Historiann on Who Do You Think You Are

UPDATE, 8/31/15 11:50 a.m.  Well, that was fast.  The first video was terminated!  I’ll let you know if I find another copy somewhere, but if you go to the Who Do You Think You Are schedule, you’ll see the promo with a glimpse of me today.  In the meantime, try the link below.

French Protestants!  Religious persecution!  Siege and starvation!  Migration and the bounty of the New World!  It’s all posted on YouTube, at least for now:

Sexuality frightens, confuses school district

unfrozencavemanThis is a stupid story, but there’s an interesting nugget buried in the explanation for how and why a Young Adult author was chased off the internets for standing up for reality-based high school sex education and biology classes:

The Gilbert [Arizona] School Board—under the leadership of three Tea Partiers who consider Common Core to be a “pile of dog poo,” and with the encouragement of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the same organization that engineered the notorious anti-gay discrimination law in Indiana—had spent a great deal of time debating a section in the biology textbook that contains extremely “controversial” material about contraception preventing unwanted pregnancies. According to a local news report, some board members wanted to black out the lines that mention various birth-control methods, vasectomies, and—wait for it—drugs that can induce abortion; others wanted to rip out the whole offending page. Instead, the school board compromised on the instructive sticker.

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Bloody, bloody Donald Trump: Sex segregation, the corrosive power of menstrual blood, and why Republicans can’t stay out of our vaginas.


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Laura Bennett analyzes Donald Trump’s comments on Megyn Kelly’s questions in last week’s Republican debate in Slate today.  To review:  Trump complained about the question she asked him regarding his offensive comments about women, saying that “[s]he gets out there and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.”  Bennett writes,

To be clear, Trump sounded like a Grade A bozo throughout the Kelly tirade, and his history of enthusiastic sexism made the period subtext seem like a safe assumption. If you listen to the full segment, though, it is not entirely evident where Trump was going with that “wherever.” At the end of the sentence, he did sort of peter out, distracted by the gleam of his own next thought about how well he was doing in the polls. Several minutes later, he declared that Chris Wallace seemed to have “blood pouring out of his eyes” while interrogating him, too. It is no secret that Trump is a cartoonish misogynist. But the media frenzy over bloodgate also seemed to be missing some key context.

Who knows if Trump meant specifically to reference menstruation?  It doesn’t really matter.  Anyone with half a brain–even half a lizard-brain like Trump–has to know that talking about blood and the only woman involved in the whole debate was just inviting others to make the connection he apparently pulled back from making himself.  (Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.  He’s a rude and crude dude.  As Bennett suggests, compared to calling Gail Collins a “dog,” talking about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual blood is almost, to use a Trumpism, “world class.”)  Trump evoked a taboo with ancient roots and surprising staying power, one that (not coincidentally) recalls male fears of emasculation by the power-sapping mojo of menstrual blood. Continue reading

Abortion, “privacy,” and those Planned Parenthood videos

reallyuglybabyKatha Pollitt has some ideas for reclaiming the moral high ground on abortion rights. I agree with her that abortion needs to be seen more visibly as a part of women’s health care. We all know women who have had abortions–some of us have assisted them in some way, and a third of have had abortions ourselves. I’ve helped one friend recover from an abortion. I’ve never had one myself, and count myself fortunate, not virtuous. There’s no question but that if I had become pregnant before I wanted to be that I too would have sought an abortion.

In fact, it was my planned, wanted pregnancy that made me feel even more strongly about the importance of abortion rights.  Some women begin to question the morality of abortion when they become pregnant, and I always wondered if pregnancy would change my mind.  It didn’t–in fact, it struck me as even crazier and more absurd that so-called “pro-lifers” cared more about the little jelly bean inside my uterus than the adult human woman in which it grew, a human with adult responsibilities and family and community ties.  It struck me as the most clueless and obnoxious form of misogyny–the utter erasure of living, breathing women and all of our labor, hopes, and creativity in favor of the potential human life growing in our uteri.  The notion that anyone but me would presume to make decisions about the rest of our lives enraged me. Continue reading

Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

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Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Was the American Revolution a mistake? Reflections from the true North strong and free.

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Greetings from Cap Diamant!

While I was buying a ticket Saturday afternoon to tour the archaeological dig of Chateau St. Louis, the remains of the original fort and governors’ houses in Québec City, I was wished a “bonne fête” (happy holiday).  The Parks Canada employee had to remind me that “c’est le quatre Juillet!” (“it’s the Fourth of July!”)  Duh.  I had spent all morning and most the afternoon at the Cathedral on a top-secret mission, and I think my brain was working so hard trying to speak and read French again that the American holiday fell completely out of my consciousness.

Having spent Independence Day weekend with our Francophone neighbors to the North, I may be particularly susceptible to this argument by Dylan Matthews, “3 Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake.”  After all, the people of Québec famously refused Benedict Arnold’s kind offer to join with their southern neighbors to throw off the yoke of British tyranny.  The legacy of more than a century of warfare with rabidly anti-Catholic New England colonists made Anglo-Americans unreliable allies in the eyes of most Canadians, to say the least.

Here’s Matthews’s argument, in brief–first and foremost, slavery ended sooner in the British empire, and he uses Canada as a compelling counter-example for U.S. Americans to consider:

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there too in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

Second, the American Revolution was really bad for First Nations peoples–not that Canada’s record is awesome, just less awful than U.S. imperial expansion: Continue reading

Caitlyn Jenner portrait “a picture from the past rather than the present.”

caitlynjennerOne of the things about L.A. I’m really going to miss is reading the shrunken, vestigial, adware-addled Denver Post instead of the rich and lively LA Times, and one of the writers I’ll miss most is art critic Christopher Knight.  Here’s his review of Caitlyn Jenner’s big reveal portrait by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Vanity Fair published yesterday.

For all the advance buildup, the picture feels flat — a pedestrian celebrity pastiche of rather tired visual cliches. That’s too bad. Jenner’s courage in taking control of the public process of coming out as transgender is bold, and this will be the most widely seen initial image.

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[T]he Vanity Fair photograph seems a missed opportunity — a picture from the past rather than the present. Maybe that’s because all its conventional, glamour-girl signals weigh down the lively fluidity swirling at the center of gender identity.

After describing work by photographer Catherine Opie and Judith Butler, and explaining that a more expansive and complicated vision of gender performance has been part of both the feminist and LGBT movements’ DNA since the early 1990s, Knight writes that the VF cover appears to have missed these conversations entirely.  Instead, it’s a portrait of a 60-something woman by a 60-something woman that feels dated and conventional.  “Leibovitz’s Caitlyn Jenner is a newfangled Vargas girl, one of those airbrushed cuties from the old pages of Playboy. Is that all there is?” Continue reading