Honoring Nurses: Florence Nightengale

This week our country is honoring nurses.  Today is National Nurses Day. This year is obviously even more special due to the coronavirus pandemic. As my mother was a nurse and one of my daughters is a physical therapist,  it seems abundantly appropriate to write this blog about  Florence  Nightingale.  It is also a connection to  Matilda  Joslyn  Gage,  as she volunteered in hospital wards near her home during the  Civil  War rolling bandages and nursing wounded and ill soldiers.  Just as we are enduring the horrors of an extremely contagious disease, Nightengale battled Cholera during the  Crimean  War.  In  1854, British troops invaded the  Russian-held  Crimean Peninsula in response to aggressive moves by Czar Nicholas I to expand his territory  This scenario should sound quite familiar to us,  as  Putin put some of the same moves on the  Ukraine Crimea with the struggle over the Crimea.   Next week,  on May 12th,  Britain is also celebrating  Florence Nightingale’s 200th  birthday.  They will lay a wreath at Waterloo Place, a special version of the annual Procession of the Lamp at Westminster Abbey, a two-day conference on nursing and global health sponsored by the Florence Nightingale Foundation, and tours of her summer home in Derbyshire.

My painting of the Back Sea in Turkey
My painting of the Black Sea in Turkey near Georgia.

About a dozen years ago when I visited Turkey for the first time, I crossed by ferry across the Bosporus Strait from the Eastern side of Istanbul (ancient Constantinople) to the Western side.  My companion Aziz, whose father had been a famous Breast Cancer surgeon, pointed to a large building, the Barrack Hospital at Scutari.  He informed me that this was the very building where Florence Nightingale toiled among thousands of wounded and sick British troops who had been transported across the Black Sea aboard filthy ships.  She had 38 nurses under her command while she ministered to troops packed in squalid wards, many of them wracked by frostbite, gangrene, dysentery, and cholera.

Scutari Hospital today, crossing the Bosporus

Nightingale was a nurse for only three years.  But her pioneering work as a statistician and as an early advocate for the modern idea that health care is a human right–just ask Bernie Sanders–and her insistence on being a tireless caregiver despite the objections of the British officers.  (Misogyny, do ya think?)  Nursing in those days was regarded as disreputable and suitable only for lower-class women.  But Florence’s father, a wealthy heir living in a manor house, tutored had tutored her in mathematics and the classics.  This is very similar to the instruction that Matilda got from her physician father.  Also, just like Matilda, Florence grew up surrounded by intellectuals who were enlightened aristocrats who campaigned for outlawing the slave trade and other reforms. You may recall that Hezekiah, Matilda’s father, also maintained a house on the Underground Railroad. Thus, Florence “craved for some regular occupation, for something worth doing instead of frittering away time on useless trifles.”  Despite the opposition of her parents and ridicule of her sister Parthenope, she was convinced her destiny was to do God’s work.  To master her profession, she spent time at a highly regarded nursing school, Kaiserwerth in Germany.  She served as superintendent there for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, a hospital for governesses  She also cared for prostitutes during a cholera epidemic in 1853. At Scutari, she would often go over the heads of her superior to order supplies from their stores.  They also felt that she was too ambitious and always struggling for power.   

Yet her first winter at Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died–ten times more from typhus, cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery than from battle wounds.  Eventually, a sanitary commission was dispatched to Scutari and deaths began to diminish.  The commission cleaned out latrines and cesspits, flushed out sewers and removed a dead horse that was polluting the water supply.  The mortality rate dropped from 42.7% to 2,2%.  But Nightingale’s contribution was disputed in a controversial 1998 biography, Avenging Angel, which contends that Scutari had the highest death rates of any hospital in the Crimea.  It accused her of not grasping the role of sanitation in disease prevention until many thousands had died.  the author, Hugh Small, that she focused instead on giving troops warm clothing and hearty food.  He also surmised that “repressed guilt” over her failures caused her to have a nervous breakdown, which turned her into an invalid for long stretches throughout the rest of her life.  I can’t help but think of the dedicated doctor in New York who tirelessly treated COVID patients–most of whom died–killed herself this week, apparently not being able to take it anymore. But, actually, all Crimean War hospitals were ghastly and the statistics suggest that others had higher death rates than Scutari.  Nightingale blamed the military doctors and administrators, chastising them for “a host of murderess error including sending cholera cases to overcrowded wards” and delaying having the hospital “drained and ventilated. “The sanitation commission investigation confirmed Nightingale’s suspicions about the links between filth and disease. The Crimean War killed 900,000 combatants.  The horrors Florence Nightingale witnessed at Scutari weighed on her the rest of her life.  She later described the words she first encountered as “slaughterhouses.” 

In Balaklava, a fishing port in the Crimea, Nightingale would climb from the harbor to the Castle Hospital, which was just a collection of huts and barracks on a flat patch of ground overlooking the Black Sea.  She had sailed there from Scutari across the Black Sea to inspect medical facilities near the front lines.  The 34-year-old Nightingale drilled borehole wells to improve the water supply and insulated huts with felt to protect wounded soldiers against the winter cold.  She worked to improve their food by regularly making sure the soldiers received meat, not just gristle and bone.  She had fresh bread shipped in daily from Constantinople.  She also braved bullets traveling by carriage, on horseback and on foot to inspect other hospitals.  She even visited the trenches outside Sevastopol, where she was moved by the sight of the troops “mustering & forming at sundown.”  Maybe worse was the resentment of officers and bureaucrats who regarded her as an interloper.  She wrote in her journal,” There is not an official who would not burn me like Joan of Arc if he could, but they know that the War Office cannot turn me out because the country is with me.”  She became ill with what the troops called “Crimean Fever,” an inflammation of the vertebrae that would leave her in pain and bedridden for much of her life.  Despite her illness, she was determined to work until the last British troops had gone home, returning twice during the war.  In a letter she wrote, “I have never been off my horse until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, except when it was too dark to walk home over these crags even with a lantern.  During the greater part of the day I have been without food, except a little brandy and water (you see, I am taking to drinking like my comrades in the army)”

The Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War.  She had spent almost two years in the conflict zone.  A front-page engraving in the Illustrated London News showed her making her rounds with her lamp, looking very heroic. Once back in England, she gathered data from military hospitals in Constantinople that verified what she had long suspected:  Nearly seven times as many British soldiers had died of disease in the Crimean War than in combat, and the deaths dropped dramatically once hospitals at the front were cleaned up.  She also collated data from military hospitals in Great Britain, which were so poorly ventilated, filthy, and overcrowded that their mortality rates far exceeded those at Scutari following the changes implemented by the Sanitary Commission. She shared her graphics with the military convincing them to improve hospitals throughout Great Britain.  Parliament voted to finance the first comprehensive sewage system for London.  In our present day, Italy has started to check the sewers to examine for the coronavirus’ presence, yet another source of this deadly modern-day plague.

Though often bedridden, she continued to gather data on every aspect of medical care.  She sent questionnaires, collected and analyzed results, wrote reports, and established investigative commissions.  Nightingale came to believe that Using statistics to understand how the world worked was to understand the mind of God. She founded the country’s first nurses’ training school.  for her, it was a moral crusade intended “to promote the honest employment, the decent maintenance, and provision, to protect and restrain, to elevate in purifying…a number…of poor and virtuous women.”   Like Matilda, she criticized the Poor Laws, prodding Parliament to improve the workhouses (shelters for the indigent and used trained nurses.  A radical–like Matilda–she had “a non-judgmental, non-moralistic view of the poor.”  She also wrote prolifically about crime, labor and the social causes of madness.  She also originated the concept that soldiers injured in war should be considered “neutral” and that they and their caregivers should be accorded protection on the battlefield.  That ethic became central to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was founded in Geneva in 1863.

Think about what our nurses around the world have been through since the beginning of our current epidemic.  Think about the couple of dozen nurses from Syracuse who volunteered to go to the heart of NYC for two weeks to attend to severe cases.  Think about all the death and trauma they experienced throughout exhausting days and nights.  It makes me want to stand up and applaud like the citizens of New York City do from inside their apartments every night at 7:00 pm.  Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap…

Unitarian-Universalist Women Ministers

Matilda Joslyn Gage researched ancient goddess religions.  She knew that in the distant past goddesses were divine and the head of their religion.  Vestal virgins were the important acolytes.  I was scheduled to be one of four panelists at a Women Transcending Boundaries Event.  Our program consisted of sharing information about the role of women in the various religions represented.  I was eager to participate, as I knew that Unitarian-Universalists had the very first female ordained minister in America.  As our event had to be canceled/postponed because of the coronavirus situation, I am sharing my part of the program with you.  Besides, it is still March–Women’s History Month!– and I haven’t written anything in quite a while.  I think you will find this blog interesting as you are introduced to some amazing women.

Some of the first women ordained in the United States were Universalist or Unitarian. And now at the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. However, the path for women ministers in our faith tradition has not been easy. Of those early women who achieved ordination, few were allowed to serve in full-time ministries. Others were relegated to small, struggling parishes or assistant positions alongside their clergy husbands.

 

 

Olympia Brown
Olympia Brown

Nevertheless, one of the very first American female ministers ordained was Olympia Brown, a Unitarian, in 1863. She was a minister and a social reformer, an active campaigner for woman suffrage and one of the first American women to be sanctioned by a full denomination.  Yet it was a struggle.  Brown was refused admission to the University of Michigan because of her sex.  Instead, she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then Antioch, in Ohio, where fellow students and faculty wives objected to her presence. She graduated in 1860 and three years later, having been inspired by Antoinette Blackwell, she graduated from the theological school of St. Lawrence University, making her the first woman to graduate from a theological school, as well as becoming the first full-time ordained minister. But she had to persuade the president of St. Lawrence to admit her, though he told her that he did not think women were called to the ministry.  But the positive reception she received when she preached at local churches swayed the opinions of many of the ministers in her favor.  Mr. Fisher, the president of the university, had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the ordination exercises. She went on to pastor at Weymouth, Massachusetts, Bridgeport, Connecticut and most successfully in Racine, Wisconsin.  The Universalist Church in Racine was in an unfortunate condition when she agreed to take it on.  She worked to rejuvenate the church and established it as a center of learning and culture and a forum for the discussion of social issues of the time, including women’s suffrage.  She invited Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to air their views from the pulpit.  Under her ministry, the women began to vote and hold offices in the church.  Due to Brown’s strong speaking skills and beliefs, Susan B. Anthony continually sought the involvement of Brown.  With the encouragement of Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, Olympia Brown decided to travel to Kansas in order to speak on women’s rights.  Over the course of one summer, Brown delivered more than 300 speeches despite facing many hardships.Juliet Ward-Howe

 

 

 

 

Despite the lack of encouragement, at the end of the 19th century, a group of extraordinary women claimed their role as ordained ministers. Following the Women’s Ministerial Conference organized by Julia Ward Howe in 1875, 21 Unitarian women founded the Iowa Sisterhood to serve churches throughout the Great Plains. Life was hard in the Plains states, with little glory to be earned by bringing liberal religion to the settlers of the area. Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.

The Iowa Sisterhood was a group of women ministers who organized eighteen Unitarian societies in several Midwestern states in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Mary Augusta-Safford
Mary Augusta-Safford
Mary
Mary Augusta-Safford
Eleanor Gordon
Eleanor Gordon

Between 1880 and 1930, these women changed the course of Unitarianism. The Iowa Sisterhood was led primarily by Mary Augusta Safford.  Mary had the crazy dream of one day becoming a minister. Mary and her friend Eleanor Gordon decided to start their own Unitarian congregation right in their town of Hamilton, Illinois.  To everyone’s amazement, it was a success. Mary Safford was a terrific preacher. And that caught the attention of Unitarians elsewhere, who recruited Mary to become the minister of a new church in Humbolt, Iowa.  Meanwhile, Eleanor got a job as the principal of the local school.  In 1880, Eleanor got her own chance to preach. Eleanor wrote, “there had been growing in my own mind a great discontent. While I loved to teach, I felt the need of a lesson to teach greater than found in a school textbook.” It had become her ambition to “win a place in the larger school, the church.” When Mary was called to be the minister at the Unitarian Church in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1885, Eleanor went with her and became her assistant. They were playing professional roles that were still unheard of for women. Most people thought they were some kind of weird novelty, but no one could deny how bold and effective they were. They recruited other young women into the ministry and organized a network of support. They trained these women. They mentored them and often helped them financially. When they were equipped for ministry, they fanned out across the Midwest and the United States. Eleanor preached that a woman “must rid herself of the notion that she is a peculiar creature, and as such must have peculiar treatment. She must know that there is no feminine road to excellence, no woman’s way to success. … She must believe herself a human mind with only the limitations of a human mind, a part of the universal mind, with all possibilities of growth and development.” Even among Unitarians, it wasn’t easy being a female minister. Male colleagues dismissed them and accused their movement of being a distraction. But they kept it up and they did not limit their energies to the church, but engaged in politics, especially Women’s suffrage. By 1907, she had become President of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. They were the first to push open doors that had previously been thought to forever be closed because of gender. But the pendulum swung backward after the first world war.   In 1937, Eleanor wrote an open letter to the President of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, deploring a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians whose appeal for ministers made it “very plain that no woman need apply.”  Eleanor observed and deplored a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians. “Since the world war,” she wrote, “there has been a distinct trend in both the professional and industrial worlds against woman’s  place in both.”

Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life of the Plains states. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.

Perhaps, one reason for the success of the Iowa Sisterhood was the non-academic, pastoral approach these women brought to their churches. They sought to make their churches extensions of the domestic hearth, thereby expanding the traditional role of women beyond the home and into the church. The Sisterhood brought family matters into the church not only on Sundays but seven days a week, with social events and classes on domestic arts.

I would also like to point out that it was in some of these Great Plains states that women had the right to vote long before the rest of the nation.  The Wyoming territory was the first to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by Utah and Washington State.

Unfortunately, the grassroots Western success of these women and their churches did not translate into wider denominational acceptance. The women were seen as an embarrassment among the clergy back in Boston. By the turn of the 20th century, society, in general, experienced a reassertion of male authority. Unitarianism’s leaders began a concerted return to a more manly ministry in order to revitalize the denomination. The move of rural populations to the cities further undermined the Sisterhood’s efforts and congregations.

Most of the women ministers were rushed into retirement. Others left to pursue work in peace, suffrage, and social work movements. Yet they remained vocal to the end about the rights of women and the place of the church in society. It was not a large movement, nor was it long-lasting. The Iowa Sisterhood did not radically alter the possibilities for women in the Unitarian ministry. But in its time and place, it was a shining vision of women called to minister and men called to support their work.

Fannie Barrier Williams

Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams was a black American educator and political and women’s rights activist. She was born shortly before the Civil War.  She became one of the most prominent educated African American women of her generation. Aspiring to become a teacher, Barrier was the first African American to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now SUNY Brockport) in 1870.  She was 15 at the time of her graduation.

Later, when she and her husband moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Samuel Williams started a successful law practice, the couple joined All Souls (Unitarian)  Church in Chicago. Fannie and her husband joined All Souls (Unitarian) Church in Chicago. They may have first been attracted by the Abraham Lincoln Center, a reform settlement which the church-sponsored. The minister was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a free-thinker, pacifist, activist for women and blacks’ civil rights, and a founder of the World’s Parliament of Religions. Fannie’s friend, the Unitarian minister, Celia Parker Wooley, was a member.

There, she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization. UU’s are known for their social activism and Barrier Williams—better known as Fannie,  helped found the National League of Colored Women in 1893 and its successor, the  National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. She was also among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to create the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895. Barrier Williams addressed the World Congress of Representative Women and disputed the notion that slavery had rendered black American women incapable of the same moral and intellectual levels as other women. She called on all women to unite to claim their inalienable rights. She carried this new awareness to Chicago, where she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization.

Francis "Fannie" Williams
Francis “Fannie” Barrier Williams

She stated that a humane religion can impact their daily lives in positive, practical ways. She also called it a “monstrous thing” that so many Evangelical churches closed their doors to African Americans. “It should be the province of religion,” Williams said, “to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines.” In the audience sat the charismatic, 75-year-old Frederick Douglass. Moved by her address, he rose and praised the remarks of this “refined, educated colored lady,” saying that “a new heaven is dawning upon us.” After the success of these orations, she became a nationally-known writer and lecturer, who sometimes included a piano concert as part of her program.

 

The Matilda Effect: Women Scientists Sidelined

Margaret Rossiter, Cornell Univ.

This month’s Smithsonian Magazine (Oct. 2019) has a feature article by Susan Dominus entitled “Sidelined.” Matilda Joslyn Gage is featured prominently in the article. There is a large portrait photograph of her (The same one that is on the cover of my book, Quoting Matilda.). There is even a large color photograph of the Gage House in Fayetteville, New York, where Matilda lived for over 44 years.  It is now an interactive museum.

Margaret Rossiter

 

Dominus is reporting on Margaret Rossiter, a science historian. She is also the one who coined “The Matilda Effect,” named after Matilda Joslyn Gage, of course, to describe what happens to women scientists, inventors, etc., who don’t get the credit for what they have accomplished.  Rossiter wrote an essay, “The Mathew Matilda Effect in Science.”  In that essay, she stated: “Gage noticed that the more woman worked the more the men around her profited and the less credit she got.”

Rossiter, a professor emerita at Cornell University, has written Women Scientists in America:  Struggles and Strategies to 1940, a study meant to counteract the glib response of a gathering of professors in 1969 when she was only 24-years-old.  In an informal gathering, she asked them, “Were there ever women scientists?” They answered with a resounding “NO!”  Though someone did bring up Marie Curie’s name, they dismissed her as just being a helper to her husband, who was, they assumed, the real genius in their discovery of radium—despite the fact that Curie had won two Nobels!

Margaret Rossiter reminds me of Matilda Gage.  Both searched archives and doggedly pursued the data that would prove that women’s accomplishments were vast.  Yes, even in the fields of science and invention. Like Gage, this uncovering of the past to dig out the real story was also Rossiter’s quest.  Like Gage, she investigated the systematic way that the field of science deterred women and “a chronicling of the ingenious methods that enterprising women nonetheless found to pursue the knowledge of nature.” She documented their slow but determined progress toward scientific breakthroughs and inventions. She also recorded some statistics:  In 1938, 13% of science PhDs were female; less than half would get postdoctoral funding. In addition, she illustrated that administrators needed to reform academic institutions to make them more hospitable to women. It certainly wasn’t for lack of merit that they didn’t advance.

Rossiter, a professor emerita at Cornell University, has written Women Scientists in America:  Struggles and Strategies to 1940, a study meant to counteract the glib response of a gathering of professors in 1969 when she was only 24-years-old.  In an informal gathering, she asked them, “Were there ever women scientists?” They answered with a resounding “NO!”  Though someone did bring up Marie Curie’s name, they dismissed her as just being a helper to her husband, who was, they assumed, the real genius in their discovery of radium—despite the fact that Curie had won two Nobels!

Margaret Rossiter reminds me of Matilda Gage.  Both searched archives and doggedly pursued the data that would prove that women’s accomplishments were vast.  Yes, even in the fields of science and invention. Like Gage, this uncovering of the past to dig out the real story was also Rossiter’s quest.  Like Gage, she investigated the systematic way that the field of science deterred women and “a chronicling of the ingenious methods that enterprising women nonetheless found to pursue the knowledge of nature.” She documented their slow but determined progress toward scientific breakthroughs and inventions. She also recorded some statistics:  In 1938, 13% of science PhDs were female; less than half would get postdoctoral funding. In addition, she illustrated that administrators needed to reform academic institutions to make them more hospitable to women. It certainly wasn’t for lack of merit that they didn’t advance.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a Brown University professor emerita and expert on developmental genetics, displayed astonishment over Rossiter’s first volume. She said this about it: “It meant that I should never believe anything anybody tells me about what women did or didn’t do in the past, nor should I take that as any measure of what they could do in the future.”  Those women back in 1870 (when Matilda published her book, Woman as an Inventor) were also pretty astounded to learn that many inventions purported to have been invented by men were actually conceived by women. Our Mrs. Gage had a quote about this subject, too: “In history written by men, the women who have most largely influenced the fate of the nations are but alluded to. Many women are almost entirely ignorant of the deeds of their sex in the past.”

Athena
Minerva
Isis
Surawati

 

 

 

 

Perhaps with the resurgence of superheroes and gods and goddesses, our present generation has become aware of the many inventions attributed to Athena.  But Matilda’s book also spoke of Isis in Egypt (breadmaking & agriculture, flax and the arts of healing and embalming), Minerva/Athena in Greece (all kinds of tools:  plow, rake, yoke and bridle to farmers; and handicrafts, especially weaving; musical instruments: flute; the very  important earthen pot (and it’s ornamentation); also war chariots and shipbuilding.  Even Surawati in India, the “Mother of the Incas” in Peru and many of the empresses of China (Yao:  spinning) and the discovery of silk were included.  She also did not leave out the Amazons, who were purported to have invented the javelin, shield and battle-ax.

Matilda asserts that there is no doubt that women were the originators of lace as well as many other fabrics—velvet, gauze, crepe, satin, pongee, etc. Upscale inventions included cashmere shawls and Attar, an expensive perfume.

Semiramis
Mother of the Incas

The discovery of cotton as a textile fiber was ascribed to Semiramis in the East and “The Mother of the Incas” in America.  Also, in America at a much later date, the straw bonnet was manufactured in 1798 by Betsy Metcalf.  Those of you reading this will be surprised to learn that it was actually a woman who invented the cotton gin.  Catherine Littlefield Green, a plantation widow, conceived the cotton gin and then asked a boarder in her home, Eli Whitney, to assemble it for her.  Women had a hand in inventing many other mechanical harvesters as well, though the patent was often claimed by a man.  The processes of canning food, handling babies (the baby carriage), a spinning machine and rotary loom, even a self-fastening button made domestic life easier.  But women were also inventors of improved war machinery, train and factory updates, and surgical instruments.  Indeed, though many a wise and talented woman was burned as a witch in earlier eras for their superior knowledge of the healing arts, they continued to contribute medicinal advances.

A heroine of mine, the German Benedictine medieval nun, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary who was considered by many to be the founder of scientific natural history, Hildegarde de Bingen, who wrote a medical book that is still being referred to for its wisdom of incorporating the four elements in diagnosing and curing patients, must be mentioned here.  I also want to recommend a book that our Women Transcending Boundaries Book Group recently read.  Hildegard played a prominent role in Victoria Sweet’s memoir God’s Hotel:  a Doctor, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Dr. Sweet discovered Hildegarde and did do a pilgrimage in Spain and Germany. She started applying Hildegarde’s techniques to her own practice with some very amazing and satisfying results.  Instead of relying on the technical devices that the medical community relies upon in this century, she started using Hildegarde’s methods as well:  listening to the patient, carefully observing, and considering all aspects when deciding on treatment.  Hildegarde’s System of the Fours was a holistic system. Her medicine combined the “four humors” theory of premodern medicine with her own knowledge of medical botanicals. Dr. Sweet traveled to Switzerland to study Hildegard’s original manuscripts as part of her doctoral program. Like Gage, she also taught herself German so that she could read Hildegard’s manuscripts in the original.  At the completion of her studies, she embarked on a pilgrimage tracing the path of St. James from France through Spain. She broke the journey into three separate trips over three years’ time, each time returning to Laguna Honda with new insights and more challenges wrought by the modernization of the hospital under financial duress. Sweet’s study of Hildegard formed the basis of her Ph.D. in the history of medicine and resulted in an award-winning book, Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky: Hildegard of Bingen and Premodern Medicine.

Dr. Howard Walsdorf

A friend of mine in Syracuse has written something similar.  Dr. Howard Walsdorf is a local chiropractor and Natural Healer. His book is entitled The 4 Element Lifestyle:  A Powerful, Natural Way to Regain Health & Vitality. I have read his book and I highly recommend it!  Again, Fire, Air, Water and Earth qualities form the basis for individual healing.  They can be tapped into for personal growth, spiritual transformation, and physical healing.

There is much more to the Smithsonian article. Rossiter’s journey is also fascinating to read about. She discovered women scientists—”but they were undervalued, underpaid, kept as assistant jobs where they did mountains of tedious work, never promoted like their male counterparts (‘hierarchical segregation’).” Perhaps, I will write more about her in future blogs.  She deserves it.  She researched why women got less funding than men.  Why are they underrepresented? She even researched the almost ubiquitous sexual harassment endured by female scientists. The article also includes eleven short bios of female scientists in America who Rossiter has brought “out of the shadows!”

“No less is the darkness of the world kept more dense and its civilization retarded [than] by all forms of thought customs of society, or systems of law which prevent the full development and exercise of woman’s inventive powers.”—Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman as an Inventor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haudenosaunee Gardening: The Three Sisters

On Saturday, Mario Vittelozzi and I traveled to an area near Fonda, New York, called Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community.  Mario is a screenwriter.  He is helping me improve my screenplay for a movie about Matilda Joslyn Gage.   When he arrived in Syracuse by bus from New York City on Friday, we immediately visited the Gage house in Fayetteville after a quick stop at the cemetery to visit Matilda’s gravestone.  It is iconic because it proclaims these words on the gravestone: “There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven and that word is Liberty.” This was Matilda’s last rebuttal to her “arch-enemy” Frances Willard.    It was an emotional experience for Mario to see the grave of this woman he had come to learn of only a few months ago. He has since been inundated with information about this “hidden figure” from the many sources I have shared with him ever since producer Antonio Saillaint connected us.

After our tour of the Gage House and viewing the video about Matilda, Mario purchased a Matilda tea set for his mother and bought a copy of Matilda’s Woman, Church and State.  Colleen, the Gage Foundation’s only paid employee, threw in a free copy of Pope Joan, a book based on a rumored history of a time in the 800’s when there supposedly was a female pope for about a year and a half.  It is an intriguing story written by a local Cazenovia College professor, Donna Woolfolk Cross.  It was made into a movie several years ago and starred John Goodman as the Pope immediately preceding “Pope Joan.”  (Purportedly, it is because of this glitch—Joan had pretended to be a man so that she could get an education—the papacy now always checks the sex of a candidate with a certain bottomless chair before allowing the ceremonies to continue.)

After fortifying ourselves with a delicious meal at the Dinosaur Barbecue—an establishment even Mario from Long Island has heard about– we talked over our agenda for the weekend and decided to make the two-hour trip to Kanatsiohareke.  Mario is as determined as I am to “get it right” when we include the parts of the future movie that pertain to the Haudenosaunee.  It was a serendipitous coincidence that this special event was happening at Kanatsiohareke this particular weekend.  Terrylynn Brant, Mohawk Seed Keeper and Traditional Haudenosaunee Agricultural Expert, lectured to our small circle of about ten people on “The Three Sisters” method of planting and other indigenous concepts for growing food the Native American way.

Terrylynn began by emphasizing to us non-Natives that “The Three Sisters” concept is much more than the ingenious planting style of corn, beans and squash.  It pertains to the wider concept of planting and nurturing together those animals and plants in nature that naturally complement each other when grown in the vicinity of each other.  Some of you may already be familiar with “The Three Sisters” from seeing depictions of three indigenous women representing corn, beans and squash (melons).  There exists many painting and sculptures of these representations.  The Haudenosaunee culture is saturated with them.  And no wonder!  It is an ingenious method of planting and farming.  Briefly, the corn is planted first.  After a few weeks when the stalk has started to grow, beans are planted in a circle around the corn plant.  After the beans have rooted, squash or melons are planted in an outer circle.  Thus, the beans have the cornstalk to support their vines and the large squash leaves help catch the rain water and also provide shade from the hot sun.  The leaves also provide nitrogen and other nutrients when added back to the soil (compost!) at the end of the cycle.  As women have always been designated as the life-givers, they are also given the role of the planters and harvesters of the life-sustaining foods and medicines.

This three sisters concept is extended to much more than these basic foods.  All “systems” of combining naturally “friendly” plants and animals are also designated as “three sisters.”  This includes flowers interacting with bees and poison ivy often growing near it’s antidote jewel weed.

I have a black walnut tree in my back yard.  I also learned this day that the black walnut tree sends out roots that are poisonous to most surrounding plants.  That is why one never sees much vegetation around these walnut trees—except for raspberries!  Sure enough, I DO have raspberry bushes growing in abundance beneath my black walnut tree.  And, sure enough, all the flowers I have planted nearby have not survived.  I had been blaming it all on the deer.  They ARE partially to blame, as they frequent the back yards of everyone in our neighborhood.  But now I have learned that they are being poisoned through the root system of the walnut tree!

Terrylynn Brant, a short blonde robust Mohawk woman, was a font of good information on many other areas of farming. And she was very authoritative about it.  Why not?  Indigenous planting methods have been around for thousands of years.  For instance, she pointed out the foolishness of buying bags of soil that is supposedly full of enriching elements to add to your garden soil. She points out, however, that those bags have likely been bagged weeks ago and have often been stacked and sitting out in the sun on some Lowe’s or Home Depot lot or some other big gardening store for weeks.  She assured us that all nutrient value that these bags of “rich” soil may once have contained had by purchasing time all disappeared.  The soil has died already; don’t waste your money on them.

The subject of saving the seeds for future plantings came up.  I asked about the patent that Monsanto has on most seeds, including their GMOs, these days.  She expanded on that topic and others also chimed with horror stories of their own about the destruction that this giant chemical (think Roundup) produces. If you don’t already know about Monsanto and agri-business, google it.  You may be as shocked as Mario was to hear that this big company that lobbies and donates big time to most political candidates, consumes control of seed production not only in our country but in many other places also.  They formulate many of their seeds to “die” after a certain number of years.  Thus, everyone has to buy seeds from them every year.  The time-honored practice of saving a portion of your seeds from year to year so there will be a continuation of your crops from the starter seeds is now legally impossible to do.  Monsanto will sue.  If you are an organic farmer, you still are not immune from the outreach of Monsanto.  If the wind blows seeds from a neighboring farm that uses GMOs and other patented seeds, and your crops are infected, you are still liable.

I once read an article in a nature magazine that pointed out how very many varieties of apples there used to be just a century or so ago.  It was over 90, I believe!  Yet, now, most apples are hybrids and patented and there are only about a dozen or so varieties.   This holds true for most other fruits and plants as well to a large degree.  In the case of the apple, we are now able to buy apples that are shinier, larger, spotless and last longer.  However, often flavor has been lost.

Fortunately, there are a few safe places in the world where seeds are collected and saved and out of the reach of Monsanto.  But for cultures that have traditionally saved their seeds generation after generation—especially Native Americans—this is extremely insulting and hurtful.  They used to have, for instance, many varieties of corn and beans.  Most of these have been whittled down to only a few.

Terrilynn kept talking long after the call stating that lunch was ready.  She drew six rectangles on the whiteboard.  She asked for volunteers to divide each into four equal parts in as many ways as you could think of.  The first four ways were easy but the last two took some extra thought.  Dividing gardens in this way is the indigenous plan for planting their gardens so that certain plants are arranged next to each other in a time-honored way.  This was more than just lecture material;  we soon learned that we would be applying all she was showing us out in the fields beyond the parking lot as soon as we finished out lunch (which included the traditional strawberry drink sweetened with maple syrup.)

For the rest of the day until about 4:00, we did, indeed, toil in the field.  A rectangle of unplowed land adjacent to several other rectangles that had already been planted, was transformed by us into a planted garden covered with straw mulch before we left that day!  It was not a small area.  We began by lining up shoulder to shoulder spreading our arms.  We each were then responsible for the width of land directly in front of us.  The first task was to find five rocks and put them in a circle around the middle point of the future garden.  A stick had been inserted into the ground in the very middle, which was easy to determine after we made a grid to match one of the patterns we had seen on the whiteboard by two people holding the ends of a string and dividing the plot into equal parts.  Next everyone grabbed a hoe and scraped off the straw that was covering the soil.  Then the hoe was used for chopping anything green (grass and weeds) and then covering the spot again with the straw.  It was hot, thirsty work and was not easy on the back.  To get this all done in a few hours seemed unlikely.  However, since we were all a team working together, the project kept its momentum.

This was the most arduous task and it created a few blisters—but also much satisfaction.  Some of the straw was already in lines and more was piled on.  Several of us walked up and down on these lines to pat them down, as they were the demarcations for the divisions in our plot of land.  Finally, we switched to shovels and each small group of three were given seeds or plants with the directions as to how deep and how far apart they should be planted.  Mario and his team planted bean seeds and… My group planted tomatoes.  Others planted cauliflower and garlic and onions. We did not just plop them into the ground, however.  At the rear of the field were two piles of manure. We were directed to add 2/3 manure and one-third top soil from the nearby field to each plant.  Finally, we watered our newly-planted field of garden vegetables! 

After some refreshments in the house and scrubbing the dirt off our hands, we socialized a bit and then headed for home.  Tired, sweaty, thirsty—but so proud of what we had accomplished this day and to have had the hands-on experience that would imbed our memories so that we would not soon forget this ancient three sisters process.