I would like you to meet Callie Guy House

Of all the women, living and dead, that I might invite to a dinner party, Mrs. Callie Guy House (Born approximately 186, died 1928) is at the top of my list. Mary Frances Berry introduced me to Mrs. House in her biography of this amazing woman, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Let me just say right up front, you should go read the book! Mary Frances Berry makes history come alive. She will make you wish you could claim Callie House as your ancestor.

Here are some highlights from Mrs. House’s life story.

Mrs. House was born a slave, died a free woman. She was in Tennessee in January 1865 when William Tecumseh Sherman issued his order for each adult freed male slave to claim 40 acres. She cheered when the Freedman’s Bureau promised each freed man 40 acres and then wept when President Jackson pardoned the rebels and restored their lands to them, taking away the possibility of land for freed slaves.

Along with Mr. Isaiah Dickerson, Mrs. House championed the ex-slave movement. Forty acres and one mule for three hundred years of hard work with no pay—that was not too much to ask. Mrs. House and Mr. Dickerson argued that if the government had the right to free the slaves, then the government had a responsibility to ensure provisions for them. She argued that our government made promises at Emancipation and those promises should be fulfilled.

In 1896, House and Dickerson formed the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. Mrs. House must have been a force of nature as she held forth on the needs and the rights of the ex-slaves. She traveled all over the south talking to groups of freed slaves. She talked to people who were struggling to keep body and soul together. She listened to people who were turned loose — People who were illiterate, barefooted, and naked without a dollar or a pocket to put it in; people who were free but with no place to go for shelter from the wind and rain. She listened to people who were free from the man who once had the power to whip them to death, but who were still dependent on that same man who now had the power to starve them to death. Today, we argue for freedom as a prized state of being. But for the people Callie House met with, freedom meant loss. The Ex-Slave Association gave them hope. They contributed monthly dues and helped each other out with illnesses and with burials. They sent petitions to Congress. Their petitions went unanswered. 

The late 1890s were many things, but they were not a time of benign neglect. In 1899, the Post Office issued a fraud order against the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association and its officers. The Post Office said that the Association and the officers could no longer use the mail because they were collecting moneys for fraudulent purposes. The Post Office kept obstructing their work. They made it difficult to collect the dues that kept the offices running. They made it difficult to put out newsletters and notices to the members. Even so, the Association found ways to struggle along. They used Wells Fargo and American Express. They used their brothers’ and sisters’ names.

But institutions are resilient and persistent and have power. On August 1916, the police arrested Mrs. House. For 20 years, she exercised her constitutional right to petition the government and taught other ex-slaves to do the same. But the Post Office accused her of using the mail to defraud people. They sent her to prison for a year. Callie House was resilient and persistent. But human beings have limits. By the time she got out of prison, the association was dead. Mrs. House was free, but she was too broken and too tired to do more than take in washing and sewing. She earned barely enough to put food on her plate. It was time for others to take up her cause. It IS time for others to take up her cause.

Introducing Bella Savitzky Abzug

Ah, my friends, if you don’t know her, or know about her, let me introduce you to Bella Abzug.  The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about her is ‘hats.’   Before Madeleine Albright claimed pins/ brooches as her signature wardrobe statement piece, Bella Abzug flaunted her hats, “I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.” If you google search images of Bella Abzug, 99.44% of the images show her wearing a hat. Oh, but she was so much more.

The second thing that I think of when I think of Bella Abzug is activism—for civil rights, for feminism, and against the political establishment even as she served the state of New York in the United States House of Representatives for three terms, from 1971 through 1977. She was a woman who spoke her mind, loudly and proudly.  She ran her campaigns on an antiwar, pro-feminist platform with the slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!”

Writer Norman Mailer once described Abzug’s voice as an instrument that “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.” She knew that her personality irritated some and inspired others, but Abzug had a backbone of titanium. In response to Mailer she said, “I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made clear from the outset—I am a very serious woman.”

And that my friends is what I want to be when I grow up—a very serious woman, with a clear sense of self, and an steadfast sense of humor.

A few facts:

1920, July 24 Born Bella Savitzky in the Bronx, New York.

1944 (maybe 1945?) Married Martin Abzug. They raised 2 daughters.

1942 Earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College

1947 Earned her LLB (law degree) from Columbia University Law School

Early 1950s (During the McCarthy era) she was one of the few attorneys willing to fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee.

1961 cofounded Women Strike for Peace, a group that protested the nuclear arms race and, later, the American military commitment in Vietnam.

1970 ran for political office—she was 50.

1974 the first national legislator to introduce a bill to increase the rights of gay Americans; the bill proposed amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual or affectional preference.”

1990 co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international activist and advocacy network.

1998, March 16—gave her final public speech before the UN in March.

1998, March 31— after battled breast cancer, died on in New York City from complications following open heart surgery.

Here’s a bit of Bella Abzug in her own words:

Women’s struggle for equality worldwide is about more than equality between men and women. Our struggle is about reversing the trends of social, economic, political, and ecological crisis a global nervous breakdown! Our struggle is about creating sustainable lives and attainable dreams.  

I always had a decent sense of outrage.  

Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.

We are coming down from our pedestal and up from the laundry room.  

Maybe we weren’t at the Last Supper, but we’re certainly going to be at the next one. 

The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.

 Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.

Meet Anne Bradstreet Poet of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

This week I would like to introduce you to Anne Bradstreet. She was the first writer in the North American colonies to be published, the most prominent of the English poets in North America, and the first Puritan figure in American literature. That is a lot of firsts for anyone, and she was also a woman and a mother.  Anne Bradstreet was born March 20, 1612 and lived about 60 years until September 16, 1672.

Anne Bradstreet was born in Northampton, England. She did not attend school, but she was born to well to do parents and was educated by her father and by reading extensively from the libraries of her father’s associates. She was married by the time she was 16. Two years later she and her husband and her parents migrated to North America where they were founding members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was mother to 8 children, ran her household, attended to the duties associated with being a wife and daughter to public officials; and she wrote poetry. Her first collection, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was widely read in America and England.

On the surface her life was triumphantly successful. But like everywoman she struggled – with the privations of life in the colonies, with the demands of motherhood, with the religious and emotional conflicts she experienced as a woman and a writer and as a Puritan. Her poems examine sin and redemption, physical and emotional frailty, death and immortality as well as her conflict between the pleasures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. As a Puritan knew she should relinquish her attachment to the world, its people and things; but as a woman her attachments to her husband and children were powerful.

Remember Anne Bradstreet lived in the same era as the exiled Anne Hutchinson. She must have felt the conflicting demands of piety and poetry, the social expectation of respectability and the literary call to daring. She live in a time and place that was hostile to personal autonomy and valued poetry only if it praised God.

Anne Bradstreet in her own words:

  • Youth is the time of getting, middle age of improving, and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age.
  • Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge — fitter to bruise than polish.
  • I am obnoxious to each carping tongue who says my hand a needle better fits.
  • Fire hath its force abated by water, not by wind; and anger must be allayed by cold words, and not by blustering threats.
  • If we had not winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.
  • Sweet words are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.

It is Women’s History Month: Celebrating Anna Maria van Schurman, a Strong Women

Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) was a philosopher and a Dutch polymath. She spoke more than a dozen ancient and modern languages when women were officially excluded from colleges, universities and intellectual academies, when women were rarely given any formal education at all. That her genius was recognized is all the more remarkable.

She was neither a traditional Aristotelian philosopher nor a modern scholar who challenged the Aristotelians, but in expressing her views on contemporary scholasticism in depth correspondence with leading intellectual figures of her day, she charted her own unique path. And, her path was to articulate a breath of arguments advocating women’s education.

Anna Maria van Schurman demonstrated her intellect through her linguistic abilities. She was fluent in ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Latin and in modern languages such as English, French, German. She was also a poet, a philosopher, an embroiderer, and a painter.

Some have divided Anna Maria van Schurman’s life into two periods: an early time of learning, philosophy, painting, and literature, and a later era of religious conviction and the rejection of her previous secular ways. But there is a thread of unity that weaves together both periods: throughout her long life, van Schurman was a woman of great conviction, and also a confident and independently minded person. She very deliberately did not allow the gender norms of her day to prevent her from achieving a deep education and a level of intellectual fame that was simply remarkable for any woman.

She was an inspiration and mentor to many men and women, including Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, and a challenging debater for many others, including Descartes. In her later life, she was an inspiration and mentor to many people who sought a new form of religious life, including most prominently the famous Quaker William Penn.

If you are hankering to learn more about this trail blazing woman, check out: annamariavanschurman.org 

What I learned from Angela Davis

Angela Davis

Angela Davis used to scare me, or maybe it was that she intimidated me. But that is probably not saying as much as it looks like, because there was a time (a long time) in my life when most people intimidated me. Why is a whole other story, more self-confessional than I want to get into here. But I think I’ve mostly grown beyond that now.

But Angela Davis. She really is something. Maybe she still intimidates me some.

She was born January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. She graduated from Brandeis University, University of Frankfurt and earned her PhD from Humbolt University in Berlin.  She is a woman of intellect. Some have called her a radical. She says, “Radical simply means “grasping things at the root.”

Angela Davis was a leader in the second wave of feminism, a member of the Black Panther Party and a communist. She ran as the Vice Presidential candidate for the Community Party. She actively campaigned against the Viet Nam war.

Angela Davis taught at various Universities across the United States. She teaches that “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.”  And, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”

She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers, three inmates who where accused and charged with killing a guard at Soledad prison.  While the three inmates were on trial, one of their brothers secreted guns into the courtroom to help the defendants escape. Melee ensued. The judge and the defendants were shot and killed. A juror and the prosecutor were injured.

Angela Davis had corresponded with one of the inmates and purchased some of the guns. Even though she was not present during the court room melee, she was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder of the judge. At one point she was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. She was apprehended, and spent a year in jail before she was found NOT GUILTY on all charges.

Angela Davis has worked persistently for the abolition of prisons and the prison-industrial complex as well as the abolition of the death penalty. In Are Prisons Obsolete? Asserts “[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

Angela Davis is a woman of principle and action. In Freedom Is a Constant Struggle she said, “Everyone is familiar with the slogan “The personal is political” — not only that what we experience on a personal level has profound political implications, but that our interior lives, our emotional lives are very much informed by ideology. We oftentimes do the work of the state in and through our interior lives. What we often assume belongs most intimately to ourselves and to our emotional life has been produced elsewhere and has been recruited to do the work of racism and repression.”

Angela Davis is a woman of action and compassion who challenges us to remember, “Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners.”

A message from the Amazons to the Women of the Future

Dear Women of the Future,

We are Penthesilea and Hippolyta. We are Andromache and Antiope. You know us as queens and ruthless warriors. You know us wrongly. Those who control the present have rewritten the past to suit their wants and needs. We are the Mothers. We are a nation of women. We are leaders. We are healers. We are creators. We are weavers and potters. We farm and tend our herds. We are skilled in weapons and wisdom. We are as strong and resilient as need be. And we stand in combat as need be.

You know us as the daughters of Ares, the god of war. We are the daughters of Artemis, goddess of hunting, wild nature, and chastity. We are the daughters of Athena, goddess of wisdom, war and peace, and spinning and weaving. We are who we are, a tribe, a nation of self-sufficient women who stand with strength and pride, and care for our own.

We, the Amazons, are the wild women who inhabit the wild places. Freedom feeds our souls, death trembles before our deeds. We write our holy books, we shape our rules and rituals, we craft heaven from the holiness of our hearts, lives and love.

We the Amazons say to you Women of the Future, choose your battles with the wisdom of your heart, mind and soul. Never give up. Learn each day. Each day do your best to the betterment of your craft and hearth. Face your fears with trembling knees and courage; nature may taunt us with our weakness; our destiny may be poured by a measure beyond our understanding; and yet, goodness will triumph in the end.

Good Women of the Future, you are now the scribes! Take up your words, reclaim the vision of our wisdom, and let our dream and our deeds fade no more. Good Women of the Future, through your actions and voice, the songs of the Amazons, the creativity and courage of wild and willful women will echo ever more symphonically through the valleys of eternity.

(with thanks to Anne Fortier for the inspiration of her book, The Lost Sisterhood)

A message from Alice Paul to the women of the future

Dear Women of the Future,

Wake up girls! There is too much at risk to be napping or resting on our laurels!! Do you not realize how much we who went before you have sacrificed? Do you not realize how long and hard we labored to build the foundations for women’s rights upon which you now stand?

But wait, this is not the tone I intended to take. I do not mean to be a shrew or a nagging elder, but to shine a light on the wealth of opportunities within which you bask. I mean to encourage you to invest in those opportunities, to develop them, to see them grow and multiply.

To those whom much is given, from them much is expected. I know this. I was a child of wealth and opportunity, born in Mount Lauren Township, New Jersey in 1885. I was able to attend Swarthmore College and then I completed my postgraduate studies at the New York School of Social Work. I was even able to study social work further in England where I participated in the women’s suffrage movement. Oh how that shaped and sharpened my skills on protesting tactics. When I returned to the US, I earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, rounding out my credentials. But more importantly, I soon joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association and eventually started my own organization, the National Woman’s Party.

All in all, I have devoted my life to the cause of women’s equality. There are goals yet to be achieved, but our achievements warrant celebration. In 1878 we introduced an amendment to the United States constitution to grant women suffrage, which is to give women the right to vote. In 1878, we women of America proclaimed that America was not a democracy, not when twenty million women are denied the right to vote.

We worked long and hard to gain attention and support for our cause. We organized protests outside the White House, which had never been done before. Our group became known as the Silent Sentinels. We continued our protests continued even when the country was preparing for World War I. After all, when you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row. Many of us were jailed multiple times during the protests, we went on hunger strike, and some of us were force fed via a tube. But our determination for equality eventually gained public and political support.

We kept at our work until the amendment was passed by the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, by the Senate on June 4, 1919. Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin ratified the amendment within days.  By March 1920 35 states had ratified the amendment, but a core of southern states rejected it. It came down to Tennessee. And the outlook was not good. The vote in the state legislature was 48 to 48. A tie. One representative was yet to vote – Harry T. Burn, a 23 year old Republican, who was known to oppose the amendment. But, his mother wrote to him:  “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt (Carried Chapman Catt) put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” He honored his mother’s wish, voted yes, and the 19th Amendment was ratified by the required 36 states on August 18, 1920, and certified on August 26, 1920.

The Nineteenth Amendment simply says: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

I have long believed that there really is nothing complicated about ordinary equality. So, once the vote was secured, we took up the work for a women’s Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution. I could not help but take the next step in our journey to equality out of a feeling of loyalty to our own sex and an enthusiasm to have every degradation that was put upon our sex removed.  I know if we get freedom for women, then they are probably going to do a lot of things that I wish they wouldn’t do. But it seems to me that isn’t our business to say what they should do with it. It is our business to see that they get it. It is not for me to judge the choices of other women, after all, courage in women is often mistaken for insanity. 

Dear women of the future, it is time for you to put your hearts, minds and hands to the plow, to take up the work of women’s equality.  How much longer must women wait to get their liberty? Let us have the rights we deserve.

(the above includes a number of quotes from Alice Paul, woven together and elaborated with words from my heart.)

Seeking the Harmony of Wisdom

There is a story that my grandmother said her grandmother told to her grandmother when she was a child living in the Tatra Mountains in the south of Poland. The story has it that at one point my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s father was having what we would call a midlife crisis. So, he went off in search of wisdom and the truth. Well, my family are not great adventurers by nature, so, Dziadek (grandfather) Janush walked over to the church and asked the priest where he could find wisdom. The good Father stroked his beard, and told Dziadek Janush to go up into the mountains where he would find a cave with a well near the back of it.

Dziadek came home, packed himself a lunch and set off to find the cave. Late in the afternoon as the shadows were beginning to lengthen, Dziadek found the very cave the good Father at the church had described. So, he went in, found the well, and after walking around the well three times in a clockwise direction, he bowed to the east and poured out the troubles of his heart and asked his question. From the very depths of the well came the answer, “Go down the other side of the mountain to the village crossroads. There you will find what you are seeking.”

With renewed hope and vigor, my Dziadek walked through the mountain pass to the other side of the mountain. He walked down the mountain to a little village he had never been to before, and on to the crossroads at the heart of the tiny village.  There he found three shops. They looked very poor and ramshackle to him. One was selling bits of metal, the second sold wood, and the third sold thin wire. It made no sense to him. What did this detritus have to do with wisdom or truth?

Sad and dejected, Dziadek walked back up the mountain, over the pass and back home again, this time feeling that the parish priest had played some kind of joke on him, and feeling rather foolish. He set out seeking wisdom and had been made a fool of instead. As he walked he cursed the priest. Without thinking he spat out words he had never said before in his life. Then, realizing what he had said, he set off to the Church, found the priest and asked the Father to hear his confession. Dziadek told the good Father all that had happened to him, and how he had been so disheartened and disappointed that he had cursed the priest without even thinking. The priest heard his confession, gave him penance and absolution, and said to my Dziadek, “Be patient my son. You will understand in the future.”

Time went by as time is wont to do. Days turned to weeks. Weeks became months. Months grew into years. And Dziadek settled into his routines and life took on a softness for him and his family. Then one evening Dziadek was walking by the Church rectory where the priest lived and he heard the sound of sweet music coming from the porch.  The music was sweet and haunting and quite wonderful. Dziadek stood there in rapt attention watching the priest play the suka, a Polish fiddle like instrument. The Father’s fingers danced on the strings, he played with masterful concentration and ease. Then Dziadek began to notice the suka itself. It was made of beautiful carved wood, with the strings attached to it with metal pieces. And standing there in the moonlight, watching the good Father play and listening to the music, the light dawned on Dziadek, the suka was made with wood, metal and wire, just like those sold in the stores which he thought were bits of scrap and junk.

Finally he understood the message from the well. We are all always already given everything that we need. Our responsibility is to see the relationships and connections among the elements, to assemble the parts of our lives and use them in the best way possible. Nothing is meaningful when we see only the disparate parts in isolation. But once we put the parts together, we discover the alchemy of synthesis and harmony, a whole new creation comes into being that we could not have foreseen by looking only at each part independently. We must find the synergistic alchemy and interdependence of all of the elements of our lives if we are to live well, if we are to live in harmony with each other and with our environment.

And with that realization fresh in his heart, Dziadek went home to share his thoughts and insights with his dear wife. Anastasia listened thoughtfully to her husband, smiled and said. “Indeed, my dear heart. It is good to know that a tomato is a fruit. It is wise to know that it does not belong in a fruit salad. Even as we learn the nature of each, we must also understand the relationship of one to another and to all. And that my dear is the heart of true alchemy.”

And they did indeed live happily ever after.


The inspiration for this story came from Roger Darlinton’s blog, http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/

Ropa Vieja

Bread may be the staff of life, but in my family food was surely the stuff of life. When you walked into my parents home, if you were friend or family (in my parents world, there were family, friends and strangers, if they knew you for 10 minutes and liked you, you were immediately friend); so, if you were family or friend you went to the kitchen where the entire contents of the refrigerator appeared on the table. We all sat and ate and talked. But there was no talking before there was eating. No one ever left my parent’s home hungry! So, I fell in love with the story of ropa vieja the second I heard it.

If you know any Spanish at all, you know that ropa vieja means old clothes. So, what does that have to do with food? Just this: old clothes plus love (lots of love) equals food.

In the Canary Islands, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico the story is told of a man whose family was coming to visit him. He loved his family deeply and wanted to prepare a grand feast to welcome them to his home. But he was a poor man and could not afford to buy food for them. But he deeply wanted to show them his love and to feed them. So, he went to his closet, gathered some of his favorite old clothes (ropa vieja) and imbued those clothes with his love. He then put the clothes in his stew pot and cooked them with the herbs and some vegetables from his garden.  By the time his family arrived, the clothes turned into a wonderful beef stew!

Alchemy at its best — the nurturing transformative power of love.

And today, Ropa Vieja is a well loved family meal in the Canary Islands, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico. The dish might (or might not) have chickpeas or potatoes; sometimes it is just the shredded meat (beef, chicken and/or pork) in sauce. It is often made with mint, garlic, tomatoes, onions and green peppers. It is often served with beans and rice and sweet plantains. For families today, ropa vieja is much like old clothes: warm, comforting and familiar.

Love, let us bask in it. May it flow through all of our lives in abundance. May it nurture us body and mind, heart and soul, even as it knits us ever more closely in the hearts and arms of family and friends.