Writing and Public Speaking
A Century of Women in Politics, What Have We Learned? And what can we expect from the 2020 election?
To the Tau Beta Beta Scholarship Association
By Charlene Smith © November 6, 2019
This time next year we will be exhausted. We will know the outcome of the presidential election, we will have celebrated or commiserated, we will be happy or anxious. De Tocqueville, one of my favorite writers on Democracy in America wrote almost two hundred years ago of the "irritable patriotism of the Americans" – of a fixation with politics and the arguments that emanate. De Tocqueville wrote, "even the women frequently attend public meetings and listen to political harangues as a recreation from their household labors."
And so, it pleases me to see women here for some recreational political haranguing with the haranguer-in-chief a woman. I hope too, that by this date a year from now, we will be less irritable in our patriotism and wiser in our assessments of the other; more inclined to seek peace, to reach out, to listen even if we don't understand. What is self-evident to us may be invisible to the other – and that's okay. The more we want to win every argument, the more often the nation will lose, for democracy demands that we challenge, and it also implores us to understand the nobility of humility and to listen more than we preach.
We were once warned that "The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest," most of us have forgotten those words of George Washington in his farewell address in 1796. Social media is ablaze with hate and blame and thanks to Facebook, fake news and lying political ads.
In South Africa, during the liberation struggle there was a slogan that won out past all arguments:
People's Liberation First: Women's Liberation Later
It amazes me now how easily we were duped by such nonsense because women formed more than half the population, they are the mothers and caregivers; to any rational thinker, women's equality translates to more protections for children and the elderly, better health care…
We need a radical transformation of the narcissistic societies much of the developed world live in. Primatologists will tell you that the most peaceful society among our ancestors, the apes, are the Bonobo, matriarchal societies where communal responsibility and mutual ownership are the rule.
Does that mean I believe a woman president will be the best person to lead this country in 2020? I don't know. I am heartened by the number of women standing for public office at local, state, and federal level. In Congress, women hold almost a fifth of all the seats, and a quarter of those in the Senate. Across the country, just nine women serve as governors and 15 as Lieutenant Governors. A third of state legislative seats are held by women nationwide. Sadly, Massachusetts ranks #27 in the nation for women serving in the state legislature – Nevada is first with just over half their representatives female. However, since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures across the USA has more than quintupled – I am prepared to bet money that in the 2020 elections that figure will rise significantly. All of which puts the lie to the belief that America is not ready for a woman president, we're already running significant swathes of the country.
My concern is that many women entering politics, those elected or running for office, are still stuck in old masculine paradigms of fighting and retaliation, and that is not a good thing. Women do not progress when we ape old-style male values. Societies progress when we embrace humanity and humility, when we negotiate and discuss instead of Tweet or use bombast. I am also concerned that when women are promoted to higher office in politics, service eg. education or health, or corporations, they tend to ignore women's rights, and when women's rights are not protected those of the very young and the elderly are neglected.
In South Africa, our non-sexist, non-racial liberation struggle transformed into a society that enshrined women's rights and saw dramatically more women in parliament, but they turned out to be as lazy and corrupt as the men. In Wellesley, I actively supported and worked for female candidates for town elections in the hope that we'd see a shift toward redressing naming practices and would honor exceptional Wellesley women – Nobel Peace Prize winner, Emily Greene Blach (an extraordinary achievement given that even today only 17 Peace Prize winners are women, and she was awarded in 1946), and Pulitzer Prize winners, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Sadly, nothing has happened in this town that most of the world knows of only because of a major women's college. As usual, elected women ignore issues that would advance or motivate girls and women. My bet is that if honoring these notable women happens in Wellesley it will be because a man will motivate it.
In South Africa, while women have extensive rights, they dare not walk on the streets. Sexual violence in South Africa is among the worst in the world with one in two women being raped at least once in her lifetime and more than two-thirds is gang rape. However, while South Africa is perilous for women to live in, Americans seem to have little awareness of how backward this country is with regard to equity and the rights of women and children. South African women are shocked that American women and their partners do not have paid maternity or paternity leave, nor free maternal health care, and that the birth of their child and his or her first six years of healthcare is not at the cost of the state. If African countries can do it, the USA can too. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, with some 700 women dying from pregnancy-related complications every year. The CDC says that 60 percent of those women could have been saved if the mothers had access to better medical care. That's an incredible indictment of our commitment to women and children.
Once the infant is born; most women need to return to work within a week or fortnight – that is if they were not fired for daring to be pregnant - and yet we claim to love children. Kindergarten is as expensive as a college in most cities, with pathetically few businesses having childcare on their premises. In South Africa, equal pay for equal work is the norm, in the USA I thought that women would take to the streets six years ago when the Senate voted down an equal pay for equal work provision instead: nothing, silence. Not even a flutter on social media. The lethargy of American women in asserting their rights is often astounding.
Our traditional and most blessed role as mothers should not disadvantage us, it should be hallowed and everything in society directed toward assisting us and our offspring – and yet the opposite occurs.
The only thing that seems to wake us up is women as victims. And that troubles me. In the United States, the #metoo movement has revealed sexual violence and entitlement among those at the highest levels of society. Jeffrey Epstein may have owed his considerable wealth and influence to the fact that he procured underage girls for sex with everyone from British royalty to Harvard professors and those at executive levels in politics and business. His convenient death by suicide is also under question from a pathologist with five decades of experience who viewed the autopsy. The writer, Rowan Farrow details in his new book, Catch and Kill, how his investigations into sexual violation by top businessmen and political figures saw him being followed, harassed, and his reporting consistently stopped by NBC hierarchy.
Next August we celebrate 100 years of white women having the vote. In 2023, Massachusetts will mark the centenary of the first two women elected to the legislature. Sadly, some states still make it hard for women of color to vote, Alabama which now makes most of its tourist income from those who travel to see evidence of it lynching and denying black people rights remains an offender, so does Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Ohio, and New York. Susan Goodier writing in the Smithsonian book, Votes for Women urges us to, "consider some of the ways that one's gender, skin color, class status, sexual preference, and place of origin continue to interfere with one's access to full citizenship rights."
How could we so soon have forgotten how hard it was to obtain the miracle of a precious vote? Or become lazy in our protection and care of democracy? The Smithsonian's fantastic history on Votes for Women is inspiring and frustrating to read. The fact that Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony shouted at the 1869 American Equal Rights Association convention, "If you will not give the whole loaf of justice to the entire people, if you are determined to give it, piece by piece, then give it first to women, to the most intelligent & capable of women at the least." This was after the first man to vigorously support the women's cause, Frederick Douglass had spoken rejecting Stanton's disparaging comments about "Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yun Tung" being allowed to vote.
The more I read about Anthony and Stanton the less I like them, however, there was a clever game afoot – pitting the disenfranchised against one another. Lucy Stone, who in 1847 was the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree, was different, she took a lecturing job with the American Anti-Slavery Society and spoke about abolition during one part of the week and women's rights during the other. Lisa Tetrault, a writer for the Smithsonian, tells us that "immigrant women helped build an early women's rights analysis, arriving in the United States steeped in very different traditions of European radicalism." This, of course, led to anti-suffragettes campaigning to keep immigrants out they "might have been anarchists, communists, or radicals and [therefore] undesirables." It's amazing how this country of immigrants so often tries to stop immigration, how the last generation off the boat sneers at the new set of incomers. Or how we sometimes do terrible things like refuse entry to Jews who then died in Nazi concentration camps.
After this litany of challenge and woe let's look back at some of the amazing achievements of the 20th and 21stcenturies because of the struggles of women from the 19th century onward. We have the vote and we need to ensure that no one is hampered from exercising this, the greatest of rights. In the 1950s, the Kinsey report embraced our sexuality. The discovery of the Pill saw women emerge from behind their ovens and back into the workplace where they had performed so well during the Second World War.
One of my friends said she was also grateful for hair dye.
Another friend said that what we need more of is intersectionality, an awareness that women's rights are part of environmental rights and minority rights. In other words, if I am free, then everyone else deserves that too. If I want my children to live in a safe, clean environment not challenged by hurricanes, extreme cold or blizzards, or wildfires, I need to go to Roche Bros., and Trader Joe's, and Wholefoods and get them to abolish plastic now. I need to follow Jane Fonda's marvelous example and buy nothing new because consumerism advances environmental damage. If you want to get an idea of how personally terrifying Mother Nature can be, then watch Frontline's Fire in Paradise about the wildfires in California a year ago on Friday. It will have you on the edge of your seat.
One of my male friends said there should be equal pay in all sectors including sport; it is a disgrace that our amazing world-beating women's soccer team has to fight for equal pay against the less accomplished, higher-earning male team. I mean, really, what's that about?
We need to ensure that every pregnant woman has access to free medical care and at least six months paid maternity leave – this is a global norm, no economies have fallen as a result. Every child deserves access to decent affordable kindergarten care and more companies need to provide this onsite. This too is a global norm.
No child should go to bed hungry as one in five of our children do.
For the light to shine again upon our golden door we need to shed the egocentric ideas of individualism. To steal from Thomas Paine, I suggest that it is only when we have the common sense to have independence from the selfish strictures of class and to actively work for a democratic republic where true equality is embraced, and communal responsibility the norm; it will be then that we as Americans will lift our heads with pride and our hearts swell with love of this beautiful, beautiful land.
I am going to end by quoting one of my two favorite nonagerians, both Nobel Peace Prize winners. One lives in Boston, this one does not. Upon receiving his prize in 2002, he said, "the most serious and universal problem is the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people on earth… We have not yet made the commitment to share with others an appreciable part of our excessive wealth." I adore Jimmy Carter. I am honored to be among you, who with your scholarship work, enable access to education, but may I say in the words of a 16-year-old I have great admiration for, Greta Thunberg, "our house is burning." Nothing we have done before is enough.
God bless you and your work.
February 2, 2017
This is a letter of recommendation for my writing instructor and coach, Charlene Smith. Besides being an awarding winning author of multiple non-fiction titles, political journalist, and authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, Charlene has been a superb writing coach and mentor for me. I recommend her highly as a teacher for both novice and experienced writers who are serious about their writing and getting their work published.
I first met Charlene in a memoir writing class that she gave at the Cambridge Adult Education Center in Fall 2014 and when she left the Center to teach private classes, I, as most of her other students, followed her wherever she taught. Her lectures were always interesting and animated, her writing exercises were creative and brought out the best in her students, and her handouts were so helpful that I still refer to them from time to time. She also gave excellent advice and encouragement about marketing ourselves and investing time in social media. Most of all she was incredibly kind and dedicated to her students, whether they showed talent or not, and made students feel as though they were exceptional in some way, whether in their writing or as people. She has the empathy and capacity to make everyone feel that they had something valid to relate to the world. Her wit, her boundless enthusiasm, her ability to add perceptive comments to her students’ work are her most exceptional traits. She never skimped on time or energy for her students.
Though I am now launched into my writing project and no longer attend classes, we still keep in touch and I value her opinions. She made me into a better and more insightful writer. Most of all I am grateful for the support and advice she gave me in the first couple of years of working on my project. I recommend Charlene highly for any teaching situation.
With best regards,
Writer, Editor & Communications Consultant
Letter from a senior faculty member at an Ivy League College: "Dear Charlene,
"Thank you for the detailed critiques of my work and for the encouragement. I enjoyed the class and appreciate the time and effort you put into advancing the quality of our work. I was impressed by the level of expertise and instruction we received. You should also know I struggled to leave out several adverbs and exclamation points in those three prior sentences.
"Before taking your class, I had fallen out of the habit of writing, despite the fact that I get great pleasure from the practice. Your class reenergized me to carve out the time to make writing a priority. I just need to keep plugging away. " MC 2016
Harvard educated PhD: "I left the last class feeling that I have found my voice. I can’t thank you enough for your guidance and wisdom, your respectful, kind and encouraging attitude. I feel that this class has really transformed me. I will see you in one of your other classes." LV 2016
From a 2016 student, who is a senior faculty member at an Ivy League College and who I coached with a book, until she obtained a position in a new town: "As I deal with mixed feelings about my departure, I must tell you that the one experience I will not be able to replicate back home is working with you. You have been so inspiring. Your wonderful and consistent high standards, your insight, your support and encouragement have been fuel for me. And you came along at just the time when I needed to grow in my writing and my commitment to the craft. I have so valued your opinion and your edits. I have flourished in your praise and prodding, not only writing more but especially liking what I write.
"Once I get settled in my "new life" I'll be in touch. Technology could offer ways for us to continue working together. At least I hope we can work that out. " T.L.
Needham Student Center
Needham, MA 02492
June 10, 2016
To whom it may concern,
It is with great pleasure I write this letter in support of Ms. Charlene Smith. I have had the opportunity to work with Charlene during the 2015-2016 school year. Charlene is our writing teacher for 1st-2nd grade group and 3rd-4th grade group.
She incorporates different elements into writing, to make a writing class more relevant and interesting. She helps students extend their vocabulary and understand different streams of literature as well as styles of writing. She believes, and I strongly agree, that to write well, you have to be able to express your ideas well. So she encourages her students to improve their public presentation skills, by giving speeches and acting, etc. She often uses games, competitions, and exhibitions to motivate learning. Overall, her teaching philosophy and methods greatly match our students’ need.
The most impressive aspect of Charlene’s teaching is her passion to encourage learning. She is devoted to her students and always prepared. She is able to present information on a wide variety of topics while projecting a composed presence, a great sense of humor, and maintaining a positive classroom environment. She connects with the students so well that we can always see our students excitedly waiting for the start of the writing class. Overall, it is our pleasure to have Charlene.
Needham Student Center
Testimonial from Mercedes Westbrook, Fire Horse Media, Cape Town, April 2015: "I have just completed a six week Inspirational Writing Course with Charlene Smith. What is essential to impart, is that we must never allow ourselves to become stagnant or comfortable with the mediocre. We need to keep learning and striving for new goals that challenge and excite us. It has been a privilege to have had such a wonderful mentor."
Testimonial from Novelist, Sherry Alpert
"I had been working on my novel LAST DANCE for 20 years, with more than 100 revisions and input from literary agents and fellow fiction writers. While they found the story compelling, relevant and well written, many agents told me that they couldn’t “fall in love with the characters.”
"The novel is about a happily married father who develops Lou Gehrig’s disease and wants an assisted suicide at home, with a loved one turning off his ventilator.
"Charlene was able make the characters sympathetic while flawed. She also identified a subplot that needed trimming, as it was competing with the main story. Furthermore, she enabled me to invest my main character with more purpose as his disease advances, while enhancing the credibility of his limited ability to communicate. Finally, she gave the novel a far better title, TAKE MY BREATH AWAY.
"Charlene Smith’s book editing skills are superb on every level, and I am grateful to have engaged her services."
Sherry Alpert, Canton, MA