What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

This summer has found Americans arguing over religion. What do we think of a baker who refused, on grounds of religious liberty, to make a cake celebrating a gay couple’s marriage? Should Catholic hospitals consider offering contraceptive services if they’re the only hospital in their region? Is it ever a good idea to turn to Scripture in order to justify or criticize government policies? Arguments like those made news. Other moments, in which someone looked with kindness, indifference, or contempt at a neighbor’s hijab, or crucifix, or flying spaghetti monster bumper sticker, didn’t. But in their daily accumulation, those small encounters also make history: the history of how people who disagree on things they consider supremely important, decide how and whether they will live in peace.

Elizabeth SetonNext month Cornell University Press will publish Elizabeth Seton, my biography of the woman who in 1975 became the first native born American citizen to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton (1774-1821) changed her mind about her beliefs more than once during her life, and she also changed her mind about whether what she believed in should affect the society around her. As a very young woman, Seton laughed at the idea that faith needed any particular doctrinal content: if one found one’s way to cheerfulness and harmony, then all was well. This form of religion neither inspired Seton nor offended anyone else.

 

In her early thirties, after years of personal tragedy and spiritual inquiry, Seton converted to Catholicism. Her new faith allowed her to create a women’s religious community whose spiritual daughters serve others to this day. It also left Seton ablaze with certainty that only those who believed as she did were on the path to salvation. Her efforts to convince others of this angered many in her cosmopolitan Manhattan circle: they thought that faith should be held privately, its edges smoothed to avoid friction. Seton felt her friends’ and family’s insistence that she should keep her faith to herself was an assault on her beliefs and good intentions. Friends and family found her proselytizing a violation of their right to be left alone.  Everyone felt unfairly judged.

Within a decade, Seton had once again changed her mind. And although she continued to believe that the Catholic Church was the only safe path to God, she no longer tried to persuade others to follow it. Neither the venerable magisterium of the Catholic Church nor the First Amendment, its ink still damp, deserve the credit for this view; Seton’s growing desire for harmony and her growing spiritual humility do. She now believed that her faith imposed a different kind of obligation than she’d first believed, an obligation to offer specific, loving attention to those around her. Nurturing relationships, not spreading doctrine, would be the external manifestation of her faith. She wanted, she wrote, to “constantly find occasions of rendering [others] good offices and exercising kindness and good will towards them.”

As the summer’s arguments show, living harmoniously when people disagree vehemently will always be challenging. So will the act of creating a faith community that makes no unwanted claims on those outside it, but is meaningful to those within. Yet I think often of the principle Elizabeth Seton set forth late in her life: “Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.” Amid our many (and necessary) arguments, this seems like a promising place to start.

————–

Related upcoming event of interest: Living History Tour 

For more on Elizabeth Seton visit:

Daughters of Charity Federation

National Shrine of Elizabeth Seton

About the author of this blog post: Catherine O’Donnell is an historian at Arizona State University.  She writes and teaches about early America, religion, and the Atlantic World.

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)

The Fourth of July is so close you can almost sense it. And to most people, it feels like freedom and independence. But how does it feel to the Muslim American women wearing a headscarf (or hijab) on that day?

The question about the headscarf, its meaning, and, more than anything, the experience of the women that wear it, has fascinated me for a long time. Maybe because some people don’t seem to think much about it, beyond the simple act of wearing a scarf in itself; maybe because to others, it evokes sentiments of distrust and anxiety, led mainly by stereotypical images propagated on TV.

In April 2014 I traveled to Turkey and asked questions about this practice myself. Because I knew little about it, I was surprised to find out that most Muslim women embraced the covering of their hair, and sometimes their whole body, as an expression of their identities. They talked about religious liberty, their sense of femininity carefully embroidered and woven in cloth.

A few years later, as I strolled the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, I was witness to the same phenomena. Arm in arm, gossiping in their burkas, or with smiling eyes in a hijab, women were voicing their beliefs. How is it that I had not seen through the veil of my own cultural bias, unable to understand the subtleties of wearing a head-covering scarf?

HEADSCARF

The issue of Islamic head-covering and the political and social debates on the topic are as multiple as they are complex. This 4th of July, I invite those interested in unveiling its construction and political consequences, to listen to our latest podcast with Bozena Welborne, Aubrey Westfall, and Sarah Tobin, co-authors of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States.

On this Independence Day, their book provides us with a chance to hear from Muslim American women, to learn about their values and beliefs, and how they express their identities in a country that aims to be the model of democratic pluralism.

 

 

“I love identifying myself as that, as a Muslim American, especially in that order, too, because this is my country and my religion is the most important to me. But after that, like . . .  this is where I was born, this is where I was raised and I was born with these values, American values of tolerating freedom of expression and freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and I think that’s one reason why our country is so successful is because we’re tolerating so much diversity and therefore people from all over the world can come and bring their talents into our country. So, I take a lot of pride in that phrase, Muslim American.”

—The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States (p.162)

 


 

Recommended artist to follow with this post:

http://www.boushraart.com/

 

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to travel around the world and meet people from various countries, with different cultural values and religious beliefs, and to be part of a diverse, multi-cultural and heterogeneous community.

 

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE

Today’s the day. It’s Primary #ElectionDay in seven American states, and this election season, it seems that no one is willing to sit on the sidelines. Women will vote, and make sure their voices are heard. But as we all know, this wasn’t always the case.

women will vote.jpgIn their book Women Will Vote, Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello explain how the 1917 referendum that marked women’s right to full suffrage in New York State was a turning point in history. The victory at the polls signified the coming together of rural, urban, African American, Jewish, immigrant, and European American women. And, also, a victory for the male suffragists that supported it.

As Goodier and Pastorello point out, only when upper-class women convinced the majority of men to support them, did suffrage succeed. After all, at the time only men made political decisions, and only with men on board did women finally have the power, and the number of voters needed, to get the legislation passed.

Moreover, the authors argue that the popular nature of the women’s suffrage movement in New York State, and the resounding success of the referendum at the polls, relaunched suffrage as a national issue. If women had failed to gain the vote in New York, they claim, there is good reason to believe that the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment would have been delayed. Today many, if not most, political battles start at the state level; and the activism behind New York women’s victory in 1917 is clear proof that local efforts spur social change. As mentioned in our #1869 podcast celebrating the 2017 centenary of the referendum, we should remember that New York State was the tipping point in the national movement that finally gave women a political voice and vote.

Today #NYCvotes and polls will be open through 8:00 PM. Reflecting on the story of Women Will Vote let’s try to bring back the notion of coalition the women who fought for suffrage embodied, and remember that by coming together in spite of our differences we’ll be better citizens, ones able to focus on common goals, and to act for the common good of our society.

——

Featured upcoming event:

“The Greatest Victory: Women Will Vote” presentation by Karen Pastorello, on Friday July 6th, from 6pm to 7pm. More details here: https://thehistorycenter.net/calendar

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She admires women like her grandmother Delia, doctor and poetry writer, who advocate and stand for women’s rights.

On this #ElectionDay, WOMEN WILL VOTE

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

It’s National Poetry Month and the Academy of American Poets have come up with 30 different ways to celebrate it. The ideas are creative and include subscribing to a daily digital poetry series featuring more than 200 previously unpublished poems, chalking a poem on a sidewalk or memorizing one, and listening to Mark Doty’s talk, “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now.” NPR has claimed that “you can bet we’re not letting April slip by without a nod to the art of the verse,” inviting listeners to submit a 140-character poem on Twitter together with the hashtag #NPRpoetry, and at Cornell University Press, we feel the same.

Our 1869 podcast interviewing author Susan Eisenberg on her latest book, Stanley’s Girl, a collection of touching poems about gender inclusion, sexual violence and women in the workplace, has inspired us to add one more idea to the list. And for that purpose, we have invited two women at the Press to contribute their own poetic visions of the world. The result is insightful and exciting, and together with our selection of fine poetry books, they make us part of what has become the largest poetry celebration in the world:

 

Baltimore, You Are a Pocket Full of Copper Nails

by Cheryl Quimba

A lot of the time I want to push people

into giant manholes then fly down

to save them, introduce myself as their

long-lost sister who has finally sold everything

to come home. They would be confused but then

so happy for having found something they didn’t know

was lost, and it would feel like a piano playing

beams of colored light against the wall.

In your poems I’m always sad and saying

sad things but in real life I say I am the mountain

sitting on this park bench, so small a microscope needs

binoculars to find me. Baltimore is filled with dirty bathrooms

but no one cares because fun is happening.

Where I live the places where

people die are marked with stuffed animals tied

to lamp posts. There is a store called Hair Strategies

and little kids push strollers filled with

cans of soda up and down the medians.

I like to cross the street like

I’m walking through a casino.

The bells are ringing and ringing

and ringing goodbye.

Quimba, Cheryl. (2015). Nobody Dancing. Publishing Genius Press

 

Meticulous Landscaping

by Ana Carpenter

Here in the passenger side lie Wendy’s bags crumpled by boots

The gentle pungent mulch compacts beneath each nail

Picking at the leather seats to stroke the tattered brail

And decode Dad’s lesson of the day like stringed stray roots:

The ones you mulched over the mornings of summer through July.

Disembarking the diesel F450 with silver smokestacks,

You’re mapping on your hands the clay-dried, thorn-bruised cracks

Wiping the Wendy’s grease on your sister’s off-brand “Nike” slacks

Step out into the cicada-thick air where, like Wendy’s, you fry.

You let the grass prick your bare calves and adjust in the sticky bed

Wiping soil across your forehead, swatting away flying things

And quietly recoiling from the grubs unearthed as dad sings,

Something he beat-boxed under his breath about marriage and rings-

Wash your hands in the cold hose-water until they turn Wendy-hair red.

 

80140106652980L
Order Stanley’s Girl here

 

Other suggested media for our readers on #NationalPoetryMonth:

 

Cheryl Quimba is the Publicity Manager at CUP. She eats, sleeps, and breathes books (but loves a good movie or music debate any day). Follow her on Twitter @ cheryl_quimba.

Ana Carpenter is a member of the Cornell University Class of 2019 and Student Publishing Associate at Cornell University Press. In her free time she likes to sing, salsa, be in the company of dogs of all shapes and sizes, and collect mugs to home-brew cheap coffee.

 

Won’t you celebrate with me? 31 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month

You Know How It Is

You know how it is. You go to school, you get a degree, find a career, maybe you meet some cute girl . . . 

Wait—what? If you’re like me, you only too often find yourself reading something like this sentence above, describing some supposedly potential universal human experience only to find out mid-message that it’s been crafted, explicitly or implicitly, by and for men (at least, straight men). From novels to scholarly texts to departmental advertisements language that is meant to appeal to people in general too often ends up excluding over half of the population. And it’s not some little thing—the exclusion is felt like an invisible punch to the gut. At least, that’s what happens to me. I’ll start reading a work of philosophy, or a [male] academic’s webpage, or really pretty much anything at all, and at some point, usually right when I’m starting to empathically nod along to the flow of the narrative, I’ll stumble across an often unintended reveal of the male-ness of the intended “you,” and I’ll get a jolt of recognition. It’s not the interpolated recognition of inclusion into the larger social narrative that I thought I was part of, but the recognition that I’m actually not included after all—that I’m an “other,” the extra category that people are too often trying but failing to incorporate into the thread of society. It reminds me that the protagonist of popular culture and academia is too often men, and that the implicated reader is male, too. In the era of #MeToo and Times Up, when the ubiquity of explicit forms of sexual harassment is becoming more and more visible (more visible, that is, only to those in power who had previously convinced themselves it wasn’t so pervasive), let’s take a moment also to consider the more invisible, even unconscious obstacles that women face while working to succeed in their chosen paths in life. As we know, language matters. Saying “he” to mean “everyone,” or “man” to mean “human,” isn’t some quaint shorthand for the universal person, to be dismissed with an eye-rolling shrug when exclusivity is pointed out. Talking about “you” when the you being talked about isn’t everyone excludes as much as it includes. This is why virtually all academic journals no longer allow the use of “he” to cover “all”—and it’s why we need to do even more to recognize the unstated assumptions that go into our words. This is as true for Black History Month as it is for Women’s History Month, reminding us as always of the fact that when we talk about one month to represent such a large amount of people it may be better than nothing in our current era, but also that the rest of the months are unmarked as belonging to straight white men.

As a psychological anthropologist I struggle with how much to fight against these issues, especially when there is so much more to think about in life. As an Ithacan I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the truck driver driving in the lane next to me was as likely to be female as male, and where I rarely felt constrained by my gender. I was fortunate to receive an undergraduate education at a women’s college, too, where it wasn’t an issue whether and how a professor would give more opportunities to the male student than the female one next to him. But my upbringing couldn’t prepare me for the dense, ubiquitous layers of sexism in my professional life, even as I surround myself with men and women who are actively working to change it. I try to be mindful of my language in writing (choosing, for example, the still-contentious single “they” instead of “he” or “he or she”). I point it out when a man says something a woman just said and is listened to more. And I stop my students mid-sentence if they ever accidentally talk about “man” when they mean people. In my work on Buddhism in Southeast Asia I write about gender as one among many of the factors that influence how people are understood, trying when I do to avoid the liberal feminist assumptions that may not play out the same ways I’m used to with informants. Yet I often take pause with the idea that because I’m a woman I should spend extra, precious time on women’s issues when men, simply, just don’t have to.

In the end, Women’s History Month reminds us all to do our part, in whatever ways we can. It reminds us to speak up for equality and diversity, to not stand by when small and large obstacles are put in the way of our own or anyone else’s success, and to advocate for change in whatever ways we’re able. From questioning our assumptions about who the “you” is that we’re writing for, to drawing attention to the many insidious ways that words work to cause harm—in everything from women’s name changes at marriage to the feminized voices responding to A.I. commands to whatever we each find important and possible to address—this month is a time to remember that we can each call attention to gender inequalities, in whatever ways you and I can. Maybe that can be how it is.

J.L. Cassaniti is the author of Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community, and Universalism Without Uniformity: Explorations in Mind, Self, and Emotion. Her new book Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia is out this month.

You Know How It Is

Excerpt: Sexual Politics and Feminist Science

As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, please enjoy this short excerpt from Kirsten Leng’s Sexual Politics and Feminist Science.Leng

In Sexual Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany, 1900-1933, I examine German-speaking women’s overlooked contributions to the rethinking of sex, gender, and sexuality taking place within sexology between 1900 and 1933. In so doing, I demonstrate that women not only played active roles in the creation of sexual scientific knowledge, but also made significant and influential interventions in the field that are worthy of rediscovery and engagement. Collectively, I refer to these women as women sexologists and as female sexual theorists, both to disrupt assumptions regarding sexological authorship and expertise, and to acknowledge the sustained intellectual energy these women dedicated to exploring, analyzing, and theorizing sexual subjectivity, desire, behavior, and relationships. Their sustained attention, focused textual output, intertextual and interpersonal connections to male sexologists, and international influence distinguish them from other feminist or female authors who wrote about sex at this time.

Of the nine women whose work I discuss, six were born and lived in Germany—namely, Ruth Bré, Henriette Fürth, Johanna Elberskirchen, Anna Rüling, Helene Stöcker, and Mathilde Vaerting; the others—Rosa Mayreder, Grete Meisel-Hess, and Sofie Lazarsfeld—were Austrian. Although this study focuses on developments within Germany, the close cultural, intellectual, and political ties between Germany and Austria in the early twentieth century allow for an examination of sexual theorizing taking place among Austrian women as well.

Several of these women, such as feminist intellectuals Stöcker, Mayreder, and Meisel-Hess, are well-known figures in German and Austrian women’s history, while others, like writer-activists Elberskirchen, Rüling, Vaerting, and Lazarsfeld, are only now being rediscovered. Regardless of their relative fame, these women were remarkably productive sexual theorists and researchers who wrote on a range of topics including sexual instincts and desires, homosexual subjectivity, gender expression, sexual difference, and motherhood.

At a time when sexual norms, ethics, and knowledge were unstable, contested, and quickly changing, these women sexologists saw feminist potential in the scientization of sex. They intervened in the discursive melee to articulate new understandings of female sexuality and same-sex desire, criticize hegemonic expressions of masculinity and male heterosexuality, investigate the effects of war on sexuality, and insist on the fluidity of gender. Their research and theories underwrote empowering representations of autonomous, active, female sexual desire, gender expressions that exceeded the masculine/feminine binary, and new forms of heterosexual relations beyond contractual marriage and prostitution.

Science was strategically valuable for women. Deploying the language of science enabled women to frankly and publicly participate in debates about sex and sexuality and not comprise their respectability—a precious political commodity for disempowered social actors, and one that, for women, was largely premised upon the presumption of sexual ignorance. Science could help women conjoin claims regarding somatic sexual needs and evolutionary imperatives with demands for economic independence and legally inscribed rights and freedoms. Moreover, couching their claims in what Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal have termed the “moral authority of nature” enabled women to assert that realizing their demands would improve not only individual but also collective well-being.

Yet the appeal of science was not merely strategic or rhetorical: treating sex objectively and rationally, as science claimed to do, further provided women with an alternative to religious frameworks for discussing sex, and broke with the conception of sex as sin. Many women insisted that gaining “objective” knowledge about sex was a necessary precondition for the formation of moral opinions, and for the proper governance of sexual life. As Johanna Elberskirchen put it, “As long as you rely on metaphysical arguments, which are elastic, a willing person with a good understanding of argumentation can confound you. That ends when you appeal to scientific facts, the results of natural history; they cannot be twisted or turned.” In Elberskirchen’s view, “The source of every higher ethic, every higher moral is the laws of life.” Many women like Elberskirchen believed that science exposed the integral roles women played in sexual and social life, and revealed that women possessed innate sexual needs and instincts-along with a natural, “biological” right to live as autonomous and self-determining sexual agents. On the basis of its revelations, many women hoped that sexual science would affect a break with the arbitrary authority of the past and resolve long-standing inequalities. By revealing the “laws of life” and replacing ignorance with enlightenment, science could place women’s destiny under their own control, and liberate them by opening up new vistas of existential possibility.

Excerpt: Sexual Politics and Feminist Science

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month

This last year brought about a sea change nationwide in the ways that women have come together as a social, cultural, and political force. The #MeToo movement has broken years of silence around sexual assault and harassment, women turned out in historic numbers to march on Washington, and women are running for public office at record levels. In fact, multiple media outlets have dubbed 2018 “The Year of the Woman.”

In these times, honoring women’s history takes on special resonance. As such, we’re joining the celebrations the best way we know how—through books! Here’s a selection of the many books we’ve published over the years on women’s history and women’s issues.

Continue reading “Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month”

Marching Ahead: Books to Celebrate Women’s History Month