Monday, December 19, 2016

Return to Naples: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part II.

This was our second trip to Naples. My husband and I were in Naples in March of 1999 as part of a sabbatical year trip to Italy. We foolishly believed all the guidebook warnings about avoiding Naples and stayed for a week in Sorrento, a beautiful but not particularly interesting city. We decided to go on a daytrip to Naples and loved the city. Each morning we took a boat to Naples, regretting that we could not spend the nights in Naples and had to return to our prepaid hotel in Sorrento. We hoped to some day get back to Naples and do the city justice, but never managed to get it together . My love for Elena Ferrante’s books was the impetus for a return trip to Naples.

I had originally intended to go on a Ferrante tour and visit the places mentioned in the Neapolitan Novels. Then came Claudio Gatti’s revelations. Since Ferrante turned out to be a fictional character, camouflage for the identity of the real author (who grew up in Rome), I lost my enthusiasm for trying to track down the impoverished neighborhood where the main characters grew up. And my husband wasn’t particularly interested in trekking around the slums of Naples.

However, getting to know Naples intensified my love for Ferrante's Neapolitan novels which I am currently re-reading. Yes, there are many run-down parts of Naples but some of them, particularly in the old quarter, are incredibly picturesque:

And there are some very attractive neighborhoods. Naples is a very vertical city, with the desirable residential neighborhoods in the hills—-the Vomero (Professor Galiani lived for you Ferrante fans) and Possilipo (where Michele Solara lived).

Naples is much more prosperous than it appeared in 1999. I don’t remember expensive shops like those around the Piazza Martiri and the Via Mille, but perhaps we weren’t in that part of Naples. (For Ferrante fans, the Piazza Martiri was the place for high-end shopping in the 1960’s when the Solara brothers opened their shoe store there.)

We found a very affordable hotel, San Francesco al Monte. It was perched on a hill, just high enough to be above the bustle of central Naples and had a spectacular view—my main requirement for a hotel in Naples. View from the restaurant at San Francesco al Monte

The hotel was a converted monastery and I’ve always had an attraction to these former monasteries turned into hotels. Spain and Portugal are full of them. I never pass up a chance to spend a night in a former monastery!

We had enough time (six days) to visit various neighborhoods, to get a feel for the city, to take in its impressive site on the Bay of Naples, to visit the major tourist attractions and to take some side trips outside of Naples. The must see attractions in Naples include the Museo di Capidomante. When we were younger, we would have been more likely to spend a morning here and then rush off to something else. This time we spent the entire day at Capidomante. The fact that it was a dreary, rainy day was another incentive to stay there. It has an extraordinary collection of old masters--among my favorites, a chilling painting by Breughel the elder, The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind:

The Museo di Capidomante also has an amazing collection of Titian portraits:

Another must-see museum is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, considered one of the most important archaeological museums in the world. The museum has undergone a major renovation since our last visit in 1999 and the treasures of Pompeii are beautifully displayed, especially the Gabbinete or Secret Room which holds an extensive collection of erotic items from excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We missed the erotica our first trip to Naples as these items were only made available to the public in 2000. What was seen as scandalous is no longer particularly shocking:images from Pompeii

The classical world and the Baroque world are both very much present in contemporary Naples. We also managed to see many of Naples’ Baroque churches which we missed in 1999. I was reluctant to take day trips outside Naples because there is so much to see in the city, but Herculaneum and Ischia are not to missed. To be continued!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Return to Rome: The 2016 Italy diaries, Part I.

We postponed an October vacation because of the election; I was afraid of being glued to CNN, NYT and not focusing on Rome and Naples. So we made reservations to fly to Rome on November 9th. We thought we would be celebrating Hillary’s victory. I was in a state of shock on November 9th, thankful that we would have Italy to take our minds off the disastrous election results.

This was our 6th trip to Rome and probably our last. Rome was more beautiful than ever. We always stay in small hotels—there is usually better service and we’re more likely to get a sense of the city. Now that we are seventy-something travellers we need to stay in more comfortable hotels than when we started traveling together almost 40 years ago.

Also, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time just getting around, we wanted a central location. We settled on The Inn at the Spanish Steps -—charming, but more expensive than we’d like. However, our traveling years are winding down, so it seems like this is the time to splurge. The staff was terrific, the breakfasts were wonderful and served on a lovely roof-top terrace. The hotel was on a side street off the Piazza di Spagna and therefore in a busy part of Rome--but it’s not so easy getting an affordable, comfortable, centrally located hotel in a quiet part of Rome.

We found ourselves doing what we had done in Paris when we returned after a long absence—we revisited the places we really loved. Our hotel was in walking distance from the Piazza del Popolo so that was the first place we headed to see the twin churches I love so much. As always happens in Italy, something you really want to see—this time one of the twin churches-- was closed for restoration.

What I love so much about Rome is the sense of history everywhere: ancient Egyptian obelisks, Trajan’s column, the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracolla--all right there in central Rome. We did a lot of wandering around taking in the open-air architectural museum.

I wanted to see the Vatican museums one more time. Rick didn’t think he could take the crowds, but I thought that maybe in November the crowds would not be so bad. I was wrong. There’s no such thing as off-season where the Vatican is concerned. But it was worth braving the crowds to see the Sistine Chapel one more time. The last time was right after the restoration of the Michelangelo ceiling frescoes and the subdued grays and browns were in bright, jewel like colors. They struck me as garish and I preferred the old unrestored frescoes. Now the colors have dimmed somewhat and no longer look so garish, but maybe I’ve just gotten used to Michelangelo in technicolor.

We also went to the Barberini Palace which is not a “must see” on the tour bus circuit, so was delightfully uncrowded. It has two paintings which alone are worth a visit. Raphael’s La Fornarina, a portrait of the love of his life, who worked in a bakery in Trastevere and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holophernes.

La Fornarina

Judith Beheading Holophernes

If I were a young person, I would figure out some way to spend a year in Rome!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Ferrante fan is not in love with Frantumaglia

As a passionate lover of Elena Ferrante’s novels, I am sorry to report that I am not in love with Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s letters, essays, interviews, and material deleted from her early novels. A shapeless repetitive compilation, Frantumaglia is more like a scrapbook than a book. The intriguing title which Ferrante defines as her mother's word for “a disquiet not otherwise definable... a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain” does not bear much relationship to the book which is mostly a series of explanations, rationales for Ferrante’s work.

I find it surprising that Ferrante, the author of such intricately structured books as the Neapolitan Quartet, would want to put her name to something as shapeless as Frantumaglia. Ferrante’s publisher apparently suggested the idea for Frantumaglia, intended as a response to the “healthy desire on the party of your readers…to know you better.”

I might have had a somewhat more positive reaction if I had read Frantumaglia before Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja, who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain.

Throughout Frantumaglia there are numerous references to Ferrante growing up in Naples—including references to childhood fears of growing up in a violent neighborhood and her relationship with her mother, who spoke the Neapolitan dialect and worked as a dressmaker. Ferrante described Naples as “a space containing all my primary childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences.” Ferrante’s publishers apparently encouraged this. One of the first letters includes a reference to Sandra Ferri’s request that Ferrante contribute to a book she was editing about growing up in Naples.

From what I have read in many reviews and blog posts, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers are not bothered by this deception and tend to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante/Raja as a literary device. However at the same time, they tend to see the wide-ranging reflections in Frantumaglia as the genuine beliefs of the author, presumably Anita Raja. But if some sections of Frantumaglia are fiction, how can we be sure the rest is not?

Also, Ferrante claims over and over again that her books should stand for themselves, that there is no need of any explanation/information beyond the text. However the very existence of Frantumaglia undermines that claim. As Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review:

It’s a padded, often self-indulgent volume that undermines her stated belief that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” In fact, this book is a 384-page repudiation of her assertion that the text is “a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers.”
…the sheer volume of interviews here, the author’s often self-dramatizing discussions of her life (or that of the character of the so-called Elena Ferrante), and the very decision to assemble this book seem to fly in the face of her declaration that writing should have “an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace.”

However despite its repetitiveness, there are some fascinating sections in Frantumaglia--in particular a long passage that Ferrante decided to delete from Days of Abandonment, a harrowing tale of a woman abandoned by her husband. The novel focuses on Olga’s suffering. The deleted section describes Olga’s flirtations with other men: “Over the years my occasions for little flirtations multiplied. When they began I suffered less from my duties as a wife and mother who no longer worked.” The most serious relationship was with one of her husband’s associates. Olga aggressively pursues him: “If he had wanted to make love I would have done it. If he had asked me to leave Mario and the children, I wouldn’t have hesitated.”

Many of Ferrante’s readers have viewed Days of Abandonment as a feminist cri de coeur from a woman wronged. The deleted section complicates the narrative and at least to some extent undermines sympathy for Olga. When an interviewer suggested that Ferrante’s male characters are part of a pattern in Italian literature in which men are cowards and scoundrels, Ferrante replies: “In my intentions, Mario, Olga’s husband, is neither cowardly nor a scoundrel. He’s just a man who has stopped loving the woman he lives with and comes up against the impossibility of breaking that bond without humiliating her, without hurting her.”

I have been struck by Ferrante’s understanding of the way both her male and female characters are prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. However, I dismissed the rumors that her books could have been written by a man or in collaboration with a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

When Claudio Gatti wrote his article claiming to have proven that Ferrante was Anita Raja, he also left open the possibility of collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone. Interestingly, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers have ignored this claim and focused on what they saw as Gatti’s unmasking of her, frequently describing it in terms of sexual violation. Almost without exception they directed their outrage at the unmasking and seemed ready to accept the misrepresentation of Ferrante/Raja’s class background as a fictional device.

However, given all the protestations that only a woman could have written such an authentic account of female experience, I don’t think most of Ferrante’s readers would be as willing to accept the possibility that the books were written in collaboration with Starnone, or that Starnone might have been the principal author. I was one of those once passionately claimed that Ferrante’s books had to be written by a woman. Now I am not so sure.

After analyzing Ferrante’s books with text analysis software, a group of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. Also, the powerfully rendered portrait of growing up in deep poverty in 1950’s Naples feels like it was written from first hand experience. Raja did not have this direct experience but Starnone, like the fictional Ferrante, was the son of a seamstress and did spend his childhood in Naples, thus lending further support to the contention that Starnone was Raja’s collaborator.

The controversies about the authorship of Ferrante’s novels has left me questioning many of my assumptions about literature—including the idea that great literature must be the work of one mind, one visionary genius. Recent Shakespeare scholarship suggests that a work of genius can be a collaborative effort. Using computerized tools to analyze texts, the New Oxford Shakespeare ’s team of international scholars have concluded that Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people.

In some sense all works of art are collaborative and Ferrante in Frantumaglia makes this point: “And yet there is no work that is not the result of tradition, of many skills of a sort of collective intelligence.” References to joint authorship exist within the books themselves. In the Neapolitan Quartet Lila and Elena dream of writing a novel together and Elena credits Lila as the inspiration for much of her writing. What Elena refers to as the “joys of shared creation” is a major theme throughout the Neapolitan quartet.

I was struck in reading Frantumaglia that much of the writing was very different from that that of the novels—much more abstract, more academic. Michiko Kakutani has noted that Ferrante’s “self-conscious and stilted statements [in Frantumaglia] stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.” Of course, changes in style do not necessarily mean two authors. I don’t expect we will ever know the extent to which Starnone had a hand in this; the publishers certainly have a stake in the image of Ferrante as a powerful woman writer.

Although there would certainly be many Ferrante fans who would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, there would probably be others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. But in the last analysis what does it matter? The books are truly wonderful whoever wrote them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I'm having a really hard time accepting the reality of Trump's victory

My husband and I postponed an October vacation until after the election because I didn’t think I could focus on the trip with the election unresolved. So we planned to leave on Nov. 9 and thought that we would be celebrating a Clinton victory.

The trip to Italy (more on that later) really helped us get through the first few days of total shock and horror. We had the beauty of Rome and Naples to distract us. It was relatively easy to forget the Trump victory during the past 2 weeks—especially in Naples where it was almost impossible to find English language newspapers.

Now we are back and there are no more wonderful distractions. This reminds me of of 1980. I never believed a Reagan victory was possible and certainly did not expect the Republicans to regain the Senate with racists like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and John Tower heading powerful committees.

The difference was that in 1980 I was 36 years old and had the energy to fight back. Now my energy is waning. I had decided I was going to step back a bit from political activity. After all those years of activism, I thought I had earned a rest. But now I think progressives need all hands on deck—-even aging, wrinkled hands.

I expect it’s going to be a grim Thanksgiving at my sisters’ house tomorrow. At least there won't be any Trump voters around the Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges

There are many good reason to oppose raising the judicial retirement age. From the Inquirer editorial urging citizens to "Vote 'no' on misleading ballot question raising judges' retirement age."
The affront to democracy that comes to voters in the form of a ballot question that would extend the retirement age for elderly Pennsylvania judges should be voted down to send a clear message to its partisan authors.

The integrity of the democratic process is threatened when voters are given misleading information. That this matter has been decided by judges who have a stake in it further taints their decision.

Also, see a very clear explanation of the judicial retirement age ballot question from my fellow ADA board member, Jim Moss posted here

The deceitful wording is not the only reason I oppose the ballot measure. From my article Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges"published in the Chestnut Hill Local in December 2015 in the wake of the porngate/hategate email scandals:

I never thought so many judges and prosecutors, including state Supreme Court justices, would routinely exchange vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. Yes, I know that many white men resent the gains that women and people of color have made in recent decades, but I never expected anything this ugly from those entrusted to administer justice. It’s even more of a shock that they felt safe doing this.

This scandal will no doubt lead some voters to reject the proposal on the 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. I can certainly understand the desire to clean house.

But there’s another more urgent reason to reject this proposal. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. Maintaining the current retirement age is not a solution to the current lack of diversity on the Bench, but at least it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) documents the lack of judicial diversity: “In many states, the judges do not look like the defendants and plaintiffs who stand in front of them… that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of our justice system.”

The CAP report argues that if we are to have a diverse judiciary reflecting our increasingly diverse citizenry, we must reduce the influence of money in the judicial selection process. The report recommends reforms, such as public financing in states that continue to elect judges.

The report further argues that “merit selection (a system of appointing judges in which a commission chooses a list of potential nominees based on their qualifications) can be an effective tool for achieving diversity, when the process is structured to take diversity into account.” Although a 2009 American Judicature Society study found that states with merit selection had more diverse supreme courts, the CAP report cautions that some merit selection systems have not resulted in a diverse judiciary: “Even when diversity is mandated at certain points in the process, lawmakers in some states have ignored the mandate.”

It is unlikely that in Pennsylvania we will have public financing of judicial elections or merit selection anytime soon, so while we fight for substantive reform, let’s not exacerbate the problem by freezing in place the current judiciary by raising the retirement age.

I’ll grant that there are some fine 70-year old judges who could make a contribution for another five years and that mandatory retirement can be viewed as unfair to these individuals. Yes, maybe some of them, as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Program director Suzanne Almeida has argued, get better with age. According to Almeida, “Judging is one of those jobs that the longer you do it the better you get.” Well, maybe with some, but I doubt that judges like Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin are getting better with each passing year.

We must base our decisions about mandatory retirement on what is good for society as a whole rather that what may be in the interest of a particular individual. Moreover, with the judiciary, mandatory retirement is not just about creating job opportunities for the young but about a justice system which reflects the diversity of citizenry. This matters.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Discussion on Democracy and the Democratic Party Sponsored by Young Involved Philadelphia

Young Involved Philadelphia sponsored a panel discussion on Democracy and the Democratic Party featuring my book Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party. The panel included prospective state representative Chris Rabb and reform-minded Democratic committeepersons Michael Bell and Moira Kulik.

Chris Rabb’s analysis of his remarkable victory in the 200th PA House race was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. He won against all the odds, but a whole lot of hard work and resources are necessary to take on the political establishment.

Moira Kulik and Michael Bell are two of the committeepersons featured in my book and I greatly appreciated their willingness to speak candidly about their experiences in the ward system. Chris Rabb and I have had the good fortune to serve in 9th ward—where committeepersons vote on endorsements and procedures and where there is transparency about ward finances.

Kulik and Bell are in the 36th ward, a closed ward where committeepeople have no say in endorsements and there is no transparency in finances. The sad news is that only 5 out of 69 wards consistently operate like the 9th. If I had landed in one of the undemocratic, closed wards, I wouldn’t have lasted 30 days, let alone 30 years.

Unfortunately since my 2015 interviews with Bell and Kulik the situation in their ward appears to have deteriorated. There are no ward meetings, no GOTV plan, no political activity sponsored by the ward. The group they formed, the 36th ward progressives is no longer active although Bell and Kulik have some hope that it can be revived.

The moderator Nick Marzano asked some interesting questions, one of which was: "What do you think keeps things from changing as quickly as some of us might like?" The best answer I could come up with is that institutional change is usually a slow process and people get worn down.

Some of the people I interviewed in 2014 and 2015 who were all fired up and ready to go are no longer active in ward politics or considerably less active. However, others that I Interviewed are still working hard and committed to change; I have tremendous admiration for those who keep fighting the good fight.

However, I do understand why people get frustrated. Some of the new committeepersons elected in 2014 were horrified when they discovered what goes on in their wards:
Dictatorial ward leaders who think that democracy begins and ends with the ward leader election.

No vote on endorsements and in some cases not even finding out who will be on their ward ballot until Election Day.

No activity in the ward prior to Election Day—certainly part of the explanation for the depressingly low level of turnout in so many wards.

Spots on sample ballots sold to the highest bidder.
However, some of the people no longer active as committeepersons are not among the worn out and discouraged. Several of these committeepersons elected in 2014 have moved out of their divisions. These former committeepersons have to wait until 2018 if they would like to run for committeeperson in their new divisions.

In the early 1990’s, the Democratic Party changed the term of committeepersons from two years to four years. This is especially problematic for young people who are often renters and more likely to move frequently than older committeepersons who are settled in a neighborhood.

I checked with the City Commissioners’ Office and was told the length of term for committeepersons was completely up to the political parties—-no state action is required. Also the political parties do not have to do this in concert. The Republican Party could switch to a two year term even if the Democratic party decided to stay with 4 year terms. Maybe the Republican Party could lead the way here?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Elena Ferrante, Anita Raja, and Cultural Appropriation

I count myself among those in the grip of Ferrante fever. I was introduced to Elena Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 article in the New Yorker. Rarely does a review send me straight to an online bookstore to purchase a book and pay extra for expedited shipping, but Woods made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least twice.

At first I had difficulty accepting that I would know nothing certain about the author of the books I loved so much. I followed obsessively the speculation about her identity and like many of her women readers thought it was impossible that the books could have been written by a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

After reading Ferrante’s reasons for choosing to write under a pseudonym, I accepted her explanation and haven’t engaged in speculation about her identity for some time. It was a closed matter.

Then came Claudio Gatti’s revelation-- supported by financial records --that Ferrante was Anita Raja, wife of novelist Domenic Starnone, long suspected as the real author of the novels. Just about everyone who has weighed in on the “unmasking” of Ferrante has supported her decision to remain anonymous and denounced Gatti.

Frances Wilson’s response in the Times Literary Supplement.sums up the reactions of so many of Ferrante’s devoted readers: “[Gatti] thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante. It was a puzzle we enjoyed, and now Gatti has waded in and spoilt the game.”

Many readers have viewed Gatti’s revelations through a gender lens. In “The malice and sexism behind the ‘unmasking’ of Elena Ferrante,” Jeanette Winterson characterizes Gatti’s outing of Ferrante as "revenge" against a feminist author who often portrays men as violent , misogynist oppressors: “Because at the bottom of this so-called investigation into Ferrante’s identity is an obsessional outrage at the success of a writer – female – who decided to write, publish and promote her books on her own terms.

These revelations come at a time of heated debate over what we now call cultural appropriation. Raja (assuming she is Ferrante) is writing in the voice of a woman from an impoverished background, without acknowledging she does not have direct experience of deep poverty. In Frantumaglia (to be published in English on November 1), Ferrante tells us that that she was raised in Naples and her mother was a seamstress. Raja’s mother was not a seamstress and, although born in Naples, Raja did not grow up there in deep poverty like Elena and Lila of the Neapolitan novels. Instead when she was three years old, Raja moved to Rome with her mother, who was a teacher and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and her father who was a magistrate. She apparently lived in middle class comfort and presumably had ready access to the educational opportunities Lila was denied and Elena struggled to obtain.

With the exception of Adam Kirsch and Alyssa Rosenberg none of the responses to Gatti’s charges that I have read address the issue of what we now call cultural appropriation. Adam Kirsch sees Ferrante’s work as a response to those who would question an author’s right to adopt the voice of the oppressed:

In recent weeks, the literary world has been at war over the idea of cultural appropriation — whether a writer has the right to tell stories about people unlike herself. … But now it appears that one of the world’s best-loved writers is actually a sterling example of the power of appropriation. For it turns out that in telling the story of poor Neapolitan girls like Lina and Elena, Ms. Raja was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself. In doing so, she was able to write books in which millions of people found themselves reflected — books about feminism and patriarchy, poverty and violence, education and ambition.

Kirsch apparently sees nothing problematic in Raja’s allowing readers to believe that Elena Ferrante shares the background of her character Elena Greco.

Allyssa Rosenberg notes that Raja’s background is not what Ferrante has led us to believe but she doesn’t take a position on Raja’s unacknowledged cultural appropriation: “this literary kerfuffle comes at a moment of intense debate about cultural appropriation, and more specifically, whether authors have the right to create characters from communities not their own, and what their obligations are should they choose to do so.”

Noreen Malone sees the mismatch between Raja’s background and what Ferrante has led her readers to believe as fueling the outrage directed at Gatti: “I suspect part of what’s going on, below the surface, is disappointment in who Ferrante has turned out to be. She’s not a self-taught peasant who has lived closer to the bone than the rest of us. For all the intimate femaleness of her work, she may or may not have asked her Naples-born husband to (at the very least) fill her in on some of the details of life there.” Malone doesn’t appear to see anything problematic in Raja’s deliberately creating the impression that her background was similar to that of her characters.

It appears I am in a tiny minority here. I am bothered by the deception and understand why Gatti thinks the dishonesty justifies the “unmasking.” Of course Raja has the right to write about women who do not share her class advantages, but I find it disturbing that in her interviews she creates the impression that her work is based on personal experience of deep poverty. If Raja had not tried to create this false impression and simply maintained her anonymity, I wouldn’t have these ethical qualms about her choices.

But, truth be told, it’s not just that I’m disappointed in Raja because of the deception. I am one of those readers Malone describes--disappointed that the person behind the novels did not come from ranks of the Southern Italian poor. As Elena Greco describes her struggle to rise from poverty in the second volume of the Neapolitan novels: “I had obtained a degree in literature with the highest grade. My father hadn’t stopped beyond fifth grade in elementary school, my mother had stopped at second, none of my forebears, as far as I knew, had learned to read and write fluently. It had been an astonishing effort.”

Also, as one of the Ferrante readers who argued passionately against the idea that her books could have been written by a man, I am not happy to think her novels may not be solely the work of a woman writer. Many readers expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author. However, Gatti’s revelations actually provide further support for the oft-made claim that Raja’s husband Domenico Starnone was involved in writing the Neapolitan novels .

The powerfully rendered portrait of growing up in deep poverty in 1950’s Naples feels like it was written from first hand experience. Raja did not have this direct experience but her husband Domenico Starnone was the son of a seamstress and did spend his childhood in Naples. Furthermore Starnone (born in 1943) like Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels (both born in 1944) is much more likely to have lived through the political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s than Anita Raja (born in 1963). I had direct experience of those years (albeit in the US rather than in Italy) and when I read the sections in the Neapolitan novels describing the divisions and arguments then current among the radical left, I was convinced the author was a participant /observer. It was pitch perfect--however, pitch perfect from the point of view of a woman. Does this suggest collaboration with Starnone?

Text-analysis software matching Starnone’s writing with Ferrante's has identified him as the likely author of Ferrante’s novels. When I first read about the identification of Starnone as the probable author, I dismissed it out of hand. I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience. Now, I’m not so sure.

So does all this matter? The books have not changed. But will we read them differently knowing that the author is not a woman whose perspective has been shaped by her own experience of extreme poverty, of class and gender discrimination? Will there always be a before and after learning about Raja for (at least some of) Ferrante’s devoted readers?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Sexual harassment: We’ve won a battle, but the war's still going on.

Philadelphia NOW issued a press release and circulated a petition demanding that the Philadelphia Parking Authority(PPA) board fire its Executive Director Vincent Fenerty, found guilty of sexual harassment. From our press release:

An independent investigation has found Mr. Fenerty guilty of sexually harassing an employee over the course of two years during work hours and work-related events. Sexual harassment is never acceptable, but Mr. Fenerty felt entitled to engage "in a series of unwanted and repeatedly discouraged sexual advances" including, but not limited to "inappropriate touching and other untoward, unprofessional conduct" while conducting business for a state-run agency. This is a clear abuse of not only power, but of the tax system that citizens of the city Philadelphia pay into regularly.

By allowing Mr. Fenerty to maintain his current role, the PPA Board is implying that certain individuals in positions of power are above reproach for reprehensible behavior and that sexual harassment of women in the workplace is not a grave enough infraction for dismissal. Although his friends may refer to such sexual misconduct as "a high school puppy love situation," it is sexual harassment by definition: the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

Mr. Fenerty, you must step down from your position as Executive Director. No number of years of "exemplary service" makes you exempt from accepting the consequences of sexually harassing employees in the workplace.

Public pressure from NOW, the Mayor's Commission for Women and other organizations forced PPA to reverse course and dismiss Fenerty. But the dismissal does not resolve the underlying problem. We learned that unlike our city, which has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, PPA has failed to develop adequate policies to deal with sexual harassment.

Furthermore, Philadelphia NOW is concerned that our severely underfunded public schools are not getting the monies owed to them by PPA. The last audit of PPA was in 2009. Philadelphia NOW supports the resolution of Councilwoman Helen Gym calling for a long-overdue full audit of PPA. Unfortunately, Philadelphia City Council did not support the resolution; we are now considering what steps we can take to keep the pressure on PPA.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Creative Africa at the Phila Museum of Art is closing September 25!

Rick and I have a long history of procrastinating and getting to exhibits just as they are closing. We were a little better with Creative Africa which we saw 4 days before its September 25 closing. We were both so glad we didn’t let this one slip by.

Creative Africa is a set of several exhibits about modern African arts and crafts, including photography, fashion, and architecture. The museum staff advises starting with the stunning exhibit of traditional African textiles and then moving on to 20th and 21st century iterations of the tradition.

Traditional African Textiles

I was very surprised to read this disturbing account of 20th c. African inspired textiles:

Discover the surprising story behind the colorful fabrics long associated with African fashion.
A Global Story
The wax printed textiles associated with Central and West Africa have a surprising history. Although consumers in Africa and the diaspora embrace them as African, the fabrics have long been designed and manufactured in Europe, and now in China and India. The most luxurious are the wax prints designed and made in the Netherlands by Vlisco. Shortly after its founding in 1846, the company began exporting imitation batiks to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Three decades later, Vlisco found a new market in West Africa.

In addition to the textile exhibits there is a very powerful photography exhibit and (what we considered the high point of the show) an exhibit on the work of architect Francis Kéré. From the museum website:
Born in Burkina Faso and based in Berlin, Kéré integrates traditional knowledge and craft skills into innovative and sustainable buildings worldwide. In many of his projects, he maximizes local materials and community participation to reduce costs and ecological impact. This exhibition offers a look at some of his award-winning designs within an colorful interactive environment.

As the first son of the head of Gando, his home village in Burkina Faso, Kéré was the only child allowed to attend school in a large city. He later attended the Technical University of Berlin, where he earned a diploma in architecture and engineering. While still a student, he established a charitable foundation, Bricks for Gando, and began to raise money to build a school there.

In Gando, Kéré combined traditional Burkinabe building techniques with modern engineering methods. In 2005 he founded his Berlin office and has since garnered acclaim for his work in Western Africa, Europe, and North America. He is the recipient of the 2014 Schelling Architecture Foundation Award, the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, and the BSI Swiss Architectural Award, among others.

Whenever Fere built a school, he involved the whole village. As Fere put it: "For me, architecture is about process, experimentation, and teamwork."
If you’re in the Philly area, make time for this exhibit this week end!

Friday, September 16, 2016

An idea I wish I had emphasized in Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party

Last week I had an interesting experience in Chuck Pennachio’s University of the Arts politics and media class. The students were actually interested in my book on grassroots politics, Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party--although there was the usual gender pattern. The young men were the ones who said they might consider running for committeeperson. I sure hope Hillary’s election (fingers crossed) encourages more young women to consider politics as a career path.

Several students said they would be more likely to run if the term were 2 years--as opposed to the current 4 year term. For many young people making a commitment to stay in a neighborhood for 4 years is not an option at this stage in their lives.

In a conversation I had about Green Shoots with Committee of Seventy Chair David Thornburgh, he brought up the possibility of returning to a 2 year term for committeepersons and mentioned two people (one a current and the other a former elected official) who suggested this would be the best way to reinvigorate the ward system. It would likely shake things up and get more young people in the political pipeline.

I’ve long thought we should return to 2 year terms but didn’t think it would ever happen as long as Bob Brady was Party Chair. It was Brady's idea to switch to a 4 year term in the early 1990s, thus making it more likely that he would keep ward leaders loyal to him in office and hold on to his post as Chair.

I wish I had incorporated this idea into Green Shoots. There are always some post-publication regrets, but at least I can incorporate this proposal into book events such as event at Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Sept.18.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My favorite bookstore Big Blue Marble was featured in my favorite newspaper the Guardian


My favorite bookstore Big Blue Marble was featured in my favorite newspaper the Guardian. From the Guardian article:

Tapping into Mt. Airy’s ‘shop local’ ethic, Big Blue Marble is a focal point for community activism and feminist, progressive debate (and they sell books, too)
Big Blue Marble is a lesbian-owned (and often lesbian-staffed) general interest store with a feminist, progressive slant. They specialise in children’s books, literary fiction, sci-fi, poetry, and YA, with strong showings in African-American non-fiction, history, contemporary politics and cookbooks. The core of Big Blue Marble Bookstore’s mission is to serve its diverse neighbourhood. In every part of their business, from the books they stock to the events they plan, they seek to represent the diversity of their neighbours.
From Elliott batTzedek (events manager):
We host events and discussions that are urgent for our community and provide experts and activists who help customers understand complex issues. While we have plenty of readings of fiction and poetry, we also have authors, teachers, and leaders talking about the most important topics in our community: Palestine/Israel, global climate change, Syria, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the history of how black artists used plays about lynching to support and strengthen black communities during decades of terror – to name topics from just the last few months.

I had two events for my last book Feminism at Philadelphia at Big Blue Marble and am really looking forward to an event for my new book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, on September 18!

We are so fortunate to have a real bookstore in our neighborhood. Yes, maybe we might save money by buying books online and in big box stores but so much expertise and personal attention to the customer is lost. We are losing too many small shops.

Recently Len Lear wrote an article in the Chestnut Hill Local about the loss of our local camera store. Lear’s article really hit home. My husband and I bought a camera in July and decided not to go a big box store; we were wiling to pay a little more because we wanted someone we could talk to. Unfortunately when we had a problem with the camera, it was too late--the store closed in August. Given changes in technology—all those cameras in our smartphones—the demise of the camera shop was probably inevitable.

The end of the neighborhood bookstore is not inevitable. If we are fortunate enough to have one these stores in our neighborhood, we can patronize them. Instead of ordering our books on Amazon—and I plead guilty here—we can order them though our neighborhood bookstore and keep that store in business.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Some questions about Bernie Sanders Our

I went to a Northwest Philly live-streamed event with Bernie Sanders to get answers to two questions about his new organization,Our Revolution. First, was Bernie’s revolution going to focus on electing progressives at the grassroots? Democrats have never been very good at this; the Republicans have been much better at the long game. In the 1980s, political analysts were remarking on the skill with which what was then called the “New Right” focused on the grassroots—-the party infrastructure at the precinct level as well as low-profile local offices such as school board elections. The right-wing focus on grassroots electoral politics has continued with the Tea Party, the 21st century incarnation of the radical right, wasting no time getting its members elected to political office.

Sanders understands the importance of building from the bottom up and Our Revolution involves just such dedication to the unglamorous work of building a progressive infrastructure at the grassroots. He described those who enlist in his political revolution as: “people who will be fighting at the grassroots level for changes in their local school boards, in their city councils, in their state legislatures and in their representation in Washington.” He answered my first question.

My second question: Is Our Revolution an effort to move the Democratic Party to the left much as the Tea Party yanked the Republican Party to the far right? There is division within the Sanders coalition, with some wanting to build an alternative to the Democratic Party and others wanting to build the progressive wing of the party. Sanders largely ignored this divide. He spoke of supporting progressive candidates--not necessarily Democrats.

In an interview with Amy Goodman’s Democracy NOW, Larry Cohen, the Chair of the Board of Our Revolution suggested that a primary goal was reform of Democratic Party but that the group would also support non-Democrats:

Again, what we will manage and support are these networks of people that are pushing to reform the Democratic Party, as I mentioned, at the state level, like a Jane Kleeb, at the local level, independents like two candidates running for the Richmond, California, City Council—in many cases, Democrats, in many cases, not.

It is possible to focus on reform of Democratic Party and also, because of the circumstances of a particular election, support an Independent. However, there was no acknowledgement of the existence of any tension between the two approaches nor any indication how the Sanders revolution envisioned balancing these potentially conflicting goals.

The Our Revolution website lists the candidates Sanders is supporting without mentioning their party affiliation. As far as I can tell, they are Democrats, but the failure to identify them as such suggests that Sanders is reaching out to progressives who may not want to work within the Democratic Party.

I want the “political revolution” based in the Democratic Party--at this point that seems the surest path to building a winning coalition. At some point the current party configuration will change and we are certainly overdue for a realignment. The last time this occurred was in 1854 when the Republican Party supplanted the Whig Party. Eventually we will have something other than D’s and R’s but I don’t see this on the horizon in the near future.

There is another compelling reason for Sanders to base the revolution in the Democratic Party. Any new party would be overwhelmingly white. Many African Americans have deep loyalty to the Democratic Party and recently this has become the case among Latinos and Asian Americans. And yes the Sanders coalition has support among people of color, but at this point nowhere near enough support to build the kind of progressive movement Sanders envisions. A winning progressive coalition must be multi-racial/multicultural and that coalition can most easily be forged within the Democratic Party.

In many places the local Democratic Party is ripe for takeover. In Philadelphia the Democratic Party machine is a shadow of its former self and can best be understood as a group of often competing machines rather than as a monolith. Nonetheless, even in its weakened state, the Party machine still has an infrastructure of ward leaders and committeepersons. However, there will be opportunities for significant change as the party is currently staffed by ward leaders and committeepersons already in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. The current configuration cannot last much longer. And as I argue in Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party,changing that infrastructure, although a long, slow process, is arguably easier than building a competing structure.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sometimes the best vacation trips are just visiting old friends!

Sometimes the best vacation trips are just visiting old friends. At this stage of life, many of my friends are no longer doing long distance driving. Since we’re still able to do it, we’re the ones who have to reach out. We just returned from New England to visit old friends in Cambridge MA--Rick’s old friend from first grade(!!) Norman and his wife Fran. They have been living the past 40 years in a house in Cambridge crammed with books. Norman is no longer much interested in travel but through a world of books he is roaming the world. It raises interesting questions: who is the real traveler: someone on a packaged tour to China or Norman at home in Cambridge currently immersed in Chinese literature?

After Cambridge, we went to Vermont to visit an old friend of mine, Bob and his wife Susan who is now a good friend of mine and Rick’s.
One of the benefits of long term marriage is that my friends become Rick’s friends and vice versa. (Exceptions, of course). My friendships don’t go back almost 70 years like Rick’s. My oldest friends go back to the my college years and I’ve know Bob for over 40 years. He is still working and has a very demanding job, so it’s easier for us to visit him and Susan. They have a beautiful house about a half hour from Burlington VT with a pond, many acres of land, and a gorgeous garden which Susan designed.

I envy Susan her vast canvas that she can fill with plants. My garden has reached capacity and I can only cram in another plant if one dies—-which my plants obligingly do on a regular basis. However much as I love the beauty of rural Vt., I could not give up urban life. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The stars of my mid-August garden


August is a difficult month for gardeners—so much death and disease in the garden and sometimes I’m tempted to just give up. My garden is mainly spring and early summer shrubs and perennials. August is the time sun-loving annuals come into their own, but I don’t have too many of those—-mainly because I don’t have much full sun.

The full sun I do have is largely devoted to summer blooming bulbs like Dahlias which keep going until frost. True it’s necessary to dig them up and they are not the easiest bulbs to winter over but they are worth all the trouble.One of my favorite summer bulbs is Acidanthera AKA Abyssinian Gladiolus summer which is easy to grow and generally disease free:

The there are dazzling white species lilies--the last of the lilies:

Although my garden is at its best in Spring and early Summer, I do have some perennials which reliably bloom in August, such as the rudbeckia(variety unknown) which was here when we moved here decades ago; it has probably been flourishing in this garden for 50-60 years.

There’s also Rudbeckia Herbstone, the tallest of all, which is slowly taking over the garden.

I used to have a whole lot of pink and white phlox which blended beautifully with the gold of the rudbeckia, but a vicious groundhog has destroyed my phlox for 3 years in a row. It’s time to cut my losses and dig up the phlox.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Is drinking wine the key to a happy marriage?

According to a recent report in The Journals of Gerontology: “Researchers found that couples who drink wine together say they are happier over time. Wives reported they were happier when their husbands drank wine and less happy when they didn't.” Wine, it turns out, could be one ingredient for a happy marriage.

I always believed this to be case but it’s nice to have scientific validation. Rick and I have been sharing a bottle of wine just about every night for the past 36 years. My guess is the reason it contributes to a good marriage is that wine forces you to slow down. You don’t rush through your meal when you are having wine with dinner. And that means you talk to each other. It’s an investment in your marriage.

I have seen couples over the ears immersed in their careers who thought they could tend to their marriage later on, but it usually doesn’t work that way; sometimes when a marriage is neglected there is no later on.

So Rick and I will keep drinking wine as long as we can, and when we are too old or sick, let’s hope there will be legalized marijuana for our old age.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Will Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” lead to a surge of progressive activism on the local level?

On, the first day of the Democratic Convention, I tried to attend a Progressive Democrats of America event billed as “The Revolution Continues: Progressive Candidate and Engagement Training” but it turned out to be pre-empted by a meeting for Bernie Sanders delegates only. The Bernie delegates I saw were overwhelmingly young, enthusiastic and seemed more like a crowd of supporters of a victorious candidate than supporters of the guy who lost.

But then in a sense Bernie won. As he put it: “we produced, by far, the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Among many other strong provisions, the Democratic Party now calls for breaking up the major financial institutions on Wall Street and the passage of a 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act. It also calls for strong opposition to job-killing free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” These are real accomplishments and progressives owe a lot to the Sanders’ campaign.

On July 25, the streets of Philadelphia were teeming with enthusiastic Bernie supporters. They’ve enlisted in the political revolution. Some see building an alternative to the Democratic Party as the only option and I can understand why. My hope is that they will instead build a strong progressive base within the Democratic Party, and that starts on the grassroots. From Chris Rabb, who recently took on the Philadelphia political establishment and won a state house seat by a decisive margin, in his blurb for my book the Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party : “The Democratic Party must be genuinely democratic and transparent on the grassroots level if it is to be a force for change on the national level.”

Grassroots organizing was the the theme of of another DNC connected event organized by City Councilwoman Helen Gym and focused on local action. The event was sponsored by groups trying to advance a progressive agenda on the local level: Local Progress; The New American Leaders Project; Young Elected Officials Network; Wellstone. The audience was much more diverse than the gathering of Bernie supporters at the PA Convention Center and many were elected officials on the local level. It was heartening to realize there’s already so much grassroots progressive activism.

Right wing activists have tended to be more focused on local politics than the progressive left. In the 1980s, political analysts were remarking on the skill with which what was then called the “New Right” focused on the grassroots—the party infrastructure at the precinct level as well as low-profile local offices such as school board elections. The right-wing focus on electoral politics continued as the Tea Party, the 21st century incarnation of the radical right, wasted no time getting its members elected to political office. Countering the values and policies of the Republican Party involves just such dedication to the unglamorous work of building a progressive infrastructure at the grassroots. There may be more drama and excitement in national politics but successful national movements must have strong local support. Let’s hope Bernie Sanders’ political revolution takes this local turn.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The moment I’ve been waiting for: Casa Blanca is in bloom!

I love lilies and what I love most of all are the mid-July oriental lilies with their musky fragrance I just can’t get enough of. The first to bloom is the deep pink, very reliable Stargazer:

Next the impossibly tall, glistening white Casa Blanca:

My idea of bliss is sitting in our garden late at night sipping a glass of wine and taking in the intoxicating fragrance of Casa Blanca

I’m sure that Casa Blanca is the lily DH Lawrence had in mind when in Sons and Lovers he described a pregnant Mrs. Morel pushed out of her house after an ugly fight with her husband:

She became aware of something about her. With an effort she roused herself to see what it was that penetrated her consciousness. The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight. and the air was charged with their perfume, as with a presence. Mrs. Morel gasped slightly in fear. She touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals, then shivered. They seemed to be stretching in the moonlight. She put her hand into one white bin: the gold scarcely showed on her fingers by moonlight. She bent down to look at the binful of yellow pollen; but it only appeared dusky. Then she drank a deep draught of the scent. It almost made her dizzy.

Mrs. Morel leaned on the garden gate, looking out, and she lost herself awhile. She did not know what she thought. Except for a slight feeling of sickness, and her consciousness in the child, herself melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time the child, too, melted with her in the mixing- pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.

When I first read Lawrence I wasn't a gardener and didn't pay much attention to the way Lawrence often used his characters’ reactions to flowers and trees as a way of probing their emotional states. But when I re-read Sons and Lovers years later, after I became hooked on gardening, I appreciated this dimension of Lawrence. And I was convinced that the lily described in this passage this was Casa Blanca—or more likely an earlier less hybridized version.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Passionately in love with love with Lilies!

One of the best things about our decision to avoid travel in the summer (except for a week in Block island) is that I don‘t miss any of my beloved lilies.

The first to arrive--usually the second or third week in June-- are the much despised orange daylilies which grow by roadsides. I have more than I can use, but I can’t give them away. Most people view them as little better than weeds. But there’s nothing more beautiful than a huge mass of orange daylilies. I’m sure if they were rare and hard to grow they would be considered beautiful and highly prized.

The gorgeous hybridized daylilies bloom later in June and through July; they are generally much shorter than the rangy orange ones. Some of my favorites: the repeat bloomer rosy returns:

My all time favorite a purple day lily whose name I unfortunately cannot remember:

Then come the hyper-hybridized Asiatic lilies. They have large, showy flowers but unfortunately no fragrance and unlike the daylilies they tend not to return. My favorite, Landini, a deep burgundy lily, generally blooms for one year and disappears. It's so beautiful,I succumb to the temptation to buy new bulbs every year.

Next come the regal lilies. The most beautiful of all is lilium regal album which has the most astonishing fragrance. I realize this sounds strange, but the best way I can describe it is a sweet lily fragrance mixed with a peppery scent. The regal lilies are temperamental and don't reliably return. They require full sun and most of my garden is partial sun, but I love regal lilies so much I keep trying to grow them.

Then the first of the Orientals-a miniature oriental, Mona Lisa. Its musky oriental lily fragrance is far from miniature and it has the advantage of not needing to be staked.

The best are yet to come in mid July!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Revisiting my 2009 4th of July post

While trying to figure out how best to re-organize my blog, I came across this July 4, 2009 post, "Why I feel better about the 4th of July now that Obama is President.” From the post:

Yes, the 4th of July feels different with Obama as President. To quote Michelle, for the first time in my life, I feel proud of my country.

I brought it up at a 4th of July dinner with my sister, her husband and some friends. My sister said she never liked the 4th of July. It was always hellishly hot, and when her kids were young she had to go to those awful barbecues, parades and mosquito-infested fireworks displays. And as a member of the Vietnam War generation, she didn’t feel very good about her country. None of our friends were the patriotic types.

When we talked about it over the phone yesterday, she said that Obama’s election made her feel more patriotic not just because his victory signals that racism is waning, but also because Obama obviously loves his country warts and all. If he could get over what he called our country's “tragic history,’ maybe she could too. I had never thought of it that way but it made sense and maybe explained some of my (more or less) change of heart.

In this and other posts written in the first year of the Obama administration before the extent of Republican obstructionism and the depth of Tea Party racism became apparent, I was an optimist. Subsequent years have tempered that optimism although it has not diminished my admiration for Obama. I would happily vote for him for a third term.

Although (I think) on some level I still believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, the optimism of the 2008 election is long gone. I have difficulty believing that this country could actually elect a racist buffoon like Trump. I will be working for Hillary but with grim determination--not the joyous optimism of 2008.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The 2016 NOW Conference, a Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of NOW’s Contributions to the Feminist Movement.

This past weekend I attended the 2016 NOW conference, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of NOW’s contributions to the feminist movement. The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes.

I was a participant on a panel “Documenting our History and Digitizing NOW Chapter Archives” and am happy to report that many of our members are involved in the effort to document feminist history on the grassroots level. The feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s is largely remembered in terms of national leaders such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Eleanor Smeal, but it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities working tirelessly for gender justice.

NOW shares credit with many other feminist organizations (as well as a loose network of feminist bookstores, coffee houses, and consciousness raising groups) for the dramatic changes in hearts and minds, but NOW was the main engine behind the victories in state and national legislatures and in the courts.

NOW has had an extraordinarily successful first 50 years, but will NOW have another 50 years? When I wrote my history of Feminism in Philadelphia, I ended my book with my thoughts on the future:
It’s not clear to what extent NOW’s veteran members are willing to make changes to adapt to the interests, needs and priorities of a new generation. However, even if NOW makes some of the recently proposed procedural changes, it still has a problem not easily addressed—the disaffection of many young activists with hierarchically organized groups with clear leadership structures. Also, generational tensions are intertwined with race/class tensions. The founding generation, now over 65 is part of a demographic cohort which is largely white; feminists under 25 are part of a demographic cohort which is far more racially/ethnically diverse. If NOW is to look like America, it must figure out how to reach this younger, more diverse group, now commonly referred to as the millennial generation.

A good friend of mine, a long time NOW member and chapter president, said, “I think NOW leaders should announce that NOW is disbanding. We have accomplished a great deal. Now we can declare victory and make room for new feminist organizations.” (I think she was joking—but not sure.) However, it’s not so easy to start a new national organization. One of the great strengths of NOW is its structure operating on all levels of government. This has enabled the organization to function effectively in the political arena, and was certainly a major factor in the legislative victories of the 1970’s and beyond.

I sure don’t want to see NOW disappear, but it does need to change. Over the years, members have raised questions about NOW’s requirement that members be physically present at the national conventions to vote for officers. Just recently procedures changed so that elections for board members are no longer made at the regional level but at national conferences, further consolidating power at the national level. This effectively disenfranchises those who lack the financial resources to travel to national conventions and gives a tremendous advantage to those who live near the convention site.

Historically, board members who decide the location of the convention have at times tried to get a site favorable to their preferred candidates. Mail or email voting would minimize the impact of the conference’s location and would shift power away from national board members; not surprisingly, it has been resisted by those in power. From Feminism in Philadelphia:
This issue has been raised over and over again in NOW’s history. At the 1973 National NOW Conference, a mail ballot for officers and at large board members was defeated. According to the conference minutes, Betty Friedan argued passionately against the resolution: “Finally, no mail ballots. You want to be able to have people see who they are and elect who they are on the basis of what they commit themselves to when your polices are made here.”

The recorder may have mangled Friedan’s statement, which as recorded, is not a clearly expressed argument. She appears to be saying that to cast an informed vote, members must have the opportunity to hear candidates describe their positions and vision for NOW in person. A former NOW officer at the 2012 conference defended in-person voting on similar grounds and further argued that those who are most committed and willing to travel should be the ones who choose NOW’s leaders.
Former Philadelphia NOW officers Elizabeth Parziale and Barbara Mitchell reported that this was an issue during their involvement in Philadelphia NOW in the 1970’s. Since participation in NOW conventions involved travel, according to Barbara Mitchell, delegates to national and state conferences were often chosen based on their ability to pay: “And so the people who had the money, who could go and wouldn’t have to charge Philadelphia NOW… It was easier to pick those people to be delegates.” There is clearly a compelling argument for not linking voting rights in national NOW to having the resources to travel.

This issue was raised once again at the 2016 NOW conference by members who want to see an email or mail-in ballot in place by the 2017 convention which will elect new officers. The objections to an email or mail-in ballot echoed those made at previous conferences:
It would be too expensive
It would make it easier for NOW to be taken over by an organized force.
Leaders should be elected by the activists [presumably defined as those who attend NOW conferences]
Leaders should be elected by those who have had the opportunity to hear candidates present their platform in-person at national conferences.
Underlying all these objections was the sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit theme that an email or mail-in ballot would be a radical move that would fundamentally change the nature of the organization.

The proponents of change effectively answered these arguments and officers of PA NOW, Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton, also offered a compromise proposal that would reduce the costs of a mail-in ballot: NOW members would be notified by mail that they had the option of voting electronically through the NOW website. Instead of sending mail-in ballots to all members, NOW would provide the opportunity for members to opt-in. This proposal was rejected, as was the original language. It was clear that the majority of those present at the plenary session were not interested in any changes to NOW’s method of electing officers.

Caryn Hunt argued that concerns about costs and security had to be weighed against the need for inclusion. She (and others) made the case that NOW activists are not limited to those who attend national conferences; she knows many committed activists in her state who do not have the resources to attend national conferences or whose health and/or family obligations preclude their attendance. PA NOW executive board member Susan Woodland noted that “to assume that only the people sitting in this room are activists is insulting to activists.”

To my amazement, in response to the argument that it is undemocratic to require a person to attend the conference in order to vote as it excludes many active members, one member insisted “that every NOW member has the right to attend this conference.” A right that a member can’t afford to exercise isn’t much of a right!

Amanda Schroeder, a union activist from Oregon, asked us to look around the room filled with largely white, middle class, older women and noted that this group was not representative of the overall membership of NOW and certainly not representative of women in the United States. She also stated that her union used a mail-in ballot for election of officers and had had no problems with fraud or breaches of security.

I grant that there are NOW members with legitimate concerns about costs and security issues but for others their opposition appears to stem primarily from fear of change. Michele Hamilton noted the irony: “NOW has a long history of advocating for voting rights everywhere but in its own procedures for electing officers.”

Unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to speak to the issue had an opportunity. Two of our Philadelphia NOW officers, Krishna Rami and Steve Paul—young people of color from immigrant families--were next in line to speak when the chair ended debate. These are exactly the young people NOW is on record as wanting to recruit and I would very much have liked the members to have heard their perspective.

In Philadelphia NOW we have worked very hard to build a diverse chapter and we want to ensure that our new members have a vote and a voice in our national organization. Our members need to see themselves as part of a national project, and conversely the national organization must incorporate their insights and perspectives—a two-way street. Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton intend to bring up the issue of an email or mail-in ballot again at the next conference: “We’ll keep bringing it up every year until we win.” Time and demographics are on their side.

I hope that NOW incorporates the perspectives of Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton (and others) and that, as a consequence of doing so, celebrates its 100th anniversary!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Block Island in June!

My husband Rick and I just returned from what has become our regular June trip to Block Island. We started going in July/ August, then we tried September and have finally settled on early June as the the ideal time. The island is covered with rugosa roses, it is still relatively uncrowded, and the rental prices are roughly half those of late June through August. There is a downside—-it’s too cold to go in the water. There are always trade-offs and for me this one is worth it.

We rent a house big enough to invite friends and relatives. For years I have wanted to stay on Mohegan Cliffs, one of the most beautiful parts of the island and this year we finally managed it. This year’s house:

We loved the location and the ocean view, but it’s a very vertical house with the kitchen on the third(!!) floor and thus lots of climbing up and down stairs. Trade offs, trade-offs.

One of our guests was a good friend who loves Block Island as much as we do. She started going to Block Island many years ago and said that the island hasn’t change in 40 years--it’s always the same. And there’s a reason for that, the Block Island Conservancy.

From the Conservancy website:

More than 40% of the Island is preserved as open space in perpetuity; a legacy that will be passed to future generations. This achievement provides recreational areas, preserves scenic views, protects crucial habitats for rare plants and animals, and protects the natural recharging of the Island’s sole source aquifer, its only water supply. But there is still much to be done. All open land is critical to maintaining the heritage and character that is Block Island.

Unlike Martha’s Vineyard which is so large and developed that you’re often not aware you’re on an island, on little Block Island you are almost always within sight of the ocean. And there's no problem with beach access. There are no mega mansions commandeering large stretches of beach.

Some photos from this year’s trip:
Block Island is a bird-lover's paradise

The ruins of a mansion destroyed by fire on Mansion Beach

wildflowers at Mansion Beach

Lighthouse at Mohegan Cliffs