Taking it to the Streets: International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917

One hundred one years ago today, thousands of Russian women took to the streets to protest high prices and food scarcity. “Down with high prices” and “down with hunger,” they shouted. Their voices did not go unheard. Thousands joined them the next day as a labor strike broke out. On March 9 (February 25 according to the Russian calendar), approximately 200,000 workers filled Petrograd. Their new battle cry? Down with the tsar.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one character describes how he went bankrupt as happening “gradually and suddenly.”[1] “Gradually and suddenly” is also an extremely apt way to characterize the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. The revolutionary spark kindled by the massacre of Father Gapon and his followers in 1905 was temporarily dimmed by Nicholas II’s creation of the Duma and other assorted attempts at reforms. The next twelve years saw steady economic decline, rampant inflation, military setbacks and defeats in World War I, and a continued increase in the people’s distrust and disfavor with their autocratic government. All of these factors contributed to the February Revolution, but what caused it to occur at that specific time? Why not in January, or the previous December? The revolution needed a flashpoint, and that came in the form of a loaf of bread. The person who wants to identify the roots of the February 1917 Revolution need look no farther than what was on (and more importantly, what was not on) Russian dinner tables. More than allegiance to any revolutionary dogma or nationalist feeling, Russians of every class and creed shared the experience of persistent food insecurity. Food scarcity does not link to the entire revolutionary movement in a straight line, but it is both a common theme and symbol of the problems within the Russian government, military, and people themselves.

“It all began with bread,” wrote historian Orlando Figes in his social history of the Revolution.[2] As the country mobilized for war, the majority of the nation’s food production was earmarked for sustaining the millions of men (and women) serving at the front (and rear).[3] Even this was not enough, as soldiers complained of the lack of provisions, arms, and other necessities. “In Ivov, before the eyes of 28 thousand soldiers, five people were flogged for leaving their courtyard without permission to buy white bread,” wrote soldier A. Novokov.[4]

Food insecurity was even worse on the home front. As peasant farmers realized they could not buy enough food to support their families, they turned to farming subsistence crops like potatoes and oats instead of traditional grains. In the cities, workers had money to buy food, but near constant food shortages meant there was no food to buy. “We will soon have a famine,” wrote Maxim Gorky to his wife, Ekaterina. “I advise you to buy ten pounds of food and hide it.”[5] Most would not be able to make such preparations. “They say: work calmly, but we are hungry and we cannot work,” wrote a group of female workers in June 1915. “They say there is no bread. Where is it then? Or is it only for the Germans that the Russian land produces?”[6]

Everyone seemed to recognize Russia’s situation was dire except the tsar. While his country starved, the “little father” of Russia dined in style. Describing a typical meal at Tsar Nicholas II’s table, Alexander Mosolov writes of “soup…followed by fish, a (game or chicken) casserole, vegetables, sweets, (and) fruit.”[7] The ruling family washed down this abundance of food with “madeira, white and red wines for breakfast… and different wines served at lunch, as is the custom everywhere else in the civilised (sic) world.”[8] There is no more powerful demonstration of the tsar’s disengagement from the people he ruled than the royal family enjoying the finest Bordeaux while his people could barely scrape enough food together to keep themselves alive. Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned, but the Romanovs did feast while the Russian people starved.

The people were hungry, the army was in disarray, and the government seemed out-of-touch at best, but the situation was still not quite ripe for revolution. The people needed a common cause they could rally behind. This cause crystallized in the bread lines of Petrograd. Figes described the Petrograd bread lines as almost “a sort of political forum or club, where rumours, information, and views were exchanged.”[9] As they realized common experiences and concerns, the people began to organize. Put quite simply by Figes, “(t)he February Revolution was born in the bread queue.”[10] Organized civil disobedience took a more violent turn as bread shortages led to bread riots. Strikes and walkouts in factories increased the number of people demonstrating in the streets, making it ever more difficult for the police to regain control. The tsarist government fell, the Romanov Dynasty ended, and a Provisional Government made up of leaders of the Duma was left to pick up the pieces. It should be no mystery why the Bolsheviks captured the imagination of the people. Their promises of peace, land, and bread neatly summed up the needs of every Russian soldier, farmer, and worker, man or woman, child or adult.

When compared to other causes of the Revolution—World War I, failed reforms, tsarist incompetence—bread seems insignificant. Lack of bread, however, is extremely significant. The Russian government could not meet the needs of its people. Hundreds of thousands died at the front lines and at home while the Duma struggled against a tsar who had no understanding of his country’s issues or impending demise. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia continued a legacy of protest that included the 1789 women’s bread riots in revolutionary France and the bread riots in Richmond, Virginia (then capital of the Confederacy) in 1863. Food insecurity inspired women to speak, and gave them a message to which their societies listened.

One hundred one years later, women still wait in bread lines, walk miles for clean water for their families, and struggle to care for their families. Equal pay and equal rights continue to escape even the most modern, “civilized” nations. It is easier to create hashtags and slogans than real change. On this International Women’s Day, we recognize the women who spoke up and walked out. We salute the women who continue to refuse to let the status quo determine their present and stifle their future.

 

[1] Ernest Hemingway (1926) The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2006 ed.), Book 2, chapt. 13.

[2] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 298.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A. Novikov to A. I. Ivanova, Moscow, “Excerpts from Soldiers’ Letters, Intercepted by Censors, 1915-1917,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914:1922: A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Daly, Leonid Trofinov, accessed June 6, 2016, http://www.snhu-media.snhu.edu/files/course-repository/graduate/his/his630, 12.

[5] Maxim Gorky quoted in Figes, 300.

[6] “Proclamation of Kostroma women workers to soldiers, June 1915,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922: A Documentary History, 11.

[7] Alexander Mosolov, “At the Emperor’s Court, Book IV” in At the Court of the Last Tsar, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.alexanderpalace.org/mossolov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Figes, 300.

[10] Ibid.

And the Oscar Goes to: Hattie McDaniel and the Original #OscarsSoWhite

On February 29, 1940, African-American actress, singer, and entertainer Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her portrayal as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Though 1939 also saw the premieres of movies like The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, GWTW earned thirteen nominations and eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress accolade. Given the racism and discrimination rampant in the United States in the 1940s, the decision to award the Supporting Actress to an African-American woman seemed to be a tremendous step forward.

It was.

It also wasn’t.

Born in 1893, Hattie McDaniel began performing when she was in high school as part of a troupe called The Mighty Minstrels. By the time she was in her 20s, she was performing on the radio, the first African-American woman to do so. The performing life did not pay well, and McDaniel often worked as domestic help to make ends meet. After moving to Los Angeles, she was cast as an extra in a Hollywood musical. After earning her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card, McDaniel went on to small roles in I’m No Angel, The Little Colonel, Judge Priest, and Show Boat. She worked with and became friends with many of the major stars of the day, including Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland. Her relationships with the latter two helped her win the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind.

McDaniel’s acting ability was never in doubt. Mammy was the soul of Margaret Mitchell’s novel and of the film adaptation. Reception to the film (and its actors) demonstrates the black soul of American racism, however. None of the African-American actors were able to attend the film’s opening night at Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater. Jim Crow also showed up at the Oscar ceremony the following year. GWTW director David O. Selznick had to petition for McDaniel to be able to attend the ceremony at the Ambassador Hotel. She and her date ended up sitting at a table at the back of the room separate from her GWTW costars. It was easier to award McDaniel one of the top acting awards in the nation than to find a place for her in American society as an African American woman. She could be a star, but not an equal.

McDaniel also faced censure from the African-American community, who saw GWTW and the character of Mammy as romanticizing the Old South and slavery. They criticized her for taking roles as slaves and servants, saying she was preserving the stereotypes that fueled discrimination against black Americans. McDaniel disagreed, arguing African-American women did not have the luxury of choosing their roles if they wanted to continue to work (and to eat). “The only choice permitted us is either to be servants for $7 a week or to portray them for $700 a week,” she said.[1] McDaniel believed “a woman’s gifts will make room for her,” but we cannot forget for a moment that a woman is rarely in control of the room’s location or its conditions.[2]

Almost eighty years later, the Academy Awards, and the United States, struggles with diversity. The 2015 Awards earned the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Caucasian actors for all twenty major acting awards, the first occurrence since 1998. American society is diverse, but depicting and honoring that diversity continues to be difficult. It is hard to believe we can still celebrate the “first black,” “first Asian,” “first Hispanic,” “first LGBTQ,” “first woman” (the list goes on and on) anything in the year 2018, but that is our reality and our society.

Tonight’s 90th Academy Awards is not without its own firsts: the first female cinematography nominee (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound); nominations for African-American director/comedian/actor Jordan Peele (Get Out) and for female director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); and of course, the first Oscars since Harvey Weinstein was dethroned by industry leaders finally taking the sexual assault and abuse allegations against him seriously. 2018 seems to be the year where Hollywood is at least ready to listen to disenfranchised voices, but that does not mean the path ahead is certain. Some have criticized the film Call Me By Your Name, the story of a young man’s summer affair with his father’s research assistant, as promoting sexual promiscuity and underage sexual relations. This is especially interesting during a cinematic season that also saw the opening of Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in a trilogy that regularly substitutes softcore pornography for plot and character development. Others criticize Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water for not going far enough in its development of its disabled characters, namely the protagonist, Elisa.[3] The Oscars, like society itself, is perpetually caught in a game of one step forward, one step back, not far enough—wait, too far. It is only by stretching boundaries that we will ever arrive at a new, more equitable normal.

McDaniel said “we respect sincerity in our friends and acquaintances, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it.”[4] Perhaps the best way forward is to keep reminding Hollywood, and other sources of American power, that it will only get what it pays for. We must also remember that we, the consumers, get what we pay for. Hollywood films what sells. If we continue to demand film art that is inclusive and also put our money where we say our priorities lie, #OscarsSoWhite can become part of history, not a recurring pattern. Race and gender shape art, but do not and cannot determine its worth. Perhaps we must also keep reminding them we have the receipts.

kms

[1] https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/9148-hattie-mcdaniel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See “What ‘The Shape of Water’ Gets Wrong About Disability,” at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-379-populism-in-italy-s-elections-greenland-s-ice-melt-the-shape-of-water-ode-to-cds-and-more-1.4555633/what-the-shape-of-water-gets-wrong-about-disability-1.4555657.

[4] https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/9148-hattie-mcdaniel.

F-Bomb Field Trip: U.S. Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia

Two statues guard the entrance of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia: Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess responsible for wisdom and war, and a female American soldier, the personification of those attributes. The USAWM was originally part of Fort McClellan, Alabama, but moved to Virginia after the base closed in 1999. It opened at Fort Lee in 2001, but it was only five years ago that the museum became the first American military installation to display a statue of a female soldier. This timeline parallels women’s fight to both participate in the U.S. military and be recognized for their participation. The museum does a very good job at establishing the fact that women have always been involved in American wars; it was official recognition of their contributions that trailed behind.

The museum begins and ends with a large tree adorned with replicas of dog tags left behind by fallen female soldiers. One electronic exhibit allows the visitor to select the names of individual soldiers and pull up their pictures and a short biography and service record. Sacrifice is key to the USAWM: from the “unofficial” soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the WACs of WWII and combat soldiers of Desert Storm and following, female sacrifice was essential to American military success.

As described on its website, the USAWM is a “repository of artifacts and archives,” but also “an educational institution.” The curators have done a fantastic job integrating elements that will keep younger visitors interested and entertained. A theater in a small alcove explains the role of Walt Disney animation in the war effort and shows several WWII-era Donald Duck cartoons produced during the time. There is also an area that allows children to try on the various caps/head gear, uniform pieces, and arms mentioned and depicted in the exhibits. Kids can also take home free coloring pages as a souvenir.

The USWM is also an important resource for historians and researchers. Appointments to view the archives or explore their service member oral histories can be made on the museum website. The archive holds over 1.5 million documents, including books, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other formats. The museum also allows visitors to take home copies of the U.S. Army Center for Military History’s books on the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) by historians Bettie J. Morden and Mattie E. Treadwell. As military history has long been the domain of men, finding sources about military women written by military women is refreshing to say the least. Morden’s and Treadwell’s works would be extremely useful to students and researchers interested in investigating female participation in the army from 1942 to 1978. Treadwell’s Special Studies text provides additional information on mid-century American interpretations of gender and war and reflects on how these interpretations shaped what military women were and were not allowed to do during wartime.

The U.S. Army Women’s Museum is easy to overlook, but well worth a visit. At the time of our visit (March 1, 2018), several exhibits were under construction, including redesign of a gallery and an expansion of one area. I’m definitely planning a return visit to see the new pieces and check out the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum next door.

kms

The United States Army Women’s Museum / 2100 Avenue A / Fort Lee, Virginia / www.awm.lee.army.mil / 804-734-4327 / Tues. through Sat., 1000-1700

Today in Women’s History: The U.S. Supreme Court Rules the 19th Amendment Constitutional

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

The U.S. Constitution is, and is intended to be, a living document, but that does not mean changes are easy. Constitutional amendments are hard-fought and hard-won. The debates they spur often inspire strange political alliances. The long fight for female suffrage is the story you know, but the woman’s suffrage movement’s awkward alliance against the 15th amendment is not widely publicized (for obvious reasons).

The 19th amendment to the Constitution, ensuring “(t)he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,was ratified in 1920. The amendment was the result of an over eighty-year battle for women’s rights in the United States. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention laid out the women’s movement’s battle strategies and goals, but the changing political landscape would often thwart the suffragettes’ plans.

The Civil War divided the nation; Reconstruction would end up dividing the woman’s rights movement. The proposed 15th amendment stated suffrage “shall not be denied…on account of race.” This gave white and non-white men the right to vote, but as it did not specify suffrage could not be denied based on sex, women were again denied the right. Woman’s rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony bristled at the idea and withdrew their political support for the amendment. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted,” wrote Stanton, “it will take us at least a century to get it out.[1]

“That word” was not included, but the implication was enough to bar women from voting. The women’s movement split into two groups: Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while Lucy Stone and others who supported the ratification of the 15th amendment formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Disagreements over ideology and methodology hampered the movement’s efficiency and its ability to present a united message regarding woman’s rights. Further complicating matters, some groups interpreted the NWSA’s anti-15th amendment stance as evidence of racism within the movement. Though the NWSA’s connection to groups that supported racial discrimination was tenuous at best, it impacted their image and message. It was not a particularly effective way to court the thousands of African-American women who also wanted civil rights as American citizens, to say the least.

As is often the case, an American war was the ultimate impetus to bringing about American social change. Women’s contributions in mobilization for World War I finally convinced male leaders and politicians that women’s participation could not be ignored. Anyone who gave so much for their country, and made do with so little, deserved the civil rights too long denied them. (Of course, women’s protests and other forms of mobilization for suffrage also forced politicians’ hands.) “I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional amendment proposing the extension of the suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged,” said President Woodrow Wilson in an address to Congress in 1918.[2] Congress agreed, passing the 19th amendment in 1919. It was ratified the following year.

The final challenge to the amendment’s constitutionality came in the 1922 Supreme Court case, Leser v. Garnett. In the original case, lawyer Oscar Leser sued to have two women removed from Maryland voting rolls, saying women did not have the right to vote in Maryland because the state had not ratified the 19th amendment. Chief Justice Louis Brandeis ruled women’s suffrage applied to all American women regardless of whether or not their state ratified the amendment (approved women’s right to vote). Ratifying the amendment put the law in the books, but the 1922 decision in Leser v. Garrett ensured it was a law that women could use.

kms

[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton quoted in Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2005), 394.

[2] Woodrow Wilson quoted in “Women’s Suffrage and WWI,” National Park Service, Accessed February 27, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/articles/womens-suffrage-wwi.htm.

Midwife of the Revolution: Jenny von Westphalen Marx

February 21 was the 170th anniversary of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ magnum opus, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, commonly known as The Communist Manifesto. This controversial work was built on a controversial philosophy: end distinctions between social classes; abandon capitalism and the free market system; and divorce society from religion and religious practices. Religion, class, and economics were critical drivers of thousands of years of European history. Borrowing a phrase from the Disney movie Pocahontas, if an endeavor did not increase one’s glory, God, or gold (and preferably some combination of the three), it was quickly abandoned.

Amid the censure of his community and frequent run-ins with local law officials, Marx never stopped working for revolution. This is the story we know. What history rarely mentions is the woman who made it possible: his wife, Jenny von Westphalen.

Joanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen was born into Prussian aristocracy and all of the privileges that entailed. Her father, Ludwig von Westphalen, seemed to enjoy Karl Marx as a conversationalist, but the idea of him becoming part of the family was out of the question. Jenny loved him, however, and turned her back on her family to marry Marx.

It was not an easy life for the former aristocrat—she went from bourgeoisie to proletariat in one fell swoop, trading salons and dinner parties one day for pawn shops and bread lines the next. She firmly believed in her husband’s ideas and teachings, possibly even more so because she had to live them. Her liberal views extended to her stance on women’s place in society, which skewed towards proto-feminism:

“In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks.”[1]

Jenny did more than sit at home and darn socks. In addition to giving birth to seven children and enduring the pain of losing several, she kept the household together as the family fled from country to country. In an interesting twist of irony, the economic historian and philosopher could not keep his own accounts straight. If the family owed money, and it always seemed to owe something to someone, Jenny went to the local pawn shop and sold whatever she could to make ends meet. Her ability to keep the family fed and clothed allowed Karl the time to write, think, and occasionally philander (one by-blow resulted in a son that Friedrich Engels adopted as his own to protect Karl’s reputation).

Jenny is also directly responsible for the publication of Marx’s writings. Karl Marx’s handwriting was so messy that his first drafts were illegible. Jenny recopied the pages in her own hand, producing manuscripts that could be sent to publishers for printing. She also acted as Karl’s personal correspondence secretary, answering letters for him when he was too ill to take on the task.[2]

Jenny von Westphalen Marx fought for her husband, for her family, and for the class revolution she believed to be inevitable. The only fight she could not win was against cancer. She died on December 2, 1881 after battling the illness for years. Karl was not well enough to attend the funeral, but family friend Friedrich Engels spoke at the graveside on his behalf. Buried “at the cemetery of Highgate in the section of the damned,” historians also buried Jenny in the historical record.[3] Without Jenny’s work as copywriter and editor, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital may never have seen the light of day. Marx and Engels may have given birth to Communist revolution, but Jenny was the revolution’s midwife.

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Author’s Note: For more information on Jenny von Westphalen and her relationship with her husband, please see the following sources:

  • Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel
  • Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx by H.F. Peters

[1] Jenny von Westphalen Marx quoted in “The Life of Jenny Marx,” Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller, Jacobin Magazine, February 14, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/jenny-karl-marx-mary-gabriel-love-and-capital.

[2] Peters, H.F. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 150.

[3] Ibid., 164.

Today in Women’s History: Ireland Legalizes Birth Control (1985)

On February 20, 1985, the Republic of Ireland legalized the sale of non-medical contraceptives. Whether in the form of pills, condoms, or spermicides, it is difficult to argue against the positive impact of birth control on women’s history. A woman’s ability to decide whether she wanted to have a baby allowed her the freedom to decide to prioritize other aspects of her life. For some, that meant joining (or rejoining) the workforce. For others, it meant they could simply choose not to bear children.

1985 seems very late for a nation to legalize contraception, but we should remember other nations also had checkered relationships with the topic and continue to struggle with the idea that a woman should have the last word on her body. American nurse and women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger was imprisoned several times for trying to educate early twentieth-century women on their reproductive health and options. In what is surely the irony to end all ironies, Sanger was arrested on the grounds of spreading pornography. Her attempts to mail copies of her newsletters and journals ran afoul of the 1873 Comstock Act which outlawed the circulation of “obscene and immoral materials.”[1]

To Sanger, the true obscenity was forcing women into an occupation in which they were unprepared or uninterested. Personal experience seemed to be her guide: she both witnessed her mother’s early death from multiple pregnancies and miscarriages and nursed many women who suffered the consequences of back-alley abortions and other do-it-yourself methods intended to end unwanted pregnancies. “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body,” wrote Sanger in a 1919 article for Birth Control Review. “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”[2] Believing reproductive education and accessible, reliable, and effective contraceptive methods would enable women to make informed decisions about their own health, Sanger worked tirelessly for women’s civil rights until her death in 1966.

[1] See http://law.jrank.org/pages/5508/Comstock-Law-1873.html for a more in-depth discussion of the Comstock Act.

[2] Margaret Sanger, “A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” in Birth Control Review, March 1919, 6-7.