Monday, June 15, 2020

Garden Therapy

My wildly overgrown garden

My garden has always been a source of solace, but never more so than this year as I was recovering from major surgery. My week in the hospital was hell and my recovery much slower than I would like. But fortunately I have my wonderful husband and son and the garden.

When I returned home from the hospital the first thing I did was go into my back garden. It was awash in purple alliums and had never looked so beautiful.

Yes it looked wild and neglected, but the flowers were beautiful and the fragrance of Ms. Kim Korean Lilac was intoxicating.

I always felt that the succession of bloom passed too quickly and that I never had the time I needed to really appreciate each flower. I assumed that if I was retired I would be able to savor each moment. However, although I was doing nothing but sitting in the garden, I still felt like it was going much too quickly. The allium was followed by the rush of the Siberian iris, the peonies, the roses, the clematis, the foxglove. Siberian Iris

Violet Shimmer Clematis

David Austin Rose, "Graham Thomas"

Late May and early June is the truly magical time in the garden and I so wish I could replay those weeks.

It’s been hard to resist the urge to work in the garden and possibly jeopardize my recovery. Fortunately when my husband and son see me overdoing what started as some minor weed-pulling, they warn me that if I keep doing this I’ll wind up back in the hospital. That thought is enough to make me sit down.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Voting by mail proves to be a challenge for local voters

Voting by mail proves to be a challenge for local voters
Posted on June 3, 2020 in Chestnut Hill Local

According to the PA Democratic Party, 1.26 million Democrats applied for a mail-in ballot; however, only some 520,000 Republicans did so. The dramatically lower numbers for Republicans probably reflect the mixed messages they have been getting, with the Republican National Committee in April urging Republicans to vote by mail, and Trump continuing to rail against mail-in voting.

Despite the efforts of the PA Democratic Party, for many voters the process has not gone smoothly. I am one of those voters who struggled to get a mail-in ballot. I applied online on May 6. I received an application number and thought everything was okay. I didn’t think about the election for the next few weeks as I became ill and had to undergo major surgery. Political junkie that I am, one of the first things I did when discharged from the hospital was to check on the status of my ballot application. I received the following message: “We are unable to match your information with our records.”

For two days I tried to get through to the phone numbers the Election Board had designated for questions about mail-in ballots. No one picked up the phone. When I finally got through to someone in City Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office, I learned that my application had been rejected because there was a discrepancy between my name on my driver’s license (Mary Karen) and my name on the voter registration rolls (M. Karen). I further learned that the election Board is not notifying voters if their applications have been rejected. I thought I had this issue resolved and was told by Garrett Dietz, Supervisor of Elections that my application had been approved and my ballot had been mailed on May 22. As of this writing (May 31), my ballot has not been received.

Applying early has not ensured delivery of mail-in ballots. Chestnut Hill committeeperson, Lydia Allen-Berry reported that her “daughter applied for a ballot on March 25th, received confirmation online that her ballot was mailed on May 4th, and she still hasn’t received it. So she’s coming home from DC to vote. Hopefully, she can vote with a provisional ballot.”

My. Airy resident and candidate for Auditor General Nina Ahmad is advocating extending the deadline for the ballots to be received. According to Ahmad: “In order for no one to be disenfranchised, Governor Wolf and the Postmaster General must commit to deliver the ballots to the Board of Elections in all 67 counties and if needed extend the deadline for the ballots to be received. Additionally, there needs to be a much wider communication plan so all voters who will be voting in person know the location of their new polling places and a commitment for every provisional ballot to be counted.”

The process of voting by mail is especially challenging for elderly voters. West Philadelphia committeeperson and Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women Vanessa Fields reported that she has given about 200 paper applications to seniors in her division. Fields noted: “I’ve found out that many elders have arthritis in their hands and impaired vision and cannot see the return address on the application. Therefore, I’m providing them with a stamped, addressed envelope to mail off the application. However, I’m concerned about their ability to follow the directions with completing the ballots once receiving them in the mail. The directions can be a little tricky. Once filling out the ballot, you have to put it in a secure envelope and then the mailing envelope. I have a video demonstrating how to complete the ballot, but many seniors don’t have an internet connection.”

Mt. Airy Resident and 9th ward committeeperson Lisa Holgash reported similar experiences: “I set up house visits with two people in my division who needed assistance because they did not have access to the internet. I have another person in my division who was sent 5 ballot applications but no return envelope.” Holgash further noted that the “technological divide in the City has been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

Vanessa Fields and Lisa Holgash are exceptionally dedicated committeepeople, but there are not enough committeepeople like them to fill the need for assistance.

I expected some glitches, given that this was the first time mail-in ballots were used on this scale, but never expected anything like this. The good news is that we have five months to fix these problems before the general election in November. There are a few remedies that everyone I spoke to agrees on:

1) Ballots should be returned postmarked by a specific date, not returned before a specific date. An individual voter is in control of when her ballot is postmarked, but when she drops off her ballot at a post office she has no control over, how long it will take for her ballot to be received.

2) All voters whose applications for a mail-in ballot were not accepted should be notified immediately that their application was rejected.

3) The time frame between the final date to apply for a mail-in ballot (May 26) and the date by when it must be received (June 2) is much too tight. Currently there are four lawsuits, one in Montgomery and one in Bucks County asking local courts to extend mail ballot deadlines in their counties and two lawsuits before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give voters statewide an extra week to return ballots. As of this writing, there have been no court rulings. (Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the deadline for ballot reception to June 9 in Philadelphia, Montgomery and four other counties.)

Voters who have experienced or witnessed barriers to participation should report them to citizen watchdog organizations such as the Committee of Seventy. We must address these issues before the critically important November election.

Karen Bojar is an author and former Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

There are advantages to a cold spring!

Crabapple and lilac blooming together

There are advantages to this cold spring. Flowering shrubs which usually do not survive temperatures in mid to high 60s are still flowering in our current 50s to low 60s range. In past springs, my fragile crabapple bloomed in mid April and was soon zapped by a day in the mid to late 60s. For the first time in my memory, my crabapple and my lilac are blooming at the same time.

Also my redbud and carlesi viburnum are joining my crabapple, dogwoods, lilac and crabapple for a spectacular display—compensation for a cool spring.
Incredibly fragrant carlesi viburnum

My redbud blossoms are lasting longer than usual

My tulips have had a long run.

Working in the garden in temperatures in late 50s and low 60s is less fun than in high 60s and low 70s, but there are advantages to a cool spring.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

International Women's Day, March 8 2020

My article on International Women's Day which appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local.

International Women’s Day, which arose in response to a strike of women workers in 1909, is celebrated around the globe on March 8, both as a tribute to women’s achievements and as a call to action in the ongoing struggle for gender equality.

On Sunday, International Women’s Strike in Philadelphia hosted various events incuding a march and rally in Center City, organized by a coalition of largely socialist feminist groups while more locally, Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) in Mt. Airy marked the occasion with a day of feminist art and achievements.

Arleen Olshan, the founder of MAAG, first organized an International Women’s Day march and rally in Center City in 2008 and 2009, in collaboration with Sha’ifa Malik, Soda Nobuhle, and Sherrie Cohen. Olshan then held the celebration in Mt. Airy when she opened MAAG as a non-profit arts hub and these celebrations continued until 2016 when MAAG was forced to find a new location. It now has a permanent space at 7054 Germantown Ave., where Sunday’s all-day celebration was held, featuring an exhibit of women artists, poetry readings, music by local artists and a round-table discussion with local artists and politicians.

The Center City rally, in addition to the feminist groups, was also hosted by multi-issue socialist groups and progressive organizations focused on single issues such as immigrants’ rights. The event drew a much younger group than those at the MAAG celebration, which included many veterans of second-wave feminism.

To my surprise, the crowd in Center City was half male, with young men holding up signs with feminist slogans such as “La revolucion sera feminista o no sera” (The revolution will be feminist or it will not happen). Increasing numbers of men now see gender equality in their interest, as this was also the case in Mt. Airy. Michael Huff, who attended the MAAG event, said he was there as an ally of women in their fight for equality, but also saw gender equality as in his interest as well.

“If my wife is making 70% of what a man would earn, that hurts my family,” Huff said. “I also want my wife and my daughter to have the same opportunities as men have.”

Economic justice was a major theme of the women activists who spoke at the rally. Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, who was also on the panel at the MAAG event, stressed the importance of a living wage for all workers, noting that women are oppressed as workers and also as women. Marty Harrison, a nurse at Temple University Hospital and a union member, spoke from her perspective as a healthcare worker about the urgent need for Medicare for All, and called for “a feminism that is socialist and a socialism that is feminist.”

The women and men then marched through Center City, concluding with a dramatic call for an end to violence against women. In the middle of a street intersection outside the Unitarian Church, Refuse Fascism performed “The Rapist is You,” a Chilean protest chant and dance has been performed all over the globe to protest gender based violence.

Sherrie Cohen, whose activist history spans second-wave feminism through the radical movements of the 21st century, applauded the sense of urgency and commitment to action of the march sponsored by the socialist feminist coalition.

“It is time that International Women’s Day return to its radical roots and call us to action in mass protest,” said Cohen.

The list of sponsors for the Center City event suggests a return to feminism’s “radical roots.” Many groups sometimes referred to as mainstream feminist organizations (Philadelphia NOW, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Women Against Abuse, Women’s Medical Fund, Women’s Way) and usually found on lists of sponsors of feminist events, were not part of the coalition sponsoring this International Women’s Day event. Instead, sponsors included groups such as Philly SocFem, Global Women’s Strike, Philly Socialists, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Philadelphia Socialist Alternative, Temple Young Democratic Socialists of America, Refuse Fascism, Reclaim Philadelphia and Abolish ICE PHL.

I have long thought that 21st century feminists were not organization builders like second-wave feminists; however, I may have been looking in the wrong places. True, young feminists for the most part have not been forming explicitly feminist organizations. However, young feminists are playing a leadership role in multi-issue progressive organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and Sunrise, and bringing a feminist perspective to these organizations; much feminist organizing now occurs within multi-issue rather than explicitly feminist organizations. In the complex and shifting landscape of 21st century feminism, this may be the new face of feminism.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Greek Diaries: Part III, Mystras

For me, Greek history and culture had always meant the classical period. I knew little about Byzantine Greece and was barely aware it existed. To my surprise, two of our most memorable experiences were visits to monuments of Byzantine culture.

My husband Rick, unknown to me before this trip, is something of an expert on Byzantine culture. Just as he did with the Parthenon, despite his severe arthritis, he managed to scale the heights of the remains of the medieval Byzantine city of Mystras. A fortified city on top of a steep hill, Mystras was a major center of Byzantine culture until the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Greece in the 15th century. It is amazingly well-preserved.

The steep steps Rick somehow managed to climb:

The incredibly beautiful hills surrounding Mystras:

The drive from Athens to Mystras is about three hours and we hired a driver from a company I highly recommend My Day Trip driving service.

However, there is a Byzantine monastery one hour's drive and therefore an easy day trip from Athens--Ossios Loukos. It doesn’t have scenery quite as spectacular as Mystras, but Ossios Loukos is much better preserved than the buildings in the Mystras complex.

If we ever get to Greece again, I would love to visit the clifftop monasteries of Meteora in central Greece:

It probably won't happen, but one can dream.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Take on the Women's March published in the Chestnut Hill Local

When I boarded the Chestnut Hill East train on January 18 to attend the annual Women‘s March I noted there were plenty of empty seats, unlike the 2017 and 2018 marches, when the train was standing room only. The 2017 march, an outpouring of protest against the 2016 election of Donald Trump, began as a Facebook post that went viral, demonstrating the power of social media to quickly mobilize millions of people for a common cause. Approximately four million people took to the streets in the U.S., inspiring sister marches around the globe.

Tensions soon emerged within the original Women‘s March planning group. Given that the 2017 march was hastily put together by a small group of women – who for the most part had never worked together – some tension was no doubt inevitable.

Long smoldering conflicts in the newly incorporated Women’s March Inc. broke out into the open in February 2018, when two of the four co-chairs were prominent attendees at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day event. Many supporters of the Women’s March saw the relationship with a notorious misogynist, homophobe and anti-Semite as a disqualifier for leadership of a movement committed to gender justice and the elimination of all forms of bigotry and discrimination.

Dissatisfaction with the co-chairs’ leadership led to calls for them to resign. Since the Women’s March Inc. was not a membership organization with a mechanism for holding leaders accountable, calls for resignation went unheeded. Given the internal turmoil, it was no surprise that the 2019 March attracted far fewer participants than previous years, and saw a dramatic drop in the number of sponsors, as well as competing marches in several major cities.

The conflicts on the national level played out in Philadelphia with two competing marches held at the same time: Philly Women Rally, which was unaffiliated with national Women’s March Inc., and Women’s March Pennsylvania, which was connected to the national group.

Feminist organizations grappled with the issue of which march to recommend to their members; the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) voted to support the march hosted by Philly Women Rally while the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) left the choice up to individual members.

In response to accusations of anti-Semitism, Women’s March national leadership added references to Jewish women to the 2019 unity principles and expanded their board to include three Jewish women – changes viewed by their critics as too little, too late. In response to the criticism, Women’s March Inc. replaced three of the co-chairs who had been accused of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement, and appointed a diverse group of 17 new board members.

Despite these changes, some anti-Semitism apparently persisted. The Florida Sun Sentinel reported that one of new board members, Zahra Billoo, had a history of inflammatory statements about Israel, calling herself a “proud anti-Zionist” who does not believe Israel has a right to exist. Two days after her appointment, the Women’s March board removed her, stating that some of her public statements were incompatible with the values and mission of the organization.

The controversy underscores the difficulty of uniting all women under the banner of gender equality. Although the 20th century second-wave feminist movement achieved a unified front by sometimes suppressing or ignoring differences, the Women’s March board is committed to inter-sectional feminism and to addressing differences among women.

They have certainly fallen short in their attempts to do so, in part because the differences about what counts as a feminist issue run deep. The new board has replaced the expansive agenda of the 2019 March, which included controversial positions supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, with what it sees as a more unifying agenda centered around three themes: reproductive rights, climate change and immigration.

The relatively small number of women who braved the cold and snow to attend the 2020 women Women’s March Philly were generally not focused on the controversies on the national level. Several expressed relief that these conflicts appear to have been resolved and that there were no competing marches this year. The 2019 demographics were similar to those of past marches—multi-generational but predominantly white and middle class, with fewer pink pussy hats than I recall from previous marches.

Most of the attendees I spoke to were veterans of past marches and emphasized that participation in the annual march meant a great deal to them personally.

“I decided it was important to be present and I was happy I went,” West Mt. Airy resident Marilyn Monaco said. “I felt energized by the experience, and although it was vastly different from other marches in the number of participants, I still felt the experience was necessary.”

“It was wonderful to see women of all colors and ages come together to protest all the issues our country is facing,” said East Mt. Airy resident Nan Myers.

“It is so important not to give up and to keep showing up to events like this,” said Nancy Weissman of East Mt. Airy. “I am also impressed by how many folks from the Mt Airy and Chestnut Hill areas show up every year. Rain or snow, we are there in force.”

Pennsylvania NOW president Samantha Pierson also valued participation in the March, but noted attendance has significantly decreased since 2017.

“I think the drop in turnout is due to the fact that there has not been enough of a transformative social change or result. And that’s why, while I still show up to the march, I spend the majority of my free time volunteering to make certain more women and progressives get elected to office in PA.”

Although there is considerable disagreement about what the Women’s March has accomplished, most participants see the uptick in voter participation and record numbers of women running for office in 2018 and 2019 as evidence of its impact. Many signs emphasized the “March to the Polls” and were clearly focused on November 3, 2020.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Greek Diaries: Part II, Hydra and Delphi

The harbor at Hydra

After the trauma of the stolen wallet and the herculean struggle to get my credit card unblocked, Rick and I decided to spend the next day chilling on one of the nearby islands. Everyone we spoke to recommended Hydra, famous for banning all cars and buses from the island. Unfortunately, there is no way of getting round. However, we were so exhausted from the previous day’s horrors that just wandering around the picturesque harbor and drinking Campari at one of the inviting cafes was enough.

I enjoyed Hydra but was disappointed that the ferries to the islands which I expected to be like the Block Island ferries, where you could sit on the deck and enjoy the view, were hydrofoils which kept passengers jammed inside with just a glimpse of the Aegean though the dirty windows. It was more like economy class on a plane than the open air ferry ride I had expected.

The next day we decided to make up for lost time and traveled to Delphi which was high on my list. Visiting Greek archaeological sites is for the physically fit. Although the Parthenon had inspired Rick, despite his arthritic knee, to heroically climb to the top of the Acropolis, Delphi did not exert the same kind of attraction. He found a shady spot on a bench under a tree and insisted I go explore the site. The Temple of Apollo was worth the climb but it just wasn’t much fun without Rick and there were steep climbs that were challenging for me, so I decided I had seen enough of the archaeological site. The Temple of Apollo

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the excellent museum which housed cultural treasures that had been recovered from the archaeological site.The road to the Museum at Delphi

The most impressive exhibit, was the Sphinx, an enormous statue which once crowned an ionic column and capital.The Sphinx in the Museum at Delphi.
The beauty of the Greek countryside around Delphi was itself worth the trip. We so wished we had traveled to Greece when we were younger and could drive all over this amazing country. At this point in our lives we are forced to hire drivers, but there is an upside. Rick didn’t have to pay attention to the road, and could really enjoy the astonishingly beautiful scenery.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Greek Diaries: Part I

photo credit: Steve Swayne

I always wanted to go to Greece but somehow my husband Rick and I never got it together. For Rick, Greece was never high on his list and, for me, the long flight and lack of a direct flight from Philly was a drawback.

Greece is truly amazing and I so wish we had gone there earlier so we would have many more trips to Greece to look forward to.

Also, the best way to see Greece is by car, but European car rental companies do not rent to drivers over 75. But even though we didn’t have the freedom of driving around by car, we did manage to get around thanks to My Day Trip driving service.

I am so happy we finally made it to Greece. It was worth all the hassles and unfortunately we did have some bad experiences. On our second day Rick’s wallet was stolen. When he cancelled his credit cards we found to our horror that my cards, which were linked to his, were also cancelled. We thought we were carrying 4 credit cards but since they were linked, we actually had only two. So there we were with no access to cash—very, very scary. Somehow Rick managed to convince MasterCard to unblock my card.

We had another incident that happened during our last few days in Athens. We were traveling with only one functioning credit card and went to an ATM, which for no apparent reason, ate the card. We had used it several times before for cash withdrawals with no problem.So there we were again with no money and no credit card. Fortunately it happened during the work week, so Rick called a firm in Providence where we have some investments. They agreed to wire money via Western Union and also wire money to the hotel.

The people at our hotel were very helpful and I highly recommend the AVA hotel. So all’s well that ends well. It’s a good thing that we loved Greece--that helped us put all the problems in perspective.

I thought I was probably too jaded to be thrilled at the sight of the Parthenon, but it was one of the highlights of our travel experiences—something I won’t forget.

And Rick despite his arthritic knee actually managed to climb to the top of the Acropolis.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Cindy Bass chairs City Council hearings on maternal mortality

This article appeared on Oct. 24 in the Chestnut Hill Local

On Oct. 15, Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services, chaired by Councilperson Cindy Bass, held hearings on disparities in maternal mortality.

The health care crisis in African American maternal mortality is finally receiving the attention it deserves. The catalyst was Linda Villarosa’s 2018 New York Times Magazine cover story: “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.”

Villarosa reported that the maternal mortality rate for black women was three times that for white women and that the disparity held across socio-economic lines, with affluent black women dying at a higher rate than affluent white women. A recent highly publicized example was Serena Williams’ near death in childbirth.

The Philadelphia Commission for Women has taken the lead in addressing this issue in our city, which has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the nation. Jovida Hill, the executive director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, organized a public town hall meeting called “Why are Black Mothers and Babies Dying and What are We Going to Do About It?” last December at the West Philadelphia Regional Library to a standing room only crowd of mostly women of color.

State Rep. Morgan Cephas, who represents the 192nd legislative district in West Philadelphia and serves on the Philadelphia Commission for Women, was among those giving testimony at the Oct. 15 meeting. Cephas began her testimony with the tragic story of La’Shana Gilmore, a 34-year-old woman from her district who, like far too many black women, died while giving birth just this summer. Cephas reported that last month, Governor Tom Wolf announced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to support the Pennsylvania Maternal Mortality Review Committee, and that she plans to introduce several pieces of legislation to increase access to care and address racism and bias in the health care system, including:

Medicaid: Doula Reimbursement and Certification – This bill would allow for the extension of Medicaid reimbursement for doula services in order to serve a population of mothers that has historically been marginalized, and as a result, has consistently reported higher child and maternal mortality rates than their counterparts. (A doula is defined as a woman who is employed to provide guidance and support to a pregnant woman during labor.)

Medicaid Expansion: Postpartum Coverage – This is a potentially two-part legislative package that would expand Medicaid coverage for postpartum women, including additional substance use disorder and mental health treatment services.

Continuing Education for Medical Professionals: Implicit Bias – This bill would require all health care practitioners to complete training on implicit bias related to race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, and its impact on the delivery of health care as part of the professional licensure or certification requirements.

Maternal Morbidity as a Reportable Event – This bill would require maternal deaths and severe maternal morbidity complications to be categorized as reportable events to the Department of Health.

Also testifying at the Oct. 15 hearing was Mt. Airy resident and board member of National Organization for Women Nina Ahmad, who noted that, until recently, the racial disparity in maternal mortality has been largely ignored and that we are just beginning to acknowledge the roots and extent of the problem. Ahmad joined the call for implicit bias training for medical professionals and strong consequences when such bias is detected, stating that “while our entire society struggles to dismantle racist and gender-based barriers, we need to put the spotlight on our medical institutions because these barriers are literally a matter of life and death for African American women.”

Ahmad also advocated medical reimbursement for doulas, noting that data shows that the continuous support system provided by doulas positively impacts both mothers and babies. From a dollars and cents perspective, continuous care from doulas can improve birth outcomes for both mothers and infants, resulting in fewer pre-term and low birth weight infants, and reductions in caesarean sections. She noted that Oregon (2012) and Minnesota (2013) have already instituted Medicaid reimbursement for doulas and that “not only will it help mitigate the tragic problem of maternal mortality, it will be a job creator for our communities as well. It will ensure that African American doulas will be advocating for African American mothers who are dying due to the racism embedded in our health care institutions.”

A critical mass of health care professionals, legislators and activists now have a sense of urgency about disparities in maternal mortality and are determined to find a solution.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Elena Ferrante's new novel will be in released in the Italian edition on November 7, 2019

Elena Ferrante's publisher Europa Editions has just announced that her new novel will be in released in the Italian edition on November 7, 2019, with the English edition to be released in 2020. The title has not yet been released, but the publisher released the opening lines in both Italian and English:

Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought in Rione Alto at the top of Via San Giacomo dei Capri. Everything--the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a very cold February, those words—remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story yet in fact are nothing, nothing of mine, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even she who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.

As I read this paragraph I was struck by how the writing lacked the bite, the propulsive rhythm I associate with the Ferrante of the Neapolitan novels. This reminds me of Frantumaglia, a collection of Ferrante’s interviews and letters about her work, former New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani characterized as a padded, often self-indulgent volume. Kakutani noted that “the self-conscious and stilted statements [in Frantumaglia] stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.” The excerpt from the new novel also reminds me of the language in Ferrante’s columns for the Guardian,often written in a pedestrian style, very different from the emotionally charged prose of Ferrante’s novels. I cannot help but wonder if the person who wrote the Guardian columns is the same person (or persons) who wrote the novels.

“Elena Ferrante” is, of course, a pseudonym or as she is sometimes called, “a fictional character,” camouflage for the author (or authors) of the novels attributed to Ferrante. When I first read Ferrante's novels, I was convinced they were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented revelation that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante. Four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels. Furthermore, references to collaborative authorship abound in the Neapolitan Quartet and in Ferrante’s many interviews collected in Frantumaglia.

When writing my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels; I found many stylistic and thematic similarities to Ferrante. These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, however, I was limited to those books translated into English. I believed that if I could read Starnone’s novels which had not been translated into English, I would have an even stronger case.

My hunch was confirmed I read Rachel Donadio’s article in the Atlantic. She analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.” Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out.

Also, Anita Raja might want to try her hand at a novel without the contribution of Starnone. There certainly appears little trace of him in the excerpt released. I will have to wait until the release of Ferrante’s new novel in English to test my hypothesis.

Friday, August 16, 2019

How to get a book project back on track

I have been struggling with a self-imposed January 2020 deadline for my revised/expanded version of Feminism in Philadelphia. It’s now abundantly clear I will never meet this deadline unless I scale back the project.

When I published Feminism in Philadelphia 6 years ago, I was racing to meet a deadline—a presentation I was scheduled to do on documenting our history at the national NOW conference. Feminism in Philadelphia charted the growth of the second wave feminist movement with an emphasis on NOW, the major engine of institutional change. This was certainly not the complete story of the history of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records. No doubt, much of what occurred was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in libraries or archives accessible to me.

Feminism in Philadelphia focused on activism and advocacy, but a major strand of the story was left untold—the enormous energy devoted to building feminist service organizations. Founded on a shoestring by committed feminists,the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis centers, were beginning to receive significant funding from government and from private foundations. Yes, the funding came with strings attached and the radical edge of some of these organizations was blunted, but more women were receiving services and the women who had been providing them for free could now get jobs as service providers. I had to expand the book to include this story.

My original plan was to survey the full range of service organizations built by second wave feminists in Philadelphia, but it soon became apparent that it would take far more time than I had planned and that the book would be much longer than I had intended. It’s not so easy to find a publisher for a 500 page book. So instead of trying to include the history of every service agency, I decided to focus on the two kinds of service organizations which were the most prevalent in cities and towns across the country—-those providing services to victims of male violence (e.g., rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women) and those providing women’s healthcare services. This is manageable and allows me to support my thesis that second wave feminists excelled at institution building. The institutions they built were for the most part geographically based, often with deep roots in local communities.

Their approach was very different from that of a younger generation of feminist activists who have a different set of tools at their disposal. My primary focus will be on the Women’s March which began in 2017 as a Facebook post, which then went viral and demonstrated the power of social media to quickly mobilize large numbers of people. However, the March demonstrated the limits of a social media driven mobilization. When conflicts arise, there exist no agreed upon mechanisms for resolving them and for holding leadership accountable. Although a non-profit, Women’s March Inc., emerged from the initial march, it was not a membership organization with the power to set the agenda, elect board members and officers; thus, there was no mechanism for holding leaders accountable. Zeynep Tufekci in Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, her study of internet-driven protest movements around the globe, noted that without an organizational structure which allows for decision making, these mass mobilizations can lead to what she calls a "tactical freeze." Can social change be achieved without the kinds structured organizations that fueled the second wave feminist movement? Will 21st century feminists find a new path? These are some of the questions I want to explore.

Friday, July 12, 2019

HBO has released the first official image from the second season of My Brilliant Friend

HBO has released the first official image from the second season of My Brilliant Friend, and I was so happy to see that it would feature the actresses from the first season-- Margherita Mazzucco as Elena and Gaia Girace as Lila.

I was surprised by how much I liked season one. I’ve been in the grip of Ferrante Fever since 2013, have read all Ferrante’s novels at least three times and have written a book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, to help me better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and on the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide. Given this history, I expected to be hypercritical of the new film version My Brilliant Friend on HBO, but loved it and am eagerly looking forward to season two.

Season one director Saverio Costanzo will return to direct six episodes and Alice Rohrwacher will direct two episodes. However, I worry that Costanzo may be the wrong person to portray the brutal treatment of Lila by her husband.

I was troubled by the film’s treatment of middle-aged Donato Sarratore’s sexual assault of 15-year-old Elena during a summer vacation in Ischia. Elena is taken by surprise by Donato, did not resist him, and appears immobilized. The film’s soundtrack, more appropriate to a romantic scene than to a sexual assault, is jarring. For Elena, the experience was a mixture of repulsion and the stirring of sexual desire. Confused and ashamed, Elena flees the island early in the morning the next day; she told no one about the experience.

In an interview with Vulture, Director Saverio Costanzo explained his choice of a romantic soundtrack as a backdrop for a scene of sexual violence, saying he “didn’t want the scene to be realistic and therefore intolerable to the viewer,” so he decided to use “a soft piano tune.”

I think Costanzo’s concern for the viewer is misplaced here. The soundtrack has the impact of minimizing the reality of sexual assault. Given his treatment of sexual assault, I wonder if he can honestly portray the brutal domestic violence of The Story of a New Name, the second volume of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Friday, June 7, 2019

22nd Ward members form Open Ward Caucus

By Karen Bojar
Posted on May 31, 2019 in the Chestnut Hill Local at

In the 2018 committee person elections, newly elected committee people brought their commitment to transparency and democracy to ward across the city.

For the first time since 1998, five wards chose to have their committee people vote on endorsements rather than follow the dictates of the ward leader as most others do. It was a doubling of so-called open wards, of which the 9th Ward is one.

In some wards, where the new committee people were too few in number to elect a ward leader, they formed what they called an open ward caucus.

Such a caucus formed in Mt. Airy’s 22nd Ward. Caucus members had expected that Ward Leader Cindy Bass would hold democratically-conducted elections for endorsements as she had promised to committee people when she was running for ward leader.

When she did not hold elections, the group decided to conduct its own.

From the group’s press release: “The political association known as the 22nd Ward Open Caucus was created earlier this year to promote a more open, accessible and democratic ward system, to share knowledge among committee people and to increase voter participation.”

The caucus requested that all candidates in the May 21 primary respond to a brief questionnaire and attend a candidates’ forum held at New Covenant Church in Mt. Airy – 35 candidates responded. Caucus members voted on endorsements with a 60% threshold necessary for endorsement and pledged to canvass their divisions for those endorsed candidates.

Open Ward Caucus coordinators Michael Swayze and Maya Gutierrez reported that their slate carried in the divisions represented by Open Ward Caucus members. They said that their caucus took no money from candidates. If the Open Ward Caucus grows, it has the potential to significantly affect election results in the 22nd Ward.

Committee people from neighborhoods across the city committed to ward democracy and transparency have recently formed Open Wards Philly, intended to be a hub for sharing information and ideas about anything related to managing ward organizations effectively and democratically. Several 22nd Ward Open Caucus members belong to Open Wards Philly.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Party vs. the Progressives: Mixed results in the 2019 primary

The Party vs. the Progressives: Mixed results in the 2019 primary
Posted on May 30, 2019 in the Chestnut Hill Local
by Karen Bojar


The good news from last Tuesday’s primary election in Philadelphia was that the 23% turnout was higher than expected, with some 80,000 more voters than the last municipal primary in 2017. The bad news is that, despite all the energy and enthusiasm the numerous candidates and their supporters poured into their campaigns, 77% of eligible voters chose not to participate.

The historically high turnout wards in the Northwest performed well with some divisions turning out above 50%. The Election Commissioners’ office has yet to provide demographic turnout information, so we do not yet know if the recent uptick in the percentage of millennials voting is holding.

Generational change is coming to Philadelphia City Council, with new Council at-large members Katherine Gilmore Richardson (35) and Isaiah Thomas (34). They join the three incumbents: Helen Gym, who came in first place with an eye-popping 107,148 votes, Allen Domb in 2nd place with 66,124 votes and Mt. Airy’s Derek Green who overcame a bad ballot position to come in third with 60,251 votes. The 8th District’s Councilperson Cindy Bass was also reelected, though she faced no challenger.

The party vs. the progressives: Who were the winners?

Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the relative strength of the Democratic Party machine, vs. the emerging groups of progressive challengers.

The defeat of longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell by impressive newcomer Jamie Gauthier was certainly a blow to the machine, as was the loss of two row offices, which the party has historically controlled: Sheriff and Register of Wills. In judicial elections, party-endorsed candidates won only three out of six judicial slots for the Court of Common Pleas. One of the judicial candidates who won without party endorsement was Mt. Airy’s Tiffany Palmer who was rated “highly qualified” by the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Yet, despite these losses, some saw on balance a good night for the party. In contrast to 2015, when only two of five party-endorsed candidates for Council at-large won, the entire party-backed at-large slate won in 2019. The 2019 slate, however, included three strong incumbents who had been the victorious challengers in 2015, and in the case of Gym and Green, had support among progressive organizations.

The 2019 challengers also had political and institutional backing beyond that provided by the Democratic City Committee. Isaiah Thomas in particular had considerable support from unions and progressive groups.

Arguably, the party’s 2019 at-large slate was victorious because the party fielded stronger candidates. The 2019 slate was especially strong in the African American wards, in all likelihood due to the presence of attractive African American candidates – Gilmore Richardson, Green and Thomas. The contrast in 2019 vs. 2015 results is striking:

In 2015, city party leaders endorsed candidates Sherrie Cohen, Blondell Reynolds-Brown, Bill Greenlee, Ed Neilson and Wilson Goode Jr. Many wards did not enthusiastically follow. Sample ballots, which each ward committee distributes to voters for guidance, showed no regard for the city’s picks.

No wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Two wards carried four. Twenty-seven wards carried three. Thirty wards carried two. Six wards carried one. One ward carried no endorsed candidates.

In 2019, the party endorsed Domb, Gilmore-Richardson, Green, Gym and Thomas. Ward committee reactions were much different this time.

Twenty-eight wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Twenty-one wards carried four. Ten wards carried three. Seven wards carried two.

According to WHYY reporter Dave Davies, Democratic Party Chairman Bob Brady attributed the 2019 victory to the power of the party.

“The party is strong. We kept it together,” Brady said.

Like the Democratic City Committee, progressive groups such as Reclaim Philadelphia and its partner 215 Alliance had mixed results. Only two out of five of its candidates for council-at-large won: Gym and Thomas. Both, however, already had strong support beyond what was provided by Reclaim. Of their other three candidates for council-at-large, Justin DiBerardinis came in sixth, Erika Almiron placed eighth and Ethelind Baylor was way down in the pack with 2.06% of the vote.

Like Bob Brady, Amanda McIllmurray, political director for Reclaim, claimed victory.

“Last night’s election showed that our movement is on the rise. Four Reclaim endorsed candidates – Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Tiffany Palmer and Jennifer Schultz – won,” she said. “In neighborhoods where we canvassed, our slate of candidates won overwhelmingly.”

Despite its strength in parts of South Philadelphia, Reclaim does not have citywide influence.

Similarly, Neighborhood Networks celebrated the victory of two of its endorsed candidates – Gym and Green – while acknowledging that their other two candidates for Council at-large, DiBerardinis and Almiron, “all first-time candidates with no party backing came up just short of victory.”

Like Reclaim, Neighborhood Networks acknowledged that its influence was largely limited to one area of the city: the Northwest.

“In areas where PNN had a field presence, all of our candidates for these positions were winners,” the organization said in a release.

Neighborhood Networks is conflating “party backing” with Democratic City Committee endorsement. DiBerardinis may not have had City Committee endorsement, but had considerable backing from progressive ward leaders.

The Democratic Party is an increasingly fragmented network of ward leaders, committee people and activists sometimes moving in very different directions. The Democratic City Committee led by Brady does not control this network, and its power has been weakening over the years. As Wilson Goode in 2015 and Jannie Blackwell and Ronald Donatucci in 2019 discovered, longtime incumbency no longer provides ironclad protection.

Despite the fact that the at-large races were a victory for the Democratic City Committee, the overall picture is not so clear-cut. Reclaim and its allies had some disappointments in the at-large races, but it is playing a long game, and time will tell to what extent they can expand on their South Philadelphia base.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Women’s Commission holds hearing on domestic worker rights

This article appeared in the April 25th editor of the Chestnut Hill Local

Nicole Kligerman (left) and Annie Johnson of the PA Domestic Workers Alliance.

by Karen Bojar

The Philadelphia Commission for Women held a town hall on “Dignity for Domestic Workers” on April 17 to educate the community about the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, soon to be introduced by Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sanchez. The town hall was a follow-up to an April 8 City Council hearing to examine labor standards for domestic workers throughout the city of Philadelphia.

Protections enjoyed by most workers under the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act are not available to domestic workers, a category including house cleaners, caretakers and nannies.

These exclusions go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which excluded domestic workers and sharecroppers from labor protections and from Social Security as the price of getting the support of southern Democrats, whose votes were thought to be necessary for passage of New Deal legislation. The exclusion from Social Security was remedied in the 1950s, but the exclusion from labor protections continues into the 21st century.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is fighting to eliminate this exclusion. To date, California, New York state and Seattle have all passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Quiñones-Sanchez reported that all women (and some men) on City Council strongly support legislation that would address the plight of domestic workers. Most of these workers are women of color, and many are undocumented immigrants with an average annual income of $10,000, according to an analysis by University of Pennsylvania Professor Pilar Gonalons-Pons.

At the town hall, Annie Johnson and Nicole Kligerman made a powerful case for expanding labor laws to include domestic workers. Johnson, a native of Trinidad, worked as a nanny in New York and New Jersey for more than a decade.

Despite her years of experience and her degree in early childhood education, employers have offered her salaries below the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Johnson stressed that the domestic workers’ rights movement is not just about wages and benefits, but also about dignity. She described the mistreatment she has been subjected to, including cameras filming her every move, even when she was in the bathroom.

Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, noted that Philadelphiaspecific legislation is still being drafted. Her organization is lobbying for the bill to mandate overtime pay and breaks, paid sick leave and vacation time, to require contracts between employees and employers and to establish an enforcement board. Of course, as she pointed out, laws are only as good as the enforcement mechanism. Councilwoman Helen Gym has called for a formal office to enforce labor standards.

Quiñones-Sanchez noted that recent legislation (fair work week, minimum wage and pay equity) and the legislation she hopes will result from the Domestic Workers Campaign are all connected, and are all intended to make working people’s lives more secure – “to bring low wage workers out of the shadows,” as she put it.

The Commission for Women has supported all of the above efforts, seeing them as part of a larger movement to improve the lives of low-income women and families in Philadelphia.

A regular contributor to the Local, Karen Bojar is Vice Chair of the Commission for Women and a resident of Mt. Airy.