Thursday, September 30, 2010

Anna Julia Cooper

Today I was sitting on my front porch, enjoying my morning cup of tea and re-reading Eleanor Flexner's history of the first wave of the US women's movement, when the mail carrier walked up my street and handed me an envelope. The envelope contained the delightful surprise of a charming birthday card from friend. (I'm not sure why I was surprised by receiving a birthday card, given that it's about to be my birthday, but I was.) Even more delightful than the card was the stamp on the envelope. It bore the name and picture of Anna Julia Cooper.

I did not recall ever having heard of Anna Julia Cooper, although Flexner mentions her briefly in Century of Struggle. According to her Wikipedia biography, she was obviously a remarkable woman. She was a born a slave in North Carolina in 1858, and received her early education at a school founded by the Episcopalians to train teachers to work with former slaves. The school had a "Ladies Course," and "the administration actively discouraged women from pursuing higher-level courses. Cooper fought for her right to take courses, such as Greek, which were reserved for men, by demonstrating her scholastic ability."

She worked many years as a teacher and principal at the M Street High School in Washington, DC, and during that time published an influential book called A Voice from the South: By a Woman from the South. At the age of 56 in 1914, she began working on her doctorate at Columbia University, but had to interrupt her education the following year when her brother died, leaving behind five children whom Cooper adopted. She finally finished her doctorate at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1925, at the age of 67. She lived to the age of 105.

 In 1893, Cooper addressed the World's Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World's Fair. has posted the speech she gave on that occasion to a mostly white audience. Her words have particular poignancy, because the white-dominate women's suffrage movement, once a radical egalitarian movement, had become conservative and segregated. Here is just a small part of this eloquent speech:

Now, I think if I could crystallize the sentiment of my constituency, and deliver it as a message to this congress of women, it would be something like this: Let woman's claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. If one link of the chain be broken, the chain is broken. A bridge is no stronger than its weakest part, and a cause is not worthier an its weakest element. Least of all can woman's cause afford to decry the weak. We want, then, as toilers for the universal triumph of justice and human rights, to go to our homes from this Congress, demanding an entrance not through a gateway for ourselves, our race, our sex, or our sect, but a grand highway for humanity. The colored woman feels that woman's cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman's lesson taught and woman's cause won—not the white woman's, nor the black woman's, not the red woman's, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman's wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with undefended woe, and the acquirement of her "rights" will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This is supposed to be a controversy?

Christine O'Donnell, an insurgent Republican candidate who reached out to Tea Party activists, has won the G.O.P. nomination for a US Senate seat in Delaware.

Last night, at a dinner for a friend's birthday, I saw a segment about O'Donnell on CNN (television is ubiquitous in restaurants these days). I couldn't make out what all the fuss was about, but whatever it was, it was seriously weakening her campaign. Had she supported some kind of right-wing hate group? Cheated on her taxes? Engaged in stock market fraud?

Um, no. A little poking around on the Web today established that she admitted to spending a little bit of time practicing Wicca.

I am baffled and amazed that supposedly progressive people are taking the opportunity to -- dare I say "crucify"? -- the candidate for her religious experimentation. Is the candidate otherwise beyond criticism? Is her association with the far-right Concerned Women for America unworthy of comment? Can't she be challenged on policy issues?

Okay, I'll quit asking rhetorical questions now. But I will recommend you read a little post by Wes Isley, who has some really good things to say. For instance:
While O'Donnell's revelation may embarrass her staunchly conservative followers and fill her detractors with glee, there is more going on here. Check out the comments on pagan blogs like The Wild Hunt or Pantheon, and there's obviously more at stake than just O'Donnell's political future. Practicing Wiccans and other pagans--a group I loosely lump myself into--are upset at how their faith is once again being portrayed in the media. Ask yourself: Do you ever hear of anyone "dabbling" in Episcopalianism? Any Jewish "dabbler" stories out there? But whenever someone shows an interest in an alternative spiritual path, it's considered "dabbling," which carries dismissive connotations. But those who try out various Christian or other mainstream faiths are "soul searching."

Also implied in O'Donnell's statements about her brief Wiccan past and the media's treatment of those comments is the opinion that anyone who would practice witchcraft or something like it is simply too silly to be in public office. Someone might want to tell Dan Halloran, a pagan who represents New York City's 19th district. From my own perspective, Wiccan and pagan beliefs are only silly to those who don't know what they're talking about, which appears to be the case with O'Donnell herself. She may have, indeed, been hanging out with some "questionable people," and they may have told her they were witches and worshipped Satan, but her passing experience resembles nothing of what I know about Wicca. A friend of mine from high school is today a practicing witch, and I had the honor of conducting her wedding in 2009--no blood or Satan in sight.

And if pagans aren't considered "silly," then we're "dangerous" or "Satanic." But these weapons are used against other faiths as well. Currently, Muslims are everyone's favorite bogeyman. And don't forget the questions former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney faced about his own Mormon faith when he ran for President in 2008.
Hear, hear. Those of us who want to criticize the Republicans for their religious zealotry, who say that religious freedom is a value that we affirm, would do well to practice what we preach.