Teaser Tuesday is back after a three-week holiday hiatus with a penultimate post, this one from the penultimate chapter of my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. Today I offer you a little eighteenth-century intrigue surrounding Mother Esther near the time of her first election as mother superior in late 1760, after the British conquest of Québec. Anglo-American and British officials were reflexively suspicious of French and French Canadian religious women, whom they routinely portrayed not just as religiously dangerous but also as political schemers. While the Jesuits were thought to be the most dangerous of the religious orders because of their “Turbulent and Intriguing Genius,” as we’ll see in this excerpt, religious women–especially mothers superior–were also regarded as potentially dangerous and destabilizing of British imperial control: Continue reading
Yo yo—What time is it? Showtime! OK, I’ll stop setting everything that goes through my head to the tune of various Hamilton: An American Musical songs. Sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder (why she even brings the thunder!) Sorry–that was the last one, but as it happens, our subject is the thunder of British cannons that laid siege to the city of Québec in 1759 and set the stage for the British occupation (from 1759-ff, according to Québec!)
The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright spans all of the colonial wars that spanned her life, and no wonder: her life from start to end was indelibly shaped by war and various invading armies. Born in 1696 at the end of King William’s War (1688-97), in which many of the Anglo-American towns in what’s now southern Maine were attacked by French-allied Wabanaki, Esther was taken captive in another series of raids conducted in the next war, Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). Although she found a great deal of security and stability inside the walls of the Ursuline convent in Québec by 1709, war followed her throughout her life from the failed British invasion of that city in 1711 to the successful invasion and occupation in 1759 in the Seven Years’ War to the unsuccessful attempt of Americans to take the city in 1775-76 in an early skirmish in the Revolutionary War. Aside from these conflicts, Québec was (and still is) a city with a massive military installation, so you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a man in uniform throughout the eighteenth century.
But they weren’t inside women’s religious orders, were they? After the invasion and occupation begins in 1759, they are! General James Murray, the occupation governor, surveyed the institutional buildings in the city and saw the advantages of setting up his temporary base of operations inside the Ursuline convent! But here’s the funny part: you’d never know it from the Ursuline records. Thus, the case of the missing men–and their missing trousers! (I know, 1759 is still squarely in the knee breeches era, with modern trousers being at least 50 years in the future for most men. But you’ll see a mention of “trowsers” in the primary source quoted below). Continue reading
Today we bring you Part II of my interview with Theresa Kaminski, the author of Angels of the Underground: the American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. (You can find part I of the interview here.) Yesterday when we left off, we were discussing the gender and sexual politics of women’s heroism. Why can we tolerate imperfection in men and even valorize them, especially when it comes to the history of war, but women must conform to an inhuman standard of virtue for us to remember them as heroes?
This conversation takes me back inevitably to the last election, in which an admirably accomplished and competent public servant who stored emails on her own (unhacked!) server was seen as less honest than a man who is a celebrity/grifter, a confessed sexual assailant, serial liar and fabulist, and a stoker of toxic and dangerous racial ressentiment. We must reckon with the question of why we tolerate and even reward this sociopathy in men, but punish any deviance whatsoever in women, even at the hazard of other people’s safety and the security of the republic. Patriarchy, we just can’t quit you!
In todays convo, Theresa and I talk more about why we love to forget about women’s heroism in war (even when their stories get a Hollywood movie!), and about the environmental history of the invasion and occupation of the Philippines and what it meant in terms of the long-term health of the women in her story. Andiamo! Continue reading
Theresa Kaminski, the author of Angels of the Underground: the American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II, agreed to let me interview her about her recent book for a post to commemorate the beginning of the American war in the Pacific 75 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor. And boy howdy, this is something to read–the interview here, but of course the book!
I’ve written here before that I just can’t read histories in my field for “fun,” and that I tend to gravitate to 20th century political history and celebrity gossip for my fun nonfiction reads. Angels of the Underground is an absolutely engrossing read that also taught me a great deal about a period and place I know very little about. I loved this book, and want to recommend it to you for your holiday gift-giving or (-receiving) needs. The war buffs will love this book; the people who like women’s history will love this book; and anyone who loves a great story will love this book.
In brief, the book follows the lives of four American women who live in the Philippines before and during the war: Gladys Savary, the adventurer and restaurateur; Peggy Utinsky, the nurse and organizer of the resistance; Yay Panlilio, the journalist-turned-spy; and Claire Phillips, the nightclub singer and entertainer whose sexual escapades left her vulnerable to charges of opportunism over heroism. You will be impressed by their adventuresome careers before, during, and after the war.
Once again: this book demonstrates that women are always there in wartime, always doing important things for the war effort. Each of these women also published memoirs about their wars shortly after they ended–they didn’t leave their memories in a private diary for a historian to discover. And yet, I guarantee you that unless you lived in wartime Manila and/or are already an expert on the Philippines during World War II, you’ve never heard of any of these women or their amazing stories. Why is that? Why do we have an unlimited appetite for stories about PT-109 and Iwo Jima, but not about the more varied and complex stories like the ones in this book?
Let’s see what Theresa has to say about these questions, and more. Part I starts now: Continue reading
Today’s Teaser Tuesday excerpt from The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright features one of the more dramatic passages in the book–Esther’s clothing ceremony (or Vêture) in January 1713 at age of 16 that represented her formal admission as an Ursuline novice. The novitiate, characterized by the great scholar of French religious women in the early modern period, Diane Rapley, as a “military boot camp,” was designed to test the suitability of girls and young women for religious life. The Ursulines of Québec had a remarkably effective novitiate–16% of novices left before final profession, and there is no record whatsoever of a professed nun leaving the order after final vows.
Of course, with my enduring interest in clothing and material culture in history, the fact that this ceremony is called literally a “clothing ceremony,” I found it irresistible to write about it at some length. Even better, Abigail (Nabby) Adams Jr., our fugitive Latin scholar from last week, recorded in her travel diary a clothing ceremony she had witnessed in Paris in 1784 among the order that ran the school where Thomas Jefferson had enrolled his young daughters, Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Polly), when he was serving as the ambassador to France in the 1780s. In this ceremony, novices take the white veil, which distinguishes them from the professed nuns who in the Ursuline order wear the black veil as shown in Esther’s portrait on the cover of my book: Continue reading
Teaser Tuesday is back, my friends. Today’s excerpt from my new book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, focuses on the education of girls and the racial and cultural politics in the Ursuline convent and school. When she’s enrolled in the school, her name is first written into the boarding school records as “a little English girl named Esther.” After having called her Mali while she lived among the Wabanaki, I resume calling her by her given name, and I hint here as to why it’s important that she was identified as “English” rather than “Wabanaki” or “Sauvagesse.”
In this excerpt, I pull back a little from the particular experiences of Esther to analyze the problem of education for girls at the turn of the eighteenth century, which was seen by elites as both potentially dangerous but necessary. How much education was too much? How did European and North American cultures ensure that girls’ and boys’ educations remained separate and unequal? You’ll also see me indulge in one of my favorite tricks when I don’t have specific information about Esther. Can you spot it? Continue reading