Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ROOSEVELT, Eleanor: First Lady of the World (c) By Polly Guerin

Dear Eleanor: In the words of President Harry S. Truman you were indeed the “First Lady of the World,” a humanitarian, civic leader, champion for the poor and women, at home and abroad, through the United Nations that you helped to develop. Looking at you portrayed in early pictures, a rather Victorian young girl looks out wistfully from the photo unaware that her concern for the oppressed would become her trademark, nor would anyone have expected you to evolve to such heights of accomplishment as a humanitarian benefactor. Despite obstacles thrown in your path you were a woman determined to succeed beyond the restraints imposed as the daughter of an affluent New York family and became one of the most important women of the 20th century.
With your marriage to your handsome distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had embarked on a political career, you evolved from society wife tending the household and five children and unwittingly entered the world of politics. Activism was so inbred in your concern for the oppressed and when Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the navy during World War I, you volunteered for the Red Cross and became an active member of the women’s suffrage movement. Eleanor once said, “A woman is like a tea bag-you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water,” and her activism attests to this edict.
However, Franklin Roosevelt’s ambitious career in politics was altered irrevocably in 1921, when a bout with polio left him crippled. Despite therapy Franklin’s physical activity was extremely limited and temporarily halted his brilliant career expectations. To the fore came Eleanor his constant and faithful companion. It was Louis Howe, Franklin’s political mentor, who urged Eleanor to become vocal in the Democratic Party so that the name Roosevelt would not be forgotten. Could this shy, society bred young woman rally to the task? Indeed, she did making speeches and political appearances, and discovered that she could segue into this new role and had a liking for politics.
In time Eleanor became an old hand at politics and her steadfast encouragement enabeled Franklin Roosevelt to return to politics and win the governorship of New York (1929-1933). In this role Eleanor became the “good wife” behind Franklin, acting as his political surrogate, speaking on his behalf to the American people and relaying their concerns to him, but most significantly she always gave her input as well. When FDR was elected to the presidency, Eleanor realized that as a president’s wife she was expected to concern herself merely with social issues. However, these were unusual times and the Great Depression and FDR’s “New Deal” program offered her opportunities to rise to the forefront of the administration.
Since Roosevelt was incapacitated he depended on Eleanor to go out into the trenches, so to speak, and find out firsthand about the national condition, observations that he could not make. Eleanor proved to be a great source of comfort and inspiration to the nation. She toured the country extensively and with her nurturing sensitivity she observed the poverty-stricken country side, city slums, prisons and even insisted on visiting inside a coal mine. She became the first activist first lady and she urged swift action to change conditions that she considered intolerable. With press conferences and her daily column in the nation’s newspapers she kept the public aware of White House politics, in particular the New Deal.
With her vivid descriptions of the country’s dreadful conditions, she persuaded FDR to create the National Youth Administration (NYA) to provide financial aid to students and job training for young men and women. Her contribution to the Roosevelt era was marked by innovative measures to foster a better America. She also worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her power to right an unjust situation was notable. You may remember that she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest to their preventing singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall.
After the United States entered World War II; Eleanor took off overseas. She channeled her energies into the war effort and as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense, she visited U.S. troops abroad, provided visible comfort to wounded service men in England, the Caribbean and the South Pacific, which boosted morale. When Franklin died in office in 1945, Eleanor thought that she would retire, but her career was not over. Although she have garnered international respect and admiration as First Lady she took on another challenging role and became a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1948, she drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed life, and equality internationally for all people, regardless of race, creed or color. This document would become her greatest legacy.
THANK YOU FOR INSPIRING WOMEN TO TAKE UP THE GAUNTLET OF CHALLENGE AND BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS, “A woman is like a tea bag-you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hildegard von Bingen: 12th Century Visionary (c) By Polly Guerin

Dear Hildegard von Bingen: You have been called by your admirers “one of the most important figures in the history of the Middle Ages,” and “the greatest woman of her time.” Known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine you were a Christian mystic, German Benedictine abbess, visionary and elected magistra by your fellow nuns in 1136. You were truly a woman ahead of your time determined to succeed in a medieval universe where few women would have dared to tread. You were a composer of Gregorian chants, a playwright, poet, and scientific pioneer in the fields of healing, herbal medicine and botany. Hildegard, who had the will of a modern feminist, has emerged from the shadows of history as a forward-thinking pioneer of the holistic approach to medicine and a prophetic warning that elements could turn against us. Similarly today we speak of nature turning against us if we do not protect it.
Instilling the world of a cloistered existence began in early childhood. Hildegard was the daughter, the tenth child of a noble German family and as was the custom of the time, her parents gave her to the church when she was eight years old. She was sent to live with Jutta, a holy hermit/nun, the sister of a count whom Hildegard’s father served as a knight, at the Benedictine monastery at Mount S. Disibode to be educated. When Hildegard was eighteen, she became a nun. However, during her youth she experienced visions but kept them secret. When Jutta died, Hildegard replaced her as the mother superior.
After becoming mother superior, Hildegard had a vision that she should spread the knowledge of her visions instead of keeping them secret. She devoted the years from 1140 to 1150 to writing them down, describing them and commenting on their interpretation and significance. After recording her visions with the aid of a monk, her writing and letters became popular and the abbey overflowed with the arrival of novice nuns. People of all classes wrote her for advice, and one biographer called her “the Dear Abby of the 12th Century. After a power struggle in 1150 with the abbot who wanted Hildegard to remain at Disibode, she moved her nuns to a location near Bingen, and founded a monastery for them completely independent of the monastery. She oversaw its construction, which included, innovative at the time; water pumped through pipes and advocated regular exercise, singing and musical instruments. She refused to allow the church to treat women as subservient to men, and she rejected negative stereotypes of evil seductresses, and taught that woman was indeed created in the image and likeness of God.
As her abilities as a doctor and natural healer spread the crowds gathered at the doors of the visionary for a miracle healing. While Hildegard was working on books on medicine, Scivias and Causae et Curae (Cause and Cure and Physica, as well as numerous other writings about herbalism, she was also writing hymns and some of her songs were apparently known in Paris by 1148. This was the period in which Hildegard collected her songs as symphony of harmony and heavenly revelation. One of her works as composer, the Ordo Virtutum is an early example of liturgical drama. Musicologists credit her with the invention of opera and recognize her as a Gregorian composer.
Hildegard wrote and spoke extensively about social justice, about freeing the downtrodden, about the duty of seeing to it that every human being, made in the image of God, has the opportunity to develop and use the talents that God has given him, and to realize his God-given potential. Around 1158 Hildegard began to write Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), a book of moral instruction. Unheard of for a woman to do so, over the next thirteen years Hildegard, the visionary preacher, also began a series of travels to men’s and women’s monasteries and to urban cathedrals to preach religious and secular clergy. She died in 1179 and her oeuvre leaves 90 songs, numerous books and surviving works of more than 100 letters to nobles, popes, bishops, nuns and emperors.
The recent release of the film “VISION,” written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, a Zeitgeist Films attests to the fact that the Cult of Hildegard is finding new admirers along with the nuns who revered her teachings and continue to live in the Rhineland. The film’s release exalts the diverse accomplishments of Hildegard von Bingen, the Benedictine nun, portrayed by Barbara Sukova, who presents her character with complete conviction and unfaltering devotion. For more information about the film: www.zeitgeistfilms.com/vision.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Dear Countess Constance Georgina de Markievicz: Suffragette, Socialist, Soldier--your pedigree ranked among the finest of the old Gaelic aristocracy, yet your heroic deeds and amazing ascendency as a national heroine blazed across the Irish skies in the momentous years of the early 20th Century. I met you in Sligo, Ireland several years ago when I attended the Yeat’s Society poetry conference and learned all about your exploits when I visited Lissadell, your family’s country mansion, county Sligo. Legend has it that you were a beautiful, headstrong girl who rode fast horses over the thousands of acres on the estate owned by your father Sir Henry-Gore Booth. You were presented at the court of Queen Victoria and dubbed the darling of the Dublin Castle set. It all seemed like an idyllic fairytale. Born to power and privilege you could have remained isolated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, the dreadful conditions of tenant farmers, but your destiny led you to become ‘The Countess of Irish Freedom.’
Gore-Booths were known as model landlords in Sligo but as a young girl Constance was overcome by the destitute conditions of her father’s tenants and high rents they paid and she asked her father, Sir Henry, for an explanation. With nothing of consequence coming forward from her father she vowed that one day she would make amends for her family’s deeds. She said much later in life that her activities were, ‘only a small atonement for her ancestors’ sins in plundering the Irish people.
Constance’s upbringing in such an atmosphere of despair and neglect of the common people forged a compassion for the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families and it impressed upon her mind the inequities of society. Constance reminisced in later life, “We lived on a beautiful, enchanted West Coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the colored mountains, and where each morning you woke to the sound of wild birds, no one was interested in politics in our house. Irish history was also taboo…” A frequent guest to their estate was a young W. B. Yeats who later in a poem spoke of Constance and her sister Eva as, “Two girls in silk Kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”
Despite all the trappings of social privilege Constance was not aspiring to the ornamental life of a “society beauty,” and she became weary of aristocratic privileges. Hoping to carve out a life of her own she had ambition to become an artist and went to London to study at the Slade School and later in Paris she attended the Julian school. It was there in Paris that she met and married, Count Casmir Dunin Markievicz, an artist from a wealthy Polish family. This union was short lived and they separated amicably. The course of her life was now heading in a totally different direction. In 1907, Constance first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping to found Na Fianna Eireann, a nationalist scout’s organization whose purpose was to teach young boys in military drill and the use of firearms. These youths would later become the volunteers during the Easter uprising.
A head strong and inspired activist Constance became active in the Irish suffragette movement and joined Maud Gonne’s women’s group, Inghinidhe na hEireann. By 1911, she was now an executive member of both organizations and went to jail for the first time for her part in a demonstrations against the visit of George V. Her compassion for the poor was evident in the 1913 lockout when she ran a soup kitchen to provide food for the worker’s families. The Citizen Army drilled regularly and one soldier remarked, “She was lovely in uniform. I can remember seeing her marching at the head of the Citizen army with James Connolly and Michael Mallin at a parade one Sunday afternoon. My God, she was it!” THE EASTER RISING
As WWI began, Constance was in the center of social and political upheaval that was building in Dublin. On the 25th of April, 1916, the pressure cooker exploded in the streets of Dublin and war soon erupted in the streets of the capital. While most women in the movement participated in the Rising as nurses and messengers, Countess Markievicz, who had joined Connolly’s Citizen Army, was second in command to Michael Mallin in St. Stephen’s Green, and was active in a fighting capacity throughout the week.
Mallin and Markievicz and their men held on to Stephen’s Green for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Patrick Pearse’s surrender order. They were taken to Dublin Castle and Constance fully expected to be executed. As she prepared to die, alone in her cell, she heard the firing squad put one bullet in the heads of Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. At her court martial she declared, “I did what was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict in her case was: “Guilty, Death by being shot,” but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison, “Solely on account of her sex.” Always the fiery revolutionary she told the officer who brought her the news, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” Constance was released from prison during the General Amnesty of 1917.
Her heroic endurance during several prison terms stand her as an Irish heroine of unprecedented recognition. In the general election, December 1918, Countess Markievicz became not just the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament, but as Minister for Labour, the first Cabinet Minister in Europe. A month later she became sick and died in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dunn’s hospital. Throughout her life the Countess had intentionally risked her life for the common people. In tribute to her courage, daring and sacrifice as many as 300,000 turned out and lined the streets of Dublin for the funeral of the Countess of Irish freedom.