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

Women and leadership: more fresh entries in “Run Like a Girl” series at Nursing Clio

Margaret Chase Smith

Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) during her presidential run, 1964

I’ve fallen behind! Remember a few weeks back when I directed your attention to Nursing Clio’s important new series on women who have run for president of the United States, Run Like a Girl? There are two more entries I haven’t posted about!

If you recall, the first in the series featured (naturally!) the first woman ever to run for president, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), who ran in 1872.  Last week, Sarah Handley-Cousins wrote about Belva Lockwood (1830-1917), a badass single mother and attorney who was one of the first women to argue before the Supreme Court.  She became the National Equal Rights Party’s nominee in 1884 and again in 1888.

This week, Run like a Girl moves into the twentieth century with Laura M. Ansley’s discussion of the political career of Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995.)  A working-class girl from Skowhegan, Maine, Smith was the daughter of the town barber and a waitress from a French-Canadian family.  Only a high school graduate, she is exemplary of most American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century who came to hold prominent public offices:  she ran for her late husband’s office and won in 1940, and then went on to run for the senate in 1948 (and win), and for president in 1964 (but lost!)   Continue reading

The Great Silence: apologies, and my return to blogging.

Ursuline chapel and convent, Quebec City, 2015

Ursuline chapel and convent, Quebec City, 2015

I know I’ve been very quiet lately.  I’ve been traveling for nearly three weeks, mostly tending to family affairs and doing a little research along the way.  I’ve also had the chance to spend valuable time in conversation with friends in Michigan and New England, a rare pleasure all the more precious because of current events, which utterly bristle with hostility and violence now.  I feel very sheltered and cared for by all of you, in comparison to so much of the rest of the world.

Although I’ve blogged extensively about the peculiar ferocity and gendered nature of gun violence in the United States over the past 8-1/2 years, I must admit to being completely hollowed out by the horrors of the mass murders in Orlando 10 days ago.  What does it matter what I or any of us write here, with that kind of nihilism plus access to semi-automatic weaponry living among us?  Unsurprisingly, the killer was a 100% homegrown American man, and like so many other American men, he was deranged by anger, misogyny, and his own sexual desires.

I may have more to say about this, especially the fact that the murderer targeted a largely LGBT and Latinx crowd, something that’s been lost in the panic about his supposed motivation to join ISIS/ISIL.  I’ve been happier living in my imagination in some of the more peaceful corners of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the past few weeks.  We all must consider how we can take the best of the past and make it a living tradition, and leave behind the worst:  injustice, brutality, corruption.  Historians struggle with these issues more than most people, I suppose.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Edward Carson (@ProfCarson44) of the Christian Century to write something for their history blog, Then & Now.  Here’s an excerpt from “What future is there for religious women in the west?” Continue reading

Happy Easter/Pesach/Spring Equinox/_your festival here_! Enjoy an ad-free holiday at Historiann.

cowgirlhotstuffThe whole gang here at Historiann HQ wish you and yours a quiet, ad-free holiday of your choice this spring. I’ve had such an overwhelmingly positive reaction about my decision not to provide content for free at sites that are run by advertising dollars that I thought today I’d also direct your attention to other ad-free and content-rich history blogs.  Most of these are group blogs, except for The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which is run by the indefatigable John Fea of Messiah College:

  • Tropics of Meta: historiography for the masses!  Mostly modern U.S. history, California history, media studies, race, and gender.
  • Nursing Clio:  a group blog on gender, sexuality, and the history of medicine
  • U.S. Intellectual History:  big-tent intellectual history as it’s written and taught by junior and emerging scholars.
  • African American Intellectual History:  same as above, with a focus on black intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present.
  • Religion in American History:  a group blog on the obvious, with contributors who cover the richness of American religious history from the colonial era to the present.
  • The Junto:  a group blog on early American history by historians based in North America and Britain.
  • Borealia:  a group blog on early Canadian history (First Nations/New France to Confederation, 1867)
  • The Way of Improvement Leads Home:  John Fea’s blog on early American history, American religious history, and early U.S. intellectual history.  Fea is apparently a man unafflicted by hunger, thirst, or the need to sleep, as he’s just published yet another book, and he has a podcast now, too!  (I am not worthy, but then, neither of most of you so we’re in good company.)
  • Notches:   A group blog on the history of sexuality, mostly European and North American.

Most of us who contribute to blogs like these have day jobs, or are madly finishing dissertations, or sometimes both.  It’s honest labor, and we do it because we love history and refuse to believe that it’s irrelevant for understanding the world as we have inherited it.  Peace, my sisters and brothers! Continue reading

The best way to prevent pregnancy

Re: the recent silly advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about women and alcoholRebecca Solnit says:  alcohol does not cause pregnancy, so obviously women should avoid men, not alcohol.  “A woman can be fertile as the Tigris Valley in the time of Abraham and she’s not going to get pregnant absent consort with a seed-bearing man. But if you listened to the way it’s often framed, you might believe that women get pregnant on their own.”  Also, if anyone should lay off the sauce, it’s men. because drunk men, not drunk women, are the source of greatest harm to others.

So why the panic over women tying one on?

I wish all this telling women alcohol is dangerous was a manifestation of a country that loves babies so much it’s all over lead contamination from New Orleans to Baltimore to Flint and the lousy nitrate-contaminated water of Iowa and carcinogenic pesticides and the links between sugary junk food and a host of health conditions and the need for universal access to healthcare and daycare and good and adequate food. You know it’s not. It’s just about hating on women. Hating on women requires narratives that make men vanish and make women magicians producing babies out of thin air and dissolute habits. This is an interesting narrative for the power it affords women, but I would rather have an accurate one. And maybe a broader one talking about all the ecological and economic factors that impact the well-being of children. But then the guilty party becomes us, not them.

Continue reading