How Muslim Women Inspired Early Western Feminists

It is the fashion in Europe to pity the women of the East; but it is ignorance of their real position alone which can engender so misplaced an exhibition of sentiment.

–Julia Pardoe, British traveler to the Ottoman Empire, 1838

I wrote about how 18th and 19th century Western feminists were partly inspired by the, at that time, much greater social and legal rights of Ottoman women, and how their much more comfortable clothes became a symbol of radicalism. You can read it at Humanities Magazine.

When I first began pulling together and rewriting my late mother’s book manuscript for publication (Ottoman Dress and Design in the West: A Visual History of Cultural Exchange) She mentioned how early Western feminists admired the clothing and freedoms of Turkish Ottoman women and adopted it as an aspirational symbol.  I did some more research into that, and this article is the result.

I was also intrigued by the connection to the reform dress promoted by Amelia Bloomer and her friends in the 19th century United States, and that research has sent me deep into a new project! More about that in days to come…




A Modest Variorum Darwin (Primary vs. Secondary Sources)

As I sort through yet more questions raised by my current line of research, I glance at this sheet of paper for encouragement.

My mother, the Cornell professor and author who did decades of primary research herself, shared it with me and many of her students. I don’t know of a better illustration of why you should never completely trust a secondary source on historical events. Let alone a movie, or a novel… don’t get me started.

Okay, it’s a bit academic. It may not be obvious to everyone why the differences between the first entry and the last entry are important. Look at it this way: what is introduced over time are dramatizing motivations and actions that didn’t exist in the original. They make a good story, but they aren’t true. Which makes them bad history.

I’ve applied all my research librarian skills to locating another source for this, and failed. All I have is this aging three hole punched handout. So in placing it on the internet, I hope the internet will be just and cite its scholarly author: Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, October 14, 1994.



Walking On the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş

Nurunisa’s father died, her mother withdrew, and in her bereft and solitary Istanbul childhood, she never developed any central organizing principles for her life. Well into adulthood, she lives suspended between her deep loneliness and her inability to connect with others. And like most people, she tells stories to make sense of it all.

She reflects on her memories from the perspective of her current life in a changed and changing Istanbul. “I know that the city is saying something and that its message is growing louder….It’s a futile exercise, this inventory I’m making of a vanished friendship. It’s a way to pass the short time before something else takes over.”

As a student in Britain and Paris, she invented and reinvented herself for others, and wistfully admired those with more solid personal relationships and philosophies. Most of the people she has known talked in lists and theories, simplifying and composing reality. At university, she created an “invented intimacy” with her boyfriend, and allowed the affectionate relatives of a friend to imagine her Turkish family as large and loving. In this fictionalized life, “I thought that I had put things in order and that I could keep them in balance, so long as I kept a distance.”

In Paris, she meets M., a much older novelist she admires, and they develop a platonic friendship “with its particular logic, its detachment from the world.” They walk through the city together, talking, stopping for meals. She is open and honest with him about many things in her life, but she never makes eye contact with him, and never tells him she has read his books. But he sees more than she wants him to, or at least, she thinks he does. “He was troubled, he told me one time, by the difficulty of making his students understand the difference between art and artifice. He said that what his students thought of as style was an unwillingness to tell a story. He wondered whether he was only teaching them the illusory mechanics of craft, by which they could conceal the absence at the heart of their writing, trying to make up for all the things they were not able to confront. I nodded in agreement, but I wondered, feeling uneasy and embarrassed, whether M. was trying to tell me something in his particular way.”

In time, he threatens to illuminate too much of her deceptions, and self-deceptions, her bitterness and solipsism.  “During my friendship with M., I began to remember something about myself I had been looking away from…I told myself I would allow it to emerge, when the time was right. But that is no different from keeping it at bay.” Eventually, she runs from him as she does from everyone.

How much this affects him is unclear–she portrays his life as full of friends and peers, but this could be only another self-justifying story. Her focus is on how he affected her. “What mattered most was that memory was stripped of bitterness and retold with joy.” She takes the experience back to Istanbul, and reflects on it where there is no-one to challenge her version. Is this the author’s intent? That isn’t entirely clear either. And perhaps it is only a gender-flipped version of a classic story, the brief encounter with no consequences but enlightenment.

This is a beautiful, subtle novel of uncertainty and loss, both personal and historical. It has no definite answers, but much to say to anyone who has struggled to understand their past. Or who feels the uneasiness of the shifting world these days, the conflicting stories told by people fighting to recreate the world in the image of their beliefs, to control what is considered the truth. “I feel something for all these lonely people I see–so lonely amidst such crowds. I feel their dislike of the past, their wish to bury it and to look away…It’s a desire for all to be new. It isn’t unlike fear.”




Stone and Stanton and Bloomer

While acting as co-author on my late mother’s book, I got interested in Amelia Bloomer. I had not entirely realized who she was, or that she grew up thirty minutes from my house. And the more I read about her, the more interested I got. So I’m researching her now, and may write about her, that is, write more than the essay on early Muslim influence in “Western” feminism (ideas and trousers) that I’m trying to place right now.

My current reading is a biography of Lucy Stone, published in 1930 by her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell. I bought it in part because it had a damn index, a pretty good one, which has two entries for Bloomer–one for her, one for the “Bloomer dress” she did promoted and wore, but did not invent.

Stone is mostly remembered for not taking her husband’s name. But she had a very significant career as an activist, was a brilliant charismatic orator, and was friends with Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, among many others in the suffrage and abolition and temperance movements.

She also wore the Bloomer costume for a few years, and a letter from her to Anthony is quoted in this book, scoffing at the idea that the main problem with it was that it detracted from their credibility.  “No, no, Susan, it is all a pretense that the cause will suffer. I wish that the dress gave me no other troubles; but I am annoyed to death by people who recognize me by my clothes, and when I get a seat in the cars, they will get a seat by me and bore me for a whole day with the stupidest stuff in the world. Much of that I should escape if I dressed like others.” And being pursued by hordes of boys in the cities, and the embarrassment when the wind blows up the short skirt–they all gave it up in time, once the hoopskirts came in. Funny to think that hoopskirts were liberating, but they were.

I also loved the story in this of the first, illicit, women’s debate society at Oberlin. They met in secret, out in the woods, with “posted sentinels” and then–well, I put that page on my Instagram if you want to read it.

I did not expect this to be an enjoyable read, but the prose is clear and she seamlessly combines family memories, letters and documents, and interviews. Of course it’s hard to know how much could be corroborated by other sources, but she is a lively writer, is not flowery, and does not romanticize.


Last weekend, I  participated in a little group tour of Seneca Falls led by Laura Free, a Hobart and William Smith historian. She wrote Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era, coming out in paperback next year, or so the marketing team tells her.

I hadn’t been up there since 1994, and wow, it so much more rewarding now.  I did a drive by of Bloomer’s house afterwards–it does not belong to the National Park Service as Stanton’s does, but there’s a craft shop across the road so I was able to pull over in their parking lot and stare from a moderately discreet distance.

The ranger sitting on Stanton’s porch told us that this horse chestnut tree was alive when she was. I love old buildings. but I love old trees more.


Drag Story Hour

The Drag Story Hour at my bookstore certainly isn’t getting 200 protestors. Has there been one?
But I’ve been amazed watching the backlash to these programs, and the resistance to the backlash, develop across the country.
I’ve been through so many conversations in my life about how theater can have significant social and political influence. Here’s an example of that discussion. Relevance! So often only the mind of the producer, preaching to the choir.
I’ve seen an awful lot of art that tried for it, and failed. But this–I think this is brilliant.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Gingerbread.jpgI loved this book too much. If I was being paid to review it, I would read it again immediately. First time through, I was too thrilled to be intelligently critical.

This is the first book of hers to sweep me off my feet. Previous ones never drew me in enough, and I’m never a great fan of novels that “retell” existing stories. This one exists in a world that includes the fairy tale world, but it is on Oyeyemi’s particular terms. Her idiosyncratic imagination, and personality, and her charm as a storyteller, have full control here. She is simultaneously brilliant and down to earth, with superpowers of description, deep perceptions of emotional truths, and a lovely and wicked sense of humor. All those gifts are employed to tell a multigenerational multinational family story, with a ballroom’s worth of characters, and excellent magical realism.


First Ever Writing Retreat

The Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts is five minutes from my house.

In the summers, they offer juried residencies to NY State residents. Those are six nights to four weeks, with a stipend, cleaning service, and a chef.

But in the winter, for a small fee, they offer their studios for retreats.

For years, I have eyed this opportunity, and thought no, that’s silly, five minutes from my house? Then my new artist friend asked me to do it with her (separate suites, but meeting for a few meals), so I signed up for two nights.

It is a perfect atmosphere. I did not realize how much it would mean to be alone in a clean comfortable apartment, with a beautiful view, almost total quiet, no obligations, no interruptions, for 48 hours straight. I will be back.

I learned something funny, but not too surprising, about myself. Each room has a bookcase with an assortment of literary journals, poetry, novels, magazines, nonfiction, and art books. The first thing I had to do after I set down my bags, was to organize that bookcase. Then it felt like good company, and I could write.

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