Sep

03

Journalist, critic, and women’s rights pioneer Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810—July 19, 1850) is celebrated not only as the first full-time female book reviewer in America, but also as the author of the very first work of feminist literature in the United States — her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century came more than five decades before women’s right to vote and predated reconstructionist Betty Friedan’s seminal treatise The Feminine Mystique by more than a century. By the time she was thirty, Fuller, a voracious reader, was known as the best-read person New England and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard.

A testament to the formative power of good parenting, Fuller was educated largely by her father, Timothy, who taught her to read and write before she was four. Determined to give his daughter an education as dimensional and exacting as a boy’s, he forbad her from engaging with the era’s literary diet for girls — etiquette books, romance novels, and domestic handbooks — urging her instead to study Latin. By the time she was six, little Margaret was able to translate short passages from Virgil.

Though she later blamed her father’s rigorous instruction for her childhood nightmares, it instilled in her unflinching confidence in the capacity of her own mind, precipitating a broader faith in women’s intellectual capabilities.

Fuller’s words in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, radical at the time, capture her conviction with timeless resonance:

There is no reason why [women] should not discover that the secrets of nature are open, the revelations of the spirit waiting, for whoever will seek them. When the mind is once awakened to this consciousness, it will not be restrained by the habits of the past, but fly to seek the seeds of a heavenly future.

A year after the publication of her seminal book, when she was only thirty-five, Fuller was sent to Europe as the Tribune’s first female correspondent. But her tireless advocacy of equality extended beyond the rights of women and into education, prison reform, and civil rights. Rather, she believed in the fundamental liberty of the human soul, as this beautiful passage from Woman in the Nineteenth Century so eloquently articulates:

Sex, like rank, wealth, beauty, or talent, is but an accident of birth. As you would not educate a soul to be an aristocrat, so do not to be a woman. … Express your views, men, of what you seek in women; thus best do you give them laws. Learn, women, what you should demand of men; thus only can they become themselves. Turn both from the contemplation of what is merely phenomenal in your existence, to your permanent life as souls. … There is but one doctrine for ye both, and that is the doctrine of the SOUL.

Though celebrated suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and beloved poets like Walt Whitman cited Fuller as an inspiration and a major influence, her legacy was dimmed by her literary executors’ tragic shortness of vision and scarcity of faith. Those entrusted with her letters had little regard for Fuller’s enduring contributions to culture, so they truncated, edited, and even censored much of her private writings before publication. Even her obituary in The Daily Tribune, the transcendentalist journal she once edited, acknowledged the occasional excellence of her writings, but coldly noted that “as a whole they must commend themselves mainly by their vigor of thought and habitual fearlessness rather than freedom of utterance.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, was even harsher, writing that Fuller belonged among the “numberless other dismal frauds who fill the limbo of human pretension and failure.”

And yet Fuller shaped the course of feminist thought for generations to come, challenging both men and women to think for themselves rather than obeying social mores in laying the foundations of a new society based on equality, shared dignity, and mutual respect. Such, perhaps, is the lamentable indignity of the human condition: The tragedy of petty jealousy and ignorant ingratitude is the price triumphant spirits pay for challenging a culture’s most comfortable biases.

Aug

26

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Reconstructionist Maria Mitchell, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in science, captured Somerville’s singular genius in a May 1860 article for The Atlantic:

To read mathematical works is an easy task; the formulae can be learned and their meaning apprehended: to read the most profound of them, with such appreciation that one stands side by side with the great minds who originated them, requires a higher order of intellect; and far-reaching indeed is that which, pondering in the study on a few phenomena known by observation, develops the theory of worlds, traces back for ages their history, and sketches the outline of their future destiny.

Somerville came to science by way of the arts, the era’s traditional domain for young girls. When her art teacher made a passing reference to Euclid and his theories of geometry to explain perspective in painting, noting that they also illuminated the foundations of astronomy and physics, young Mary found herself mesmerized by the promise of a science so expansive and dimensional. So she pleaded with her brother’s science tutor to help her learn about Euclid. But her ascent to science was far from smooth — this early initiative was met with adamant resistance by her father, who found mathematics not only unsuitable but also sanity-jeopardizing for his daughter. Somerville recalls in her journals:

My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, ‘Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There was X., who went raving mad about the longitude!’

To correct young Mary’s intellectual aberrations, her parents put her on a steady diet of illustrated ladies’ journals. But those happened to contain puzzles and logical riddles, many of which required mathematical solutions. It was in them that Mary discovered the curious symbols of algebraic equations and was once again enthralled.

Rather than thwarting her budding crush on mathematics, her parents had inadvertently turned it into a lifelong love.

Even so, however, they were bent on sending their daughter down the traditional path destined for women of the era. When she was twenty-four, Mary was married to her distant cousin, Samuel Grieg — a severe man with little faith in women’s capacities beyond their childbearing ability, who forbad Mary from pursuing her studies.

When Grieg died three years later, he left Somerville with two young children, but also with an inheritance and a freedom that opened a new horizon for learning. She soon began corresponding with the mathematician William Wallace at the University of Edinburgh, who mentored her studies in math and astronomy as she at last indulged her intellectual calling.

In 1832, Somerville married another cousin, Dr. William Somerville — a bright and gentle man who thought the world of her, encouraged her studies, and relentlessly helped her master the physical sciences. After the couple moved to London, along with their four children and the two boys from the previous marriage, Somerville met some of the era’s greatest scientific minds, from legendary astronomer William Herschel to computing pioneer Charles Babbage. It was there she became the first mathematical tutor of reconstructionist Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, thus illustrating the beautiful daisy chain of brilliance that unfolds when the hunger for knowledge is set free from the shackles of stereotypes and cultural norms.

In 1835, Somerville and Caroline Herschel, sister of William Herschel and a trailblazing astronomer in her own right, became the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Above all, however, Somerville embodied the richness of mind and spirit that marks out the true scientist. Maria Mitchell, who had met her in 1858, poignantly observes in her Atlantic essay:

No one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of the wife and the mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in the truths which figures will not prove.

Aug

05

Beloved poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892—October 19, 1950) endures as one of the most celebrated lyricists of the 20th century. The author of six plays, an opera libretto, and over five hundred poems spanning eleven volumes, as well as more than 170 sonnets, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, becoming the third woman ever granted the prestigious award. Millay’s exquisite poetry was eclipsed only by her remarkable generosity of spirit. In a tribute to the poet written for the American Academy of Arts and Letters, legendary composer Deems Taylor reflects on his friend’s rare gift:

She was ruthlessly self-critical, and would agonize for days over a single, imperfect line. … [But] she was generous in the extreme to the work of other poets. Professional Jealousy was not in her. … It would be hard to find two poets who had less in common than Edna Millay and E. E. Cummings. Yet, when his application for a Guggenheim fellowship was referred to her, she wrote an exhaustive 3,000-word analysis of his work, recommending that he receive one.

At a time when the only thing more challenging than to be a successful and self-sufficient poet was to be a successful and self-sufficient woman, Millay earned a living by publishing her poetry in such reputable publications as Vanity Fair and Poetry. She was barely in her twenties when she wrote in a characteristically self-effacing letter to the poet Witter Bynner that she was “becoming very famous” and that three reviews of her works had appeared in the New York newspapers “in the last week alone.” But Millay sent practically all of her earnings to her mother and three sisters, often with sweetly apologetic notes for not being able to send even more.

Allan Ross MacDougall, Millay’s friend and literary comrade, writes in the foreword to her collected letters, which he edited:

I remember well her passionate interest, her intensity, her gravity; but I remember, too, her quick sense of fun, her wit, and her generosity.

Yet despite her intense dedication to literature, Millay was a woman of indiscriminate curiosity about and joy in life. Though poetry was her primary love, she wrote prose under the pen name Nancy Boyd and was also enormously enchanted by music, masterful in the art of humor, and fascinated by science. (Her very first poem, in fact, was an ode to the Greek mathematician Euclid, godfather of geometry.) Openly bisexual, she had several love affairs with women — on some of whom she unleashed her literary prowess in soul-stirring love letters — and was fervently pursued by prominent men, including the revered literary critic Edmund Wilson, whom she famously called “bunny” and who proposed marriage to her twice, to no avail.

Millay, however, did wed. In 1923, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of political activist Inez Milholland, whom Millay had met in Vassar and greatly admired for the shared feminist sensibility. Two years later, Millay and Boissevain bought Steepletop — a former blueberry farm in upstate New York, on the grounds of which they built a writing cabin, a tennis court, and a vegetable garden which the poet tended herself. The couple went on to spend the rest of their lives together, in an open relationship, and died a year apart.

After Millay’s death, her sister Norma — whom Millay affectionately called Hunk — moved to Steepletop with her husband and established the Millay Colony for the Arts, a haven where visual artists, writers, and composers can do their creative work free of the strain of everyday life. Such literary icons as Mary Oliver, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize herself, have found themselves at Steepletop, absorbing and reflecting the influence of Millay’s inextinguishable legacy.

Jul

29

"Wonderful things happen when your brain is empty," says artist Maira Kalman (b. November 15, 1949). But of course her brain is never empty — rather, it is a wonderland of the most enchanted and enchanting kind, brimming with painted poetics, hand-lettered philosophy, and enormous kindness. She speaks with the simplicity of words and richness of expression that betoken a full mind and draws with the vibrancy of a full heart, every project as much a feat of artistry as a profound meditation on our shared humanity, every brush stroke an inviting doorway into an exceptional soul.

Born in Tel Aviv, Kalman moved to New York City with her parents when she was four and has remained there since, roaming Gotham’s streets with her endlessly observant eye and delighting its people with her visual magic for more than half a century. She has authored or illustrated more than twenty books, ranging from collaborations with Daniel Handler and his children’s alias, Lemony Snicket, to illustrated editions of such modern classics as Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.

Kalman is also a woman of beautifully osmotic opposites: "A deadline is a beautiful thing. It puts me into a framework," she says in an interview. And yet: "There’s a certain freedom to do whatever I want to do, which I guess is the definition of being an artist," she proffers in her fantastic Creative Mornings talk. She turned her self-admitted disinterest in politics into a year-long challenge to trace the underpinnings of modern democracy, which became the charming New-York-Times-blog-turned-book And The Pursuit of Happiness. The project, of course, isn’t really about “politics” in the drily governmental or academic sense; it’s about all the complex composite parts of political awareness — idealism, hope, the capacity to cherish and savor our cultural legacy. Kalman enthuses:

Hallelujah for knowledge and for the honor of language and ideas. And books.

In fact, all of her work manages to expands the boundaries of whatever its presumed subject is, to broaden its allure, to invite us into adjacent worlds that only magnify the magic of the one she originally set out to explore. Kalman exudes a singular brand of optimistic curiosity, rooted in an unflinching faith in the radiance and relentlessness of the human spirit. Here it is, at its most alive, in The Principles of Uncertainty:

How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?

[…]

What can I tell you? What can I tell you? The realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of everything? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.

Wonderful things happen when Kalman’s full brain springs into action.