Wednesday, November 30, 2011

100 Years ago today: Living before antibiotics and vaccines

100 years ago today the following story ran on the front page of The Logan Republican (Logan, Cache County, Utah).

   Once again the sympathy of the community is forcibly drawn to the bereaved and suffering at the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Lindblom North Main, Logan. Members of the family were recently stricken with scarlet fever and Thursday marked the second death within one week. The first to succumb was a little three year old girl, and on Thursday John Joseph, a five year old boy, passed away and was burled according to quarantine regulations yesterday afternoon. It is understood that other members of the family are suffering from the dread disease, but are not dangerously ill. Friends and neighbors have done all in their power to assist the afflicted family, but the nature of the malady has prevented the performance of many a charitable act.
One hundred years ago public health officials in the United States knew about germs and even knew how many diseases were transmitted. Unfortunately that didn't mean they could cure those diseases. Once an outbreak began there was little they could do other than educate the public as to hygienic measures that could be taken, warn them as to the symptoms to look for, cancel large public gatherings and implement quarantines. Diphtheria killed less frequently than it had in previous decades because of the development of an antitoxin but vaccines had yet to be developed. Antibiotics had yet to be discovered. Health officials kept a careful eye on the number and severity of cases as one can read in this article in The Washington Herald November 30 1911, p. 12:

HEALTH OFFICERS ASK CO-OPERATION / Several New Cases of Diphtheria Reported
With the announcement that fourteen new cases of diphtheria were reported to the office during the past week, the health department, in its weekly bulletin, which was issued yesterday afternoon, urges the of the people of the District in fighting the disease. At present there are thirty-two such cases recorded on the books of the offices.
   "The number of reported cases and the prevalence of the disease is altogether higher than it ought to be," reads the report. "Diphtheria is a preventable disease, and as such should be prevented. It is far better to prevent disease than to treat it, either at home or in hospitals. During the prevalence of diphtheria a simple sore throat should be considered suspicious and a physician called at once and a culture taken. The wise thing Is to take no chances. Treatment with antitoxin should not be delayed in positive cases, and it should given in doubtful or suspicious cases.
Officials would try to limit the spread of these diseases by preventing the likelihood of those most vulnerable vulnerable of coming in contact with others who carried the germs. Often, as reported in The Virginia Gazette, (Williamsburg, VA November 30 1911, p. 1) schools were closed to limit the spread of infectious diseases:

THE SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED / Several Cases of Contagion
   In order to prevent a probable epidemic of diphtheria, the Williamsburg school board last Friday morning decided to close the public schools until next Monday. The disease has gradually spread over the Peninsula and reached here a few weeks ago. On account of it schools in Charles City and other places had to close for a few weeks. In only one county were any deaths thus far.[sic] Antitoxin has saved many little lives....every precaution has been taken to prevent contagion, and strict quarantine is maintained where the disease exists.
We live in a post vaccination-antibiotic world. Most of us who live in what is often referred to as the "industrialized" world and were born in the last half century have never experienced the type of quick moving, virulent and deadly epidemics that used to sweep through communities every several years. Most of us have no memories of schools being canceled and swimming pools closed for fear of the dangers associated with crowds.

And we forget that much of the world still lives with the fear of measles, cholera, malaria, typhoid and other diseases most of our doctors have never seen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

100 Years ago Today: Women literally fighting for rights

The right to vote, the right to sit on juries, the right to practice many professions, indeed the right to engage in all aspects of public life were not just given to the ladies when they asked for them nicely. In fact those rights were not handed over after women demanded them. In fact they were not ceded to women until women had demonstrated that they were willing to fight for them. Yes, I know that in the end men voted to give women the vote but that was only after a long battle. Even today the political, social and economic forces in our society are predominantly male and the governments of countries that do grant the franchise to women seem to have no qualms at all in dealing with countries that do not allow women the right to vote. Or sit on juries. Or to work in the same professions as men. Or to drive. In some of the countries that most limit the civil rights of women are considered to be the closest allies of the United States.

I wonder, was it that experience of having to fight simply to be accorded the same basic rights as others in society that sensitized many of the women of the suffragette era to issues of animal cruelty? The women of 1911 weren't just handing out pamphlets and giving speeches in order to stop the cruel treatment of animals -- they were on the front lines of the fight putting themselves into harm's way for the stop the mistreatment they saw going on all around them.

For example, consider this story on the front page of the New York Tribune of November 29 1911:

ARMED, SHE HUNTS HUNTERS / Mrs. E. W. Murray Drives Men from Country Place
Mrs. Evelyn Wentworth Murray, of New York, who is an energetic member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Anímals, and has caused numerous arrests in New York City and Somerset County among teamsters, helped her watchman chase three hunters from her country place today. She said the men deliberately shot at her her Italian watchman, Jack de Luci, when the latter attempted to drive them off her estate....Mrs. Murray gave chase to the men with a .38-calibre revolver as they fled across the fields....Mrs. Murray was followed by de Luci, who carried a pair of revolvers, and fired an automatic shotgun at the men.
Mrs. Murphy wasn't the only woman who was willing to risk her own life to protect animals as one can read in this article on page 12 of the New York Evening World of November 24 1911:

WOMAN FOUGHT MOB OF 2,000 TO ARREST DRIVER / Miss Campbell Tells How She Held to Horse While Crowd Struggled
   Miss Catherine Campbell, Secretary of the Bide-a-Wee Home, today told how she battled for an hour yesterday afternoon in front of her home....with a crowd of 2,000 persons, because she insisted upon arresting an eighteen-year-old driver for kicking his horse in the stomach.
   The crowd turned unexpected against the valiant woman and tried to take her prisoner away from her. She was dragged a block clinging to the horse's bridle. the animal was knocked down three times by the struggling mob, each time limping to his feet, with Miss Campbell still cling to his head.
Our foremothers did not, for the most part, life quiet sheltered lives in those "halcyon" days before women had the vote. It was only a few months since the Mayor of New York had stopped the practice of paying male teachers more (substantially more) than female teachers with the same qualifications. Of course the United States of 1911 was a dangerous place for many people. African-Americans were given little protection by and from officers of the law. There were few laws labor laws and safety regulations in work places were either non-existent or seldom enforced. "Eugenic laws" were becoming more and more popular and domestic violence was routine.

The "good old days" were not so good for many people. And things got better because individuals were willing to fight to make things change.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

100 years ago today: We remember the wrong names

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

Down near the bottom of the front page of The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) of November 27 1911 there is a small headline: WILL BE HANGED TO-DAY / White Man Must Pay Penalty for Murder of Negroes. The focus of the short article that follows is not the nature of the crime but the historic nature of the punishment:
There was a follow-up article on the front page of the same newspaper the next day:
Indeed this was an historic occasion. A white man had not only be found guilty of murdering an African-American he had been given the most severe penalty possible for doing so. But there is something very wrong that it is his name that was recorded in these newspapers not the names of women he killed. That is why I have redacted the murderer's name from these articles.

This story was picked by the Associated Press and the article varied from paper to paper across the United States by headline and length. For example, the headline near the bottom of the second page of the November 30 1911 edition of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian was Unusual and the accompanying article was simply:
NAME REDACTED, a white man, was hanged at St. Mary's, Georgia, for the murder of a negro woman and her daughter.
In The Titusville Herald (Titusville, PA) the piece ran on page 8: WILL HANG TODAY
For the murder of a negro woman and her daughter near Kingsland; Ga., NAME REDACTED, a white man, will be hanged here tomorrow. This is believed to be the first time in the history [sic] that a white man has been executed for killing a negro.
If the name of the first white man in that area of the United States executed for killing an African-American was of historic interest surely the names of the two women he murdered -- the first African-Americans in that area of the United States whose murders were treated with the same degree of severity as were murders of white women -- deserved to be recorded.

Even The Appeal, an African-American newspaper, did not include the names of the two women when it picked up the Associated Press story. Which leads me to suspect that the story was sent out without their names. But the name of their murderer was not only put out on the wires, it was mentioned in major newspapers because his death marked an historic first. His name and his story have become part of the tourist industry of the town where he was hanged because he was also an historic last. He was the last man hanged at that jail. So his story is repeated and even dramatized for the tourist trade.

The name of the murderer was in all the newspapers I read. A little bit of digging turned up the name of the man who arrested him. I know the name of the (white) woman who had taught one of the murdered women to read and write. I know that that murdered woman was proud she was literate and proud of the hard work that she did to earn a living. I know that she made a habit of writing her name on the dollar bills she received when she was paid. I know that it was the possession of money with her name written on it that led to her murderer being caught. I know that family members of the white woman who taught her sat on the jury that heard the case. I know that the older woman was walking home with her daughter when she was attacked by a white man who intended (at the very least) to steal all her money. Perhaps she feared that even greater harm would be done to her daughter. I know that the older woman fought her attacker and I know that he murdered her and her daughter and then took the money from their corpses.

But I do not know the name of the mother or the daughter. I don't know how old either were. I know only that one white man took away their lives and that their place is history has almost been wiped out by the disinterest of those who record these kinds of things.

One hundred years ago today the State of Georgia enacted official revenge for the murder of two black women. It is their names that should be remembered not that of the man who murdered them.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Re: Reading Atwood

Over the last few weeks Kit Whitfield has published a series of, deconstructions and analyses of famous novels using the first sentences as each as hir point of departure. I recommend these posts to anyone who wants to read excellent and jargon free literary analyses.

As a fan of Kit Whitfield both as a writer and as a literary critic I began scanning my own shelves for books I would love to see hir analyze. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale immediately caught my eye. I had been a science fiction fan from the time I was in grade school and so when I learned that Atwood had written a book set in a patriarchal dystopic near future I looked forward to reading it with some excitement. By the time I finished my excitement had morphed into annoyance which was shared with many other fans of science fiction. Much of that annoyance could be organized under three headings: genre blinkers, genre blindfolds and genre insecurity.
  1. Genre blinkers

  2. I (and many other science fiction fans) complained that Atwood had made critical errors in her world building -- errors that she would not have made if only she had first read some number of "classics" in the field.[1]. Some of our complaints boiled down to "if the group X is going to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States, that will not be the way they go about it." Which translated to "since that is not the method used in the classics then it is wrong." An interesting claim since it amounted to a prescriptive narrowing of imagination.

    Many of those "that isn't the way it would happen" complaints have been answered by recent "real world" developments. A number of Atwood's critics said that if anything like the events in the back story of the book happened in the United States people would immediately fill the streets and that there would be open rebellion against those attempting to overthrown the Constitution. Given the laws passed and regulations enacted in the United States since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the increasing paramilitarization of the police, the encroachments on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth Amendments to the Constitution, the increasing requirements to carry and produce government issued identification cards, and the frank and open way that legislators are working to restrict voting--the claim that Americans would not be willing to stand passively by as their democratic rights are stripped away carries far less weight than it once did.

    Atwood was also criticized as being "unrealistic"[2] because of the ease with which the powers that be in her book were able to strip away women's rights. Not only would the women be in the streets protesting any such attempts, so her critics argued, most men would be out in the streets with them. That is another argument that falls flat given events in the United States in the last two decades. Not only is it harder to get access to abortion (or even birth control) in much of the United States now than it was when The Handmaid's Tale was first published in recent years laws have been proposed that would make the rights of any woman secondary to rights of anything alive (or for that matter dead) in her uterus.

    As I wrote in my August 1 2011 post I owe Margaret Atwood two apologies
    Now, as I read my morning papers, I see bill after bill being passed into law in various American states that could have been included in the backstory Atwood provided for the dystopian America. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about legal efforts to claw back from women the rights they have recently won. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about official efforts to disenfranchise portions of the American population. Now, as I read my morning papers, I read about legal efforts to further entrench Christianity (and only certain flavours of Christianity at that) into American law.

    In short, every day as I read my morning papers I realize that I should not read The Handmaid's Tale as a non-science fiction writer's attempt to write within an established genre but as chilling and insightful examination of the American political/social psyche.
  3. Genre blindfolds

  4. Among some readers a new idea badly presented has far more worth than an old idea presented brilliantly. However many of these same readers only recognize as "new" something that happens to / is felt by a "classic" science fiction character. If every book ever written about life on Mars had a white, male narrative voice reflecting white male experiences then for the some readers writing a book about life on Mars with a female or black narrative voice would not constitute writing something "new." Just because a "thing" is new doesn't mean that its introduction will in any way change society or the ways in which human beings interact. Setting Romeo and Juliet on Mars instead of in Verona doesn't make the story any newer.
  5. Genre insecurity

  6. Atwood is one of those writers who has written books that those who love both literature and science fiction quite happily categorize as both yet who dislikes having her work described as science fiction, arguing that her dystopian novels...are not science fiction but speculations about the future. (The New York Times Sept. 21 2009). This, not surprisingly makes science fiction fans feel insecure for it sounds as if she is belittling the entire genre as having little worth. However I think if you read her statement carefully what she is saying is not "see those books in the science fiction section of the library--none of them is great and none of them is a piece of literature." Perhaps what she is really saying is "see all the absolutely marvelous, well-written, thoughtful books? Don't put them in the science fiction section where they will be lost to most readers. Liberate them. Place them out on literature shelves next to the works of Austen, Eliot and James."

    Atwood seems to me, to be saying that to put her book in the science fiction section is like putting Crime and Punishment into the same section of the bookstore as The League of Frightened Men. Depending on one's mood one might prefer to read the latter than the former but it helps direct the reader to find the right book and give some intimations as to how to read each book if they are shelved in different sections.

    Writers as well as readers suffer from genre insecurity. Readers who love "classic" science fiction fear that if good writers refuse to have their works categorized as science fiction then few good writers will attempt to write in the field. Good writers fear that some readers will not even pick up a book if it is labeled science fiction. They also fear that if people pick up their books thinking "this is a piece of science fiction" then the reader will not apply the same careful analytical skills that they use when reading other books.
If Atwood feared that some of her readers would make a category error when reading The Handmaid's Tale if they considered the book primarily as a piece of science fiction then I must confess that in my case her fear was accurate. I read the book years ago very consciously as a piece of science fiction. Yesterday I picked it up again, looked at the opening sentence and wondered what Kit Whitfield would make of it. Then I read the second sentence. And then the third. What a strange experience it was for me. This was a book I knew well and yet reading it now was a new experience. I set aside everything I (thought I) knew about how patriarchies should work, I set aside everything I knew about how dystopias should could into being. I finally read the book that Atwood wrote and it was a thing of wonder.
Rating: 5 stars

[1] Of course, there was something less than unanimity as to exactly which books and short stories those classics were.

[2] In science fiction the charge "unrealistic" can mean 'this isn't the way in which the physical universe actually works' or 'actual sentient beings do not respond in these ways to these circumstances.' However if a particular exception to scientific realism/truth/accuracy has deep roots in genre writing then it gets a pass. And since science fiction writers generally wrote from a narrow range of real world experiences readers had long since learn to accept as "realistic" behaviour and attitudes that would be considered highly unrealistic/believable in other cultures, classes or social groups. Readers who were women, African-Americans and members of the working class had simply come to learn that however people acted in the real world this is how they functioned in the world of science fiction. Which may explain why so many readers who belonged to those groups disliked science fiction as genre and read little of it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Batman and the case of the missing women

As I reshelved books earlier today I was thinking of Deconstruction: The Bechdel Test an article by Ana Mardoll which had been posted recently on The Slacktiverse.

<Temporary derail> I am always in a constant struggle to keep books from taking over my desk, the floor of my library, the window sill of my library, the side table by my bed, the space next to my plate at the kitchen table and every other surface in the house which will hold a book. Yes, I pull books off the shelf to check quotes, to compare writing styles, to verify when something was published, to nail down a reference. But surely I don't pull enough books off the shelves to explain why sometimes it is difficult to pick one's way from the door to the chair and why every single book I needed to look at today was already off the shelf and in some unmarked pile. Approximately once a week I make a reshelving sweep through the house. By the next morning books will apparently have left the bookcases of their own accord to scatter themselves at random throughout my home.</Temporary derail>

I considered the book on top of the next 'to be shelved' pile in the light of that article. Batman in the forties. "Of course," I said to myself, "there is virtually no chance that an early Batman cartoon would pass the Bechdel test." Then my talent at procrastination academic rigour kicked in and I sat down to verify whether the early Batman comics did indeed 'fail' the Bechdel test.

I turned to page 10 and the first comic included in the collection--Case of the Chemical Syndicate, originally published in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. So, the first Batman (btw, he is referred to as The Batman throughout) fails the Bechdel test by the first criterion. Not only does it not have two women it doesn't even have one woman. Not even a silent woman standing somewhere in the back of a scene.

"Well," I say to myself attempting to put off any more work to maintain academic rigour, "one shouldn't make broad generalizations from a sample of one. I really need to reread more of these early comics."

So I moved on to Batman's official Origin story, first published in Detective Comics #33 in November 1939. As I turned to that story I noticed, with some excitement, that I could see not one but three drawings of a women. Strike that--they are drawings of the same woman. Bruce Wayne's mother (not given a name--she is described only as Thomas Wayne's wife) is first drawn standing terrified by her husband's side as the family is accosted by a gun wielding criminal. Two frames later she is drawn holding her injured husband and she has actual lines Thomas! You've killed him. Help!!. In the next frame the young Bruce Wayne is shown looking at the dead bodies of both his parents.

An improvement over the first comic since there was at least one woman. Or at most one woman. And she does get to speak. And be immediately killed. And she isn't given a name.

Sigh. On to the next comic in the collection--the origin story of Robin-the Boy Wonder originally published April 1940 in Detective Comics #38. And right there on the first page of the story I see a woman. In a trapeze perfomer's outfit (bra and short shorts) standing silent in the background. On the second page she gets a line of dialogue Nicely done, John and in the next frame she gets another as John (Grayson) cries Mary and Mary (Grayson) screams John! as they both plunge to their deaths.

Reading on I finally find a scene with two women in it. Of course it is a gambling den, neither of the women has lines and but at least they (and the lone woman in one of the frames on the next page, provide some relief from an otherwise completely male world.

I could go on but it is actually too depressing and distressing to do so. The real problem here is not that most of the leading characters are male nor is that most of the name characters are male. The problem is that the Batman comics is set in a world that is so overwhelmingly male that it is easy to identify and count the number of women drawn in each of these early stories.

So, the early Batman comics don't just fail the Bechdel test, they fail it spectacularly. They fail it in a way that signals to their readers not only that women don't have interesting stories to tell, or that women aren't good at crime fighting---it signals that women simply aren't.....

Thursday, November 24, 2011

100 years ago today: What's in a name?

We can tell much about a society by examining the words that they use (and don't use) and how they use them. For example, consider, this short headline on the front page of the November 24 1911 evening edition of The World (New York): THREE YEARS FOR AUTOIST GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER.

First, the word "driver" usually means "the person who drives that means of transport most common in society." Thus in this article WOMAN FOUGHT MOB OF 2,000 TO ARREST DRIVER on page 12 of the same edition of The World the driver the woman fought to arrest a man who was kicking the horse drawing his cart. Today the word "driver" will generally be understood to mean "person who drives a car." If the vehicle in question is not an automobile then that fact will be clearly indicated in the text. ("The driver of the tractor was not injured in the crash.")

In the America of 1911 automobiles were by no means rare but were still not the most common means of transportation for most people. If the headline had read THREE YEARS FOR DRIVER GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER it would not be clear to the reader of the time what type of vehicle had been involved in the accident. Because the word "driver" left ambiguity as to the type of vehicle involved writers used a number of words, such as autoist and automobilist.

Reading the newspapers of 1911 one soon realizes not only that automobiles were comparatively new and uncommon things but also they were viewed with alarm and concern by much of the population. Often the wording of the article implied/suggested either intentionalilty on the part of the automobile or that these machines were inherently difficult to control and therefore always dangerous. Often people are identified as being in the vehicle or riding it but there is no indication as to who (if anyone) was actually driving it.
  • FIRE CHIEF HURLED FROM HIS SPEEDING AUTO BY COLLISION / On Way to Blaze Langdon of Brooklyn and Chauffeur Are Tossed Over Fence (The Evening World November 24 1911 p. 3)
  • "While returning from visiting a patient the automobile in which Dr. Claggett and Lew Ferguson were riding became unmanageable and the two were violently thrown out when the machine turned turtle" AUTO TURNS, TWO ARE HURT (The Norfolk Weekly News Journal July 28 1911, page 1)
  • "According to bystanders the automobile, coming along Third street and trying to turn north into Broadway, did not turn sharply enough and ran into the car, which was going along Broadway." WOMEN INJURED IN AUTOMOBILE CRASH / Mother and Daughter Thrown From Machine That Collides With Streetcar (The San Francisco Call April 7 1911, p. 11)

Second, let's think about the word "manslaughter." As I wrote in my post yesterday (Questions of Personhood) even after gaining the vote, women still were not able to exercise the same rights and privileges of citizenship as did enfranchised men. Language was used in ingenious and slippery ways by those trying to find reasons why not to allow women to do (or not do) various things.

It had long been accepted that the "people" whose rights were protected in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution were both men and women. Legal figures did not argue that the 4th amendment's protection of "The right of the people to be secure in their persons" did not extend to women. When the law said that "no man shall kill" or "no man should steal" or "no man should speed" or "no person shall kill" or "no persons shall steal" or "no person shall speed" then it was understood that those restrictions extended to women.

However, when the law said "all persons may" or "all men may" then prevailing social/legal opinion as to whether women had the same rights as men depended on whether that action was one traditionally accepted as appropriate for women. A good example of this was the shocked responses to Mrs. Craig Biddle's decision to smoke in public. The problem wasn't that a person was smoking in public since men were allowed to do so. The problem was that a woman was exercising a privilege that had traditionally been enjoyed only by men. As I wrote in an earlier post, When Smoking is a Civil Right, attempts were made to restrict only the rights of women to smoke in public while continuing to allow men to do so.

In 1911 the exact meaning of the word "man" in legal documents seemed to vary on the basis of whether the right, privilege or protection undermined or supported the status quo. There were still many who wished to accord some of the rights and privileges accorded to "men" only to male human beings. And if you read the news in 2011 you will find that there are still many people attempting to do the same.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

100 years ago today: Questions of personhood

Winning full rights in society isn't a matter of battlefield set pieces--it is like taking a city one street and one house at a time.

One might think that the women of California having earlier in the year won the right to vote would have then been automatically accorded all the rights and privileges enjoyed by those who had already been enfranchised. This was not the case. Watching women who had already won the right to vote then have to separately struggle for the right to do things such serve on a jury highlights the degree to which women had not been treated as second class citizens because they didn't have the right to vote but rather had been denied the right to vote because it served the powers that be to treat them as second class citizens.

Case in point--the article JURY SERVICE ONLY FOR MEN, DECLARES WEBB / Attorney General Gives Informal Opinion on Present Law of California on the front page of The San Francisco Call November 23 1911:
Jury service is not a political right, he [Webb] said. "It is a duty incident to citizenship. It is in the nature of a burden which may by law be cast upon all or certain citizens. It is a judicial service, the performance of which is enjoined by law upon some citizens and which other citizens are debarred from performing because they do not possess the qualification which the law prescribed for those by whom this service shall be performed.
Webb was being disingenuous at best. Serving on a jury is not only a duty it is a right. First, if only a specific subgroup of society is able to serve on juries then only their perspective on the law will be reflected. Second, if women are barred from sitting on juries it will have a substantial impact on their ability to function as lawyers and judges. Third, if women are barred from juries it will have a substantial impact on their ability to run for and win any political position that involves the courts or the law. Even were it true that individual women were statistically more likely to suffer from particular impediments that would stand in the way of serving as jurors there was already in place a way of examining all jurors before selecting them to hear a case. Just as some men were found unfit (in general or for the purposes of a particular case) to be jurors so could unfit women be dismissed from jury duty.

The Supreme Court of the United States had ruled unconstitutional state laws that debarred men from sitting on juries on the basis of their race and yet specifically allowed that citizens of all races could be debarred from juries on the basis of their gender. Given the wording of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
and the words of the ruling in U.S. Supreme Court Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1879)
The very fact that colored people are singled out and expressly denied by a statute all right to participate in the administration of the law as jurors because of their color, though they are citizens and may be in other respects fully qualified, is practically a brand upon them affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others.
Reading the opinions in that (and similar) cases one is forced to conclude that the court did not consider women to be, in truth persons.

In the words of Burnita Shelton Matthew, from "The Woman Juror" WOMEN LAWYERS' JOURNAL Vol. 15, No. 2 (January 1927)
Since the adoption of woman suffrage, women have arrived, so to speak, and are demanding the why and wherefore of their exclusion from jury service. Evidently they are not satisfied with the reasoning of the great English jurist, Sir William Blackstone. He held that the common law requires jurors to be free and trustworthy "human beings," and that while the term "human beings" means man and women, the female is, however, excluded on account of the defect of sex. If it be, as Blackstone says, a "defect of sex" that bars women from the jury box, the women claim that the defect lies in the masculine, not the feminine ranks. Anyway, in these modern days, women always take what Blackstone said with a grain of salt. They remember that when expounding the common law – a law which actually bristled with injustices to womankind, and which even permitted a man to beat his wife, Blackstone remarked that under it, a female is "so great a favorite."

As women are dissatisfied with Blackstone’s reasoning, so they are dissatisfied with the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court. That court has decided that a state can not bar colored men from jury service because the debarment would brand them as an inferior class of citizens, and deprive them of the equal protection of the law which is guaranteed by the National Constitution. Since the Constitution guarantees that protection to persons and not merely to negroes, that doctrine should apply to women as well. However, with the curious ability which judges of the male persuasion have manifested to regard women as persons at one time, and not as persons at another, the court in this case said that certain restrictions might legally be put upon jury service – such as limiting it to males!
I will write more about court cases that specifically address that question the personhood of women in a future post.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

100 years ago today: Protesters attempt to occupy the House of Commons

Next time someone describes those involved in the various Occupy movements as dirty hippies you could always reply "No they are acting like English ladies in Edwardian times." On November 21 1911 women had attempted to force their way onto the floor of the House of Commons in London to protest the government's refusal to pledge support for a bill that would give women the right to vote. Forced back onto the streets many of the women had thrown stones, smashed windows and then physically resisted the police attempting to arrest them. From the November 22 1911 edition of The Marion Daily Mirror (Marion, Ohio. page 1) REAL WAR SAY SUFFRAGETTES / Jail Sentences no Deterrent to Women Wanting Ballot / WON'T SHRINK FROM STRUGGLE
    Black eyes and scratched faces were numerous among the prisoners and several declared that their entire bodies were masses of bruises. They charge that the police were under orders to handle them as brutally as possible, short of inflicting serious injury, by way of discouraging them. To this end, they assert the officers struck them in the faces, pinched them, twisted their arms, ripped off garments and in some instances treated them with actual indecency.
    The leaders say these methods will not deter them for an instant from continuing their campaign until suffrage is granted them. They will also do their utmost to create disorder in jail as outside of it. They will refuse to work, the prison attendants will be resisted, there will be hunger strikes, the prison furniture will be smashed and every method resorted to to force the government to surrender.
    In last night's encounter scores of policemen were hurt. A number were stabbed with hat pins. Some had their eyes blackened, their noses bruised or teeth knocked out by brass knuckles in women's hands.
One hundred years ago "respectable" English ladies were willing to endure harsh treatment and jail sentences just for the right to vote. Today many women (and men) seem unwilling to even make the walk to the ballot box in order to prevent women from having their very right to life taken away from them.

The business of blaming the victim

Some of my best book finds have been at a particular type of library sale. When professors (or the bookish well off) die their adult children sometime pack up all the books and give them to a nearby library. A few years ago several libraries within driving distance had sales that consisted entirely of books they had received this way. Many of the books were in wonderful condition and they differed in subject (and even language) from those one found at the usual library sale.

At many of these sales you bought large paper bags when you entered (usually $5.00 each) and you could walk out with as many books as you could pack into them. After you packed all the books you had found into the bags there was almost always room to add a pamphlet or small book. Since those were afterthoughts (or rather, they were "why waste any space in the bag" thoughts) I didn't always look over them very carefully until I got home.

One of those little "extra" pamphlet/books was Heal Thyself: An explanation of the real cause and cure of disease by Edward Bach. This particular copy was printed in England and from the condition of the spine I doubt anyone had ever actually read it. When I checked the copyright page I noticed that although it was first published in 1931 the particular copy I had was printed in 1991. This caught my interest--although there been a lot of changes in medicine in those sixty years there seemed to have been no edits or additions to the original text and quick check on Amazon indicates that it is still in print.

So, who is this Edward Bach and what is his book about?

Edward Bach was a homeopath who didn't believe in the "germ theory" and did believe that illness arose from disharmony between the personality and the Soul [1](50). Bach concocted remedies from flowers on the basis of his psychic and intuitive relationships with plants. Nelsons Homeopathic Pharmacy (the largest manufacturer of homeopathic remedies in the UK) use Bach's "mother tinctures" to produce the Bach flower remedies that they still sell. On January 28 2009 Nelsons announced Nelsons, the UK’s largest manufacturer of natural healthcare products, is proud to have been selected by Duchy Originals to manufacture the new Duchy Herbals range of natural herbal tinctures, which have been launched this month – the key post-Christmas cold and flu season. Duchy Originals is the Price of Wales' organic food company. According to its own website Duchy Originals embodies HRH The Prince of Wales's commitment to what he calls a 'virtuous circle' of providing natural, high-quality organic and premium products, while helping to protect and sustain the countryside and wildlife.

I will leave aside for another day my discussion of the scientifically questionable value of any of these homeopathic "remedies" and instead will focus one of the beliefs of Bach (and of some others within the alternative medicine community) that both makes it impossible to test their products in any scientific manner and which also causes deep and often lasting emotional as well physical harm to many of their clients.

Bach was a victim blamer. If you read his magnum opus it is clear that he believed that the person who was sick was themself responsible for the illness and that no cure could be effected until they first "healed themselves." That means that Bach's claims that his nostrums were effective were unfalsifiable. If the remedy didn't work it was the fault of the patient not the medicine:
Let it be briefly stated that disease, though apparently so cruel, is in itself beneficent and for our good and, if rightly interpreted, it will guide us to our essential faults....Suffering is a corrective to point out a lesson which by other means w have failed to grasp... (8)
We can now see how any type of illness from which we many suffer will guide us to the discover of the the fault which lies behind our affliction. (17)
Thus we see that our conquest of disease will mainly depending on the following...secondly, the knowledge that the basic cause of disease is due to disharmony between the personality and the Soul; thirdly, our willinghness and ability to discover the fault which is causing such a conflict. (50)
Victim blaming is at the very heart of Bach's theories about illness. Indeed, without such victim blaming his theories would collapse under the weight of the scientific evidence against them. So, those who depend on such remedies instead of conventional medicine suffer great emotional distress even if their physical problems are quite minor.

[1]Bach, Edward. Heal Thyself: An Explanation of the Real Cause and Cure of Disease. Saffron Walden: C.W. Daniel, 1931.

Monday, November 21, 2011

100 years ago today: Dying for drugs

One hundred years ago today Walter Wyman died as a result of a carbuncle. Wyman had access to the best medical care in the United States, perhaps the best medical care in the world. He was surgeon-general of the United States Public Heath and Marine Hospital Service. Details of Wyman's illness can be read in CARBUNCLE KILLS HEAD OF PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE (The Washington Herald, Nov. 21 1911) and DR. WALTER WYMAN DEAD (The Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 21 1911).

It is easy for us to forget now deadly boils, abscesses, carbuncles and even small cuts could be in a world without penicillin, sulfa or all the other drugs we now have access to. Wyman had been hospitalized for other reasons but it was the infections that resulted from the carbuncle that killed him. This was not at all unusual in 1911 and even today people in the "western world" still die of sepsis.

Next time you (or someone else) is fantasizing about how well you (or they) would fare "come the apocalypse" remember that even those with the guns and the food stores are likely to be brought low not by other human beings but by simple blood poisoning. Or measles. Or mumps. Or influenza. Or rabies. Or tetanus. Or......

Sunday, November 20, 2011

100 Years ago today: Calling on San Francisco

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One of the things that jumps out at the reader of the newspapers of one hundred years ago is how clearly the "flavours" of different regions, cities, states and even classes survives over time. It isn't that the newspapers of the relatively undeveloped territories and comparatively newly admitted states reflected a more rural and geographically isolated view of the world than did the newspapers of the larger cities. Indeed, one of the surprising things one finds that most newspapers, once they reached the stage of daily (or at least six day a week) editions, included news from all over the world. It is easy to follow the news of the rebellion in China, the Italian campaign in Northern Africa, the unrest in Mexico and the major political issues in Canada and Great Britain.

Armed with some knowledge of the history of segregation and "Jim Crow" laws in American history one isn't too surprised to come across an almost gleeful description of a lynching in a newspaper published in a southern city or town. However it is not difficult to find the same story picked up several days later in a newspaper printed in a northern city. One may more often come across the descriptor "colored" after someone's name in a southern newspaper than those in the north but that may be due more to the fact that there were fewer African-Americans living in the regions served by some of the northern newspapers.

While most newspapers made an effort to cover news of national and international interest some events and concerns are simply more salient to one community than they would be for another. For example, much of the front page of The Tacoma Times of November 20 1911, was taken up with news about the water emergency of nearby Seattle. Reading the headline is enough to explain why the editors of The Tacoma times felt their readership would be very interested in that particular story.
SEATTLE PEOPLE RUSH HERE / Panic Stricken Over Water Shortage
But why, the casual reader might wonder, did The San Francisco Call run so many "human interest" stories about this fellow named Ishi? The following are just a few of the headlines about Ishi that appeared in the The Call over the previous few months. Who exactly was this Ishi? As Georges T. Dodds explained in his review of George R. Stewart's Earth Abides:
In 1911, an emaciated man who spoke an unknown language wandered out of the mountains of Northern California and was jailed as a vagrant. "Discovered" by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber (Ursula K. Le Guin's father) and his associates in the anthropology department of The University of California at Berkeley, this wilderness man was identified as the last survivor of the white man's slaughter of his Californian Native American tribe, the Yahi, and probably the last entirely free-living Indian in North America.
Ishi appeared out of the mountains at a liminal time in the history of the state of California. The west coast was no longer a frontier. The only areas of the contiguous United States that had not yet been admitted to the Union as states were interior territories. Comfortable in their assurance that they have "won" the battle and displaced (often by killing them) the original inhabitants of what became California people could exoticize and fetishize this lone remnant of those they had deplaced/replaced and erased. And like shoppers anxiously reading Consumer's Digest after making their purchases, the public gained assurance that they had done right every time Ishi was reported to have done something "savage." See, they could think (or say), see how childish he is. He is better off now. Someone like this couldn't build the great cities we have erected on the coast. Ishi's people could not have forged a nation that spread from coast to coast.

Ishi had become for the readers of The Call a symbol of their power, their might and their (self perceived) meritocratic right to control the lands on which Ishi's people had once lived.

Friday, November 18, 2011

100 Years ago today: Marked from birth to death

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the "color bar" in the United States was quite firmly in place. Indeed it was so well entrenched that when reading newspapers from one hundred years ago it is easy to overlook many of the "every day" and pervasive aspects of segregation. Of course it stands out when, I have mentioned in other posts in this series, newspapers are reporting on lynchings but many of the rules that governed what African-Americans could do or where they could go are invisible to the casual reader of long ago newspapers. For example, it wasn't necessary for "whites only" to be included in an "for rent" listing because housing was so segregated at that time that contemporary readers would knows simply from the address whether the house or apartment in question was in the white or "coloured" part of town.

Sometimes it is a "by the way" and casual item that makes the modern reader sit up and remember just how heavily segregated life was for African-Americans in almost all areas of the United States in 1911. Here, for example, are the birth, death and marriage announcements on page 2 of The Washington Herald November 18 1911:

From the moment an African-American was born to the moment they died they were marked as "other." If they were born in the same hospitals it would not be in the same rooms or even on the the same floor. They didn't go to the same churches and they were no doubt laid out at different funeral homes.

How carefully must African-Americans have negotiated the byways of a new town? If an African-American moved to Washington D.C. one of their first steps was probably to get a copy of The Washington Bee, the local African-American newspaper. If you glance through the pages of the November 18 1911 edition you will find some ads for the same stores and services as in The Washington Herald and some ads for different stores and different services. Readers could assume that any business that advertised in the pages of The Washington Bee would serve African-Americans. In fact one can find on page 3 of that edition an answer as to how people figured out if businesses were friendly to African-Americans:

Of course, there were businesses that would take money from African-Americans but not treat they as well as they did white customers. And there were businesses that wouldn't even take the money. If African-Americans patronized businesses run by other African-Americans they could assure themselves of good service at the same time that they supported their own community. As the writer of the article on page 4 SUPPORT YOUR OWN put it:
Since there are so many "Jim Crow" theaters in the city, The Bee would advise the colored people to support their own theaters. There is no reason for ninety thousand colored people to support moving picture theaters that have been set apart by white men for Negroes and bar them out of their theaters down town.
Let us support our own.

Too often the history we read of the United States excludes the voices, faces and stories of African-Americans. The great businessmen and businesswomen are white, the doctors and nurses are white, the inventors and mechanics, the painters and poets---everyone is white. Because the "others" are invisible we forget that they too were being born and dying, marrying and divorcing, running businesses, schools and hospitals. Reading papers such as The Washington Bee is a reminder that there was a thriving and interesting separate community of African-Americans whose stories are still not being heard.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: Strong Poison

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers (1930)

Now that's more like it.

After a comparatively weak outing in The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club both Wimsey and Sayers are back to fine form. Sayers adroitly introduces a new character to the regulars of the Wimseyverse while allowing characters introduced in previous books to grow, change and interact in convincing ways. Sayers demonstrates here how an author can delegate important parts of the action to "non lead" characters without undermining the detecting authority of the main characer. For example, the intelligence and initiative of Miss Murchison reflects well on Miss Clipsom as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. The intelligence and initiative of Miss Clipsom reflects well on Wimsey as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. Chief Inspector Parker, unlike the "official" detectives in so many series based on the sleuthing of unofficial detectives, is not stupid, not a bad detective, not slavishly dependent on and impressed by the amateur sleuth nor childishly resistent to pay attention to the opinions of someone who has often been right in the past.

Sayers plays absolutely fair with her readers in this murder and its detection. The final piece of information, the final datum necessary to solve the case, was something that anyone who was well read in British murder trials could be expected to know (althought they may be forgiven if they forgot that they did know it.)

This reader's main regret after finishing this book is that Sayers never wrote a novel, or series of short stories, that centered around Miss Clipsom. Clipsom was what I think Agatha Christie wanted Miss Marple to be, a convincing demonstration of the acuity and worth of the neglected spinster. I like to think of the many tales that Miss Clipsom could have told about what really went on behind the doors of polite British society. And then I realize that Miss Clipsom, being Miss Clipsom, would have either brought the matters to the attention of the relevant authority or taken with her to the grave those things which were immoral rather than illegal.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

100 Years ago today: Calculating the cost of living

One of the difficult things to negotiate when reading fiction not only set in but, more importantly, written in the past is determining how much things cost and how much they were worth. For example, when Agatha Christie's short story "Philomel Cottage" was published in the November 1924 issue of Grand Magazine[1] its readers found it quite reasonable that a comfortable country cottage with heating, electricity and plumbing (not a given at that time in England) could sell for two thousand pounds.[2] Alix Martin (from whose point of view the story was written) had been able to buy it outright because she had inheriting "a few thousand" pounds--an amount that yielded "a couple of hundred a year"--on which she would be able to live. Meanwhile in "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (originally published in the December 1924 issue of Grand Magazine) the titular character buys a very, very nice car for just under 500 pounds.[3]

However the modern day reader cannot simply deduce from those two data points how much it would cost to live in a certain fashion in the England of the mid 1920s since at that time very few people (even well to do people) owned their own cars and almost everyone who considered themselves part of the "gentry" aspired to having several servants. The cost of eating dinner then is hard to compare with the cost of eating dinner now unless one knows what the food cost at the store, how much it cost to cook it, how expensive it was to heat the house, buy the china or pay for the hot water used to prepare and wash up the dinner.

One of the best places to go for that type of invaluable information is old newspapers where advertisements and want ads provide the modern reader with information about what people wanted then and how much they were willing to pay for it.

Page six of The Tacoma Times of November 16 1911 gives today's reader a sense of what various things cost in Tacoma at that time:

One could rent a furnished apartment for $12.00 to $16.00 a month
Both men's and women's "long" coats could be bought for $10.00 apiece.
$1600.00 would buy you a 40-acre farm along with two houses.
For $1150.00 you could get 20 acres of cleared land 3-room house, barn, 6 stalls for cows, 4 large cherry trees, about 20 apple and pears, a good stove.
A (live) rooster could be bought for $5.00 and a (live) hen from $1.25 to $2.00
A sewing machine cost $5.00
You could rent a 5 room house for $10.00 a month
An upright piano could cost anywhere from $80.00 to $150.00
A "small grocery and cigar store" was on sale for $250.00
Hotel rooms were available from 25¢ a day
Houses in the city were for sale at prices varying from $900.00 to $1700.00
For $2200.00 (only $200.00 down and $15.00 a month) you could get a 7 room house that stood on two lots--on a paved road, with a sidewalk, sewer, and gas already connected. Both a steel and a gas range were included in the sale price.
Looking over that list some things jump out at one. The costs of a "good" coat was surprisingly high. A piano could easily cost as much as a year's rent. There seemed to be a much greater variation in "how people lived" than there are today. (Good) hotels rented out rooms on a monthly basis. Furnished apartments were quite common. People took rooms in boarding houses. Rooms and apartments were available with housekeeping included.

This is before the dawn of the "homeowner" society in North America and England. Yes, there are houses for sale in the city, but a surprisingly large number of the houses are either for rent only or far sale or rent. Outside the city the house came with the land almost as an afterthought whereas today it is often the land that comes with the house. Given the costs of houses, pianos, farms and apartments on page six it isn't surprising to find this item in the wanted column:
A young man with $4000 savings would like to get acquainted with a good, honest lady.
$4000 was indeed a substantial amount of money at that time and I imagine that the young man in question was able to get acquainted with at least one good honest lady.

I wonder what happened next........

[1]Republished in 1934, under the same name, as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.

[2] The reader can deduce from other details in the story that Alix Martin inherited approximately six thousand pounds in bear bonds.

[3] Republished in 1934 as part of the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

100 Years Ago Today: Suffering Suffrage

WOMEN DESTROY CREDIT / Oregon Official Says Suffrage Hurts Western Cities ran the headline in the New York Tribune of November 15, 1911. According to the article, the corporate counsel of the City of Portland, Oregon (Frank Salisbury Grant) had told the Major of Boston (John F. Fitzgerald[1]) that by granting women even limited suffrage western cities were doing damage to their credit ratings. According to Grant western cities that granted women partial suffrage had more difficulties raising "Eastern" capital than did similar western cities that accorded women no voting rights.

Of course, even if Grant's claim were true it still wouldn't be a good argument against giving women the vote else one is opening up the door to arguing for and against the rights of anyone[2] to vote purely on the basis of whether it would help or hinder the city in which they live to get credit. However Grant's was concerned about what was right he was concerned about what was good for business:
Especially are women juries in civil cases the cause of much concern to business men, according to Mr. Grant.[3] Their lack of training and complete absence of everything but feminine ideas concerning things they know nothing about lead many parties to civil suits to waive jury trials and rely upon a single judge's opinion, he declared.
Leaving aside the validity of either of his claims (that business men were more likely to waive jury trials in areas where women have been granted partial suffrage and that female civil juror voting patterns differ from those of male civil voting patterns) let us consider his claim that female jurors vote differently than do male jurors because "they know nothing." Perhaps female jurors were more cynical about the claims and arguments of the overwhelming male businesspersons who came before the court? Perhaps female jurors, knowing that they had little to no chance of ever opening or running a business suffer from fewer conflicts of interest in such cases than did male jurors. Perhaps female jurors were more inclined, given the socialization of the day, to think about what was right or wrong rather than what was profitable or good for business.

There is a tinge of real anger and concern in the statements of Grant. He, and many others, were becoming very concerned that sooner than later women across the United States would become fully enfranchised. That would not happen until the 1920 ratification of the 19th amendment however women had been voting in some states and territories for decades. The areas that granted suffrage were not notably poorer or more badly organized than were the areas that denied women the vote.

Of course there was, even as Grant made these statements, a campaign going on in his home state to extend the franchise to women--which happened in 1912. Perhaps what Grant should really have been worried about is that his statements would be read by the men and women of Portland who would be voting in the next civic election.

[1] Maternal grandfather of John F(itzgerald) Kennedy.

[2] Even male, adult, white, American citizens.

[3] The rather "interesting" sentence construction is in the original.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Technology and the mystery writer, part one

Technological changes may require that mystery/detective writers make changes to plots, circumstances, and situations that have worked well for a long time. For example, the current ubiquity of cell phones has made it harder for the writer to explain just why it was that Charater One did not simply call Character Two to let them know that Character One's car has broken down and thus their arrival will be delayed. Just a few decades ago such a breakdown might result in Character One having to walk for miles/kilometres on a dark road on a stormy night in order to reach a farmhouse from where a call might be made to the nearest garage. What opportunites this simple circumstance opened up to the inventive writer.

Someone writing a similar story set in current times needs to explain why Character One didn't simply call Character Two (and the towing service) on their cell. (The standard explanation now is usually "the car broke down in one of those areas with little to no cell phone reception.) Sometimes the explanation as to why modern technology could not be used becomes rather convoluted and requires some (or a lot of) suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

The Agatha Christie short story Philomel Cottage is a good example of a story that would have be written very differently if it were set in present day England rather than the England of 1924.[1]. In 1924 it was still almost disturbingly easy for people to move from one place to another and begin anew. Even long distance [trunk] telephone calls were unusual (and expensive.) There were no fax machines, no video conferencing, no television, most newspapers carried few photographs and it was highly unlikely that someone in one country would even see a news article that had been published in another country. If someone grew up and stayed in a small town or a closed community then they probably had few secrets from other people in the same community or social circle but it was often nearly impossible to find out much about the background of someone who had lived far away or had been out of the country for an extended period of time. That was one of the reasons why people would actually present letters of introduction (from people already known to the community) when they moved to a new place.

As Philomel Cottage begins Alix King is worried that a face from the past will bring uncertainty and unhappiness into what seems to be a perfect married life. What happens to Alix and her husband over the next few days is an example of Christie in her quietly chilling mode rather than the comfortably cozy mode that most modern readers associate with her name.

In this reviewer's opinion one of Christie's best short stories and well worth the read (or the rereading.)

[1] The story was published in Grand Magazine in 1924 and then in 1934 republished in the short story collection The Listerdale Mystery.

100 years ago today: Copyright and the moving picture industries

Today when we hear about the "moving picture" industry and copyrights we expect another story of some portion of the film industry charging others with infringing on the copyrights they hold. 100 years ago the news was about copyright infringement in the other direction.

In the November 14 1911 edition of The San Francisco Call reported (COPYRIGHT DECISION HITS PHOTO PLAY MEN) that on the previous day the United States Supreme Court had handed down a decision affirming the 1908 lower court ruling that the Kalem Co. had violated copyright when it filmed an adaptation of Ben Hur without permission from the copyright holders.

The importance of this decision in upholding the rights of writers is not recognizable only in hindsight. The New York Times not only reported it on the day they followed that up with a piece in the Topics of the Times on November 15 1911 which argued in that some vague "public benefit" should not stand in the way the rights of those who create through "mental effort" owning and benefiting from the that which they produced.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Tardis in the Library, part four: The Sweet Smell of Class Essentialism

I have time machines in my library. They work like magical one-way windows for when I gaze into them I can see and listen to people from times past yet they cannot see or hear me. Some, I think, suspect that people from the future might occasionally look in on them and so they are on what they feel to be their "best" behaviour. It is interesting and informative to see what they consider "best" behaviour." Other people from the past seem either to be totally unaware or totally unconcerned that people from the future might pass through every once and a while.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of just how strong (and unexamined) the class essentialism of the "gentlefolk" of England still was in the period between the two World Wars should read popular fiction written at that time specifically aimed at that class.

Take, for example, one of Agatha Christie's short stories, The Listerdale Mystery, originally published in 1925 [1]. Class essentialism doesn't lurk in the background of this story--it is the point of the story.

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

As the short story, The Listerdale Mystery, opens Mrs. Saint Vincent and her two grown children, Barbara and Rupert, have been "reduced" to living in what they refer to as "cheap furnished lodgings" after her late husband "speculated unfortunately" and in consequence they lost most of their money as well as Ainsley, the home in which their family had lived for generations. Money has become scarce indeed. Barbara has been unable to find a job doing the type of work she has recently trained for (shorthand and typing) and is now considering taking any type of job if only someone would hire her. The family clearly see themselves, not only as in dire straights, but as suffering in a qualitatively different manner than all the other people living in the same house or in the "dingy line of houses opposite," because because the St. Vincents had known what it was to live otherwise.

Mr. St. Vincent had both speculated and "borrowed" and thus a different family now lived in the house that was for generations home to the St. Vincent family. His widow explains it all by saying that her husband was not a businessman. To which this reader responded (out loud I must admit) "then why the hell did he put his family at risk by borrowing and speculating?"

The St. Vincents are running so short of money that soon they will not be able to afford more than a bed-sitter and Barbara will have to receive Jim Masterton (a potential suitor) in the common sitting room just like everyone else. Meanwhile Mrs. St. Vincent fears that the "tone" of their surroundings is have an influence on her son:
he's quite different from what he used to be. Not that I want my children to be stuck-up. That's not it a bit. But I should hate it if Rupert got engaged to that dreadful girl in the tobacconist's. I daresay she may be a very nice girl, really. But she's not our kind.
Everything changes when Mrs. St. Vincent answers a curious advertisement in the Morning Post
To gentlepeople only. Small house in Westminster, exquisitely furnished, offered to those who would really care for it. Rent purely nominal. No agents.
It turns out that the rent is indeed small enough to be of little concern even to a family as short of funds as the St. Vincents. Especially when it turns out that the beautiful Queen Anne house comes not only with furniture but also with a butler (Quentin), cook, maid and flowers and game sent weekly from the estate of Lord Listerdale (the owner of the house.) The St. Vincents are told that Listerdale has gone to Africa leaving behind instructions that his various properties be rented at extreme modest rates to the "type" of people who would truly appreciate them.

After the St. Vincents begin to wonder if Quentin has actually made off with Lord Listerdale it turns out, of course, that the real Quentin has retired and Lord Listerdale has taken his place in order to make up for a life of selfishness by rescuing the groups he sees to be in dire need of his help--the "genteel poor."
I thought I'd try a little altruism for a change, and being a fantastic kind of fool, I started my career fantastically. I'd sent subscriptions to odd things, but I felt the need of doing something - well, something personal. I've been sorry always for the class that can't beg, that must suffer in silence - poor gentlefolk. I have a lot of house property. I conceived the idea of leasing these houses to people who - well, needed and appreciated them. Young couples with their way to make, widows with sons and daughters starting in the world.

And thus, by the end of the story, the truth has been revealed and all ends happily. Lord Listerdale has fallen in love with Mrs. St. Vincent while serving her as a butler and so will marry her and take her away to live a life of leisure, comfort and no dingy rooms. Jim Masterton and Barbara have become engaged now that he has seen Barbara in a setting that showed off her true gentility. Rupert is no longer spending time with girl in the tobacconist's (or is doing so very quietly and on the side as have generations of his forebears.)

All ends well as a genteel family who were in danger of losing their class status are rescued without making the least effort of their own.

The class essentialism is laid on so thick in this story that if it were penned today one might presume that it was a parody or a pastiche. A wealthy man who had inherited property and income frittered it away. His widow and children are forced to live just like ordinary people. There are no inherited treasures in the house where they now room and it seems not to occur to them that particular aesthetic tastes might be social constructions or indeed that the people with whom they are now living never had enough money to "waste" it things that were not utilitarian. Nor does it occur to them that the cracked and cherished items that are now heirlooms were, when first purchased, expensive symbols of status as must as aesthetic choices.

Perhaps the reason that members of this class "do not beg" is that the usual response they get when they go to charitable organizations is to be told that they still have more than do most people in England. Or perhaps they don't beg because to do so would be to lose the one asset they still have-- their "genteel" status. That status would get them in the doors of clubs and accepted at universities that might not otherwise accept them. That status allows them to marry into families were still turning away all but the richest of the "non-genteel."

Note too how in this story there is no questioning, by any involved, that the "genteel" can be recognized almost immediately. And of course they can. Having gone to the same schools, read the same books and frequented the same society they all speak the special code. They all know the really important things in life such as which fork to use for each course at dining table and how many minutes to linger over the port after dinner.

The message to the readers is clear. The only truly worthy charity is charity to those who once had more than most people and now have to endure the horror of having no more than the average person. And the short story is a comforting read to current “members" of the genteel telling them they need not worry if they are temporarily displaced by the current economic upheavals since they, like the St. Vincents, can be assured that their class status will always protect them from the vagaries of modern economic life.

[1] It was originally published in Grand Magazine as "The Benevolent Butler." In 1934 it appeared under the name The Listerdale Mystery in the short story collection of the same name.

Friday, November 11, 2011

100 years ago today: When smoking is a civil right

Yesterday I blogged about the fact that newspapers across the United States picked up the shocking story about Mrs. Craig Riddle smoking in public. I ended that piece by making a statement might have seemed overwrought:
Mrs. Biddle may have chosen to smoke in a public place simply to demonstrate her social prominence. Yet in a way Mrs. Biddle was a pioneer of women's rights to the full enjoyment of citizenship just as were women who were campaigning to extend suffrage to women as well as men.
Well, 100 years ago today the following headline WOMEN MAY SMOKE IN PUBLIC SAYS CITY COUNSEL ran on the front page of The New York Evening World. The city counsel had responded to a question from an alderman as to whether an ordinance could be passed forbidding women from smoking in public. The counsel replied:
My opinion is that the courts would more likely hold an ordinance prohibiting public smoking by women to be void than valid.

It is possible also, that such an ordinance might conflict with Section 40 of the Civil Rights law, providing that all persons shall be entitled to equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges in inns, restaurants, hotels &c.
The counsel was making the point that forbidding women from engaging in behaviour that men were allowed to engage in was against the law. By creating this situation Mrs. Biddle provided the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people to realize that that law existed and what its implications were.

The Blandings Break Their Fast: Mr. Blandings and the directed negotiated reading, part four

Spoiler Warning: Discussion of the differences among the three presentations of the Blandings story will necessarily involve implicit and explicit spoilers

Jim Blandings, having survived his morning shave, is now sitting at his dining room table drinking a cup of coffee and reading the morning newspaper. Muriel and the children (Joan and Betsy) are breakfasting with him. Jim turns the papers of the paper and notices that a small piece has been cut out. Jim demands to know who "did it" and after Betsy indicates that it was she, goes on to complain:
Haven't I repeatedly told you not to cut up the paper until I've read it?
When Betsy explains that she used it to complete an assignment handed out by her teacher without asking for any details Jim snidely comments, "Another of Miss Stellwagon's so-called progressive projects?" Muriel responds by admonishing Jim -- asking him what the point is of sending his daughters to an expensive school if "you undermine the teacher's authority in your dining room?" Jim responds by arguing that since he is in the advertising business, "[k]eeping abreast of the times is important."

Jim finally invites his daughter to read her finished assignment to him and Betsy fetches her notebook off the nearby sideboard as she explains:
Miss Stellwagon has assigned us to take a classified ad and write a human-interest theme on it.
Jim protests that he would like to have his breakfast without "social significance." Betsy reads the assignment:
Forced to sell.
Farm dwelling.
Original beams.
Apple orchard.
Trout stream.
Superb view.
Will sacrifice.
Jim is not impressed. To him the ad is simply an example of someone trying to sell something and make some money. When his daughters quote Miss Stelwagon's description of advertising as a parasitic profession Jim counters by pointing out that is his job in advertising that pays for his daughters' tuition.

Since the writer of the original Mr. Blandings short story and novel (and co-writer of the film) was himself an advertising man living in New York City he had no doubt had sentiments expressed to him similar to those the Blandings children bring home from school. The criticism of advertising as the means of encouraging people to spend more than they have on things that they would not otherwise have desired predates the Second World War. So why did the writers have Blandings put forward such a weak defense of his profession?

I think that this is one of the ways in which the movie allowed for negotiated and counter-dominant readings. The audience experiences the events on the screen through the POV of Jim Blandings. They are encouraged to root for Jim throughout the movie. At the same time the screenplay allows room for the audience to mock Blandings as a victim of his own propaganda. He defends encouraging other people to buy things that they don't need with money they don't have. And soon the Blandings will be building a house that they don't need and in the process run through money they had had no intention of spending.

So, the audience member who watches the "typical" New York family have breakfast served to them by their maid while criticizing the teachers at their daughters' expensive private school can have the enjoyment of feeling that Jim and Muriel are headed to disaster.

If Jim had responded to his daughter by explaining that it was advertising that fueled the American capitalist engine and that, indeed, making other people buy things they couldn't afford and would not want otherwise was the very heart of his job. In fact it was at the very heart of the booming post war American economy. Jim would have been right but his rightness would have alienated him from parts of the audience and cut off avenues of negotiated readings of the scene.

It is a fine line that the writers/director walk and it speaks to the skill with which they did so that one may not even notice that a line is being walked until one has watched the film several times.

Timeline glitch Jim complains about Betsy having cut something out of his morning paper. Exactly when did she do this? Apparently the ad was cut out, put into her notebook and she wrote an assignment based on it in the few minutes between showering and having breakfast.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

100 years ago today: One of these things is not like the other

Headlines on the front page of November 10 1911 issue of The San Francisco Call (California) [NOTE: Like many newspapers of the day The Call used multiple stacked headlines for many articles. Where there are more than two headlines in the original not all of the "lesser" headline are included below. The original capitalizations/spellings have been retained where possible. In a few cases the words are "best guesses" due to the condition of the scanned newspapers]:
  • REBELS FALL BACK FROM NANKING LEAVING 1,000 DEAD / Manchu Dynasty in Last Desperate Stand Holds but Two Strategic Points
  • TWO MEN ARE MISSING AFTER GAS EXPLOSION / Others Are Seriously Burned by Fire Which Swept Hunters Point Drydock
  • PRINCE APPLAUDS MINISTER'S CRITICS / Von Bethmann-Holweg Defends Morocco-Congo Pact in Reichstag
  • WOMAN SUSPECTED OF SLAYING THREE / Chicago Has a New Chain of Deaths Resembling the Vermilya Case
  • MRS. CRAIG BIDDLE SMOKES IN PUBLIC / Philadelphia Society Leader Puffs "Cigawette" in Believue=Stratford Restaurant
  • THOUSANDS HIDDEN BY WOMAN FOUND / Cobwebbed Corners in House Where She Died Yield Small Fortune
  • MAN SCARED DUMB BY "COP'S" GREETING / Chicagoan Had to Get" Doctor to Find Lost Voice
  • "GOLDEN RULE" CHIEF ORDERED ON DUTY / Doctor Certifies Kohler's Physical Condition. Is "Good"
  • ALLEGED RUSSIAN ANARCHIST JAILED / Teofil Klempke Held at San Luis Obispo as Terrorist
  • MAETERLINCK GIVEN 1911 NOBEL PRIZE / Noted (Belgian Author Wins Award for Literature
  • HUSBAND SOLD WIFE FOR CENT AND HALF / Admits Deal With Former Convict; Calls It a Jest
  • TARKINGTON IS SUED FOR $10,000 DAMAGES / Author in Europe When Chauffeur Ran Down Man
  • PARSON AND BROTHER LOCKED UP AS SPIES / Italians Arrested Ohio Citizens on Sightseeing Tour
All save one are about foreign affairs, crimes, actions of public officials or institutions. Save one. Mrs. Craig Biddle was in the news for having broken the norms for the performance of social place. Since she was wealthy and a member of "society" and since her actions took place in an expensive, although public, venue she was stared at rather than being hounded, arrested or physically chastised.

Mrs. Biddle's actions took were in a place considered "public" and therefore her defiance of the public norms of gender performance were seen by the editors of the time as newsworthy. Her actions were particularly troublesome to the behavioural norms of the time because she was wealthy and well connected. If poor woman, women of colour, women who were immigrants or the children of immigrants, violated the social norms then their acts were understood and reported as a commentary of the shortcomings of the women in question. When a women as well educated, wealthy and well versed in social norms acted as did Mrs. Biddle then the social norm, as much as the woman, was in danger of being held up for examination and criticism.

For those who are imagining that both the write-up of this article and the choice to put it on the front page is due to the fact that the newspaper in question is the product of a small town and produced by people who are at best part time newspaper writers and editors that is most certainly not the case. Not only is San Francisco at this point in time a fairly large city, this is not a local story. Mrs. Biddle's act took place in Philadelphia and the story in the local Philadelphia paper was picked up and distributed nationally. For example, you can find a similar headline SOCIETY STIRRED AS MRS. BIDDLE SMOKES IN PUBLIC / Philadelphia's Social Mentor Daintily Puffs Cigarette in Fashionable Restaurant in The Evening World (New York, page 21) on the same date. This write up on page 37 of the December 23 1911 issue of Godwin's Weekly (Salt Lake City, Utah) gives some sense of how seriously people were taking Mrs. Biddle's actions:

The important thing to remember is that in 1911 women still did not have the right to vote in much of the United States. They could not sit on juries. They had limited access to, and rights in, the public sphere. We might now look back and laugh off Mrs. Biddle's actions as silly and even dangerous to her health. And Mrs. Biddle may have chosen to smoke in a public place simply to demonstrate her social prominence. Yet in a way Mrs. Biddle was a pioneer of women's rights to the full enjoyment of citizenship just as were women who were campaigning to extend suffrage to women as well as men.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The casual cultural colonialism of the gentleman archeologist

The following conversation takes place in E. F. Benson short story Monkeys between two Englishmen (a surgeon and a gentle archaeologist) about the details of the latter's current work in Egypt:
"But odder still are those old Egyptians of yours, who thought that there was something sacred about their bodies, after they were quit of them. And didn't you tell me that they covered their coffins with curses on anyone who disturbed their bones?"

"Constantly," said Madden. "It's the general rule in fact. Marrowy curses written in heiroglyphics on the mummy-case or carved on the sarcophagus."

"But that's not going to deter you this winter from opening many as many tombs as you can find, and rifling from them any objects of interest or value."

Madden laughed.

"Certainly it isn't," he said. "I take out of the tombs all objects of art, and I unwind the mummies to find and annex their scarabs and jewellry. But I make an absoulte rule always to bury the bodies again. I don't say that I believe in the power of those curses, but anyhow a mummy in a museum is an indecent object."

"But if you found some mummied body with an interesting malformation, wouldn't you send it to some anatomical institute?" asked Morris.

"it has never happened to me yet," said Madden, "but I'm pretty sure I should."

"Then you're a superstitious Goth and an anti-educational Vandal," remarked Morris.... ["Monkeys" in Benson, E. The Collected ghost stories of E.F. Benson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992., pp. 556-557]
Readers who know E. F. Benson only through his Mapp and Lucia books, a comic series of novels set in mostly the "quaint" English communities of Tilling and Rye and concerned mostly with the efforts of Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Miss Mapp to rule over social set, would probably read the above conversation as a humourous (and not particularly well informed) parody gentle surgeons and archeologists. But Benson is not speaking from ignorance or glancing acquaintanceship with such men. Benson knew well the society in which both these characters can be presumed to have grown up just as he also knew well the world of the classically educated, upper class gentlemen archeologist.

Benson was himself the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and graduated from Cambridge with a degree in archeology. After graduating he worked on archeological sites in Britain, Egypt and Greece. This is a world in which he worked for many years. The casual way in which these two Englishmen treat the graves of other people, the religious beliefs of the other people and even the right of other people to own and control their countries (and the bones of their ancestors) is carefully drawn in this and other stories.

Morris condemns as superstition Madden's willingness to at least rebury the bodies from the graves he is plundering. Madden feel no compunction about taking upon himself the decision as to whether to rebury the bones he finds or to "donate" them to a museum. It is clear that to both men the Egyptians of the day had no right to determine the fate of their own country, their own people and their own treasures.

Neither of these men is a villain. Each believes that he is acting for some greater "scientific" good. It is interesting, however, that the scientific good always aligns with that which is of most utility or benefit to them. As Benson shows us, the gentlemen archeologists of England did not twirl their waxed mustaches as they plundered the many civilizations within the British empire. They were sometimes almost excessively polite. They explained, to any "native" who dared expostulate that what they were doing was wrong, that to stand against them was to stand against progress, science and Britain's imperial destiny.

Polite, gentlemenly plunderers----but plunderers all the same.