The story of the United States of America: we write this chapter.

This situation absolutely requires that a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.

This situation absolutely requires that a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.

I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet here lately–aside from the usual new semester kerfuffle, it’s been difficult to decide what to say or when to say it when one’s outrage-o-meter is stuck on full blast all week long.  Being the sunny, positive person that I am, I’ve been looking for wisdom on the internets that notes that it’s going to be a slog, but that we’ve faced worse.  I’m a historian:  I know we’ve faced much more serious threats to American democracy than the Human Stain, Mr. Minority president, Mr. 36%.

The people whose analyses I’ve gravitated towards lately have been conservatives.  Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post is someone to follow now.  Another example is Eliot A. Cohen, a loyal Bushie and advisor to Condoleeza Rice in her last two years as secretary of state, in “A Clarifying Moment in American History:”

This is one of those clarifying moments in American history, and like most such, it came upon us unawares, although historians in later years will be able to trace the deep and the contingent causes that brought us to this day. There is nothing to fear in this fact; rather, patriots should embrace it. The story of the United States is, as Lincoln put it, a perpetual story of “a rebirth of freedom” and not just its inheritance from the founding generation.

Some Americans can fight abuses of power and disastrous policies directly—in courts, in congressional offices, in the press. But all can dedicate themselves to restoring the qualities upon which this republic, like all republics depends: on reverence for the truth; on a sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness. These are all the opposites of the qualities exhibited by this president and his advisers. Trump, in one spectacular week, has already shown himself one of the worst of our presidents, who has no regard for the truth (indeed a contempt for it), whose patriotism is a belligerent nationalism, whose prior public service lay in avoiding both the draft and taxes, who does not know the Constitution, does not read and therefore does not understand our history, and who, at his moment of greatest success, obsesses about approval ratings, how many people listened to him on the Mall, and enemies.

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Speaking of bubbles, the “higher ed bubble” bubble has popped, just in time for spring semester classes

bubblepopHey–remember all of those stories that were written at the depths of the Great Recession back in 2008-2010 about “the high cost of higher education,” warning young people not to waste their time or money on college degrees because all of these elite university grads from the 1970s and 1980s were confident that higher ed was now just a scam to pick the pockets of the middle class?

Remember that?  Well, that bubble has burst–not the “higher ed bubble” that conservatarians and right-wingers and the entire Wall Street Journal editorial page team have been predicting, but rather the bubble of the “higher ed bubble.”  Behold, I opened my copy of the Denver Post this morning to read this headline:

“The pay gap between college grads and everyone else is now wider than ever.”

Who ever would have predicted??? Continue reading

Examinational-Harmonics, or, Historiann’s happy holiday liftoff

The Good Elves failed to mark all of my exams last night, so I spent this morning packing for a holiday trip and grading 21 final essays by my women’s history students.  And they rocked it!  Broadly speaking, I asked them to analyze five primary sources (two of them published engravings from the American Antiquarian Society’s collections) using the last three books on our syllabus and make an argument either for continuity or change in free women’s lives in the period 1750 – 1820.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they chose to emphasize change in women’s lives, although most still recognized the challenges these women faced in the societies they lived in, which were still characterized by a great deal of continuity in its gendered expectations of marriage and sexuality.  While I find that students are eager to seize upon any evidence that things might be getting better for anyone, that message may be particularly important in the wake of the electoral college victory of the Human Stain.  My students in this stack of exams put a great deal of emphasis on the change women were enacting in their own lives, regardless of broader efforts at social control.

Because I think the images they got to write about are so fantastic, and because I think more of you should check out the rich collection of digitized material that the American Antiquarian Society makes freely available, here they are (above and below), along with a link to the larger database they’re from, the Charles Peirce Collection of Social Caracatures and Ballads.  Take a look at the top image carefully–I’ve included a link to the AAS site’s digitization, which is enlargeable to a fair-thee-well–so rich with wonderful details about the unhappy marriage it depicts.

This is the collection that features the only copy of the famous “A Philosophic Cock,” one of the most explicit political jokes in American history, and the AAS has digitized it!  It’s also the only known attempt to depict Sally Hemings in her lifetime–although I’m sure it wasn’t drawn from personal knowledge, it’s notable for its existence at all.

(Warning:  bad rape joke straight ahead.) Continue reading

Social media for dummies, in which I remind myself not to be a jerk.

jerkJoseph Adelman and Liz Covart were at the Huntington last weekend talking about the digital humanities and early American history.  (Wish I were there!  My ears were burning, though–I hear that this blog came up a lot.)  Joe got a lot of questions about use of Twitter for academics, and published a post explaining his approach in “Is there a right way for academics to tweet?”  He writes:

For me, the most important decision to make about using Twitter is to decide what you want from it and use it clearly that way. My own strategy, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is to treat Twitter like the hallways of a conference, where you can discuss serious matters about academia and the news, but also shares stories with friends about one’s kids, sports, pop culture, and the news.

The “conference hallway” is a great way to think about Twitter.  It’s a public space, so although not everyone at the conference is listening in on your specific conversation, anyone can if they choose to do so.  Joe concludes his essay with some great advice: Continue reading

OMG. LOLz! WTF? “Shrill tyranny of the left” to blame for the Human Stain, everything wrong in the nation.

wtfThe New York Times apparently has an inexhaustible supply of so-called liberals who are baffled and enraged by any criticism of their views by the so-called “left.”  Desperately worried that Yale’s 2015 Halloween memo has faded into distant memory, they publish Lionel Shriver’s complaint that young people criticized her opinions on social media!  As the kids these days say:  Srsly!

When I was growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, conservatives were the enforcers of conformity. It was the right that was suspicious, sniffing out Communists and scrutinizing public figures for signs of sedition.

.       .       .       .        .

As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump.

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Three lessons on women’s leadership from inside an Ursuline convent

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas)

Esther Wheelwright, c.1763 (oil on canvas), at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Modern and mostly secular folks probably wouldn’t think that religious people might teach us something about politics and leadership.  But there are important lessons about leadership found in my study of a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious order over the course of 150 years or so.  After all, Catholic women religious have been electing their leadership democratically for centuries before secular men thought elections might be a good idea for civil society.

These women ran triennial elections for their superior, her assistant, dépositaire (treasurer), scrutaine (overseer of elections), novice mistress, and other lesser offices.  Some Ursulines in my book even engaged in early ratf^(king operations.  It’s true!

I reveal all of the details in my soon-to-be released new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, but just with you, dear readers, I’ll share some of the interesting parallels I found to the challenges facing North American women politicians even today.  Mother Esther (1696-1780) served in most of the elected offices in the Ursuline convent before being elected superior three times in the 1760s, a time of political, religious, and economic crisis in the wake of the British conquest of Quebec in 1759.  Her leadership and entrepreneurial financial management of the order through the 1760s permitted the order’s school and novitiate not only to survive in this uncertain decade, but to expand and thrive before Catholics were guaranteed the right to practice their religion by the Quebec Act of 1774.

How did she do it?  Continue reading

In discourses on powerful women, there is nothing new under the American sun

Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

I know that a lot of you political junkie-nerds are like me, watching too much of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week and spending way too much time online reading what everyone else watching the RNC in Cleveland has to say about it.  (What can I say?  Presidential election years, from the primaries through election day, are my World Cup/Superbowl/World Series.)

Did you catch nutty Ben Carson’s speech last night, placing Hillary Clinton in a direct line from Saul Alinsky to Lucifer?  Yes, that Lucifer, aka Her Lord Satan, known as the beast!  Or crazy Chris Christie, apparently channeling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in criminalizing his political opponents, leading the RNC delegates in chants of “guilty!” and “lock her up!”  But accusing charismatic women who seek political office of criminal or even demonic influence is nothing new in American history, as Lauren MacIvor Thompson argues in her fabulous mini-biography of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president–in 1872!

The first election in U.S. history was, of course, in 1788, but it would be over eight decades before a woman could plausibly gather enough public recognition to actually make a real run at the Presidency. This “first in history” belongs to none other than Victoria Claflin Woodhull Martin (1838-1927). If you think Hillary is a controversial figure, trust me, she’s got nothing on Woodhull, who was first and foremost a newspaper editor, public speaker, and women’s rights reformer, but also a Spiritualist with three husbands, two children (one of whom was disabled), and a proponent of Free Love and Socialism. Despite her lack of formal education, she became one of the Gilded Age’s most forceful influences on social reform and women’s rights. It’s also true that her cunning and drive to succeed often resulted in a whole lot of lying, seduction, and outright charlatanism.

Regularly called a harlot and “Mrs. Satan” on the daily by her opponents, she also earned the wrath of her fellow suffragists who thought she was a detriment to their respectable cause. In fact, Susan B. Anthony hated Woodhull so much, she literally turned out the lights on her as Woodhull tried to address a meeting of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

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