Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cold Climates

When it's 0 degrees outside, do you ever wonder why your ancestors decided to stick this out rather than move somewhere warmer? Why stay in the upper Midwest or New England when California, the Carolinas, or New Orleans beckoned?

In Wisconsin, the reasons people came and stayed had a lot to do with the kinds of people they were. Many of the state's first immigrants came from cold places originally (Norway, Germany, Finland, Canada) so a cold winter was nothing they didn't already know.

Warmer climates were also more susceptible to devastating outbreaks of disease, particularly yellow fever and malaria. Mosquitoes, the main carriers of these diseases, couldn't survive our cold winters so the outbreaks were never as severe or as long-lasting here as there.

Wisconsin also looked like home to many immigrants. Something about the lay of the hills and fields reminded many of them of Norway, Germany, or Switzerland. Sure, they'd been on a boat for a while and maybe the time away and the deliriousness of travel had twisted their memories, making anything seem inviting after time spent crammed on the lower decks of a ship, but countless letters home described a new place that recalled a beloved homeland. Norwegians wrote glowing letters about the area just west of Madison near Blue Mounds, Mt. Horeb, and the town of Vermont. The Swiss loved the green hills of today's Green County.

It also helped that many of the warmer places were not yet part of the United States in the 19th century or at least not yet as secure from potential Spanish takeover or other threats. Arizona didn't become a state until 1912. Texas wasn't sure it didn't want to be an independent republic until the mid-19th century. Things were more settled in the north for the most part.

So thank your ancestors for settling somewhere cold. They may have kept your bloodline safe from yellow fever and found an easier new start in a place that seemed a lot like home.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Nuptial Head Reading

In 1844, Lydia Folger married Lorenzo Niles Fowler in Nantucket. Fowler was, with his brother Orson Squire, the foremost proponents of phrenology in the United States, so it should probably come as no surprise that some head reading occurred at the ceremony. Lorenzo read the bumps on the head of Lydia's uncle Walter, declaring, so the story goes, that his ego was nearly as large as his genius.

I ran across this story on the website of the Nantucket Historical Society while looking up more about Lydia Folger Fowler. Lydia was a remarkable woman. The second woman to graduate from medical school in the United States (and the first American-born--Elizabeth Blackwell was English), she lectured extensively on health, anatomy, physiology, and hygiene in addition to practicing medicine. She wrote books and taught courses to women.

In her lectures to women, Lydia praised their roles as mothers but also urged them to think about the other years of their lives, those not tied to child bearing and raising. She told them that an educated mother made the best mother. She constantly emphasized how important it was for individuals to study, practice, and perfect themselves. This was especially important for mothers, Lydia said, who had a responsibility to more than merely caretakers of their children and husbands.

Lydia's story is little known, in part, because of her gender but also because of her marriage to one of the famous Fowler brothers. She was also the cousin of a much more famous woman: Lucretia Mott, the famed Quaker woman's rights advocate.  But she made important contributions to the history of women and medicine. And who could forget a wedding that involved head bump reading?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Domesticity

When you dive into the past, especially the history of women, you won't go far before you run smack into the idea of domesticity. Domesticity belonged to women--the word encapsulated both what duties women had and the ideal of womanhood in the 19th century. Women were to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. A woman's place was in the home, taking part in tasks and chores that maintained and fulfilled her piety and purity. Housework was one such "uplifting" task.

The idea of domesticity arose in the early 19th century when the growth of new industries, businesses and professions created a new class of Americans: the middle class. This new middle class did not have to make what it needed to survive. Men produced goods and performed services outside the home while women and children stayed home. A man going off to work out in the rough public world served to create the view that a man alone could support his family. Women were far too delicate to be out in the world. They needed to stay home and make the home a refuge for men from the unstable, immoral business world.
Even as more women moved out of the home and into the workplace in the 20th century, many of the ideas of domesticity and the equation of women with domestic work remained.

All of this was on my mind recently when I read a piece by Steph Larsen on Grist about the links between the DIY lifestyle (sewing and preserving food for instance) of today and domesticity of the past. Larsen recounts chaffing at her mom's declaration of how domestic she'd become after she serves them a meal made up of foods she'd grown, harvested, preserved, and cooked. Many of my female friends preserve and cook for their families.  And I occasionally feel the same sense of unease that Larsen recounts as I happily make dinner for my husband many evenings and pack his lunch in the morning. Am I betraying my feminist forebearers? Or is somehow the fact that this is a choice rather than something women must do make it okay?

My desire to cook comes from a place of real enjoyment. As a kid, my mom hated to cook and so we ate many meals out in restaurants or from a box in the freezer. To my mom, cooking was drudgery. I feel the opposite but not because I feel any pressure to put food on the table. Cooking for me is a reprieve. One of the few things I do in my life that yields immediate results. Writing means waiting months if not years to see your efforts in its final form. Cooking and food are also, for me, a way of supporting local farmers and combatting an agricultural system I think is broken.

So while domesticity continues to include a body of home tasks associated with women and women alone, maybe the doors on the cage are more open now.