You know that I call this column "In Context" because its chief purpose is to put current issues in the context of the past. Once in a while, though, I intend to convey a point that needs a lot of background to put the point in its context. This is one of those. I've been reading "Clan of the Cave Bear" -- and yes, I know that this bestseller was popular in the 1980s, but I was busy. That was the decade in which I published my first two books, one on immigrant women and the other on women during World War II. Everything I read – and there were hundreds of books – was related to those topics.
So now I'm getting around to the fiction I missed. I'm taking books from Hubby's study and using the bookcases for other things, especially photos. Most of the books will be given away or traded or trashed, so if you want some, let me know. Hubby and I didn't necessarily share the same taste in reading, but I saved a pile to at least explore. I didn't think I would like "Clan of the Cave Bear," but it turned out I couldn't put down its nearly 500 pages. I
It is especially imaginative fiction, as it is set in a time before language. The protagonist, a five-year-old girl, had some verbal ability, but after she lost all of her family in an earthquake, she was adopted by a tribe whose vocal cords had not yet evolved. Like animals, they could scream or wail, but ordinary communication was by gestures, especially with their hands.
She was very intelligent and extraordinarily bold – something that upset many members of the tribe, especially men. It is a feminist story, but that is not my point here. Author Jean Auel obviously did a lot of research to brilliantly portray this pantheistic world, in which spirits – both good and evil – controlled everything. She explained many things, especially their survival skills in a cold climate, but she did not deal with the question of speaking with hands while also doing work.
Like most prehistoric women, these worked hard. They did everything from butchering to tanning hides to making waterproof clothes and crafting containers, as well as gathering food – roots, nuts, berries, etc. Medicine women ranged far to find healing plants, and everyone knew infinitely more about their environment than we do now. What intrigued me, though, was the way that women appeared to have complex conversations while also using their hands for endless toil.
I'd thought of the development of language as key to civilization, of course – it was an interminable topic of conversation among philosophers like Hubby – but I'd never thought of the importance of dropping the use of gestures in favor of speech. Employing the mouth, as well as the hands, was much more efficient. It probably was key to our emergence from Neanderthals to modern homo sapiens.
A LONG STORY, CONTINUED
So this was at the back of my mind when I read Sunday's bridge column. On those days when the Tampa Bay Times deigns to print the paper, I work the bridge layout and then read the column. They almost always are written by older white men, even though the majority of people who play bridge are women. Maybe it's this image of old-fashioned male privilege that is causing fewer and fewer young people to learn to play the complex game – even though it can be played online like other games.
Anyway, the men who write these columns like to put things in a context, too. They invariably begin with stories, and this one featured a professor who asked a trivia question: What word can be typed using only the letters in the top row of the keyboard? It turned out that the answer is "typewriter" – but what struck me is that I had no idea what letters are in the top row. Like our prehistoric people, my hands speak at the keyboard. I'm sure you are the same: you just sit down at your computer and your brain goes to what you what to say, while your hands unconsciously take over the processing of words.
This ability, obviously, has evolved since the beginning of typewriters only a little more than a century ago. Musicians, however, have had it for much longer. They can concentrate on their written music while their hands deal with the keys or strings or whatever instrument they play. All humans (especially mothers!) have known about such unconscious multi-tasking for millennia, and that was a crucial factor in moving forward. It still is.
NEW STORIES FROM OLD TIMES
Among the things I've procrastinated on reading is the magazine of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I spoke to the local chapter some time ago – my sister, who died in October, was healthy enough to go with me to the luncheon at the Palma Ceia Country Club. So, a couple of things I learned when I finally got around to reading "American Spirit," the DAR's excellent publication. This, too, needs context. In effect, the article told of a prisoner-of-war exchange at a time when that wasn't necessarily standard practice – and this was between female prisoners.
New Yorker Elizabeth Lewis, a wealthy older woman, was in her kitchen when British soldiers broke in and kidnapped her early in the American Revolution. Because of her prominence, the British planned to make an example of her: with her capture, they intended to deliver the message that no one was free to rebel against the established government. She initially was denied even a bed; after several days, "the British permitted a servant to bring her bread and a change of clothes." Although she became ill, she endured imprisonment on Manhattan Island for about three months in the early winter of 1776.
When George Washington, who commanded the American army, learned of the case, he ordered the arrest of two Pennsylvania women whose husbands were top officials with the British government. Theirs was merely house arrest, not imprisonment, but it was enough to get attention. Washington warned that if Elizabeth Lewis was not released in Manhattan, then Mrs. Kempe and Mrs. Barren would be subject to the same treatment in Philadelphia. The exchange was done.
A second story dates from the war prior to the war for independence. In the French and Indian War of the 1750s and 1760s, British soldiers and their American supporters fought against Native Americans and their French allies. This conflict, which protected settlements on the East Coast, was long and expensive, and British officials understandably wanted colonists to pay their fair share. Residents of Uxbridge, Massachusetts gathered in a town meeting to vote on whether they would accept new taxes – and here again, the point is not so much the background, but the newly documented fact that Mrs. Josiah Taft, a recent widow, voted. Her 1756 enfranchisement is the earliest that I know of.
ANOTHER POINT IN ITS CONTEXT
I was not going to comment on the bishops who are speculating aloud about denying communion to President Joe Biden, a faithful Catholic, because of his support for reproductive rights. That is, I was not going to comment until I read a column in the New York Times by Garry Wills. He is a conservative, and among his many books is "Why I Am a Catholic." He makes the point that I have made many times: there is no biblical prohibition against abortion. None. I've read the Bible from cover to cover at least three times, and it offers is nothing to support the slogan that abortion is murder.
Wills agrees, and adds that neither Moses nor Jesus, the great figures of the Old and New Testaments made any statement condemning abortion. He adds, "Even major figures of religious history do not tell us that the fetus is a person. St. Augustus says he searched Scripture trying but failing to find out when in the procreative process personal life begins. But St. Thomas Aquinas knew. Aristotle told him that it came at or near childbirth... The fetus in its long pre-rational life is not a human being. In 1930, Pope Pius XI forbade all ways to prevent procreation, lumping them together with the condemnation of Onan."
Again, context. Under the polygamy that existed in Old Testament times, a male Hebrew was obligated to marry the widow of his brother so that she would be provided for. Onan dutifully did – but when they had sex, he withdrew and allowed his semen to spill on the ground. The point of the story was that Onan deprived his sister-in-law of her right to be a mother. Motherhood was vital to women in that culture, and he was condemned for depriving her of that status.
But whatever variation of these views you choose, they all are by men about women. And that is the real point.