Awesome Woman: Ursula Sladek

The incredible Awesome Woman of the Day is Ursula Sladek, who started a successful cooperatively-owned  green energy company.

After the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant it was revealed that radioactive isotopes had landed in the Black Forest region in western Germany where she lives. Children could not play outside for two weeks (and even 25 years later mushrooms from the forest are not considered safe to eat). Sladek and her husband Michael formed “Parents for a Nuclear Free Future”and began researching alternative forms of energy. When the local power company’s lease was coming up for renewal Sladek launched a nationwide campaign and raised 6 million DM (about 3 million Euros) and bought the power grid so that she could break the monopoly of the energy companies.

Her company, Schönau Power Supply, uses power that is produced by local people’s wind turbines, streams, solar panels, and other sources that feed the grid. Sladek pioneered a pattern of green, decentralized energy production. She enables citizens to become private green energy producers and to sell their electricity surplus back into the grid, and to share in the profits. Most of the revenues, which reached 67 million Euros in 2009, are reinvested in renewable energy sources. Sladek also has become a speaker and educator, and has a share-alike ethic when it comes to spreading information about how others can embark on the same type of initiative in their locale.

In 2011, Sladek won the notable Goldman Environmental Prize (the world’s largest prize for honoring grassroots environmentalists) for Sustainable Energy in Europe, and is a fellow of the Ashoka “Innovators for the Public” institute that brings together social entrepreneurs, experts, and policy makers to inspire and support a new generation of local changemakers.

Awesome Woman: Elizabeth Cochran, a.k.a. Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly c. 1890

Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) was the pen name of pioneer female journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who was first noticed and hired by a newspaper editor after she wrote a strong letter to the editor in response to a sexist article. According to Wikipedia, “The editor was so impressed with Cochran’s earnestness and spirit that he asked the man who wrote the letter to join the paper. When he learned the man was Cochran he refused to give her the job, but she was a good talker and persuaded him. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Cochran the editor chose ‘Nellie Bly’, adopted from the title character in the popular song ‘Nelly Bly’ by Stephen Foster.”

Bly, who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the time, was naturally inclined to cover stories of working women and the labor conditions of female factory workers. In rebellion against the pressure from her employer to cover home-and-garden sort of topics, she quit her job and moved to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent to the newspaper. Never one to hold back, she wrote critically of the dictator Porfirio Díaz, and then had to move back to the U.S. after being threatened with arrest. She was once again assigned typical women’s stories and in frustration left the newspaper and moved to New York City.

After a few months barely scraping by in New York, Bly found work doing an undercover investigative assignment for the New York World. As a groundbreaker in the field of investigative reporting, she was to feign insanity in order to be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). The asylum had a reputation on the street for brutality and neglect, and Bly was to observe conditions first hand in the role of an inmate, and then write an exposé. The year was 1884, and she was now a mere 20 years old. Her work was first published in the World, and then she republished it as a book to satisfy the demand of a public who were asking for copies.

In order to ensure that she would gain entrance to the asylum, Bly practiced the behavior and mannerisms of insane persons. She then, continuing her strategy, checked into a working-class women’s boarding house on lower Second Avenue (see footnote). There she conducted herself in such a way that the home’s matron called the police, and Bly appeared before a judge and convinced him she was insane.

In her own words:

I took upon myself to enact the part of a poor, unfortunate crazy girl, and felt it my duty not to shirk any of the disagreeable results that should follow. I became one of the city’s insane wards for that length of time, experienced much, and saw and heard more of the treatment accorded to this helpless class of our population, and when I had seen and heard enough, my release was promptly secured. I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself. 

But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

Her first stop was Bellevue Hospital where she was to be evaluated, and then was transported on a boat — under awful conditions — to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.  Both hospital and asylum were freezing cold, food for the patients was scant and atrocious, and nurses kept inmates awake all night by talking and clomping around in loud shoes. But most egregious of all was what seemed to be a common practice by doctors of declaring women insane who likely were only down on their luck, based upon only the most cursory verbal examinations. Bly was deemed “hopelessly insane,” a diagnosis arrived at after a simple conversation a doctor held with her during which she did nothing in particular to “act insane.” She reported that she overheard other patients being asked similar questions, answering as any normal person would, and also being deemed insane. Bly wrote, “After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself.”

Bly wrote up many details of the treatment and incidents she witnessed at the asylum, and her work “Ten Days in a Mad-House” can be read at With no special journalistic training, she had taken on a distasteful and even dangerous assignment and aced the tricky job of simultaneously pretending to be a real inmate while also staying aware and observant of others at all times. Her write-up makes an engrossing read and gives us tremendous insight to the status of women, particularly those in the working class, in the latter part of the 19th century.

And her work had tremendous impact. The public soaked it up and politicians were put in the hot seat. When she republished her work in book format she noted in an introduction:

SINCE my experiences in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum were published in the World I have received hundreds of letters in regard to it. The edition containing my story long since ran out, and I have been prevailed upon to allow it to be published in book form, to satisfy the hundreds who are yet asking for copies.

I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.

In another major adventure, in 1890, Nellie Bly took on a challenge to compete against another female author to beat, for real, the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — and on the 73rd day after her departure she won the challenge by arriving back at her Hoboken, New Jersey starting-point after making her way around the planet almost completely unchaperoned.

In 1895 she married a man 40 years her senior, a wealthy industrialist, and after his death she became an industrialist and inventor (of the 55-gallon oil drum still in use) in her own right. But after being bankrupted by employee embezzlement, she returned to reporting, covering the women’s suffrage movement, and the action on the Eastern front in World War I. She also had a continuing interest in the plight of the downtrodden in society, and adopted or looked after a number of orphaned children.

In 1922, at the age of 57, Nellie Bly died of pneumonia, but her spirit lives on and she set in motion a huge legacy of exposing greed and incompetence in order to better the circumstances of those “at the bottom” of society. In 1998 she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002 she was one of four female journalists honored with a U.S. postage stamp. A New York Press Club award bears her name, an amusement park is named after her, and a “4-D” film has been shown in the Annenberg Theater in Washington, D.C. dramatizing her experience in the asylum.

FOOTNOTE: The Temporary Home for Females was located at 84 Second Avenue. It was actually a web search for “84 Second Avenue” out of my interest in that building itself that led me to the story of Nellie Bly. The building at that address is only a few doors away from where I live and has been an object of my interest since I moved to my current location in 1977. Several people have written articles or blog posts about the place, and I do have more to add to what folks have thus far recorded, being one of very few people who have actually  been inside the building and talked to its present-day occupant. Another day I will take up that topic (and will try to remember to come back and add a link here).

Awesome Woman: Edra Mbatha

The AWOD for this Sunday March 4 is EDRA MBATHA of Nairobi, Kenya, who has dreamed up an innovative way to protect children from widespread sexual abuse and neglect. After she completed her O levels, Mbatha moved from her rural hometown — as do so many young adults with no resources in Kenya — to a slum in Nairobi in hopes of finding employment and making a life for herself.

But soon after arriving and seeing the terrible conditions in which people were living, and noticing how so many women had “given up” and just stood around all day gossiping, Mbathe began working as a volunteer with a grassroots women’s group. Close to two decades later, Mbatha is still working within the Mathare community.

In 2008 during preelection violence she noticed that children were at high risk. “It was a chaotic time for children,” she remembers. “In the slums, the myth that having sex with minors could cure people living with HIV was rife and children were defiled in large numbers.” While the women’s organization was providing some services to the children, Mbatha saw the clear need for early intervention to prevent victimization from happening at all.

She realized that sexual predators would strike during those hours when working parents left their children alone. So she started Mathare Early Childhood Development Centre, which began as a daytime “safe house” collectively funded by parents of the children, and has become a school that also provides nutrition and counseling for 30 children.

Beyond the powerful support and direct aid being provided to the students and their parents, Mbatha has a broad vision in which the Centre will produce politically aware adults and long-term changes in Kenyan society. “It’s lack of education that sees Kenyans manipulated by politicians to take arms against their neighbours.”


Awesome Woman: Linda in Las Vegas

The Awesome Woman of the Day is “Linda in Las Vegas” who, in response to the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s now-reversed decision to cut funding to cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood, made this video and posted it to YouTube. I can’t even imagine how pissed off she must have been, to have done this. Power to you, Linda. All good things and many more years of life to you. Thank you for your courage.

(Contains visually graphic content.)

Awesome Woman: Christine Jorgensen

The Awesome Woman of the Day is Christine Jorgensen (1926 – 1989), the first person whose male-to-female sex reassignment surgery became, in 1952, a mainstream news item. She grew up as George William Jorgensen, Jr., in a blue-collar family in Bronx, New York, living as an uncomfortable child inside a boy’s body that, according to some sources, never fully developed into male adulthood.

After Jorgensen did a tour of duty in the Army, she studied and worked in the fields of photography and dentistry. With access to doctors and information when working as a dental assistant, she began taking a form of estrogen. She then made her surgery arrangements through her medical connections and traveled to Denmark where, under the direction of Dr. Christian Hamburger,  the removal of her male genitals was done. (Several years later she had a vaginoplasty when the procedure became available in the U.S.) She chose the name Christine in honor of Dr. Hamburger.

Jorgensen’s return the the United States after her first surgery was a major media event in 1953. She stepped off the airplane into an excited sea of cameras and news reporters. Given the tightly defined gender roles of that time, and the prevalence of violent homophobia in our culture, her decision to “go public” — very public — was immensely courageous. A common joke going around was that, “She went abroad, and came back a broad.” She conducted herself in that press event with incredible grace:

Apparently, Jorgensen’s carpenter-contractor father from the Bronx was quite supportive of her and did not withdraw his paternal love — after her surgery he built a house for her in Long Island. There she met Howard T. Knox, a typist, and in 1959 the two announced their engagement to be married. Sadly, because Jorgensen’s birth certificate still said she was male the marriage license was not granted.

Jorgensen used her publicity for more than personal fame, making appearances on talk shows and speaking on college campuses throughout the 1970s and 80s about her experience. In 1970, she sent a telegram to Spiro T. Agnew asking him to apologize for calling one of his adversaries “the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican party.” (No apology was forthcoming.) In addition to assuming the role of a public figure on the speaking circuit, Jorgensen worked for years as a stage actress and nightclub entertainer. (A recording of her performance at The Frog Pond restaurant in Hollywood is available in the iTunes Music Store.)

Christine Jorgensen embraced a course of action that was so radical for her time, and by thrusting her story into the public arena she opened a pathway for other queer and gender-queer individuals, and for straight women whose societal role in the 1950s had been reverted from Rosie the Riveter to the demurring housewife and whose place in the scheme of things was as much a prison for many women as sexual mis-assignment was for Jorgensen (and countless others). And perhaps even straight men saw their gender role become more malleable from that point forward — with the realm of acceptable possibilities for a man’s character broadening from the iconic square-jawed image of a dominance and controlled emotions in 1950 into today’s stay-at-home dads and Burning Men.

Of course gender and gender roles have never been set in concrete, but it was Christine Jorgensen who had the courage to help us reexamine our belief that they are, and to step out into new territory that allows us to become who we are rather than force ourselves miserably into a mold.

Rehabilitation runs into brick walls, a sad story

Some of the writing in AlterNet is worth reading but whoever writes the stupid sensationalist headlines should be fired. This is not really about “Is AA Too White”. This is worth reading.

This about what happens when an individual in recovery, specifically a single mother, gets out of jail and makes a strong effort to pull her life together and wants to get her kids back. This is about a system that is designed to send you right back to jail (that would be the privatized penal system that makes a profit off of your return and not off of your rehabilitation), as a result of problems getting employment and housing. Add to that the ridiculous requirement that you pay back to the state a huge bill that was racked up for “child support” while you were inside.

This is worth reading. This is about a white judge with self-righteous hemorrhoids.

This is worth reading. I hope anyone with influence in hiring at their business or job makes a special effort to seek out ex-cons, especially parents trying to get their kids back, and give them a chance.

This is worth reading. I don’t agree with the author’s implied premise that 12-step programs are the answer for everyone, IMO from what I’ve seen every recovery is a different story (and, yes, AA *is* too: White. Middle-Class. Middle-American. Christian. Higher-Power-oriented for it to work for everyone). But, still, this is worth reading.

Dismissing AA as a white-person’s movement, many black addicts take a pass on the 12-steps and seek salvation from their church.

Awesome Women: Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

The Awesome Women of the Day are the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, a shareholder-activist order of Catholic nuns that deliberately invests its pension funds in corporations that need a good talking to. Thus entrance is gained for team members of the order’s Corporate Responsibility committee to shareholder meetings and executive offices to protest unfair and greedy practices.

The New York Times recently featured the sisters in a Business section article:

Long before Occupy Wall Street, the Sisters of St. Francis were quietly staging an occupation of their own. In recent years, this Roman Catholic order of 540 or so nuns has become one of the most surprising groups of corporate activists around.

The nuns have gone toe-to-toe with Kroger, the grocery store chain, over farm worker rights; with McDonald’s, over childhood obesity; and with Wells Fargo, over lending practices. They have tried, with mixed success, to exert some moral suasion over Fortune 500 executives, a group not always known for its piety.

… The Sisters of St. Francis are an unusual example of the shareholder activism that has ripped through corporate America since the 1980s. Public pension funds led the way, flexing their financial muscles on issues from investment returns to workplace violence. Then, mutual fund managers charged in, followed by rabble-rousing hedge fund managers who tried to shame companies into replacing their C.E.O.’s, shaking up their boards — anything to bolster the value of their investments.

The nuns have something else in mind: using the investments in their retirement fund to become Wall Street’s moral minority.

The order is comprised of about 540 women who engage in a variety of ministries — including education, health care, shelter and foreign aid in Africa and Haiti. They own a community farm on one of the last undeveloped tracts of land in Delaware County, PA, on which they grow food for 130 CSA members and the sisters themselves, in keeping with their dedication to sustainability. They have published reports on the SEC’s recently issued requirements that energy companies seeking investment for fracking operations disclose all the risks involved, and another two reports on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the need for BP to be held responsible.

A page on the order’s website answers, for those who might be contemplating joining the order, “Who Will I Be?”

As a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia, you possess a heartfelt determination to make a difference in the world. You are prepared to live as Jesus did, with a clear vision of God’s care for all creation, loving every man, woman, child, and creature as brother, sister, mother, father, and friend.

 To paraphrase my friend Betty Fokker — Mammon wept. Jesus smiled.