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

Zara Anishanslin on African American women’s voices and bodies in colonial America and today.

Today we feature a guest post from Historiann friend and colleague Zara Anishanslin (@ZaraAnishanslin), an Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World will be published by Yale University Press in September 2016.  An expert in eighteenth-century British and American material culture, Anishanslin pulls some of the threads of contemporary conversations about African American women’s words and bodies, and finds many suggestive connections to colonial America and the early U.S. republic.  In this lavishly illustrated post, she asks how were the images and ideas of African American women appropriated or deployed by others to their own economic and political ends?  Why is it still so difficult for black women to be heard and to represent themselves?  And finally, what does this say about the racialized and gendered nature of politics in the U.S. even now?

michelleobamaspeech“Let’s argue the history of this country, ok?’

So reporter April Ryan challenged, in a televised discussion on Monday, July 18, day one of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Ryan was responding to the remarks by her co-panelist on an MSNBC morning interview, Republican congressman Steve King. King, in a WTF moment for the ages, had just questioned what non-white “subgroups” had done to further western “civilization.” Ryan’s challenge was the last word she got in before MSNBC host Chris Hayes (who along with Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had been talking over her), went to commercial break.   On a Periscope video Ryan posted on Twitter, Chris Hayes announced his regret at not letting Ryan speak, but he had shut Ryan up when it mattered most.

That same day, Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, gave a plagiarized speech with word-for-word copies of one given by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008. The two events occurred on the same day, in the same place, in the shared context of the Republican National Convention. But they have something more fundamental in common.

Ryan and Obama are black women; King, Hayes, Pierce, and Trump are all white, and most are men. In both televised cases, millions of viewers saw white people talking over, or appropriating without consent, the voices of black women. Both were examples that offered viewers televised examples of white people denying, silencing, or stealing, the creative contributions of black women. Although the Trump campaign is notable for its naked racism, what happened to Ryan and Obama is nothing new. Instead, it is part of a very long American history of white people’s sustained attempts to silence black women’s voices and to control black women’s bodies. Continue reading

“Pocahontas”: an insult, or an inspiring diplomat and politician?

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

I’ve been meaning to write for weeks about Donald Trump’s nickname for Elizabeth Warren.  As a historian who has written a few books that include some Algonquian (Eastern woodlands Indian) history, and a lot of women’s history, it’s been on my mind.

But first, a little background:  last month, Trump started calling her Pocahontas, intending to smear her for once checking a box on an employment form claiming Native American ancestry:  Continue reading

Wikipedia in the classroom: check out these new bios of early American women!

womanwriting

A Woman Writing a Letter (1680), by Frans van Mieris (1635-1681)

UPDATED 12:30 p.m. MDT, with details from my syllabus below the original post.

I’m now going to do something I hardly ever do:  I’m going to tell you about something my students have done.  I can’t restrain myself!  I’m so proud of my women’s history students this semester.  Six of them have written biographies of previously unrepresented or under-represented women in early American history, and they’re now published on English-language Wikipedia.  Check them out:

Inés de Bobadilla (ca. 1505-43; first woman governor of Cuba)

Alice Clifton (ca. 1772 – unknown; as an enslaved teenager, she was a defendant in infanticide trial in 1787)

Rebecca Dickinson (1738-1815; American tailor and seamstress in Hadley, Mass.)

Elizabeth Hanson, captive of Native Americans (1684-1737; former Wabanaki captive from Dover, N.H. and the author of God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty, 1728)

Sarah Osborn (1714-96; Evangelical Protestant writer in Newport, R.I. and author of Memoirs of the life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn.)

Rachel of Kittery, Maine (d. 1695; enslaved woman murdered by her master whose case set a legal precedent in New England)

Continue reading

The Cruel Shoes: Claire Underwood’s powerfully destabilizing stilettos

Here’s  a fascinating read by Megan Garber of fictional First Lady Claire Underwood’s perma-stilettos in House of Cards:

It is strange and striking that Claire Underwood, who is a human woman if also a fictional one, spends the early episodes of Season 4 of House of Cards permanently clad in stilettos. Claire, now the First Lady of the United States, wears her signature shoes—the shoes that complete her “power dress code”—not just when she is making public appearances, giving speeches and attending international summits and what have you, but also when she is not, technically, “appearing” at all. There’s Claire in the kitchen of the White House residence, hanging out with her husband while teetering in stilettos. There she is visiting her childhood home in Texas—among horse stables and tangled grass, upon soil that is so perilously soft—clad in sky-high heels. There she is nursing her mother in the same impractical footwear. In a scene that finds Claire exhausted from a day of, in every sense, dealing, she returns, finally alone, to the retreat of her lush bedroom, lays down on a chaise, assumes a fetal position, and falls asleep. In her heels.

(Did no woman, ever.)

What does Garber think this all-stilettos, all-the-time performance means? Continue reading

Who is Bowe Bergdahl? Now we know.

atlasshruggedSome of you may remember my occasional blogging about the recently returned U.S. Army captive of the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014.  I wondered about whether his experiences were similar to those of other “redeemed captives” of eighteenth-century Anglo-American wars against Native people and their French allies, and why the U.S. media seemed to have so little interest in following up on his story.  (As I suggested, the story was probably complicated and wouldn’t fit easily into a politically useful narrative for anyone on any side of U.S. politics.)

Serial, Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast, has been focused on his story in its second season, and the story it’s telling is indeed very complicated.  Check out Koenig’s efforts to get Bergdahl’s story, and to fact-check it against the stories told by his Army colleagues, commanding officers, and sources with connections to the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The story she tell is of a young recruit with fairly weak ties to his fellow soldiers who were all in a bad situation in Afghanistan.  Bergdahl became convinced that his commanding officers were corrupt, and decided to alert the U.S. military to the corruption by going “dustwun” (duty status whereabouts unknown) in order to get the attention of military leadership. Continue reading