Not those women who lure sailors
onto a reef with their singing and their tresses,
but the screams of an ambulance
bearing the sick, the injured, and the dying
across the rational grid of the city.
We get so used to the sound
it’s just another sharp in the city’s tune.
Yet it’s one thing to stop on a sidewalk
with other pedestrians to watch one
flashing and speeding down an avenue
while a child on a corner covers her ears
and a shopkeeper appears in a doorway,
but another thing when one gets stuck
in traffic and seems to be crying for its mother
who has fled to another country.
Everyone keeps walking along then,
eyes cast down—for after all,
there’s nothing we can do,
and today we are not the one peering
up at the face of an angel dressed in scrubs.
Some of us are late for appointments
a few blocks away, while others
have the day off and take their time
angling across a broad, leafy avenue
before being engulfed by the green of a park.
“Sirens” by Billy Collins from The Rain in Portugal. © Random House, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815) (books by this author), the American feminist, women’s rights pioneer, and abolitionist who, with fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony, worked tirelessly to convince the world that women had the right to vote, purchase property, and divorce their husbands if they so chose.
Stanton was born in Johnstown, New York, the eighth of 11 children. Her father was a prominent lawyer, judge, and congressman who made no secret of favoring his sons over Stanton. Nevertheless, she was allowed to study Greek and mathematics and to have the full run of her father’s law library, where she first became aware of the laws that restricted women’s freedom. Incensed, she once tried to cut out offending passages from her father’s books in order to invalidate them. Later, she said, “Thus was the future object of my life foreshadowed and my duty plainly outlined.”
Stanton married fellow abolitionist Henry Stanton. They agreed to omit the word “obey” from the wedding vows and settled in Seneca Falls, New York, where Stanton, an advocate for birth control and what she called “voluntary motherhood,” had seven children. She was unable to travel very much because of her children, referring to herself as a “caged lioness,” but she’d forged a deep friendship with fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who had no children, and so was free to travel. In between bathing her children and preparing their meals, Stanton took to writing speeches that pressed the need for women’s rights, and Anthony delivered them. Stanton later wrote of their partnership, “I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them.”
Stanton and 300 women’s rights activists, including Lucretia B. Mott, gathered in Seneca Falls in July of 1848 for what is now known as the “Seneca Falls Convention.” They drew up the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that essentially rewrote the Declaration of Independence to include women. In it, they argued for a woman’s right to vote.
Even though she was not legally allowed to vote, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first woman to run for Congress, in 1866. She received 24 votes. She also pressed for more liberal divorce laws and marriage laws, including a wife’s right to withhold sex from her husband. She wrote to a friend, “We are, as a sex, infinitely superior to men, and if we were free and developed, healthy in body and mind, as we should be under natural conditions, our motherhood would be our glory. That function gives women such wisdom and power as no male can possess.”
During the later years of her life, she became increasingly consumed with addressing sexism in the Bible. In 1895, she published the first volume of The Woman’s Bible, which challenged the religious orthodoxy that women should be subservient to men. It was an instant best-seller, going through seven printings in six months, but her fellow suffragists felt that Stanton’s views on the Bible distracted from their goal of attaining the right to vote, and she was ousted from the National Women’s Suffragist Association.
Stanton was unapologetic, saying, “Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek, in plain English it does not exalt and dignify women.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that another serious examination of sexism in the Bible was undertaken by feminist scholars.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography is Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences, 1815–1897. She died, bedridden and ill, in 1902, 18 years before women were legally granted the right to vote. Though she was not allowed to attend college or university because of her sex, her daughters were, and did.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives, but as nouns.”
Today is the birthday of author Tracy Kidder (books by this author), born in New York City (1945). He discovered Hemingway during his freshman year of college, and was captivated by Hemingway’s larger-than-life persona. “He introduced me to the idea of the writer as himself a hero,” Kidder said. He’s the author of several award-winning nonfiction books, including Strength in What Remains (2009), Among Schoolchildren (1989), and House (1985).
His first book of nonfiction, The Soul of a New Machine (1981), was an in-depth look at the engineers who were at work on a microcomputer in the late 1970s. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Kidder returned to the computer world with his latest book, A Truck Full of Money (2016). It’s a biography of the software pioneer and internet entrepreneur Paul English. The title comes from a remark made by one of English’s colleagues: “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him.” That “someday” came when English sold Kayak, the travel search engine he developed, to the Priceline Group for nearly 2 billion dollars.
From A Truck Full of Money: “Upstairs, all the emotions of a big family were swirling around — arguments, many competing sorrows — and there was nothing he could do up there to change what worried and upset him. But he could always figure out how to tell the computer to do what he wanted, and it didn’t argue back or ignore him.”
“If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger —
“If you have never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well-meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early —
“If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless —
“If such things have not been part of your own experience, you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next.”
It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Neil Young (books by this author), born in Toronto (1945). His first musical influence was his grandmother, Jean. He said: “Jean was great, just a free-spirited musician. She’s got to be the root. It’s just ... the way she was. Everybody liked her. She was outgoing — but there was always something about her that you didn’t quite have a grip on. She sang like a bird and played piano. She would gather people around, sing at the drop of a hat, always putting on shows for the miners and stuff. She was a working musician. I saw her and heard her play the piano, and she was great.” His uncle was also a fine musician who played the ukulele, so that was the instrument that Young learned on, and for many years he played only the ukulele, but finally he picked up a guitar. Young dropped out of high school, played in some rock bands, and then, when he turned 21 and could no longer play in the teen clubs, he started writing and singing folk music. His albums include After the Gold Rush (1970), Harvest (1972), Comes a Time (1978), Freedom (1989), Prairie Wind (2005), and most recently, Earth (2016).