What Makes a Women’s Movement? Thoughts on a Women’s History Roundtable

On October 17th, Professor Alice Weinreb of the Loyola University History Department led an excellent roundtable on women’s history research at the Crown Center on Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus. Professors Tanya Stabler and Elizabeth Fraterrigo and PhD candidate Ruby Oram, all also of Loyola, presented on their research. The event included spirited conversation among the guests and delicious snacks from the Middle East Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville. While the subjects of the research differed in era and geographic focus, each spoke to the thorny question: what constitutes a women’s movement, especially in the absence of explicitly feminist institutional structure?

After a few introductory comments from Professor Weinreb, Professor Stabler discussed her research on the Beguines, a lay order of women in medieval Paris. Inspired to works of piety and charity, these women took temporary vows and self-identified as religious, but mostly existed outside the control of canon law and a patriarchal monastic structure that often saw independent women as a threat to male leadership. Fascinating and compelling, these women were neither nuns nor “normal” women.  While much of the literature on the era focuses on official orders or notable nuns like Saint Clare of Assisi, Stabler focuses on the innovations of the Beguines while investigating them as a compelling women’s movement despite their lack of formal recognition.

PhD Candidate Ruby Oram (left) and Professor Tanya Stabler.

Next, Ruby Oram discussed her dissertation research on vocational education of young ladies in Chicago between 1880 and 1930. Much of the literature on Progressive-Era education focuses on industrial training for boys, but Oram notes that vocational training for girls preceded and even inspired similar programs for male students. Vocational education for young ladies took three forms: traditional craft skills like sewing and hat-making, white-collar labor like typing and stenography, and domestic education for modern home-making. Oram argues that Progressive reformers saw education for girls not just as an economic tool but also as a solution to social ills such as child labor, sexual delinquency, broken families, etc. Although the women spearheading these programs may not have identified as feminists or gender activists specifically, Oram sees their work as a women’s movement because women were organizing at the official level to influence law and policy.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo outlined her work on the National Organization for Women in the 1960s-1980s and their work to change the culture through media, shaping and controlling representation to encourage gender equality. This program and other feminist projects like it in the era are readily identified as women’s movements partly because the 1960s was the era of movements. But this led the roundtable to also discuss whether or not anti-feminist activists, like the late Phyllis Schlafly, were part of a women’s movement as well, just one of a strikingly different nature.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo.

Much of the current literature on women’s movements focuses on very structured groups of women led by “big names” like Betty Friedan or Saint Clare.  Broadening our answer to the question “what defines a women’s movement?” may help scholars and educators elevate the voices of influential but non-institutional groups of women working to improve their local communities, either as part of their own projects or within the structure of another. It may also allow us to investigate the tensions between the advantages of institutional protection and organization versus the freedom of movements with fewer structural restraints.

The next History Roundtable at the Loyola History Department will take place December 5th from 12:30-2:00pm in Crown 528. The topic will be ‘violence’, and the presenters will be Loyola Professors Gema Santamaria and Suzanne Kaufman and Loyola History PhD student Ella Wagner. According to Professor Weinreb, “this series is especially intended for grad students, particularly those who are currently writing/working through their research materials. The goal is to encourage discussion amongst faculty and grad students to tease out theoretical or conceptual categories that are relevant to many of us here at Loyola. Grad students – see this as an opportunity to hear from and talk about your work with faculty and other grad students whom you might otherwise not engage with! Come to pose questions about your work, or to hear other people discuss their ideas and struggles.”

Snacks will again be provided. We at the Lakefront Historian highly encourage you to attend.

[Photographs courtesy of David Hays.]

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Homo Homini Lupus – Man A Wolf Upon Man

Earlier this month, Sebastian visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. This is the first of two articles prompted by this visit.

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The room is bathed in red light. It is quite the experience, walking in, from the otherwise well-lit areas of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois . The difference in lighting is the first, striking thing about this room. It announces that something here is different. Bad. Evil, even. A living nightmare.

Then there are the mannequins. Three of them representing African-American slaves, three representing white slavers. What is shown in this room is a slave auction, where, dramatically lit, a black mother and father are torn away from each other and their child. Drawn away by grotesque figures. The slaves are clearly and strongly humanized, their expressions display anguish and despair. The slavers however are like creatures from a horror film. This is mostly due to the way the room is lit – the slave auctioneer mannequin is lit from below, like a purveyor of scary stories around a campfire, in a slightly different shade of red, adding to his utterly ghoulish appearance. The slavers’ inhuman acts are represented as the acts of people who have forgone their humanity, who are no longer among the human family, if they ever were to begin with.

And that is a problem. However, this is not an argument against the dehumanization of those guilty of inhuman acts, lest one was to become inhuman oneself in the process of doing so. Instead, I argue for a harsh lesson of history, which is that people are complicated and capable of seemingly inhuman thoughts and actions. But portraying people guilty of these things as outside of humanity obscures just this. Evil deeds are not committed by monsters. They are committed by people. And like the black slaves, the white slavers, the so called “slave masters”, were just that. People. Human beings. By portraying them as inhuman, the inhumanity of their acts and thoughts and deeds is more obscured than it is revealed.

I grew up in West Germany. The countrymen and -women of my generation all shared lessons and lectures throughout our years of education that people are capable of horrible things. My grandparents’ generation was guilty, is guilty, of some of the worst crimes humans can be guilty of towards other humans. But this does not make them monsters. Because that would be too easy. The Nazis, the members of the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, were not monsters. They were small, oftentimes boringly ordinary men and women, who allowed their own seduction by a powerful and dangerous ideology. And then they allowed this ideology to seduce them further into the committing, helping with or tacit agreement to inhuman acts. But, the important lesson here is none of this made them less human.

Again, I am not arguing for the humanity of monsters. I am arguing for an understanding of the monstrous capacity in every single one of us. The Nazis were just as human as their victims. The same thing goes for the slavers and theirs. It is too easy to let these people, in the past and in the present, off the hook by denying them their humanity. Because if we do that, we allow to buy into several, dangerous arguments. First, if they were intrinsically monstrous, then committing monstrous acts would be perfectly in their nature. One might even argue that they couldn’t have acted any other way. What’s a monster to do? Not act like one? It is in the scorpion’s nature to sting. The other implicit argument that is inherent in this specific kind of othering is more insidious.

If the perpetrators of crimes against humanity are denied their own, it makes those left behind blind to the dangers that are inherent in humanity itself while watching out for the proverbial wolves at the door. The call is coming from inside the human family. The most important lesson about the Nazis, about the Khmer Rouge, the American slavers, the Ku Klux Klan, is that all those people were that: people. Not monsters. Not some creatures that stand outside of humanity. They were of us. Are of us. Why is this important?

Because by denying them humanity, by making them more than human (or less than human), we deny responsibility. If only monsters are capable of monstrosities, then all of us are safe for as long as we cannot see any actual monsters around. But, and this is the lesson thirteen years of primary and secondary education in West-Germany have given me, this is an illusion. It was not inhuman monsters that appeared from somewhere beyond who murdered six million Jews in corpse factories in Eastern Europe. It was not inhuman creatures from hell who enslaved thirteen million Africans in the quest for profit. It was people. Human beings. Ancestors, relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters.

By accepting this, by embracing this ugly and harsh truth, we can make the world safer. Because by embracing this, by accepting that evil is indeed, and here is the inevitable Hannah Arendt reference any piece like this requires, banal, we can guard against it. We, you, me, everyone around us, can under certain circumstances allow ourselves being seduced by dangerous and powerful ideologies, which could make us act out inhuman deeds towards our fellow men and women. The monsters are people. The wolves at the door are not animals, but human. My grandparent’s generation was guilty of the mass murder of Europe’s Jewry. This country’s forefathers are guilty of the enslavement of untold numbers of Africans and the murder of equally untold numbers of Native Americans. They were not monsters, they were not outside of humanity, but part of it.

And that is what the slave auction display obscures. The slavers, here, are monsters. Inhuman. Outside of humanity, not a part of it. They are nobody’s relatives or ancestors, they are just a thing that happened, a faceless monstrosity that crawled out the depths of the abyss of history to impose their inhumanity on people of African descent in America.

And they are of the past, the monsters were beaten and everyone is safe now. Any superficial perusal of the news in the recent months and years should teach us different. And much like many bad, contemporary portrayals of Nazis have them appear as inhuman monsters, often lacking the mental capacities to comprehend the vileness of their actions. This, too, obscures. It obscures that indeed many ordinary people of above average intelligence ascribed to the Nazi creed. It was indeed not only dumb brutes who joined the ranks of the Nazi Party, but human beings from all parts of society.

As historians it is our duty to prevent such obscurities. We must not ever shy away from the harsh and ugly truths, from the skeletons hidden in our closets or dangling from our family trees. We must not allow these obscurities to happen, we must not corral the ones guilty of monstrous crimes against our own off outside the human family, even if we have good reasons to do so. Maybe to spare current generations the shame and guilt and pain of such gruesome pasts. Maybe because we ourselves are afraid of what facing these realities might mean to our own sense of what it means to be human. Whatever the reasons for embracing such an obscuring, with it we do all of humanity a disservice. We blind ourselves from the dangerous realities we, us, human beings, are capable of conjuring up through thoughts and deeds. If we allow people to believe that monstrous acts will only ever be committed by monsters, and that these monsters were defeated in the past, never to return, then those among us capable of atrocities will walk unnoticed. Because they are people, because they are human, because they are someone’s relative, someone’s friend. Human beings. If we cannot see that among the multitudes we contain there are also some that are bad, some that are evil even, then we are blind and in danger of allowing more atrocities like those of the past to happen again and again. The truth is harsh, and not always pleasant. But it inoculates. And it teaches what it means to be human, and that being human can indeed sometimes be a bad thing. Man was, is, and can in the future be a wolf upon man.

Skynet down at Jewel-Osco: The Grocer’s Progress

Illinois-based supermarket chain Jewel-Osco has announced that it will begin eliminating self-checkout lanes at a select number of their stores and plans to cut more in the future. They claim the major reasons for the shift are theft and customer satisfaction. The devices include glitchy/insulting weight sensors that prevent customers from bagging items that have not been scanned. In my limited experience with them (full disclosure: I am a conscientious objector Luddite) these marvels of labor-saving technology counter-intuitively require a living employee to approve and complete my transactions. Seemingly, the mere act of scanning and bagging groceries triggers these machines to suspect my character and withhold services until human reinforcements arrive. Inevitably, I turn indignant and fantasize about slamming a 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes through the screen and inciting other patrons to do likewise. Minutes later, an exasperated employee arrives, allowing me to complete my purchase without actually searching any of my bags, but not before my daydream has escalated to a Terminator-esque war against Skynet.

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Continue reading “Skynet down at Jewel-Osco: The Grocer’s Progress”

Food, Race, and a Flood in New Orleans

With historians from around the world set to arrive in America’s greatest eating town for the AHA’s annual meeting, I thought it appropriate to post a couple paragraphs about the history of my favorite restaurant in New Orleans.  After the days panels are done, the streetcar line down St. Charles Ave. to Commander’s Palace is a trip well worth making.

The most renowned restaurant in New Orleans’s history was never located in the French Quarter.  Commander’s Palace opened in 1880 at the corner of Washington and Coliseum in the Garden District of the greater Uptown area, and the restaurant has kept the original location ever since.  Emile Commander, the restaurant’s founder, wished to take advantage of the demands for food created by an influx of new money Americans (i.e. Anglo-Saxons) seeking a separate space from Creoles in the blocks surrounding the St. Charles railway line.  Following the fashionable architectural trends of the neighborhood, Commander’s featured a stately “Painted Lady” Victorian design complete with the signature hexagonal tower at the street-side corner.

Commander’s immediately entered into a food market both divided and inspired by race and culture.  Older Creoles had long distanced themselves from the Anglo incursions and created self-contained neighborhoods with a profusion of restaurants serving their food.  African Americans influenced food ways and culinary reputations of New Orleans by serving as cooks—with a certain culinary creative license—in the homes of wealthy city residents.  The peripatetic service-work of these African American cooks brought them into cafes, eating houses, boardinghouses, upscale restaurants, and kitchens of neighborhoods throughout turn of the century New Orleans.  The most famous cookbook of the time—really the first cookbook to proclaim a Creole culinary style that was not only dominate within New Orleans but beyond the achievements of French haute cuisine—featured an African American woman as the lone chef in the book’s only color plate. Such placement reflects the prominent influence of African Americans in the dominate cuisine of New Orleans while simultaneously hinting at a continued role that African Americans would play in the kitchens of New Orleans rising service economy.

Continue reading “Food, Race, and a Flood in New Orleans”