Are you as ready for summer as I am? Currently, as I write this, I am slathered in spf, I smell like last night’s bonfire and I’m loading up my phone with plenty of trashy teen sci-fi books on tape to listen to while I do All The Gardening (or, more likely, as I loll about in the garden with beer in hand).
Good news and bad news chickadees- Herstories and How-tos will be going on a bit of a hiatus. Basically, I signed up for many summer classes (b/c summer fun = learning), I’m still working my day job (which amps up in the summer), and I’ve got some artistic irons in the fire that I don’t want to ignore. I’m facing a tough hoice of cutting something out of my life to make plenty of space for also having fun and general SUMMER, and H&H seems like the most logical choice. The good news is, this is not for forever. I’ll be back in September, just in time for back-to-school Wake-Up-Your-Sleepy-Braintimes. Also, this now gives you all more time to catch fireflies and eat popsicles, or just eat pizza on the steps of the statehouse in your bathing suit.
Let’s talk about Truth, for a moment. There are those who believe that “The Truth is out there-” that truth is something objective and quantifiable. There are others, who have a more fluid concept of truth, that it’s subjective and slippery, or that there are many Truths. As the founder of the North American Pseudohistorical Society, it’s probably no surprise that I fall into the latter camp. You may be surprised, however, to learn that the man widely regarded as “the Father of History,” Herodotus, was totally in that camp as well. He would record all the different versions of a story, ending with ‘Well, this sounds like the best version, so let’s say that’s what happened.’
“Cat, why are you telling us about a man- isn’t this supposed to be a herstory?”
Oh yeah, and this month’s featured woman is a real doozy. I did, though, want to preface by saying that while this woman definitely existed, was definitely bad-ass and definitely is deceased, that’s about as far as the definites go. All primary sources we have about her stem from Herodotus’s account of her life, and even that was written nearly a hundred years after she died. Normally, this would send me looking for a more well-researched/documented lady, however when I heard this story, I felt like I imagine Herodotus must’ve felt- that whether the story was TRUE or “true” or ‘somewhat (?) true?’, the picture it paints is too vivid not to retell. So this month, I’m going to tell you about Tomyris*
Tomyris lived in the 6th century BCE, in the area that spans from present day Kazakhstan to Iran and possibly farther east. By the time she appears in Herodotus’s account, she is already the widowed ruler of the Massagetae, a fierce nomadic confederation that occupied the Great Steppe. The Steppe was a harsh place to live, and the people who lived there grew up tough. (500 years after Tomyris, another nomadic group of hard-core folks roamed the Steppes. You might know them as the Huns). Sadly, not much is known about the Massagetae (or Tomyris’s early life), beyond their location, the fact that they were a nomadic group, and that this lifestyle made them a real pain to their neighbors in the West who wanted to collect them in an empire. In fact, it’s because of their resistance to the ancient Greek nemesis, Persia, that we know about them. Tomyris defeated Cyrus the Great,*** the famed Persian ruler.
Persia in the 6th century BCE was the largest and arguably most powerful empire at the time. They expanded and expanded, seemingly unstoppable, until they got to the steppe and met the Massagetae. When your primary method of subjugation is to storm cities and subdue the people en masse, that method sort of falls apart when you come up against a people who don’t have cities. Being unwilling to give up, as I imagine many other supreme leaders of empires might be, Cyrus tried a different approach. He sent a message to Tomyris, praising her beauty and intelligence and offering her a proposal of marriage. Tomyris saw it immediately for the thinly veiled attempt at her lands that it was. She laughed it off. Taking a different track, Cyrus began to amass warships and had his people start to build a bridge over the Jaxartes River which separated the two nations. Tomyris was not having it, saying:
“…Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetai in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.”
…or, in other words, ‘You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. But mess with us and it’s your place or mine, buddy?’ At this point, it’s generally agreed upon that Cyrus should’ve walked away, and he was about to- when he chose that moment to listen to some very bad advice from his brother and adviser, Caesus. Arguing that giving up to a woman would be a huge loss of face, Caesus proposed a new plan: They would leave a camp seemingly abandoned and stocked with an overabundance of food and wine, and attack when the Massagetae were good and full and sleepy. This worked even better than expected- as a nomadic people without the agricultural system needed to grow grapes, the Massagetae were unused to wine and totally unequipped to handle it. They became thoroughly intoxicated , the Persians swept in and attacked, killing or taking prisoner nearly a third of the Massagetaen forces. One of these prisoners was Tomyris’s son Sparagapises. Needless to say, Tomyris was pissed. Not only was she upset at the loss of troops, she also felt that Cyrus and his people had played dirty. That her son was captured further enraged her, but rather than go on a massive killing spree to get him back, she tried one more time to appeal to reason, and sent a message to Cyrus, saying:
“… Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”
Meanwhile, back in the Persian camp, in a twist of fate straight out of Shakespeare, Sparagapises was sobering up and becoming aware of his position as a bargaining chip. He convinced his captors to temporarily remove his bonds and quickly killed himself, to keep from being used as a tool to manipulate his mother. When Tomyris heard, she rallied her forces and brought battle to the Persians, in what was described as “the fiercest” combat seen at the time. The Persians, and their leader Cyrus the Great, were destroyed. This, though, wasn’t enough for Tomyris. When the battle was over, she had his body brought to her, along with an empty wine skin. Amidst the gore of the battleground, she filled the wineskin with blood, cut off the head of Cyrus and either dipped it into the wineskin or poured the wineskin out over it (depending on the source), saying:
“I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood and so I shall.”
Tomyris is famous for defeating the ruler of the greatest empire in the world. History is full of upsets and bad-ass women in positions of military leadership. What really makes this story for me, is how many times Tomyris sought peace and the extent to which she kept her word when these efforts didn’t work. Hell hath no fury like a woman who told you she was going to have fury if you did A and then you did A anyway, you dummy.
As cool and bad-ass as Tomyris was, I think we can all agree that defeating and decapitating those who cross you is not an ideal or sustainable method for solving disagreements, so this month we’re going to learn how to use “I-statements.”
How to Construct an “I-statement” to Deescalate a Situation So You Don’t Have to Dip the Heads of Your Enemies Into Buckets of Blood.
In her book How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable, Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin shares a variety of tools which can be used to have a disagreement which is constructive, rather than hostile. One such tool, is the “I-statement”. Constructing an i-statement is simple, and allows you to state your feelings and concerns in a neutral way.
Start with a specific, objective action which you want the person you’re talking to to stop.
For example: “When you swing that stick around like that”
Follow that with a description of how you feel (using the phrase “I feel” rather than “you make me feel” or “it makes me feel”:
“…I feel nervous…”
End with the reason for that feeling “…because I worry you might hit another friend in the face and hurt them”
So now, instead of yelling “Quit swinging that damn stick around!!” you say “When you swing that stick around like that, I feel nervous because I worry you might hit another friend in the face and hurt them.” (I should probably mention I use i-statements frequently when working with preschoolers) It may take a bit longer to say, but having used it with children and adults, in both silly and serious situations, I can honestly say it does help- I haven’t had to dip a single head in a bucket of blood.
Writing the Herstories and How-To’s column for over a year now, I’ve learned a lot about the bad-ass women who came before us. If there’s one constant thread, though, it’s that every woman, no matter how bad-ass or impressive a life they lead, is human. This means that from time to time, even with the best intentions, they mess up.
All of which is to say, I did not get my act together this month to share with you a fully fleshed out biographical sketch and accompanying tutorial, and for that I’m sorry. I promise that in May I’ll be back to our regularly scheduled posting (I’ve even got a few things already in the works).
In the meantime, however, here are a few herstorical tidbits from the internet to peruse and enjoy (and if you see someone you want profiled in a future Herstories and How-To’s, let me know!)
Women of Color and Feminism: A history lesson and a way forward (fabulous article. “It is time for white feminists to become more aware of their internalized compliance to the “isms” that threaten to divide us all, from historical and contemporary perspectives. How can we come together without being torn apart by the other “ism” that threatens feminism: racism? A brief look at the history of the feminist movement and women of color, and a prescription for our future together, is long overdue…”
If you’re feeling visual – Rejected Princesses. (Especially relevant for those of us who feel all the ambivalent about our childhood Disney memories.)
This month we’re going into the dark and glittery world of La Belle Époque London, where mysticism, masonic secret societies, and Art Nouveau blended into a heady cocktail known as ‘All My Favorite Things.’
At the heart of this world, lived an artist who made new and fantastical works, some of which went on to influence mystics for generations to come, only to die penniless, alone and relatively unknown. Well, no more I say!
Pamela “Pixie” Coleman-Smith was born in 1878 in London. She was the only child born to an American father and a Jamaican mother. For much of Pamela’s childhood, the family moved between London and Kingston, Jamaica. When she was just 16, she moved to Brooklyn to enroll in the still new Pratt Institute. Her time at Pratt wasn’t smooth sailing- according to many, she was sick throughout her time there, and in 1896 her mother died. Though Pamela left the school in 1897 without a degree, she did go on to become an illustrator (proving that going to school is what’s valuable, not necessarily the degree one obtains).
Just two years later, Smith’s father died. She returned to England where, it can be said, she had the richest moments of her career. In addition to her illustration work, she began to take on other jobs as well in theater design. She joined the Lyceum Theater group, led by the Lead Shakespearean Actress (and soon to be dear friend), Ellen Terry, along with Henry Irving and Bram Stoker. For five years, she toured with them, living what this Craft-loving, goth-lite, ex-theater kid can only imagine was a dark and exciting bohemian life. It was during this time that Ellen Terry is said to have given Pamela the nickname (for which she would be known for the rest of her life), “Pixie.” In 1901, Pamela opened a London studio, where she worked and where, once a week, she would hold an open house for all artists, writers (including WB Yeats and his brother Jack), musicians and other artistically minded folks. At these events, everyone would share what they were working on, and enjoy miniature paper-theater performances by Pamela which were often based on Jamaican folk-tales.
The height of Pam’s career came in 1907, when she met Alfred Stieglitz, the famous New York photographer and gallery owner. Being independent, proactive and generally charming, Pamela stopped into his gallery to show him her work. He was impressed with her work, especially given her young age (28) and decided ‘what the heck- let’s have a show!’, making Pam the first painter to have a show at 291 which, until then, had been solely devoted to the photo avante garde. The show, though low-attended at first, eventually enjoyed a huge critical success. A well-known critic of the time put her in the same category as Artist/Writer/Mystic William Blake, and said called one of her paintings “…absolutely nerve shattering,” that not even Edvard Munch “…could have succeeded better in arousing a profound disquiet.”
Perhaps Pamela’s best-known work, is that which she’s least known for: The “Rider Waite” Tarot Deck. In 1909, A. E. Waite, fellow member of the Golden Order of the Hermetic Dawn (a great wiki-rabbit hole if ever there was one), commissioned Smith to produce a tarot deck. While Waite is often credited as the co-creater of the deck, in truth he designed the 22 major cards through elaborate description, leaving Smith to interpret those and to design the remaining 56 cards with relative freedom- something which she took total advantage of. In just seven months, Pamela created 78 separate drawings, creating a deck which was the first since 1491 to have illustrations on every card and which was to be the first deck with mass-market appeal. Even decks produced today draw on Smith’s illustrations.
Sadly, Pamela received barely any money at all for the job (or in her words “I just completed a very big job for very little cash!”), and no royalties. What began as the Smith-Waite deck became the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (Rider being the name of the publisher) and eventually, the Rider-Waite deck. Pamela died in 1951, alone, relatively unknown and so penniless that her drawings and paintings had to all be sold to cover her debts. That the president of US Games believes that “She could have been a millionaire today” only adds salt to the wound.
Whether you believe in tarot cards and other “woo woo” things (as my aunt calls it all), I can only assume that in reading this blog you are not into short shrift given by the patriarchy. While I always love to highlight someone who may have been pushed into the margins, what really seals the deal on PCS for me, is similar to the praise that critic bestowed upon her during that first show: “Pamela Colman Smith is a young woman with that quality rare in either sex- imagination.” Imagination- the ability to conceive of what is not- is at the heart of my art/teaching/life philosophy. It is at the heart of innovation and, I truly believe, the quality most needed to find solutions to the ever-more complex problems we face as a species. So, for this month’s how to, we’re going to talk about how to practice, and strengthen your own imagination:
How to Use Images to Practice Using Your Imagination To Become A Smarter, Better, Less Boring Human.
For the sake of continuity (and because I’m a nerd who totally loves all this stuff), I’ll be using one of Pamela’s drawings, but these same prompts could be used with any image of your choice.
First take stock of what you can see. Look closely- How close or how far are each of the elements? What expressions do you see? For now, try to suspend making any sort of judgement about the image.
Once you’ve spent a good long while looking at the ‘what’ in the image, start to wonder ‘why- Why that expression? Who might it be directed at- someone in the image? Why are all these creatures gathered here? Where might they be (and why?) What do you believe is happening right at this moment in this image?
Turn your attention now to the things you can’t see- What’s inside those towers? Or just beyond the mountains? Or under the water? Or in the mind of that weirdo lobster? If this is a moment in a story, what happened right before? What might happen right after? Or ten years later?
Congratulations! You’re now using your imagination. Go forth and make the world a weirder, better place.
February is awesome. It’s the only month with a million holidays -Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas, The Lunar New Year, Presidents’ Day, Galentine’s Day*, etc- that manages to feel both exciting AND chill (which, after December and January, is a huge relief). It’s also Black History month! It’s also, as I just found out, the International Season for Nonviolence. In honor of the awesomeness that is this intersection, let’s talk about activist, teacher, and all-around bad-ass Septima Clark:
Septima Poinsette Clark was born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. As one could imagine, growing up in the segregated, reconstruction-era South greatly affected Septima’s childhood and, really, her entire life. As the 2nd of eight children in a working class family, luxuries were few and far between. From the beginning both of her parents stressed the importance of an education. After graduating high school in 1916 -following the uphill battle that was getting a quality education for anyone who wasn’t white- Septima took and passed the state exam to become qualified to teach by the age of 18. Despite her credentials, however, she was banned from teaching in Charleston’s public schools, due to the fact that she was an African American woman. (cue deep sighing and *headdesk*ing)
Not being one to generally take ‘no’ as a reason to quit, Septima found a position at a rural school on the nearby John’s island. There, she spent her days teaching children and her nights informally teaching illiterate adults. Not only was she essentially working two jobs, but she was also apparently a kickass, brave and experimental teacher. During this time, she developed innovative methods to quickly teach adult literacy using everyday materials like the Sears catalog. During her time on John Island, she began to take notice of the inequalities between her school and the white school across the street- where teachers were paid much more and the class size was laughably small compared to Miss Clark’s. It was around this time, too, that she heard several preachers speak about the still fairly new NAACP. These experiences led her to become a champion for pay equalization. In 1919, when she returned to Charleston to each at the Avery Institute (a private school for black children), she joined the local NAACP chapter and wasted no time in marrying her teaching practice with her passion for social justice. During her first year there, she led her students door to door to get signatures for a petition which would allow African American teachers within the public school system. After 1 day, she had thousands of signatures and by 1920 African American teachers were permitted to teach in private and public schools.
After her husband’s death in 1925, Septima moved to Columbia South Carolina, where she continued to teach and to work with the local NAACP chapter, using her summers to take classes and workshops at Columbia University in New York and at Atlanta University. In 1942 she earned her bachelor’s degree from Benedict College, and obtained a master’s from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1945. That same year, she worked with none other than Thurgood Marshall himself to bring to court a case that sought to gain equal pay for black and white teachers. After 25 years in Columbia, Septima moved back to her hometown of Charleston, where once again she continued to learn, to teach (both children and adults) and to work with social justice groups like the YWCA, The Council of Negro Women and the NAACP and, generally, win at life.
In the mid-1950s (or as I like to think of them Ye Olde Madd Menn Daes), South Carolina passed an asinine law which made it illegal for public employees (including teachers) to join civil rights groups. Septima refused to quit or denounce the NAACP and was fired. But, rather than be the end of a 40 year long career, this turned out to be the biggest opportunity of her life. Now a free agent, Septima was hired by the progressive Tennessee Highlander Folk School. While there, Septima directed the Citizenship school program, which helped community members learn how to teach others math and literacy skills. This was particularly important because at the time many states used literacy tests to keep African American men and women from voting. This was the work for which Martin Luther King Jr. was to call her “the Mother of the Movement.” When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over the project, Septima joined the SCLC as it’s director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, over 800 citizenship schools, where individuals learned how to teach their fellow citizens “self-pride, cultural-pride, literacy, and a sense of one’s citizenship rights,” were created. It’s estimated that by the early 1960s, the nearly 10,000 teachers trained at these workshops, which included Ella Baker, John Lewis and Rosa Parks. These teachers were then able to reach nearly 700,000 citizens who, as a result of Septima’s work, were able to have a voice and have a vote.
NOT ONLY was Septima a power house teacher and activist, she was also an outspoken feminist. As she rose through the ranks of the Civil Rights Movement, she was quick to point out the misogyny of it’s prominent members and didn’t hesitate to take even Martin Luther Kind Jr. to task about equality for all men and women. Whether it was threats from the KKK, getting arrested or just being discouraged by the voices of authority in her life, she was a woman who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She peacefully (but not quietly), created not just change, but conditions in which other humans could be agents for change. Through it all, she never lost her common-sense or her humor:
How to Show the Badass Ladies in Your Life That You Care
This Galentine’s Day:
Speaking of holidays and Herstory, it’s time for the greatest holiday invented by a fictional character ever.
Even if you don’t have the Knopian levels of energy needed to create needlepoints of your lady-friends faces, you can still share and celebrate with your lady friends this February:
Brunch! Breakfast foods (specifically: waffles) are the traditional Galentines meal. No need to get fancy- all you need is a box of waffles and lots of topping (You could even do it potluck style and have everyone bring a different topping to share. Just make sure that you have plenty of whipped cream and/or syrup.
Galentines cards! Happily, commercial card-makers seem to still be caught up in “Valentine’s Day” and have largely ignored Galentines. This means it’s time to get crafty! I like to focus on a theme each year (“artists” or “saucy suffragettes“) and include heavy doses of puns and glitter, HOWEVER much like being a feminist, there’s no one right way to make a Galentine. Follow your bliss, ladydudes.
Treat Yo Self…to Herstory! Whatever you do, don’t forget to celebrate your best lady-friend- the one inside you. Even if you don’t have time to make waffles or cards for yourself, there’s always a bit of time to feed yourself some braincandy. Personally, I’ve been obsessing over Rad American Women by Kate Schatz. Not only are the women profiled beautifully diverse (in all meanings of the word), but each one has a beautiful illustration by Miriam Klein Stahl and a little one-page history, making it perfect for for reading during your quick breaks from fighting the patriarchy.
For me, (and many others) the New Year is a time of reflection and planning. While this process starts by reflecting over the past, ultimately the fun part is looking forward and asking myself the important question- How can I better kick this year’s ass? And if you’re looking for inspiration, the annals of Herstory have plenty of examples of people who basically won at life. For those times when I need a real kick in the pants, I look at those ladies who crammed as much life into the short time they had- ladies like the artist Amrita Sher-Gil.
Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913, in Budapest, Hungary to Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat and scholar, and Marie Antoinette Gottesman. Almost from the very beginning, Amrita’s life seems full of interesting portmanteaus and romantic touches fit for a Wes Anderson movie. Not only were her parents from two different worlds, but both seemed to delight in art and experimentation of all kinds. Their house was filled with diplomats and music, and her father, Umrao, was fascinated by photography. In addition to their own artistic pursuits, Amrita’s parents were also supportive of her growing interest in art. She began painting informally at age 5, and at age 8, when the family moved from Budapest to Summer Hill Shimla in India, she began formal training.
At age sixteen, she and her mother moved briefly to Italy so that she could study at an art school in Florence (pause to appreciate the likely badass that was her mother Marie.). Although the move lasted less than a year, it was Amrita’s first exposure to European-style painting. Her interest in this style continued through her early teens. At age 16, she left home to train as a painter in Paris. After three years of study, she painted Young Girls, considered by many to be her first “important work.” (Note: how the powers that be (read: dudes) determine the importance of a work is a discussion for another day…) The painting earned her an election as an Associate of the Grande Salon in Paris in 1933, simultaneously making her the youngest, and only person from Asia, to receive the award.
But, and here’s why Amrita is awesome- Just as she was poised to become the darling of the Western Art world, she “…began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India,” which she did in 1934. When she returned, she began a quest to rediscover for herself the traditions of Indian art. Her aims were lofty- she didn’t want to just become a part of the establishment there either, but instead sought to create “a new technique, my own technique…this technique though not technically Indian, in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.” Let’s pause to appreciate this moment, the chutzpah required to walk away from being good at something to invent something that feels more true to you. This, more than the accolades, is why Amrita wins at all the things.
For nearly four years, Amrita toured Southern India, studying not only the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting, but also the poverty and the people she saw. Her subjects began to shift to depict the daily lives and struggles she saw. While a woman of some means and familial ties to the British Raj, she was a vocal Congress sympathizer. In other words, she was a painter of and for the people. She charmed the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru and was said to be attracted to Gandhi’s lifestyle. But lest you start to build an image of a saintly, humble artist, in her own words, she said “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque.. India belongs only to me.” Not only does this declaration carry some pretty strong “MINE!”ness, it also speaks of an interest in comparing herself with the big greats in the Western world she left behind. Like our friend Walt, or the inscrutable bride in her 1937 painting, Amrita contained multitudes.
In 1938, Amrita married her Hungarian cousin and childhood friend, Victor Egan. In 1941, the two moved to a house in Lahore. Days before opening her first solo show in Lahore, she became suddenly ill, slipping first into a coma and then into death. To this day, the cause is unknown (though hemorrhage as a result of a failed abortion has been suggested). At the time of her death, she was 28.
Although her public career barely filled a decade, within that time, Amrita managed to become a master of the current styles, invent her own style and cast ripples of influence that continue to affect not just the world of art, but also literature. (Contemporary novelist, Salman Rushdie based the character, Aurora Zogoiby, off of Amrita in his book The Moor’s Last Sigh). Her approach to not just how she painted but also who inspired social justice for women in India and abroad for years after her death. Like my absolute home-girl Frida, Amrita was a fully-human with contradictions, and while people with all kinds of agendas have tried to claim her or define her, she continues to elude them. You go Amrita.
Okay, so changing the world by 28 might be a bit ambitious. Still, it’s never too late to start making a better use of one’s time. While there are as many different ways to organize and keep track of the things you need to get done, today I want to introduce you to my personal favorite method: the bullet journal. Bullet Journaling was invented by genius, Ryder Carroll. It’s totally analog, completely customizable to your needs AND you don’t have to buy anything to get started.*
How to Start Bullet Journaling to Get More S*** Done And Feel Like a Boss for Almost Zero Dollars
Find a notebook you already have/like. Find a writing instrument.
Set aside an evening or afternoon to search #bulletjournal and #bulletjournalhacks on tumblr, pinterest or google. Know that at this stage of the journey, you will fall down the rabbithole of the internet and actually lose time, briefly. This is part of the process. Trust it.
Get started! See what works for you and what doesn’t. Just like yoga, ‘keep that which you need, let go of what no longer serves you’. I, for example, have found the daily log to be a temptation to cram more things into a day than is actually possible and have switched to a weekly planning log:
Periodically check back in with the internet and fellow bullet journalists to see if there’s anything interesting or useful you might adopt in this week’s/month’s journal. The beauty of this method is you’re literally making it as you go. You are the master of your own destiny!!
* I am not sponsored by Bullet Journal, I am just a believer. HAIL BULLET JOURNAL!
How to Make Civil War Salt Dough Ornaments for Self, Friends or Family.
(In the interest of full disclosure: This time of year is busy and full in all kinds of wonderful ways. Balancing a full agenda of merry making with my desire to not miss a deadline, this month I’m giving myself the gift of time by re-posting a tutorial I wrote a few years ago. While the focus of the original tutorial was the many, many handsome dudes of the Civil War, the same steps (and many of the jokes) could be used to make ornaments featuring one of the many badass ladies of the Civil War…*)
Step one: Make the dough. There are more recipes for salt dough on the internet than there are johnnies in the North. I ended up using a 2-1-1 ratio (2 parts flour, 1 part salt 1 part water ). Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then add water, stirring as you do to avoid lumps. Once it’s fairly well mixed, knead it a little with your hands on a floured counter-top . The final texture should be close to slightly sticky play-doh. If it feels too sticky, add a little bit of flour (though be sure you don’t add too much or the dough will be as tough and unpliable as Stonewall Jackson.)
Fun fact: Should you find yourself suddenly in the trenches and with rations running low, you can simply adjust the ratios to make hard-tac!
Step Two: Get Sculpting! Using either the internet or your companion’s illustrated Generals of the Civil War books set, begin to model the faces of your favorite generals. Salt dough doesn’t lend itself to subtle details, so I recommend sticking to generals with interesting and distinctive hair/facial hair (which- Good fortune! Is roughly 95% of them)
To get the small details I used a defunct ballpoint pen. I also found it advantageous to sculpt them directly on a cookie sheet covered in foil , that way transferring them to the oven was undisasterous. Also, don’t forget to poke a hole through the top for the string to go through.
Step 3: Bake the ornaments. According to the source I used, salt dough should bake for 2 hours at 250 degrees F. Two hours?! Balderdash! I’ve got nog to drink and carols to sing. I baked mine for an hour, handled them gently afterwards and they seemed fine.
Step 4: Decorate! If you want your ornaments to reflect the scarcity felt by the soldiers on both sides during the lean months of winter during those cruel war years, you can pull a loose thread from your grey or blue shoddy, string it through the top and stop here.
If you, like me, wish to give the ornaments a weathered, metallic sheen- as though it were a metal earned through service rendered and passed down through the ages, start by painting the whole thing black with acrylic paint, making sure to get into all the nooks and crannies in those magnificent beards.
Once the black has dried , lightly brush a layer of gold acrylic paint over the top
Step 5: Finish it! Attach a bit of grey or blue felt, maybe a bit of lace if that’s your thing (and it should be) and your ornament is done, ready to be gifted to starving Georgians under-seige or hung on your tree, next to the hardtack and salt pork***
**And omg, if you DO choose to make Civil War Women Espionage ornaments, please send me a picture.
I wish I could be cool enough to say that Halloween is my favorite holiday, but if I’m REAL honest with myself, Thanksgiving wins, hands down, every time. Despite it’s complicated and troublesome origin stories (best depicted through modern cinema), Thanksgiving wins for me, because of what it means today. Today, it’s a holiday, free from the pressures of gift giving, where one’s only obligation is to cook and eat with what you define as ‘family.’ In the case of my family, this also means lots of sitting around and, eventually, tall-tale-telling.
One of the (many) revelations I’ve had as an adult is realizing that what we call ‘History’ and what we call ‘Life’, aren’t two separate buckets, into which some old timey dudes with long beards cleanly sort discreet Moments from some bygone era. Life is history. “History” is nothing (and everything) but stories heard and remembered and passed on. As conscious human beings we have the gift to live and to listen to one another. So today, rather than share a story about some badass lady who lived a world away, I want to take a moment to share a few stories from some of the remarkable women I’ve had the privileged to know personally:
Janet Carrie née Lynch née Simendinger was my paternal grandmother. Born in 1928, in Winchester Massachusetts, by the time I met her, she was barely 5 ft tall with a voice marinated in years of smoking and half a life lived around Boston. She got tongue-tied calling out grandkids’ names and often simply referred to us as “little shits.” To those on the outside, she looked like a small, delicate elderly lady, with a tasteful pouf of white hair, classy jewelry and muted sweater sets. She was all of that. She was also a survivor of two husbands, the mother (and undisputed BOSS) of five sons and though she had a lot of health problems, including breast cancer and pancreatic cancer (!), she brushed them all off like the tough bird she was. She was also brutally honest in a way that was completely motivated by love. “Your hair looks like crap.” was said, not because she wanted you to feel bad about your hair, but so you had a chance to un-crap it before going out in public. From her, I’d like to think I inherited not just my small bones, but also a love of beer and pizza, the capacity to be swear a blue streak and a commitment to truth. The last words she said to me, when I visited her was “Well, thanks for coming. I love you, now get the hell out.”
Nelly Studebaker (Or “Nelly Jean” as we all called her) was the perfect example of the family we choose. In 5th grade, when we moved to Indiana from the town in which my parents were born and raised, Nelly Jean, our new next door neighbor, was one of the first people we met and almost immediately we called her family. Nelly was retired from guidance counseling, which really just meant that she now gave guidance from her living room, rather than a school desk. Like Janet, Nelly was one of those sweet-looking elderly ladies who had a real gift for expletives. She got a tattoo at 70, and at 80 would mow her lawn in her favorite tube top. She was a shameless flirt who knew how to work a system. One day, my dad came home to find Nelly struggling to haul ladder out of the garage with the stated purpose of “Oh, Handsome, just cleaning out the gutters.” Given that Nelly had recently suffered a broken hip and was a bit unsteady, my dad grumblingly pulled out our ladder, shooed her away and proceeded to clean the gutters for her. Later, when my mom asked, “Nelly, what the hell were you thinking- you know you shouldn’t be up on a ladder?” Nelly giggled, “Well SHIT honey, I wasn’t going to get up there! I just knew if I said I was, he’d jump up to help without me asking.” If I am lucky enough to grow old, I want to do it like Nelly.
My husband’s grandmother Naomi (pronounced “nay-oh-mah” and don’t you forget it) lived just shy of 100 years and raised hell for most of them. She wasn’t afraid of the hard work that came from being a the wife of a farmer. Of the many wonderful photographs we have of Naomi, my favorite is of her as a younger woman, standing tall (at 4′ 10″) and smiling proudly as she holds at arms-length a dead raccoon nearly as long as she is. She was honest and she was a trickster. She handed us our asses in games of ‘greedy,’ and hid under her bed from the staff in the assisted living home. (They only found her because she was giggling to herself). Though I didn’t get to know Naomi long, as a person, and in her presence in the lives of her family, she made a big impression. A woman who also loved thrift, and plants and coffee, she and I got along fine (when she wasn’t scolding me about my tattoos).
In keeping with the tradition of Herstories and How-to’s, I’ve chosen to share and celebrate three women who are no longer with us to share stories. While writing, I kept thinking- I wish I had taken more time and asked more questions while I could. This month, I encourage you to take a moment and listen to the women in your family. Thanksgiving break is the perfect time to begin your career as an herstorian. What better time for conversation than sitting around in a post-pie coma, or crammed in a vehicle traveling across the country? Because every person and every family is different, I can’t tell you how to talk with your family, but I can give you a few tips to help make sure your weekend’s full of history, rather than hysteria.
How to Begin Recording History in Your Own Terms:
Define Family however the heck you want. Don’t have a positive relationship with your biological mom, grandma, sister, etc? No problem. What about the women you do want to spend time with- maybe a neighbor, best friend or the barista at your favorite coffee shop? Like Edna Buchanan (and Grey’s Anatomy) say, “Friends are the family we chose for ourselves.”
Set aside time and space that’s appropriate. For some people in some families, the thought of sitting down to a formal interview in a quiet, private space with a family member to talk about REAL LIFE sounds mortifying. For others, it might be just what they need to feel comfortable. Whether your person of historical interest belong in the first camp, the second or somewhere in the middle, be sure to consider where and when might be more comfortable for them and you. Not sure? Just ask!
Speaking of asking, ask for permission to begin and leave “outs,” specially if you’re taking notes and especiallyespecially if you decide to share this history with other. It may feel silly and overly formal, but it’s the polite and kind thing to do. Even if initially the person agrees, be sure to check-in again at the end- conversations are slippery and can quickly go to unexpected and intensely personal places. And don’t forget about yourself! Even as the initiator of this project, if you start to wander into territory, you’re not comfortable with, feel empowered to change your mind and bring the conversation to a close. Here are a few possible conversation starters and enders:
Hey aunt B, I’m doing a project about personal histories. Would you mind telling me about what it was like growing up with Mom as a little sister? Or about that time you fought a bear in the Rockies?
…It seems like this is a tough thing to talk about. Do you want to take a break?
…I’m feeling uncomfortable. Let’s take a break and see if J needs help in the kitchen.
…This was wonderful- I had no idea that you spent time as a professional yak hair braider in the 70s! Are you comfortable with me sharing this story with others?
Record the conversation in some way. Even if you don’t plan on publicly sharing, take a moment after your conversation to write, type or sketch afterwards. Try to capture what you talked about, and also your own thoughts about it. While right now you might think “Why would I need to record a 20 min. phone call with my grandmother in which she dithered on about nothing?,” later, when she’s not here to dither, or you have even less time to listen, you’ll appreciate having some kind of artifact from this time.
Share the stories you collect. Maybe you post the stories you hear in the comments below (please do!)? Maybe you publish them on your own blog? Maybe you just mention them in passing to a coworker on Monday. Whatever you do, don’t keep them to your self (unless, of course, the story-teller has requested that you do). History is full of stories about real women that never get told. Let’s change that starting now.
Happy Thanksgiving! May yours be as stuffed with Her-stories as a squash is stuffed with quinoa and tempeh sausage!*
I love this time of year- the leaves are changing, pumpkin beer abounds and as it get’s colder my cats get increasingly snugglier. The one snag I always run into, though, is how to really make a statement with my Halloween decorations? In the past, we’ve always been in apartments, but now that we’re in a house in a neighborhood that takes Halloween RRRL serious, it’s time to up our game. That’s why I’m thinking of combining my love of creepies, arachnids and bad ass women from history to create a tribute to Louise Bourgeois- something like this little number:
Louise Bourgeois, nicknamed the spider woman for her giant installations, lived for nearly 100 years. She saw, participated in and outlived the Modern Art Movement. She founded confessional art as a serious task worthy of notice. She raised a family and generously shared her time and wisdom with the next generation of artists.She was a woman who bravely faced her own demons, which feels especially timely during this time of year when many of us turn to thoughts of dark and endings.
Louise was born on Christmas day, in Paris, 1911. Her family, which included a mother, a father and three other siblings, grew up above the tapestry repair shop which they owned. Like most people, Louise’s childhood was complicated. When she was 13, her father had an extended affair with her nanny, which her mother knew about but found easier to ignore. That the affair happened was upsetting enough, but that happened out in the open was infuriating to the young Louise’s sense of justice. She feared and loathed and pitied and loved them both in that way that only family can. These complex and big emotions would come out later in her work.
In 1930, she entered the prestigious Sorbonne to study geometry and math. When asked why she chose math, she responded, “I got peace of mind only through the study of rules nobody could change.” The stability which Louise sought through mathematics was upended in 1932 with the death of her mother. Though a rigorous-ish internet search didn’t yield much about Louise’s thoughts at the time, her actions speak loudly: She left the Sorbonne with artistic ambitions, her father (like many concerned and practical parents from time immemorial) said “Hail no, not paying for that” and Louise (like many dreamy kids from time immemorial) said “tough titties.” She continued to study art at the Sorbonne, where she signed up for classes which needed translators for English students (since, translators were not charged tuition, that smart cookie.) Though she graduated in 1935, Louise never stopped learning- she attended classes in other schools, visited artists’ studios and assisted in exhibitions throughout the city with the intention of learning everything she could. During this time, she met the man who was to be her husband, Robert Goldwater. Goldwater was an art historian and “in between talks about surrealism and the latest trends [we] got married.” If that isn’t the sweetest ‘artnerd meets artnerd’ story, I don’t know what is. The three went on to adopt a child, and have two biological children between 1939 and 1941.
In 1945, Louise had her first solo show (no small feat with 4, 5, and 6 year old boys underfoot), though it would be nearly 40 years before getting major recognition and accolades from the Art world. LB, like a total boss, continued to make work, refine her style and make friends with the American Abstract Artists group.
Louise was expansive in her materials- small intimate watercolors, soft sculpture, installation, big macho bronze and stone creations, towering public art made out of tubing- she was a woman who did not feel tied down to one material or another. Like any artist with a long life and career, her work changed greatly over time. There are a few themes and motifs, though, which stand out (and which warm my heart.) First and foremost was the way in which her work dealt, not with abstract theories about color or capital-P-painting (Clement Greebburg, I’m looking at you with a serious side-eye), but with the messy, gritty, stuff of life. Like my two other besties, Frida and Sylvia*, Louise managed to somehow use her own specific experience to get at bigger, universal Truths. She also frequently used bodily forms. Sometimes they were male, sometimes they were female, sometimes they were classically beautiful and sometimes they were grotesque. Through it all was her honest unflinching approach. This lady had balls.**
In the 1970’s, Louise began teaching formally at many colleges in NYC, including Pratt, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and in public schools throughout the city (Sidebar: How amazing would it be to have had LB as your middle school art teacher? “Your boyfriend dumped you in passing period? Oh dear, you can use that.”). She also began to hold informal, weekly salons in her home which she called “Sunday bloody Sundays.” These gatherings were open to all, the only rules being that you couldn’t have a cold and you had to bring work- work which she would mercilessly and honestly critique. Supposedly, she started holding these salons because Sunday was the one day her art-assistant took off and she, Louise, was restless. I feel it’s worth pointing out that at this point she was in her 60’s.
At the age when most of society tells us (and especially those of us who are women) to fade into quiet obscurity, Louise was just getting warmed up. She became a member of the Fight Censorship Group (a feminist anti-censorship collective) she was named an officer of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and was awarded the USA’s National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton. In 2010, she used her voice and her work to speak up for the LGBT community’s right to marry (proving that young people do not have a monopoly on open-mindedness). And, through it all, Louise continued to write, and to make art and to hold her famous salons (though she did concede to sitting on a pillow in her 90’s so she was high enough to see everyone).
Of all the many things to love about LB, it’s her hunger for knowledge and her generosity in sharing that knowledge with others that warms my educator heart. That’s why this month’s how-to is all about spreading not just love but also rigorous dialog that makes us all better.
How to hold your own Bourgeoisian Salon
Find a place: To really get the comfy feeling described by those who attended Louise’s salons, meet in someone’s living room.
Have snacks: Though snacks are never specifically mentioned, I think honesty sits best on a full belly.
Invite friends (and tell them to bring work!): Whether you put out an open call, like our friend LB, or you invite a small intimate circle of close contacts, I think the key here is to have other people and to make sure everyone has work to share. It’s a way to make everyone feel both kinder to the person being critiqued and less nervous about it being their go (since everyone’s in the same boat).
Mince no words and offer feedback that is useful to the creator: Have you ever been in an in-progress critique or asked for someone’s opinion and they’re response was “Oh! I like it! It’s really neato!” While we all like to hear nice things, sharing honest and thoughtful critical feedback is not only helpful, it’s a sign of trust and respect. Of course, you don’t want to be negative, that’s just as unhelpful. If you’re not sure how to start, check out the Ladder of Feedback– it’s a protocol made by the fancy pants at Harvard’s Project Zero that helps to scaffold and structure critiques in a way that’s helpful for all parties involved.
Louise Bourgeois was not always happy and she was never described as ‘nice.’ She was passionate, she was joyful, she was serious and she was silly. May you, like Louise find a way to make work (whatever your work is) that feeds your soul and gives you courage enough to tell your story.
Herstories and How-to’s Needs Your Help!
As brilliant and powerful unicorns who read this column, I’d like to know what you’d like to know. Is there a particular lady from history (art or otherwise) who you think everyone should get excited over, or who you want to know more about? My only criteria are threefold:
The individual identify as a woman (sorry dudes, but you’ve got a little something called ‘nearly all of the Western Canon’ as a consolation prize)
The particular woman be deceased (easier to research and also narrows things a bit)
That she be badass in some way. (note: the term ‘bad-ass’ subjective and multifaceted much like ‘Art’ and ‘women.’ Feminism’s about choice.
Let me know! Either in the comments below or in an email to crlynch(at)gmail(dot)com.
New York Times
*OH HOLY COW how awesome and cathartic would a slumber party with the three of them be?
**Okay, okay, so I know that bravery is not determined by owning a set of outsized testicles. I acknowledge that to say that one ‘has balls’ is sexist and demeaning to us all. I also acknowledge that if there is a penis joke to be made I’m going to make it. Unflinchingly.
Thelma and Louise. Lucy and Ethl. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The only thing more badass and powerful than one woman, is the power of lady-friends. Despite the frequent portrayal of women as ‘frenemies’ engaged in some kind of bizarro competition for MENZ, friendships between women have a long history of not only existing, but of changing the world. This was true especially for Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. As pioneers in the LGBT rights movement, Sylvia and Marsha risked their lives to be themselves and fought (sometimes literally) for basic human rights for the rest of their community. Because Sylvia seems to be the more well known (If you want to know Sylvia, a bit more, I highly suggest you check out ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class’s episode about her.), today I want to tell you a bit more about Marsha.
Before we get to know Marsha P. Johnson (or ‘MPJ’ as I say in my notes) a bit more, I want to offer this brief caveat about language: I always try my hardest to be sensitive and correct in the language I use, especially to describe a person and especially especially to describe a person who has already been marginalized. Looking back on Marsha’s life, many today would (and do!) use the word ‘transgender.’ That said, in the 60’s, where much of our story takes place, these terms had not been agreed upon and words like ‘drag,’ ‘queen’ and ‘transvestite’ were widely used and accepted by transwomen themselves. While I will default to what I know to be the preferred terms*, whenever quoting Marsha or other women from the past, I always try to use their exact words. Ultimately, my aim with H&H is to be true to each woman’s voice and words, not to offend you. /<caveat>
Marsha was born in Elizabeth New Jersey, in 1945, assigned male at birth. At the age of 21, she moved to Greenwich Village, NYC and legally changed her name to Marsha P. Johnson. When asked what the P stood for, Marsha would say ‘Pay it No Mind!’. In addition to being completely awesome, this seems also to be her life’s philosophy and response to nosy, none-of-your-business questions in general. She responded in kind to a judge when asked to give her name in court. The judge was so charmed and disarmed by this response, he laughed and let her go. I love this story for two reasons: 1) the chutzpah required to answer this way in the midst of what we’ll soon talk about to be the generally crummy legal status of transgender individuals in the 1960’s, and 2) That it worked! Here is a woman saving herself through her own bravery and witticism. Words are powerful.
By all accounts, Marsha was a force to be reckoned with. She became known for her elaborate hats and bright makeup. While I always feel that fierce accessories deserve their own ticker-tape parade in any decade, this is doubly true when one is an African-American transwoman living through the den of institutional racism and misogyny that is mid-century America. Even in Greenwich Village- arguably one of the most liberal places in one of the most liberal cities in the United States at the time- gay and transgender men and women often found themselves discriminated against, prevented from finding legal employ or homes. Because of this many, especially trans individuals had to seek illegal means of supporting themselves including buying/selling drugs and prostitution. This compounded the danger for these individuals, both from the Johns they served and the police themselves, who frequently committed acts of violence, especially against transwomen and lesbians. Marsha told one interviewer that she carried a can of mace with her wherever she went. When asked if she’d had the chance to use it, she replied “Not yet. But I’m patient.”
On June 28, 1969, Marsha’s 25th birthday, the police raided a known gay bar, the Stonewall Inn (Heart-breakingly, one source I read mentioned that “known gay bar” meant that same-sex couples could dance without police harassment. WTF America?!). Raids like this, unfortunately, were not unusua. Normally, a raid meant arrests, harassment, patrons fleeing and a general pooping on the party, but not this night. The patrons rebelled and a violent riot started. Marsha P., there to to celebrate her birthday, was, according to one friend “in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks and almost like Molly Pitcher in the Revolution or something.” Many people say that it was either Marsha or Sylvia who threw the first bottle at the police. (Historically accurate or not, I like to imagine them exchanging knowing ‘give-em-hell’ smiles and throwing the first bottles together)
Stonewall wasn’t just a case of persecuted people standing up for themselves, it’s also often seen as “the spark that ignited the LGBT right movement.” But here’s the really lovely thing about Marsha (and Sylvia): it wasn’t enough for them to be themselves (in a world that wished otherwise), and it wasn’t enough for them to fight for their own individual lives. After striking the match and starting a movement, both spent the rest of their short lives working for other people who, at the time, felt like they were being pushed out of the movement they helped to start. In 1970, the two founded STAR (which stood for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). STAR was “for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anyone that needed help” and focused especially on homeless LGBT kids. Both Marsha and Sylvia would work the streets, so the “children” as Marsha P. called anyone who came to STAR, would be safe and fed without having to do so themselves. Marsha was often called “Queen Mother,” a title in which she seemed to revel. The 70’s also saw Marsha pursuing her interest in art. Friends (of course) with Andy Warhol, she joined his ‘drag performance troupe,’ Hot Peaches. She also posed for his series Ladies and Gentlemen. Though the series has come under mixed criticism (Namely, that the models are nameless and the screen printing seen by some as grotesque), I have a hard time seeing it as an attack on the individuals portrayed for three reasons: 1) it seems way too easy of a read, given Warhol’s love of complicated things done simply, 2) Knowing what I do about Warhol, it’s hard to imagine him being that big of a turd and most importantly, 3) Even harder to imagine MPJ putting up with that kind of tomfoolery.
In the 80s, Marsha joined AIDS activists, ACT UP. She and others marched on Wall Street to protest the incredibly expensive AIDS medication available at the time. Unfortunately for all of us, Marsha didn’t get to see much of the 90’s. In 1992, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River. For many years, law enforcement ruled her (suspicious for many reasons) death a suicide and refused to look into it further. In 2012, however, after much lobbying, the case was reopened. Who was it who successfully lobbied for justice? American activist, Mariah Lopez– another lady so badass that were she no longer alive, I’d have to write a H&H about her too.
“But Cat- Marsha Pay-It-No-Mind Johnson is the bomb! What can I possibly ‘how-to’ to be just as cool?
Well, I’ve already done a headdress tutorial, last month, but one thing you can do, which would not only be in the spirit of MPJ, but would help spread her too-often unknown legacy, is to help throw her a birthday party!
How to Help Throw a Birthday Party for Marsha P Johnson:
And, because, again, what I really believe in is voice, and the power of voice, her’s MPJ herself with the last word:
*And heavens, if these are not the preferred terms, please let me know? Help me not to be an asshole?
Confession time, my friends- Aside from any altruistic motives of spreading stories of female badassery, empowering youth, etc.- my main reason for taking on the task of a monthly blog post was to push myself to find new and interesting champions for my own selfish edification and enjoyment. Because of this, I’ve tried to stay away from those ladies whose names are always at the tip of my tongue (Eva Hesse, I’m looking at you.). Recently, though, a friend asked about a photograph,”Why is Frida Kahlo painting in bed here?”. I realized, (after word-vomiting) that while there are certainly women whose names and work we recognize, that doesn’t mean their stories are as well known as their names, or that these stories are any less deserving of being shared and celebrated.
All of which is to say, I’ve held out as long as I can- This month we’re going to get REAL with my girl, Frida Kahlo
Frida’s life was short, but she lived it to the absolute fullest. As such, there’s a lot that’s already been written about Frida (there’s even a movie by Julie Taymor!), and a lot more that could be written (Love! Romance! Communism and international espionage!). Fantastical details and monkeys aside, what makes Frida my absolute favorite, in addition to her complexity and her passion, is her brutal honesty. Frida managed to create nearly 200 paintings and fill a diary with stories and pictures from her life in a way that feels simultaneously true and mythical, and somehow never once seems like navel-gazing. She looked upon herself and her life and those around her, and spared no unpleasant detail.
She was also incredibly witty and poetic, and absolutely quotable. So, rather than try to tell you everything about everything in Frida’s life as I see it, here, in her own words and images is the lady herself:
“I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.”
“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the train the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia is to have ambition and become ‘somebody,’ and frankly, I don’t have the least ambition to become anybody.
“I am nauseated by all these rotten people in Europe – and these fucking “democracies” are not worth even a crumb.”
“My paintings are well-painted, not nimbly but patiently. My painting contains in it the message of pain. I think that at least a few people are interested in it. It’s not revolutionary. Why keep wishing for it to be belligerent? I can’t. Painting completed my life. I lost three children and a series of other things that would have fulfilled my horrible life. My painting took the place of all of this. I think work is the best.”
” Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?
“I hope the exit is joyful and i hope never to return.”
Frida Kahlo embodied so many qualities worth emulating- honesty, passion, confidence, patience and a love of witty, dirty jokes. She was also spot on when it came to wearing whateverthehell she wanted and looking awesome. 3 piece men’s suit? CHECK. A million rings? GET IT. Live animals? WHY NOT. One of her most iconic accessories were her incredible headdresses. As seen in this sweet video, these were often made out of her own hair and flowers. If you would like to borrow some Frida-style but have short hair, are lazy (or in my case, both) have no fear! You have a couple of options:
Rookiemag has a great video tutorial on how to make what they call (and what I will now forever refer to as) ‘flower crowns’
If you happen to find yourself in desperate need for instant Frida-power and no access or time for hot gluing, make a daisy chain!
Frida Kahlo seems to have emerged from the womb dead-set on being a badass. She leaned into the chaos of her life and embraced passionately all the parts of who she was, even those which caused her pain. Let’s all do the same and know that she was talking to us when she said,
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
It has been an intense month y’all. School’s out and summer-brain’s settling in for most of the population under 18, Ohio (and much of the Midwest) has been renamed New Atlantis, and we’ve all been trying to figure out how to be more human to each other- sometimes failing tragically and occasionally succeeding beautifully. While it’s my hope to make H&H timely, relevant and reverent when appropriate, to be honest I’m having a hard time processing all this HIS/HERSTORY and FEELZ.
While I sit here alternately crying, cheering, puking and sorting out my thoughts about this complicated animal we call ‘America’, there’s one thing which never fails to make me swell with patriotic Knopian pride: parks and wildlife refuges.* While the National Park Service suffers from the same ambivalence as the rest of our awful/wonderful weirdo-country, the parks themselves remain, for me, a reliable source for good vibes. As the great Miss Knope herself said, “Parks are for everybody” and, I would add, every creature. As a double plus bonus, the history of our parks, preserves and refuges is filled with bad-ass babes who made them so. One of these powerhouses, was Rosalie Barrow Edge.
Rosalie Edge (neé Barrow) has been called “nature’s most effective protector since John Muir.” Mabel Rosalie Barrow was born in 1877 in New York City to wealthy parents. As a young girl of privilege growing up in the 19th century, Rosalie’s childhood was fairly uneventful and filled with education focused primarily on becoming ‘the cultured wife of an important man. From all accounts**, the first three decades of Rosalie’s life fit the expectations of her of the times. She married “successfully” to a British civil engineer, had two children and divided her time between America and ‘the Continent,’ doing whatever it was Proper Ladies did on ships (I imagine it involves a lot of tea and needlepoint.)
Everything changed in 1913. On one of the Barrows’s many trans-Atlantic voyages, Rosalie met the Lady Rhondda, a prominent and outspoken woman who used her position and privilege to champion British suffrage. Rosalie referred to their meeting and subsequent conversations as “…the first awakening of my mind,” and by the time the Barrows returned stateside, Rosalie was ready to put her own ample resources (both monetary and intellectual) towards the US Suffrage Movement.
In the 1920s, when not working to smash the male-dominated political machine, Rosalie became deeply interested in amateur bird watching. In 1929 this passion became a cause to champion and her life’s work. While in Paris with her children, Rosalie received a pamphlet (the early 20th century tweet), called ‘The Crises in Conservation.’ According to the publication, not only were over 20,000 bald eagles being slaughtered in Alaskan territory, a tragedy in its own right, but the leading protection agencies of the time had been totally silent. Rosalie was stunned: “For what, to me, were dinner and the boulevards in Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?”
Shortly after returning home, the riled-up Rosalie founded and ran (until her death in her mid-80’s), the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC). In the early 20th century, the leading view of “conservationists” was to protect only those species with economic value. In contrast, the forward-thinking ECC aimed to protect all species so that they didn’t become rare, preserving biodiversity for generations to come. According to Rosalie, conservation was an everyone-problem. Though not formally trained in science or ecology, she quickly sought to fill the gaps in her own education. A great example of the power of self-guided learning, she tracked down, questioned and learned from the leading biologists and wildlife professionals, eventually becoming an expert in her own right on birds of prey, species diversity and the dangers of pesticides.
In her early 30’s, Rosalie set her sights on one of the biggest offenders of the time- The Audubon Society.
Yes, that Audubon Society. What’s that? You only know them as do-gooder bird folk who put out beautiful publications and fight for the preservation of all bird species and habitat? That’s thanks, in large part, to our friend Rosalie. While the present-day Audubon is one of the leading voices for Environmental Good, in the 1920s they were a veritable nest of vipers. Not only were their methods of study questionable, the directors at the time were totally in cahoots with wildlife harvesters, doing shady things like ‘renting’ out sanctuaries to ‘Nature Enthusiasts’ (i.e. fur trappers) and pocketing the money.
Rosalie joined the Society, then, combining her Proper Manners with claws sharpened on suffrage, her expertise on the natural world and her quick-wit, tore down the establishment from the inside. She would attend the meetings, smile and listen politely to presentations, and in open sessions ask good questions which the leadership, uncomfortably, couldn’t answer (A 1948 New Yorker article later referred to her as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.”). Though they tried to remove her several times, Rosalie refused to leave. In 1930 she filed and won a suit to obtain the Society’s membership mailing list. Soon after, all 11,000 members received notices detailing the Audubon’s atrocities. Within four years the former directors were forced to to leave, the deals with commercial interests were cut and the Audubon became the upstanding organization it is today.
For the rest of her life, Rosalie continued to fight for the cause of birds and biodiversity, leaving a legacy including:
The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – the world’s first refuge for birds of prey.
Led a grassroots campaigns to create Olympic National Park and King’s Canyon National Park
Successfully lobbied Congress to purchase 8000 acres of old growth pines on the perimeter of Yosemite that were intended for logging
Influenced the founders of the Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and, in a way, anyone influence by Silent Spring (author Rachel Carson obtained much of her research on DDT through the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)
But my favorite thing about Rosalie’s story is how heavily amateurs play feature roles- The photograph that inspired Rosalie to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was taken by an amateur, Her two campaigns to open Olympic and Kings Canyon were grassroots efforts, and even Rosalie herself was almost entirely self-taught. Formal training and education are awesome, but it’s also reassuring I think to recognize that whatever your background, you too can make an impact.
How to Lend Your Voice and Power to Others
*(an incomplete list)
The other rocking thing about Rosalie’s story is that she didn’t try to change her position but rather she used her position and her influence to fight the system from inside the system (like Commissioner Jim Gordon!). I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, but you should know- no matter who you are, what your background or identity, somewhere, for someone, your voice has power. Setting aside the Big and Complicated matter of finding your voice/power, here, in Rosalie’s own words, are a few ways that you can use your awesomeness for Good:
““When we suffrage women attacked a political machine, we called out it’s name and the name of its officers so that all could hear…”Have you ever been at work or hanging out with friends when out of nowhere someone makes a joke or comment that seems innocent enough but which also seems like it might be offensive to someone b/c of some part of their identity (i.e. race, gender, religious beliefs, etc) and you don’t want to seem rude so you cringe inwardly and let it slide? Cut that out! You don’t have to be strident (Rookiemag has a great article about ‘calling in‘ as opposed to calling them out). Odds are very good that the offender has no idea what they said might be harmful and would want to know (think of it as broccoli in the teeth of your best friend). Help them, and us as a species, become kinder and more self-aware.
“…we got ourselves inside the recalcitrant organization if possible and stood up in meeting…” There’s lots of SCIENCE that shows people make change in their lives, in large part, because of relationships. I might read negative anonymous reviews of a restaurant and take them into consideration, but one glowing positive review from a friend who says “no, trust me, it’s awesome” is usually enough to outweigh them all. So don’t just criticize whatever it is you’re trying to change, really get to know them. (This empathy emphasis goes both ways too, especially when working with a marginalized community- learn not just the weaknesses but also the strengths and needs of your friends and enemies and then figure out where your own fit)
“…we gave the matter to the press, 1st doing something that it should make news.” There are a lot of negative things to say about social media (and as a curmudgeon, I’m sure I’ve said them all)- but it is also a powerful tool. Remember the Arab Spring? Even Rosalie and her crew knew there’s power in numbers, especially if those numbers are informed. I think the key takeaway here, to keep your important message of change from getting lost amidst new babies and LOLcats, is the second part- that whatever it is you share, tweet, like, etc be partnered with action. Nuthin’ gets done without some doin’.
And, because I started with the intent of something light and fluffy (Parks! Birds! Jaunty Hats!) and ended with major political upheaval, here’s a ridiculous picture of a baby falcon and a sunset for you to ponder while celebrating your power. You’re welcome.