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

“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

Chronology, “coverage,” and other pointless wastes of time for historians.

I’m not a traditional historian. I don’t give a fig about chronology except (maybe) in my “first half” (1492-1877) of the U.S. History survey class, and I never care about “coverage.” Maybe it’s my short attention span, but I go for books and ideas that intrigue me rather than the idea that I need to “cover” certain decades or themes in my classes.  The only kind of coverage I ever worry about is ensuring that my students are reading, hearing, and talking about as many different Americans as possible.  I try to ensure that we are reading and talking about women and men alike, and Americans of all classes and ethnic backgrounds.

More proof that I’m probably a bad professor: I write syllabi for the courses I wish I could have taken.  Selfish?  Guilty as charged.  But then I figure if I’m bored, how can my students not be bored too?  I’m just not that good of an actor.  Also, I’ve found that if it excites me (environmental history! material culture!), it’s probably going to interest the students more than a lecture or book I feel merely obligated to share with them.

Joseph Adelman has an interesting blog post over at The Junto about teaching a history course organized around four American autobiographies rather than rigid notions of “coverage” and chronology.  In a seminar for first-year students, I can see how it might be disorienting for them to jump from the 1670s (Mary Rowlandson) to the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin), and then to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with two African American autobiographies, Frederick Douglass and Melba Pattillo Beals.  (He very generously provides a link to his syllabus, too.) Continue reading

On Giving Tuesday, Support Planned Parenthood

There’s something going around on Twitter called Giving Tuesday, which sounds like an attempt to prick people’s consciences after the push to spend money on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Whatever! We should give generously to the causes we support.

If you’re so inclined to donate, here’s a post from last summer in which I described how I donated money to Planned Parenthood AND IN THE SAME PHONE CALL got my name off their irritating call list! You can do it! They haven’t bugged me since then, so I may pick up the phone again to give them more money to show support for their work in the wake now of yet another mass shooting targeting a women’s clinic: Continue reading

Who’s telling who to STFU at American universities? Observations on teaching at a HWCU.

cupofSTFUAh, yes: freedom of speech. What some really mean when they evoke it is, “my right to have my say and not have you talk back,” like all of those crybabies who have cancelled their appearances at commencement ceremonies in the last few years because not every student and faculty member greeted their future appearance on campus with hugs and cocoa and slankets.

If you really believe in liberty of speech, then stop telling others to STFU.  In my view, the people who are being criticized most vigorously for speaking up lately at Yale and the University of Missouri are all too often quiet about their experiences, silent on campus, and eager not to draw attention to themselves, and it’s these students whose voices we need to listen to the most.

Too many people have zero imagination about what it is to be African American or Latin@ on a historically white college or university (HWCU) campus. But everyone who has ever attended or taught or worked at a HWCU knows that African Americans on HWCUs are viewed with suspicion just for being there, let alone when they try to unlock their own damn bikes or organize a protest about their marginalization.

I teach at a HWCU in Northern Colorado, a place that is increasingly Latin@ but has very few African American residents.  In my classes, my experience with non-white students in general, and African American students in particular, over the past fourteen years is that they go out of their way to be polite, inoffensive, unobtrusive, and try not to call attention to themselves in any way.  Their efforts to try to fly under the radar and evade notice grieve me, even as I think I understand their interest in remaining quiet and unobtrusive.  I work to offer a non-white perspective on history constantly, but I don’t know if I’m making it better or worse for my non-white students (or if they even care.) That’s the reality of attending a HWCU for the majority of black students in the United States:  working hard to get your degree, trying not be noticed, not taking up much space or speaking up in class. Continue reading