Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Juana Briones de Miranda

Here is a topic for your child or grandchild taking California history to write about. Briones was born in 1802 in Santa Cruz. Her maternal grandparents and mother were part of the deAnza expedition in 1776, choosing to escape the rigid, complex racial caste system of Mexico for better opportunities in an unknown land. Her mother married one of the many soldiers who came to protect missions from Indians and incursions from other countries' explorers.

Juana and her siblings grew up in the San Francisco presidio, where in 1820 she married one of its soldiers, Apollinario de Miranda. There she bore eight children and adopted a Native American child as well. When her husband retired, they moved to what is now North Beach in Yerba Buena, where she kept a vegetable and herbal garden, as well as raised cattle for the hide-and-tallow trade. From her extended family she had learned the complex skills of natural medicine and was a renowned midwife and curandera who treated visiting sailors as well as local residents. She also learned from Native Americans, whose instructions helped her manage a small pox epidemic in Marin in 1834, and the setting of broken bones.

Briones challenged even the church authority by appealing to the bishop for a sancioned separation from her alcoholic and physically abusive husband in 1844. "Your Lordship, my husband is the greatest obstacle placed before my children, because from him they learn nothing but swearing, blasphemy, and ugly, lewd, and dissolute behavior. How will I excuse myself before God, if I do not seek, as much as I can, all possible means of ridding my family of such as bad example?" Nevertheless, the curate repeatedly ordered her to return her family home, which she refused. This was a most rebellious act for a woman of her belief and culture. Eventually she dropped her husband's name and referred to herself as a widow.

Juana had always been close to her sisters, using them at times for refuge, and purchasing with them lands beyond Yerba Buena. In 1844 she acquired the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purisima Concepcion covering parts of what is now Palo Alto and Los Altos. The adobe home she built remains and is part of a historic preservation effort. There continued her very successful ranching business and contributions to her community, with help from no men, including any of her sons, nor other male relations.

Briones is one of many Spanish-speaking women from this early period who broke beyond the restricted Mexican culture. Of mixed-race, she was able to achieve what would have been impossible in her mestizo grandparents' homeland, where emphasis on whiteness was obsessive and essential to advancement. She was able to take advantage of the Spanish culture's more liberal view towards women owning or inheriting property. Finally, in her standing up to the church, she would represent one of many whose challenge would spark a move toward secular government and society.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kay Ryan, Poet

Ryan, a lifelong Californian and graduate of UCLA, was recently named our 16th Poet Laureate. [Ryan, on right, with Emily Warn at a poetry conference. Photo: Star Black,Flickr]

It was only after this announcement that I became familiar with her writing. What I discovered was someone who is unafraid of the most commonplace as the basis for wonder. A friend e-mailed me "Home to Roost," which begins:

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way....

These charming first lines, with the almost childlike rhyme of day/way soon unfurls to offer a metaphorical commentary open to various interpretations. See the entirety of "Home to Roost" and several other of her poems at this PBS poetry page.

Ryan lives in Marin County, where she is also a mountain biker, so you could perhaps have a sudden encounter with her on Mount Tam. She admits to preferring a hermetic life, and is now forced to deal with publicity and perhaps more appearances than she would prefer.

Ryan has been published in many literary journals and magazines. Her collections of poetry are: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. Fairfax, CA: Taylor Street Press, 1983.
Strangely Marked Metal
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1985.

Flamingo Watching
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1994.
lephant Rocks, New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Say Uncle
. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Niagara River
. New York: Grove Press,

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Caroline Seymour Severance, 1820-1914

At age 91, Caroline Seymour Severance deserved the honor of becoming the first woman in California to register to vote in Los Angeles following the passage of state suffrage in 1911. She was instrumental on several fronts in facilitating the suffrage movement both nationally and in her adopted state. Similar to many women of wealth during her time, she focused her philanthropy on the needs of women and children.

Raised in New York, Severance was a school teacher until her marriage to banker Theordore Severance in 1840. They lived in Ohio and Boston, where she became instrumental in founding a variety of organizations. Some consider her the "Mother of the Woman's Clubs" because of her role in creating and fostering such organizations. She was very active in Woman's Rights conventions. She headed the committee that founded the first regional suffrage association, the New England Woman's Suffrage Association, which formed in response to the failure of the abolitionist cause to achieve equal rights for women. In 1866 she helped Susan B. Anthony found the Equal Rights Association. Several years later she joined Lucy Stone and others in creating the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1875, Severance could have slowed down, but she continued her many activities. Among her contributions were the establishment of several kindergartens, the first Unitarian congregation in LA, and various women's groups. Most important was her developing the Friday Morning Club (pictured as built 938-940 South Figueroa Street) which became the center of social reform activities. Such groups developed boarding hotels for single working women, training programs for better job opportunities, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. [Photo courtesy of Library of Congress]

Although women's clubs initially formed for self-education and social reform, eventually they committed more directly to suffrage. Through these clubs women learned to speak in public, to coordinate activities, to create and manage organizations, and to publicize their works. As a result, they became an important base, already in existence, for securing the vote. Regrettably, no comprehensive biography of this significant leader exists, and she is omitted from textbooks on California history.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon

A belated entry for this couple that was most deservedly allowed the first marriage at San Francisco City Hall in June, 2008. When I was growing up back east, I never heard the word lesbian or any reference to it. My mother knew gay men and described her first trip to a gay bar, yet it never occurred to me that women could be gay. (Photo by Mi-ly on Flickr. Thanks!)

Then I went to a woman's college where one year two women were ordered to leave their dorm rooms open 24/7. How was that for making a point? The result was to arouse great sympathy for the beleaguered dorm mates. (It's always interested me that many of the women administrators there were unmarried, and not visibly dating men. How many of them were in the closet?) Of course, this was before the civil rights movement, and women professors got paid and promoted less than their male colleagues, so homosexuality was definitely taboo as a public event.

Martin and Lyon moved to San Francisco in 1953, where they started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first major national organization for lesbians. In 1967, they joined the National Organization of Women and fought to eliminate homophobia from the nascent women's rights movement.

Moving eventually to Northern California in 1970, I had forthright lesbian students and befriended a number of them. They taught me pool, how to dance better, and urged me speak up more as a woman. Martin and Lyon's 1972 book on lesbian women was groundbreaking for these young women, who were so significant as activists in the women's right movement locally. It is difficult to imagine what courage it took on the authors' part to write on this topic. Many of my students had been disowned by their families, but created an extended fictive family in the area that remains to this day. I like to think of these early students also marrying. They taught me much more about life and injustice than I offered them in the classroom.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Paula Gunn Allen, Ph.D., 1939-2008

Raised in New Mexico of Laguna Pueblo-M├ętis-Scot and Lebanese heritages,this award-winning poet and scholar spent much of her professional life teaching at California universities. Allen's many books introduced readers to Native American literature, and she was key in having that literature taken seriously by critics. Gender also wove through her writings, as is evidenced by her last nonfiction book, Pocohantas, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She was equally renowned for her poetry, which has been anthologized widely. For more on this important writer and scholar, an online memorial offers more biography, book lists, and photographs.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

California Women: A History

Joan M. Jensen and Gloria Ricci Lothrop wrote this for the blue paperback Golden State Series (Boyd and Fraser Publishing), surveys written for a general audience and students, yet with the research base of solid scholarship. Published in 1987, it remains the only history of women in California. As such, it reflects historical perspective of a time when women's history was in formation. The material is necessarily spotty because so much material had yet to be available. Nonetheless, this is an essential reference for anyone who writes about or studies California.

A notable gap concerns Native American women. Characteristic of the simplistic model developed under anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, the writers describe Indian life as though it never had a history of its own, that there was a classic life style that did not change. Nor is there concern with the great variability in Native California cultures. (A book specific to this topic remains to be written.)

The few pages on Californias also paints broad strokes, with emphasis upon ranchero dwellers. The writers do refer to specific individuals, such as Eulalia de Perez, who had been interviewed late in life. Scholarship since the 1980s has filled in much more about these women and more particularly how historical events forced changes in their lives, even before the change in governing to statehood.

Chapters on the establishment of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Progressive era movements, the development of women's labor through time, and women gaining a role in governing make up for the pre-1848 weakness. The writers are careful to note the rise of parallel institutions (clubs, social service societies, etc.), such as those of Catholic and African American women, alongside the more visible WASP-based ones. They weave throughout the different opportunities for working and middle-class women. They spotlight notable organizers in many fields. The final chapter on the feminist wave of 1960s-80s discusses divisiveness among women's groups as well as their achievements.

Since this book was completed, a generation of young historians, men as well as women, have published scholarly studies on very specific subtopics of this history. Kevin Starr's series on California history pays homage at times in particular to elite women so significant in the development of cultural institutions or in support of women's causes. His book on World War II also appreciates the complex role of women at home and in the labor force. Yet the major college and high school texts neglect to write a comprehensive history where women are equal participants. Instead, there remains too much "add in" and "afterthought" asides, a "we won't forget the women" compensation of little value. Someone has to write an updated survey that incorporates this new material, because until then it is unlikely the textbook writers will improve their presentation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Elizabeth Gunn, 1811-1906

I stayed at the Gunn house in Sonora several times before learning that its original owner had written about her travel to and life in California. She went around the Horn with four children in 1851 to join her husband Lewis, who had been mining for two years. He owned the local newspaper, and upset locals with his liberal views. In 1861 the family moved to San Francisco. In 1928, daughter Anna Lee Marston edited her father's journal and mother's letters into Letters of a California Family. This is one of the few documents to include three members of a family, for Marston adds her own remarks, with regard to settling the state.

Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can read the full book online.. It is part of a collection called California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900. Gunn's writing is crisp and filled with anecdotes telling of the time's attitudes and daily life. Whenever you can, read original documents from a period of interest. This LOC site could keep you entertained for days!

I also recommend the Gunn House when you are visiting Route 49 and the Gold Country. It retains much of its adobe structure and its cozy rooms are furnished accordingly. The lounge/breakfast room is particularly inviting, and the breakfast buffet among the best you'll find at a B&B.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maxine Crissman, "Lefty Lou"

Depression Californians brought a new music to the state, old timey hill tunes and style. Woody Guthrie is usually honored for playing the key role in introducing this format, but he was not alone. Guthrie settled in LA (not the farmlands) in 1937, where he met California-raised Crissman, an experienced singer, guitarist, and sax player. (His brother Jack had worked for her father and dated her for a while. During their lifetime, Jack actually gained much greater popularity than Woody as a performer.)

The duo were hired by a progressive radio owner, J. Frank Burke, to do daily programs on KFVD radio. Titled Woody and Lefty Lou, the pair introduced a wide variety of music, including old blackface minstrelsy, hillbilly, and public-domain folk ballads. Guthrie's lyrics to established tunes, including some by the Carter family, reached out to the working-class listening audience. Crissman's alto voice provided the lead, while Guthrie's higher voice offered harmony. The result was known as a "crossnote trademark."

Crissman and Guthrie used their own experiences to encourage listeners to realize they were part of a community. Populism ran through their songs, which grew increasingly political through attacks on political leaders and police who abused the migrants. They urged listeners to vote, to join political groups, to walk on picket lines. Outside the radio station they appeared at rallies in support of the Ham and Eggs Plan of Francis Townsend.

Crissman was on the show only two years. I have not been able to discover what she did afterwards. Anyone who knows, please tell me! Did she drop out of performing completely? This seems strange, given her popularity equal with Woody's at the time. Together they helped make country music an urban phenomenon, as well as contributed to populist pride among migrant Californians.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Grace McCann Morley

While researching California women artists, I came across Grace Morley. She is one of several women during the 1930s (e.g., Gertrude Whitney, Juliana Force, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in New York) who recognized the value of American modern art. Morley was the first director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which she managed for 23 years beginning in 1935.

Although women started MOMA and the Whitney in New York, and hired male management, it was men in SF who founded SFMOMA and selected Morley. She was originally from California and had already established her credentials as expert in modern art. Typical of the day, her salary was $2,400 a year, compared with $9,000 for Alfred Barr, the head of MOMA. Morley worked well with Barr toward getting traveling shows from his museum on exhibit in San Francisco. Morley was quick to create and curate shows that left SF for other museums.

Morley was gay, though "coming out" was not in practice then. The fact of her having female companions was well known, yet not an issue in her management. Thus anyone interested in GLBT history would benefit from exploring her life and relations.

Morley's renown is significant beyond establishing SFMOMA as a major museum in its own right. She was vocal in explaining modern art and encouraging the support of contemporary artists. Her skills in museum management led to her becoming Chair of the Museum Division of UNESCO, which led to the International Council of Museums. She also served as founding editor of that body's professional journal, Museum. These are only a few of her accomplishments in the 20th century art world.

Several years after quitting SFMOMA, Morley left San Francisco for India, where she spent her final years running the National Museum. She was unhappy, she later claimed, that the locals would look at art but not spend money on art nor help living artists. She died there at age 84.

There is yet no published biography on Morley. Suzanne Reiss conducted an oral history for the Bancroft Library in 1960. Kara Kirk wrote her Master's Thesis on Morley for Stanford University. It's about time someone went into the archives and gave Morley her due.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Frances Fuller Victor, 1826-1902

Victor's best known work is her story "The New Penelope." There she challenges traditional gender views of the mid-nineteenth century by describing women who take advantage of the opportunities of the new West, yet refuse to submit to customary femininity. Throughout her short stories, Victor presents independent female characters and advises women to follow their model. She repeatedly attacked the "women's sphere" (home, children, piety) as narrow and ambiguous. [Photo courtesy of Oregon State University.]

Victor and her husband arrived in San Francisco in 1862, and published in both the prestigious Overland Monthly and San Francisco newspapers during her time in California. She also wrote an advice column and other woman-centered articles as "Frances Fane." The couple moved to Oregon in 1864, but she divorced her husband several years later.

What is less known about her is her contribution to Hubert Bancroft's massive history of the West. After moving to California again in 1878, she spent thirteen years working as a researcher and writer on his project. She is now acknowledged as author of The History of Oregon, The History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, The History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming, and substantial portions of others. To her understandable dismay, Bancroft claimed full authorship of these books, and mentioned her contribution only in an acknowledgment. At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, she displayed these four volumes with her name added to the spines alongside Bancroft's.

Victor continued to write well-received books and stories until her death. She became known as the "Historian of Oregon," even though she dared to challenge the favored mythology concerning early settler Marcus Whitman. Though not a lifelong Californian, Victor's influence was nationwide, and her presence in the California publishing scene significant. She deserves new attention and a comprehensive biography.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

California women artists quiz

Have you heard of these women? Helen Hyde, Matilda Lotz, Clara Taggart McChesny? They were among California women artists whose paintings were on exhibit at the Columbian International Exposition of 1893. Others were Lucy Conant, Ellen Frances Burpee Carr, Ann Lyle Harmon, Bertha Lee, Evelyn McCormick, and Mary Paxton Herrick Ross. They were all successful and well-known professional artists of their day. Lotz, for example, exhibited throughout Europe and became known as the "American Rosa Bonheur" for her focus on animal portraiture. Do you think you can find them in major museums or galleries today?

Only one may be familiar: Grace Carpenter Hudson. The insert is "Boats at Dock" by impressionist Evelyn McCormick, perhaps my favorite artist of the group. Print maker Helen Hyde is in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, which is not to say her works are on the walls.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Native American Artists and Poets

Today I visited the Grace Carpenter Hudson museum in Ukiah, which is about to close its special exhibit on Art and Poetry from Native American California. Featuring 32 contemporary artists, the exhibit includes a number of women with whom I'm familiar, including painters Jean LaMarr, L. Frank Manriquez, Judith Lowry, Lyn Risling, and basket maker Julia Parker. The formal exhibit title is "Sing Me Your Story, Dance Me Your Home." Themes of sacred rituals, homelands, changing traditions, and more predominate. This was a rare opportunity to view these artists, who with California women artists in general are difficult to find in major museum permanent collections or at the elite art galleries. One of my criteria for art is an element of surprise, of the new, which resonates in most of this exhibit.

The poets were new for me, and equally effective. I regret not purchasing the small catalog that included the poems. The exhibit travels to the San Francisco Public Library on May 4, 2008 and to the Tulare Historical Museum on July 13, 2008.

For the first time too I could see the permanent gallery with Grace Hudson's art from throughout her career. I was reminded again of how the most exacting reproduction can never match the original. Certain paintings viewed that had struck me as sentimental now delivered a different emotional impact. Her appreciation for the Pomo peoples and culture, her primary subjects, is evident, but to reduce her to a painter of Native Americans is to underestimate some of her work. (Portrait is "Tarweed Gatherer," on exhibit at the GHM.)

When will fine artists be judged, as symphony musicians are today, without regard to their identities? Why is art that invokes Native symbols and beliefs somehow set apart in a different box? This is one of the unintended consequences of Ethnic studies and woman's studies, the isolation of the subjects of interest from the mainstream. I welcomed a comment by one painter that Indian artists don't exclusively address their identity in all their work, just as women artists do not invoke solely feminist themes. Following the Civil Rights movements, identity themes did become prominent, e.g. Judy Chicago, and one consequence has been a sense from some quarters that women and ethnic artists must invoke identity. It's like saying male novelists can have only men in their stories. Enough said.