they face. Some of us are lucky enough to have had exceptional people cross our path who have helped us along life’s way. Dr. Angelou attempts to do that for us all – or at least those who feel like picking up her books. Sort of a wise grandmother to the world. It is a mission summed up in the introduction to her latest book, Letter to My Daughter, and, since it’s always nice to have some storytime, here is that introduction read by one of this country’s most inspiring and admirable women.





Admirable Women – The Roses of Reform

22 02 2011

We have watched transfixed for over a month as autocratic, in some cases outright totalitarian, regimes quake in the face of popular uprisings for democracy and freedom. First Tunisia’s Ben Ali and then Egypt’s Mubarak were forced from power by the people they had long oppressed and, as I type this, the Libya’s Gaddafi seems like he too will be joining the list of ex-dictators. As we watch the protests, we see among them many women. This is no small thing. In many of these places, rape and other forms of sexual abuse are used as a disciplinary tool by the pro-regime mobs and even in some cases law enforcement and military officials. These women risk beatings and shaming as well. While it doesn’t sound like much here in the US, being dubbed “a shame to your family” has major consequences. It could mean that your family has to pack up and move as quickly as possible. You might not be able to marry the person you love – or anyone, for that matter. Your family could disown you and, in countries where inequality is not only accepted but in some cases institutionally sanctioned, it could be very difficult to provide for yourself without the support of you relatives. The risks are significant and far-reaching, yet they keep returning to the squares and rallying points because they have voices and they want the right to be heard. All of these women should be admired for risking so much for the chance at a better future.

Tunisia

Egypt

Libya

Bahrain

Yemen

Jordan

Iran has been in some level of turmoil since the highly contested June 2009 elections. Women have been at the forefront from the beginning of these waves of protest.

The message on her hands reads “Women=Men”





Admirable Women – Hidden Leaders

21 02 2011

From elementary school through to about my sophomore year in college the only books I touched were manga, sheet music, and those scholarly tomes foisted upon me by the demands of my education. Then something changed and I developed a deep love of reading practically overnight. One of the first books I picked up after going through this metamorphosis was one that I had heard about a couple years before and had just never got around to picking up – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. That book immediately became a favorite of mine and remains one to this day. It is the story of how Dr. Nafisi taught forbidden western literature to a handful of young women in Iran in the 90’s, a bit of her biography, an analysis of a handful of popular pieces of classic literature, a discussion of the poisonous effects of religious fervor and anti-intellectualism run amok, a reminder to never take simple things for granted, and a look at the contemporary history of Iran from the 1979 Revolution and the optimism that followed to its current repressive, backward state all at the same time. I had encountered much of the literature she referenced in various classes and the personal perspective she brought to what Iran was about 35 years ago versus what it is (or was as of the mid 1990’s) was enlightening. I loved the book for all of its exotic as well as familiar elements, but that is not why I admire its author.

Teaching the material she was teaching in Iran was an incredibly risky undertaking and that in and of itself is worthy of a hat tip, but the fact that the whole endeavor was borne from a deep dedication to education and to this particular group of students is equally commendable. I have had the good fortune of being taught by some exceptional teachers and the thing they all had in common was that kind of dedication and love of what they were doing with their lives. I had said that the women I admire are leaders and I think that Dr. Nafisi is one. While she didn’t lead a nation or a national movement of any kind, she was a leader to this small group of women in a Tehran living room. Leaders aren’t always in the places you’re used to looking for them. Sometimes these hidden leaders have a greater effect on us than an auditorium full of dignitaries.

Incidentally, Azar Nafisi, now residing in the US, still teaches. How cool is that? She has also written another book, Things I’ve Been Silent About , which I have yet to read though I am very anxious to do so.





Admirable Women – A Random Survey and an Idea

20 02 2011

According to this article, a recent survey of professional women found that 45% of the participants named Hillary Rodham Clinton Most Admired Elected Woman Leader. Sarah Palin was a distant second with 12% followed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with 8% and, rounding out the top five, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi tied with 4% each. 27% of those asked chose someone else. A lot of things bug me about this survey. First off, Most Admired Elected Woman Leader is a rather awkward title and that’s easy to fix. Yes, I know, nothing on this blog is what you might call Pulitzer Prize-winning material – my spelling is not the best and the prose sort of bumbles along – but I’m not getting paid for this either. If their was a paycheck associated with this, let me assure you the Discourse in C# Minor would be a good deal crisper and typo-free. Secondly, The position of Secretary of State is acquired through appointment, not election. Also, more than a quarter of the participants gave other names. listing those may or may not provide greater insight into the kinds of things that women admire in one another. If Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer placed sixth and seventh, that indicates something different than if Benazir Bhutto and Dr. Hanan Ashwari came in sixth and seventh. Only 222 women took part in the survey to begin with. It would’ve been interesting to see the whole list.

The thing with me is, particularly post-job loss, the next thought that pops into my head after I’ve figured out what I don’t like about the way something has been done is how I would’ve done it better. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make anyone take a poll, but I was inspired. I decided to highlight the work of women – not necessarily political women, but definitely powerful women – leading up to International Women’s Day which is March 8th. There are many that I think are admirable and this way I won’t forget Women’s Day all together this year. Women’s Day is a thing for me because we made a big deal out of it at my college and I believe very strongly that all women deserve to be honored whether or not they’ve birthed children. This is the first in that series of posts.

California Representative Jackie Speier took standing up for a woman’s right to choose to a whole other level Thursday night when she told all of  her colleagues is the House of Representatives and the country as a whole that she herself had an abortion due to major complications with a pregnancy. This happened during a debate on the House floor regarding whether the government should continue to fund Planned Parenthood. As restrictions tighten is states across the country and as South Dakota was, until Wednesday, pondering whether the killing of an abortion doctor should be considered a justifiable homicide, this woman stands up in front of the nation and tells her very personal story  in an attempt to stem the GOP’s march back to Gilded Age-style family planning. She has opened herself up to actual danger by doing so. The überwingnut elements of the anti-choice movement don’t play around. Remember the abortion clinic bombings in the 90’s? More recently, in 2009, Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas abortion provider, was killed in his church at the end of Sunday services. To stand up in the face of all that takes a special blend of courage and a conviction to do what she believes is right that not many of us can stand up and say we have, and to do so frankly and strongly. That’s why I admire this woman. If you missed her speech, this is it.





The Third Piece of the H.R. 3 Trilogy

5 02 2011

I figured I should let you know the latest on the case of Republicans vs the English language regarding the word rape. Parts 1 and 2 of the saga are here. According to a Politico article written on Thursday, The GOP has dropped the “forcible rape” language from the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. The same is true for putting an age limit on funding abortions for victims of incest. The following is a quote from that article.

The bill’s authors, including Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), say it’s not their intent to change the way the exemption is applied.

“The language of H.R. 3 was not intended to change existing law regarding taxpayer funding for abortion in cases of rape, nor is it expected that it would do so,” Lipinski told Talking Points Memo in a statement.

Call me cynical, but if this particular section of the bill wasn’t supposed to change the our current law, then why was it even added and why was there an obvious attempt to alter the current standard created and upheld by the Hyde Amendment by coining the term “forcible rape”. Regardless of what the purpose of that section of the bill was, it isn’t there now and I’m glad. I don’t like a lot of other parts of this bill and I don’t like that pursuing a social conservative’s dream agenda has taken priority over improving the economic situation for millions in this country, but maintaining our current definition of rape is a start. Hopefully, it’s a reality check for the House Republicans at the very least.

Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show ran a really good segment on the redefinition of rape the night before Politico reported that it was no longer in the bill and it summed things up pretty well. I’m not sure if that had anything to do with that section being cut, but tit was a good segment. Since it refuses to embed properly, this is a link to the clip. Hopefully, this is the last we hear of the “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act”. I’m hoping it falls apart before becoming law because, technically, taxpayer money doesn’t go to funding abortions except in the extreme cases dictated in the Hyde Amendment which aren’t being affected and – according to one of people who wrote the bill -never were going to be affected (an explanation I still think is bullfunky) by this new bill. One can only conclude, if they are willing to cut through the sanctimony surrounding the issue of abortion, this whole bill is either a massive waste of time when there are far, far bigger things our congress needs to focus on, or an attempt to limit funds from going to institutions which not only provide abortions – the vast majority of which are not taxpayer-funded and therefore none of the government’s business or anyone less’ for that matter – but also birth control, prenatal care, testing for STD’s, OB/GYN visits, and mammograms. Last time I checked there weren’t large-scale protests about the immorality of low-cost, subsidized STD testing and obstetrical services. I leave you with this picture of silly protest signs because it just seems appropriate.