Wednesday, May 15, 2013
On the Ideology of "True Womanhood": In 1966, historian Barbara Welter published an article in American Quarterly titled "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 - 1860." The word "cult" seemed too strong and incongruous at times, so I have replaced it with the term "ideology." Nevertheless, Welter argued that a majority of middle-to-upper class (white) women in nineteenth-century America (Britain and Canada) had agreed on what it meant to be a "true woman." To a certain extent, much of this ideology overlapped with the moral values emanating from the British Empire under Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Not surprisingly, "true womanhood" was pervasive in New England, where a large portion of white (Anglo-Saxon) Protestant women lived. Their values included piety, sexual restraint, proper etiquette, proper dress, spousal submission, and domestic (household) work. Of course, modernism developed mostly as a response to these "Victorian values." But what made "true womanhood" especially prevalent was the way it influenced basic elements of society such as architecture, art, fashion, and religion. For example, many upper-class houses at the time were built to accommodate the "separate spheres" of men and women, as men had their gun rooms and women had their sewing rooms. Even the purpose of the "parlor" changed under "true womanhood," as it became the house's primary space where well-to-do women greeted their male suitors.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
On Synthesizing the Birth Control Pill: Pictured above is Gregory Pincus, co-inventor of the birth control pill. As a Harvard-educated Jewish-American biologist, Pincus designed his hormone therapy experiments on previous research regarding menstrual disorders. Such research had been conducted in the 1930s, when organic chemists discovered how to synthesize hormones like progesterone from naturally occurring plant steroids. One of Pincus' main goals with his experiments was to reduce significantly menstrual discomfort by preventing ovulation altogether. Considered too controversial for Harvard in the 1950s, he moved his research to Central Massachusetts in an effort to attract private funding. It worked, as Pincus met Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who was certainly interested in funding his research. He then elicited the help of Catholic gynecologist John Rock to conduct clinical trials on women with small doses of synthetic estrogen and progesterone. And in May 1960, the FDA approved the combined oral contraceptive pill (Enovid) for use with 10 mg doses. But there were serious side effects associated with these early pills, as blood clots (and birth defects) became the two primary consequences of suppressing ovulation with synthetic hormones.
Monday, April 15, 2013
On the Birth of American Environmentalism: In 2009, American filmmaker Ken Burns directed a PBS documentary titled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The title originated with Wallace Stegner's 1954 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, which traced the life of John Wesley Powell and his 1869 expedition to explored the interior of the Colorado River watershed. As some historians have argued, most notably Douglas Brinkley in Wilderness Warrior (2009), the Progressive conservationist movement, which centered on the 1906 Antiquities Act, marked the greatest American achievement between the Civil War and World War I. Perhaps President Theodore Roosevelt captured the central ethos of the future National Parks system when he remarked in 1903 about the Grand Canyon in Arizona, "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." Ultimately for Burns (and co-producer Dayton Duncan), the National Parks symbolized a practical application of the Jeffersonian impulse, namely the pursuit of happiness. And what better way to express that impulse than to set aside public lands for the enjoyment and benefit of all.
Monday, April 1, 2013
On the Birth of American Populism: Toward the end of the nineteenth century, bimetallism (or the option to pay for goods in gold and silver) became a major political issue in the United States. In 1873, Congress passed the Fourth Coinage Act, which essentially did away with the silver option and pegged the U.S. dollar to the price of gold. This law heavily favored East Coast urban elites like bankers and had drastic consequences for many Midwestern farmers. After a series of severe droughts in the 1880s, which eroded the livelihoods of many farmers, noted populist writer Mary Elizabeth Lease stated "We need to raise less corn and more Hell!" And by the early 1890s, a Populist Party formed to advocate a bimetallist platform and compete with the Democratic Party for political influence in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the Populist movement's peak occurred during the 1896 presidential election when William Jennings Bryan delivered his famed "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In effect, Bryan was the fusion candidate of the Populist and Democratic parties who offered this scathing proposition to gold-toting Republicans: "Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."
Friday, March 15, 2013
On Defining Modernity: How does one define the term modernity? And when did it arrive? Many Western historians point to the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648), which resulted in a significant decline of the Catholic Church's influence over European political affairs, as the birth of modernity. But other intellectuals tend to emphasize certain technologies that emerged from industrialization. Perhaps the two most important ones were electricity and railroads. With electricity, the routines of daily life (which usually followed the Sun's rhythms), changed drastically. In fact, Edison's 1879 carbon filament light bulb, while providing over 1200 hours of light, helped people work through the night without the use of fire. Regarding railroads, Aldous Huxley wrote, "To us, the moment 8:17 AM means something - something very important, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance - did not even exist. In inventing the locomotive, [James] Watt and [George] Stephenson were part inventors of time." And as steam locomotives approached speeds of 70 MPH by the end of the 1800s, people began to experience the sensation of speed for the first time in history. At bottom, modernity is all about the annihilation of time and space.