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It was the kind of exchange of mindless violence that wreaks havoc on those who are innocently going about their lives in war zones of all times and places. In this case, it was in Belfast in 1976. IRA members fired on a British patrol. The British returned fire, killing the IRA driver. His car ran up on a sidewalk where Anne Maguire was shopping with three of her children, killing two of them before their mother’s eyes and injuring the third so badly that he died the next day. Betty Williams saw the accident and ran to help. She’d grown up in Belfast and seen deadly violence up close before, but this incident was the last straw for her. She began collecting signatures and organized a march of women protesting the endless cycle of violence. The 200 or so marchers passed by the house of Mairéad Corrigan, who was the aunt of the three children who were killed, sister of Anne Maguire. Corrigan came out and joined the march, and not long after that, she and Williams had planned another march, this time of 10,000 women to the graves of Joanne, John, and Andrew Maguire. The organization of Protestants and Catholics that they founded, the Community of Peace People (changed from Women for Peace when Ciaran McKeown joined them in leadership), pressed constantly for the battling parties to sit down together, and served loyalists and republicans equally, for example by arranging buses for people of all religions and political persuasions to visit their imprisoned family members. As they mobilized hundreds of thousands of war-exhausted, grieving people in Ireland and England, the fatalities in Northern Ireland fell dramatically. The Peace People’s declaration was signed by over 100,000 people:

We have a simple message to the world from this movement for Peace.

We want to live and love and build a just and peaceful society.

We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home, at work, and at play to be lives of joy and Peace.

We recognise that to build such a society demands dedication, hard work, and courage.

We recognise that there are many problems in our society which are a source of conflict and violence.

We recognise that every bullet fired and every exploding bomb make that work more difficult.

We reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence.

We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to build that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.

Williams and Corrigan were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Alfred Nobel described the intent of the award quite narrowly–the recipient “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”–but the committee recognized the power of a grassroots movement. A peace congress probably wouldn’t have made much difference, but thousands of people demanding peace, over and over, in a grassroots movement all over two lands, most certainly did good work for fraternity–and sorority–between those two nations. Both women continue to agitate for peace to this day.


Today is pi day here in the United States, where we list the date before the month in our date shorthand, thereby enabling geeks to celebrate our geekiness on 3/14 each year. This year it’s extra special: 3/14/15 at 9:26:53 celebrates the first nine decimal places of pi.

It’s only fitting that today’s entry for Women’s History Month celebrate a female mathematician, and until earlier today, I didn’t even know the person I’m writing about was a mathematician. Florence Nightingale is of course more well-known for her pioneering work in nursing; her professionalization of the role (nurses were previously without training), management of hospitals, and attention to sanitary conditions, so transformed medicine that she is known as the founder of modern nursing. She was also a social reformer on issues including education, poverty, prostitution, and (despite her generally low opinion of women) the expansion of women’s professional opportunities. However, hand in hand with these accomplishments goes her work in the field of statistics: she believed that public policy should be based on data, and she had the skill and training in mathematics to present data in vivid and accurate forms.

Paul Lewi calls her “one of the pioneers of modern statistics.”

She . . . insist[ed] that statistics should be used and understood by politicians and officials as a rational means for decision making. To this effect she designed original diagrams which illustrated in a dramatic way the needless sacrifice of human lives and the simple means to prevent it. These diagrams were
published as part of the many reports and proposals that she prepared on various issues including health care, education, child labor, work houses and crime.

Her work in the Crimean War went far beyond her admirable service as “the Lady with the Lamp”; she documented, and presented in then-new and convincing graphic form, the causes of death among the British Army. Eschewing the philosophy that was urged on her of “the dryer the better,” or the bar chart that was then popular but would not have conveyed the comparison between the same months in different years, she devised a complex variation on the pie chart now known as the “Nightingale Rose.”


(An animation of this chart can be viewed here.)

Nightingale went on to use “applied statistics”–a term she coined, according to Lewi–to drive policy changes in public health in India and at home in England. All of this was possible because her talent as a mathematician was recognized and nurtured beginning in her earliest years. So have a piece of pie for pi day, improved pie charts, and a woman who saved thousands of lives or more.

Last Sunday, we ended the service with a ritual bridge crossing. Everyone had this image and question in their order of service–


–and I urged them to answer the question and keep that image and pledge somewhere they would see them often.

There are a couple of things I’m going to do. One is to partner deliberately with African-American-led organizations, listen to what they want me to do to help bring justice, freedom and equality to their people, and do it. The other is not so much action as the foundation for action, because when I listen to other people’s stories I am drawn into their struggles: to read a dozen books by African-Americans that would teach me something about their experience of the country we share. I decided to make it a baker’s dozen. I’ve drawn up the list now and noticed that it’s heavily tilted toward the voices of women.* So here, for Women’s History Month, are the books by African-American women that I’ll be reading over the next several months:

how I discovered poetry, Marilyn Nelson. I just learned about this book today from sister UU blogger Tina Porter, who wrote, “If I taught American History, I would make this mandatory reading. If I taught religion, I’d make this mandatory reading. If I could still make my daughters read things, I would make this mandatory reading. Because nothing could be more informative about life in America in 2015 than the story of the years 1950 to 1960 in the life of an African American girl whose father is in the military, moving the family north, south, east and west.”

Citizen, Claudia Rankine, whom I heard speaking on the PBS News Hour this afternoon and found electrifying. Must read more!

Beloved, Toni Morrison. I love Morrison, but for many years now, I have been dragging my feet about reading this, her masterpiece. I’ve endured other books about dead children; it’s time to bite the bullet.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is actually not African-American, but Nigerian, but she spends a lot of her time in the United States and writes about the African-American experience. I wondered if anyone would give me this for Christmas. They didn’t, and the waiting list at the library continues to be long, so I’m just going to buy it for myself.

Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago (Lilith’s Brood: the Xenogenesis Trilogy), Octavia Butler. My wife gave me this trilogy before she was my wife. I dipped a toe in, but couldn’t get into it. We’re going on ten years of marriage and I’ve read and enjoyed lots of other Butler, and sadly, there will be no more, so it’s back to Lilith for me. Honestly, sci fi? alluding to Lilith? How can I not love it?

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward. I don’t know anything about Ward or this book, other than it’s about Hurricane Katrina and sounds interesting.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson. A history of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the urban north from the rural south.

Your nominations are welcome. What books–poetry, fiction, non-fiction–by African-American writers have been important to you?

*The others, by men: The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead; The Known World, Edward P. Jones; Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, Ishmael Reed; and Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman.

Unitarian Universalists smiled when we heard President Obama mention “a young mother of five” in his stirring speech in Selma, Alabama, last weekend. If one hadn’t heard of Viola Liuzzo, one might have thought he was just giving a random example of the kind of person who might possibly have answered the call to go to Selma, the way a speech will refer to “a Georgia sharecropper” or “a factory worker from Cleveland.” In fact, when he spoke of “the willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise,” we knew that he was talking about three specific people who not only risked, but paid the ultimate price: Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, Unitarian minister the Reverend James Reeb, and Detroit Unitarian Universalist Viola Liuzzo.

Although I don’t know her story in a great deal of detail, and can’t know her personality enough to be sure, I doubt Liuzzo went to Alabama to die. She went to join in a struggle for justice that she regarded as hers as much as anyone’s, and while she knew it was dangerous because she’d seen the terrifying coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” when people were beaten as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she joined a march there two weeks later and was unharmed. Maybe having taken that plunge, she felt safe. Maybe she didn’t really suppose that teaming up with another activist to drive people from the Montgomery airport to Selma could be as risky as that march. But a carload of KKK members chased them down the highway, pulled up next to them and fired into the car, killing Liuzzo instantly.

I ask myself now and then, for what would I risk everything? Mostly I would like to give my life by living and working for a cause, not by dying for it. When I think of what I would risk dying for, I think of freedom and fairness, of the earth, but mostly of people: people I know. It’s a principle of community organizing and congregational leadership that what people give to, sacrifice for, go to the wall for, is their connection with other people. When we know someone who is suffering under oppression, abstractions such as freedom and justice take on flesh. They acquire a face, and the face silently asks us to act. Their fight becomes our fight.

It’s probable that that face was a specific one in Liuzzo’s life: her close friend Sarah Evans, who was African American. Evans warned her that it could be dangerous, but as Liuzzo told her husband, she felt compelled to go to Selma because what they were seeing on television was “everybody’s fight.” Lots of other white people joined it, though mercifully few paid the price that Liuzzo did; but in any fight, most of us cheer or cry from the sidelines, while only a few actually pack a bag and show up on the battlefield. The world is turned by those like Liuzzo who do, and whenever I hear her story, I wonder again whether I’m ever one of them, and for what, or for whom, I’ll fight and even die.

(Two notes: Blogging every day is hard! Losing an almost-finished entry to a technical glitch is a huge gumption killer–save your draft often, kids! Okay, done whining now. On to three posts on women in the civil rights movement, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the marches on Selma.)

EllaBakerElla Baker was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), having already spent many decades as a leader of the NAACP and of black consumers’ cooperatives, which she regarded as a training ground in democracy and self-determination. Accounts vary as to whether Martin Luther King anointed her Executive Director of the SCLC or she anointed him leader. What’s clear is that her leadership was central to turning this small faith-based organization into a major force for civil rights.

She was mostly a behind-the-scenes organizer and a mentor to emerging leaders who got more face time, but that doesn’t mean she was meek. When students in Greensville and Nashville began holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, she saw a need to help them organize more broadly, and called a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University. The meeting was attended by hundreds and ended with the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Other SCLC leaders wanted SNCC to be an auxiliary of their own organization, arguing that SCLC had helped it get rolling, but Baker stood up for the autonomy of the student organization. Later, she helped start the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which pressed for anti-segregationists to represent Mississippi’s Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention and became the focus of tremendous media attention during the convention because of the split in the Democratic Party that it illuminated and the persistence with which it made its case. Meek? No.

To me she stands as a reminder of a certain kind of power: not fast and flashy like lightning, nor loud like a rocket, but tireless and immovable, like an oak tree. That kind of power is as necessary and mighty as any other. “We shall not be moved . . . ”

When the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner drew the nation’s eye to Mississippi, it was Ella Baker who pointed out the many black bodies in the swamps of Mississippi that neither the FBI nor the nation’s conscience had deemed important, and said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son–we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Bernice Johnson Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock turned these and other words of Baker’s into a song (“Ella’s Song”), and they have been sung, murmured, memed, screenprinted, and cried out many times in these past couple of years in which they have been self-evidently, painfully, all too current.

So much of women’s history in the United States focuses on a single, exhausting struggle: the fight for the right to vote, finally won in 1920 after several failed attempts to get it through Congress and ratified. It seems unbelievable that women have only been able to vote for president, and for most other offices in most places, for well under half of our country’s history. A global view puts that fact into perspective: modern democratic governments began coming on the scene in the early 17th century, but it was not until almost the 20th century that any of them permitted women the fundamental act of a citizen: New Zealand made history by granting women the vote in 1893, only 14 years after all men attained the vote there (prior to 1869, most men had to own land to vote).

Saudi Arabia includes women in the vote for the first time this year. After that, the only country where the right to vote is restricted to men will be Vatican City, which does have female citizens (a few dozen of its several hundred citizens) but recognizes no voting rights except those of cardinals.

However, like the gap that still exists in the United States between de jure and de facto voting rights, especially for people of African descent, women’s being granted the right to vote does not always equal the ability to exercise that right freely. Afghan women had the vote in 1919, a year before their sisters in our country could vote, but women under the Taliban cannot give speeches or run for office, and they can’t leave the house without a male chaperone: all dampers on their actually putting a ballot into the box to be counted.

The first time I did door-to-door political canvassing, I asked a woman if she’d made up her mind for the Congressional election and was silently shocked when she said, “Oh, no–my husband decides that kind of thing.” Around the world, in places where women have little freedom of other kinds, how many of their votes serve only to give their husbands a double dip in the voting pool?

Before “world music” experimenters like Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, and Paul Simon incorporated explicitly African sounds into western popular music, there was Miriam Makeba, a South African singer who had her biggest hit in the US in 1967 with “Pata Pata.” It reached #12 on the Billboard Top 100.

Makeba wrote the song with another South African singer-songwriter, Rhodesia-born Dorothy Masuka. Both were civil rights activists and were exiled for it for decades. Makeba suffered a second exile: having come to the United States (helped by Harry Belafonte), appeared on the Steve Allen Show, signed a recording contract here, and made hit records, she became too controversial for American record companies upon her marriage to Stokely Carmichael. They canceled her contracts and the couple moved to the Republic of Guinea.

She was born on this day in 1932 and died in 2008.

During this third day of Women’s History Month I’ve been reading El Cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), by a female writer of historic significance, Isabel Allende. My Spanish teacher was shrewd: he brought the book in one day and together we read the first few pages in the original language. It’s been the bulk of my weekly assignment ever since. I was hooked after the first paragraph, those few lines with which the author somehow evoked Maya’s personality, suggested her recent and risky history, tantalized me about her grandmother’s story, and most of all made me want to read her notebook. In English, as translated by Anne McLean, it reads:

A week ago my grandmother gave me a dry-eyed hug at the San Francisco airport and told me again that if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me. My Nini is paranoid, as the residents of the People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley tend to be, persecuted as they are by the government and extraterrestrials, but in my case she wasn’t exaggerating: no amount of precaution could ever be enough. She handed me a hundred-page notebook so I could keep a diary, as I did from the age of eight until I was fifteen, when my life went off the rails. “You’re going to have time to get bored, Maya. Take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them,” she said. Several of my diaries are still in existence, sealed with industrial-strength adhesive tape. My grandfather kept them under lock and key in his desk for years, and now my Nini has them in a shoebox under her bed. This will be notebook number nine. My Nini believes they’ll be of use to me when I get psychoanalyzed, because they contain the keys to untie the knots of my personality; but if she’d read them, she’d know they contain a huge pile of tales tall enough to outfox Freud himself. My grandmother distrusts professionals who charge by the hour on principle, since quick results are not profitable for them. However, she makes an exception for psychiatrists, because one of them saved her from depression and from the traps of magic when she took it into her head to communicate with the dead.

Allende’s first novel, almost incredibly, was The House of the Spirits, epic in scope and powerful in its emotional and intellectual impact. From my perspective as an adoptive Northern Californian–a status she shares–her novel Daughter of Fortune is particularly interesting, because it moves from Chile to the founding of San Francisco as a modern city, during the Gold Rush. Her descriptions of modern-day Berkeley are so incisive (and funny) that although I’ve never been to Chile, I feel that Santiago, too, must be exactly as her words describe it. She has a stunning command of language, poetic yet straight-shooting, with phrases that can make you laugh out loud and shake your head in sorrow at the same time. In 2010, Allende was awarded Chile’s National Prize for Literature, one of only a few women to have received that recognition.

She was exiled from her native land in 1973 by the military coup and the assassination of Salvador Allende (her father’s cousin, or in Spanish, her tío en segundo grado). In an introduction to a memoir, she writes that the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center made her a U.S. American:

I no longer feel that I am an alien in the United States. When I watched the collapse of the towers, I had a sense of having lived a nearly identical nightmare. By a blood-chilling coincidence–historic karma–the commandeered airplanes struck their U.S. targets on a Tuesday, September 11, exactly the same day of the week and month–and at almost the same time in the morning–of the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy. The images of burning buildings, smoke, flames, and panic are similar in both settings. That distant Tuesday in 1973 my life was split in two; nothing was ever again the same; I lost a country. That fateful Tuesday in 2001 was also a decisive moment; nothing will ever again be the same, and I gained a country. (“A Few Words of Introduction,” My Invented Country, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Not having yet read the book, I don’t know why the ironic twinning of these tragedies led to her feeling that she had gained a country. How does one even make a home in the country that destroyed one’s homeland, much less proudly claim that new nationality as one’s identity? If anyone can trace the complexities of that journey in such as way as to bring us along and make us understand, it’s Isabel Allende.


(An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that the English translation of El Cuaderno de Maya was by Allende herself, and omitted the names of the translators of both books quoted.)

Nudged by the death of Leonard Nimoy, and the public appreciations that followed, to introduce Munchkin at last to the original Star Trek, I sat down with her last night to watch The Trouble with Tribbles. She liked tribbles, as we predicted; she thought it was funny; it was a good choice. But, she asked, looking at the actors, “why are they almost all guys?”

I stammered a bit before arriving at the obvious correct answer: because the makers of the show were sexist. When they thought of exciting things like space exploration, their imaginations weren’t up to conceiving of anyone except men carrying them out. It was jarring to see it through her eyes. I’m used to thinking of Star Trek as groundbreaking, and maybe it was even in this respect; the women on the Enterprise had jobs, after all, in space no less, even if they were the well-worn options of secretary (Lt. Uhura), nurse (Nurse Chapel), and, hm, what is a yeoman (Yeoman Rand)? Captain’s P.A.? That makes it a striking, and surely deliberate, departure from Lost in Space, in which the wife and daughters are . . . a wife and daughters. I guess someone has to dust the controls and look pretty.

I didn’t want to make excuses for Star Trek, but in the interests of teaching her some history, I told the munchkin that the show was a leap forward. What chiefly struck me, though, was how far we’ve come since 1968, which is, coincidentally, the span of in my lifetime. There is still plenty of tokenism in entertainment and it bugs me a lot, as I’ve written on this blog before. But an eight-year-old girl in 2015 noticed easily what was invisible even to a pioneer like Gene Roddenberry fewer than 50 years earlier, and that’s cause for gratitude and hope. Also, for this mama, pride.

Only three women have been featured on United States currency other than special commemorative coins: Susan B. Anthony on the ill-designed dollar coin; Sacajawea on the better, current dollar coin; and Helen Keller on the quarter honoring her home state, Alabama.

I imagine that the way I learned about Keller was typical: she was the protagonist of an overcoming-adversity tale, cast as a mixture of victim and heroine. What that story obscures, as such stories tend to do, is the fact that her accomplishments would be remarkable regardless of her ability to see or hear. She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the bulwarks between the radical freedoms promised by our constitution and the many forces (especially internal) that seek to erode them. She worked for the vote for women, pacifism and access to birth control. She was acclaimed in her own time, but when she became an outspoken socialist, critics began pushing back and suggesting that her physical limitations made it difficult for her to reach wise conclusions about such matters.

She wrote to a British newspaper, in 1911:

Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. . . . You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?

Women got the vote in the US nine years later, thanks to thousands like Keller. We have not used our millions of votes to redress that inequality, yet.

(I can see that a pleasant hazard of writing a post a day for Women’s History Month will be that I add many must-read books to my list. I have never read Keller’s autobiography, and now want to.)

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