Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I like March, but I don't want my history confined to it

Here it is, March 31 and I've almost entirely missed Women's History Month. Whoops. This is likely a subconscious reaction to the reality that I'm not a huge fan of "months." While I appreciate the importance of calling attention to historically marginalized groups, there is something in me that rebels against the idea of balkanizing the historical landscape. I acknowledge that "history" has traditionally meant mostly-dead white dudes doing Important Political and Military Things, and correspondingly, it is necessary to teach entire courses (and devote months) to vitally important topics like African American History, Women's History, Native American History, and so on.

That said, I propose a sneakier approach.

There's nothing I like better than planning out a U.S. history survey... using memoirs written by women as students' primary-source readings. Why should we limit ourselves to months? After all, I'm a woman living in America 12 months out of the year, and roughly 50 percent of the population always has been. Women might not have been in positions of power, but they were part of the story from the very beginning, even if sometimes their story was a sad one.

In the spirit of the "month," then, but seeking to move beyond that constraint toward a fuller portrayal of our heritage, here are a few of the books I like to slip into surveys. I would love to hear of other books that could be useful, either within the academy or in the larger (and therefore more significant) world of people who simply want to know more about the world they live in:

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale
Family and community life in early America--and the central role women played in it.
Jane Addams, Ten Years at Hull-House
The settlement house movement. Also, the struggles of a woman living in a very circumscribed world--and realizing she was not happy to occupy a circumscribed place within it.
Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter
Life in Seattle for a Japanese American girl-cum-woman, before--and after--Pearl Harbor.
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi
A desperately poor child of the segregated South grows up to fight for her rights despite a climate of fear, danger and violent oppression.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Meredith Might Not Be a Fan of Puritans Right Now

I took my child in for her four-year-old exam this morning, and the four shots she received in her pitifully slender little legs led me to think of Cotton Mather. As one does.

Moving on.

The fun fact to know and tell of the morning: despite the contemporary controversy that surrounds vaccinations, the practice of inoculating citizens against disease is nothing new. Even before we had an understanding of germ theory or infection, a few observant souls noticed that people who came into contact with less virulent forms of disease often did not contract more serious strains. The Puritan minister Cotton Mather was one such individual. Given his prominence in the Church-dominated society of Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was able to advocate for the inoculation of many Boston citizens against smallpox by injecting them with cowpox. Yuck? Yes. Controversial? Very much so. But effective? You betcha.

Meredith likely isn't feeling very thankful for the advocacy of folks like Mather as she nurses her tender legs through a morning of preschool. Her mother, however, is happy to know that from diphtheria to tetanus, measles to polio, she is protected.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

C-Span and transparent government

C-Span has announced that its entire archives will now be available online, free o' charge (see the NYT article here).

Transparency in government is a quality reformers have sought for centuries, fed in part by Americans' preoccupation with conspiracy (see Robert Alan Goldberg's Enemies Within [Yale, 2001] for an interesting historical account of this predilection). If we can see what "they" are doing, so it goes, "they" can't get away with "it," whatever "it" may be.

In many historically verifiable cases, this is a grand thing. Take United States Senator John Mitchell (R-Oregon)*, for example. Mitchell was a turn-of-the-twentieth century statesman (extremely broadly defined) who was in the pocket of railroad, timber, utility, banking and saloon interests in a state marked by such corruption that railroad property was assessed at less than half the value of properties in neighboring Washington--and a third of the value of railroad property in that paragon of rectitude, California. Mitchell served as senator for twenty-two years whilst serving as a legal counsel for railroad entities. He was also a very naughty boy in other arenas of existence, if you catch my drift... meeting his demise, however, via the extraordinarily unlikely route of a failed dental extraction in 1903.

Try to get that one by C-Span.

That said, however, one wonders whether the transparency afforded by C-Span may in fact shield us from the deeper insights that investigation, analysis and commentary offer. Certainly C-Span offers some of this, and I have absolutely nothing against the institution that has offered my sole television exposure to date. But I do find that often we rely too much on what people say and not enough upon what they do. How does the rhetoric of the House or Senate floor translate into policy? What do the words our representatives say really mean? State's rights; federalism; constitutional authority... all of these are terms with meanings that plunge far below the rhetorical surface.

C-Span has provided us with a wonderful tool. The key is in how we use it. Will we allow ourselves to be caught up in the shouting, or can we utilize the power of "you are there" footage to underpin informed discussions of our recent political history?

* No known relation to Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell

Information on Sen. Mitchell comes from The Oregon Story (The Oregonian; Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 2000).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

It's been a busy weekend; I'll post a more thoughtful update soon. Meanwhile, to tide you over:

How 'bout a little anti-Commie tune? (My personal recommendation would be "Commie Lies," but they're all quite... remarkable.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Collect the stories...

This is a foray into down-home advocacy that will not always characterize these posts, but there was an article in today's Oregonian that merits a mention: 60 years later, surviving WASPs are honored. Six Oregon women were among 200 surviving female WWII pilots to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their dedication and courage in the face of difficulties extending far beyond the conditions of the war itself. Give it a read to learn more about what they experienced, the amazing things they accomplished--and the attitudes they took with them into situations that would have us running for a lawyer today.

Reading about these remarkable women led me to think again about the women (and men) in my own past who have lived through Depression and war, nuclear fears and social change. I had a great-aunt in the auxiliary forces. She's gone now. It won't be long before the rest of them are. Talk to your family; talk to your friends. Talk to the elderly person in the house or apartment next door. Individual memory is colored by experience, and nobody's word is gospel. Collected and woven into the tapestry of human memory, however, these are the stories that make our history. The greatest respect we can give to our forebears is to make sure we know these stories before they're gone.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Three more days until I can no longer be trusted...

If the children of the 1960s were right and you can't trust anyone over thirty, you'd best read quickly. As I prepare to embark upon my fourth decade of life, I find myself in deep contemplation.

Dangerous, eh?

What I find myself contemplating is this: my hat-trick of degrees may be useful for purposes other than mastery of Trivial Pursuit. Perhaps I can share my love of American history--and the foundations it offers for the present--on a wider scale.

Here, then, is my attempt at so doing. I won't get all dramatic on you, like William F. Buckley, Jr. standing athwart history and hollering "Stop!"...

...after all, the weather's not quite warm enough yet. If one's going to halt the wheels of time, it might as well be in the spring.