Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Clara Driscoll (1861-1944)

By Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a three-story series exploring Chicago women’s history.

Clara Driscoll (far left in white blouse) and other Tiffany glass cutters, circa 1904.

Back in 2007 the New-York Historical Society featured an exhibit called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 19th century decorative arts genius who pioneered the use of stained glass and mosaic, was not a woman, but his glass workers were, and recent research out of the Queens Historical Society reveals that these women had a crucial role to play beyond manufacturing. Clara Driscoll of the exhibition’s title was the Director of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios in New York. As the Director, she designed and crafted some of the most famous lamps attributed to Tiffany himself, including the Daffodil lamp, pictured below right.

File:Wiki-Tiffany-daffodil-low-.jpg

A selection of Tiffany lamps designed by Clara Driscoll are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Driscoll worked for Tiffany for twenty years, during which time she designed countless lamps, windows, and mosaics. She left her mark on Chicago history when she assisted with the Tiffany Dome in Marshall Field’s department store on State Street in Chicago in 1907. Using Tiffany’s 1894-patented “favrile iridescent glass,” she and her co-workers took the work they did on smaller windows and lamps to the next level with this massive project that would endure as a gem of Chicago architecture and Art Nouveau.

As women’s historians know, women’s history is more often than not “hidden in plain sight,” frequently over-shadowed by the name of a man or a male-controlled enterprise. Yet what is spectacular about Driscoll’s contributions to glass work is that her works are not hidden, but rather quite plainly and splendidly visible for Chicagoans to behold–both at the old Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, once meant to be the public library. Now protected historic landmarks, Driscoll’s masterpieces will not be marginalized by the hegemonic male bias in curation practices. Rather than being stuffed away in a dusty Art Institute storage space, Driscoll’s architectural works–though doomed to be attributed to her boss, Tiffany–will not be forgotten.

Tiffany dome-small

The dome of Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago

PANEL: Uses of Space: Women’s Global and Local Resistance

March 2, 2013 4:45 PM

This panel will be moderated by Dr. Rona Holub, chair of the women’s history department at Sarah Lawrence College. 

From Stella Wright to Stellar Homes: Black Women’s Activism and the Newark
Tenant Movement 1969-1974

Victoria McCall

This paper explores the meanings and significance of the landmark rent strike at the Stella Windsor Wright Homes in Newark, New Jersey, which took place between 1970 and 1973. Situating the strike within the context of space and resistance, she shows that housing and housing rights for Stella Wright tenants was about more than housing; it was about the creation of a fulfilling, free life. She answers questions such as: how were residents advocating for their own space? What were their demands? How
does the Newark Tenant Movement add to Newark’s Black Liberation historiography? And, importantly, what could be learned of poor women’s activism from the strike.

Victoria McCall is currently pursuing her M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College. She received her B.A. from Temple University and her M.S. from Chestnut Hill College with a concentration in Secondary English and Special Education. She is currently working as a Kindergarten Instructional Assistant and has experience teaching special
education and high school English.

****

Resistance Through Movement: South African Women Negotiate Space

Catherine Newton

This paper examines South African women’s experiences of resistance under the apartheid regime. In South Africa, the struggle between the oppressive white minority government and the black majority often took the form of spatial negotiation. Apartheid in South Africa was most strongly characterized by a desire of the white minority government to control, legislate, and monitor black people’s location in space. Evident in legislation, policing and prosecution records is the desire to control and supervise black women’s movement. In response, their resistance appropriately takes the form of purposeful movement. Women refused to carry passes as they moved in and out of cities illegally. Domestic servants decorated their back rooms and broke rules to shelter relatives and friends, excerpting control over their immediate environment. In the most extreme instances, women escaped prison and chose to live in exile to continue revolutionary work. In all of these ways and many more, women moved purposefully in and around their daily spaces and even across and out of the country despite the government’s concerted efforts to confine them.

Catherine Newton received her B.A. in Philosophy from Kalamazoo College in 2009, and it currently working towards her M.A. in women’s history from Sarah Lawrence College. In the summer of 2010 she worked for RADDHO, the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, where she worked directly with abused Senegalese women.

****

“What Could You Do With a Dollar?”: Italian American Women’s Wage Earning in
Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1929-1941

Emma Staffaroni

This paper uses oral history and local sources to explore the experiences of
young Italian American women during the decade after the Great Depression. When the Depression of 1929 struck Northeastern Pennsylvania, coal mining towns like Carbondale – and its large population of Italian-American residents – underwent significant industrial reorganization and transformation and transformation. As a result,
first- and second-generation Italian-American women experienced shifts in their identities. Where most had been confined to traditional roles, leaving the wage-earning to men, the 1930s marked the first time that these women acted as sole or primary breadwinners in their families. The extensive oral history of Joan Festa Staffaroni, native of Carbondale, lays the foundation for this research. The presentation will show that wage-earning – for Joan, her sisters, and many others in this context – created conditions in which a woman could claim personal and political space in strategic ways.

Emma Staffaroni is working on her M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College. She earned her B.A. from Boston College in English, Education, and Women’s Studies. She is the 2012 recipient of the Gerda Lerner Prize in Women’s History.

“In the Service of the Matriarchy”: A Conversation with Author Robert Leleux

by Emma Staffaroni

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have. The life I get to live is the life imagined by my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. It’s like Gloria Steinem said: ‘We have to imagine change before we can begin to move toward it.’ I am so grateful for these women who imagined this Manhattan life.” – Robert Leleux

Anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Robert Leleux, author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End, will know that a reference to a notable woman like Gloria Steinem is a commonplace part of a conversation. And he writes with the same style; to quote from The Living End, in a chapter called “Indomitable Ladies”: “I suspect the real reason Mother decided to make beauty her vocation was to protect her heart. She’s always reminded me of that old joke about Marlene Dietrich. ‘Come now, Marlene,’ somebody said. ‘You’re wearing rouge, powder, a wig, false eyelashes, and a girdle.’ ‘Yes darling,’ Dietrich replied, with a glance down at her famous figure. ‘But all the rest of it is me.’”

Memoirs of a Beautiful BoyLeleux’s memoirs tell of his youth in small-town Texas. His Mother-capital-M, Jessica, is a larger-than-life character in these hilarious and one-of-a-kind stories. Jessica is pure Texas: big blond hair, melodic drawl, and Texas sass–a “dame,” as Leleux calls her. In public, he tells us, she was often mistaken for a starlet; her glamour and eccentricity permeated all aspects of Robert’s childhood. Indeed, while he revels in the often bizarre lengths to which his mother went for beauty and style, Leleux cherishes their unique bond, forged through hardship and humor. When he came out to his mother at 17, telling her he was in love with his now-husband, Michael, Jessica’s response was nonchalance and total acceptance. “How could you be my child and not be gay?” she replied.

He is also as funny in conversation as he is in his two memoirs. But as Robert told me during a phone chat about matriarchs, “I am only the feint photocopy of my grandmother and mother.” His late grandmother Joann, the subject of his second book, was what one his family members called “mascara-streaming-down-your-cheeks funny.” Joann passed this “gallows humor” to her daughter Jessica, who “spoke in quotable phrases, as though she intended her words to be embroidered.” This line from Memoirs perfectly captures the gift Leleux’s matriarchs seem to have bequeathed to him; the man is a guru of quips of quotes.

Partly in earnest and partly in jest, Leleux explained what his unusual young life instilled: a sense of beauty. “Professionally, I am an editor of an interior design magazine. I’ve had no training, and yet…I know what I’m talking about. Now this is sounding arrogant but let me finish,” he said, with a big, Robert Leleux laugh. “I was raised by people with a sense of beauty. Not only could they make anything beautiful, but there was an atmosphere of beauty they created. And that is really a talent and a gift–the gift of atmosphere.”
Leleux 1There are yet other benefits of being the gay grand/son of such “artists” of language and living. “Often there’s that mother-daughter thing, but as a gay guy there’s not this ‘I’ve come to this planet to replace you’ thing going on.”

Despite some of their absurd content, Leleux’s books are written with true devotion and respect for his subjects. The outlandishness of the stories—like the time he Krazy-glued fake hair to his mother’s head–are paired with a profound humanizing of the characters. For people who often acted like caricatures, they appear on every page to be deeply complex and profoundly human. In the same passage in which he cites Marlene Dietrich, he tells us, “Mother may have indulged in artifice, from the top of her wig to the heel of her platform shoes. But all the rest of her was real—her humor and devotion, her fierce stubbornness and Texas temper.”

Robert Leleux is like a gay feminist Kurt Vonnegut, with a dash of David Sedaris and maybe even a soupçon of Kathy Lee Gifford. His smart irreverence has the register of comedy while revealing profound and intimate truths. “I think everyone should be a feminist simply as a result of having a mother,” he told me candidly. “I really–this is so cheesy–I would want my life to have been in service to the matriarchy.” So far, so good.

You can purchase Leleux’s books here and here.

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of Low-Income Mothers

By Emma Staffaroni

The following is edited and excerpted from a paper entitled “Single Mothers, Social Mothers, and Welfare Reform: Maternalism in the Early 20th Century.”

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of and Attitudes toward Poor Mothers in the Early Twentieth Century

“The justice of today is born of yesterday’s pity.”  –Julia Lathrop

In order to fully comprehend the role maternalism–or political motherhood–played in the formation of the United States welfare state, we must examine one short-lived success in maternalist policy: mother’s pensions, also called widows’ pensions, the funds to parents act, and the mothers’ compensation act. Emerging as early as April 1911, these were the first laws in American history to provide public funds for women with dependent children. Because of the state-specific nature of these pension laws, each was slightly different, though a common purpose unites them: in the words of Julia Lathrop, the first Chief of the then-burgeoning Children’s Bureau, mothers’ pensions aimed at “preventing the breaking up of the home when on account of death or disability the support of the natural breadwinner of the family is removed.”[1] In many cases, this was aid to single mothers; however, as we will see, the category of “single mother” was not socially desirable and often conflated with widowhood or desertion.

Emma-Lathrop Image 1

Julia Lathrop, second from left, with fellow members of the Bureau, planning Baby Week in 1916. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

For Lathrop and the Children’s Bureau, these laws constituted an intervention to prevent infant and child mortality, child destitution, and highly populated children’s homes. As we have seen, the philosophy of scientific motherhood imbuing the Children’s Bureau and its adherents established a socially acceptable and abstract notion of the home as a space in need of reform and systematic improvement. Though much of their advocacy and policy work centered on maternal and child health, the mothers’ pension, regulated and distributed by the state courts, was a socioeconomically-based reform effort, stemming from a recognition of the social consequences of male job loss, desertion, disability, or death. It bears noting here that the emphasis on poor women’s lived realities is central to activist women’s social motherhood. Part of their identities as social mothers involved an “innate” knowledge of the material lives of mothers. This “pity” and compassion for poor women left destitute by their husbands is part and parcel of a general “solidarity” effort on the part of women in the charity business as well as women entering public sector positions like Julia Lathrop’s in the Children’s Bureau.

If we read the Bureau’s detailed summary of mothers’ pensions laws across the 21 states that enacted them, it is clear that their principal end was keeping families together–or, as in the case of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “giving financial assistance to the families of dependent and neglected children, instead of committing the children to the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children.”[2] This end was achieved with varying methods, which together illustrate the range of ideas and attitudes about women and mothers in this period.

Already we can glean understandings of motherhood from the different nomenclature used for the legislation. In Missouri, mothers whose husbands were either dead or in prison were eligible for the aid money: this was a “mothers’ pension.” In Illinois, however, the scope was broader and more gender-neutral (at least on the surface): “If the parent or parents of such dependent or neglected child are poor and unable to properly care for the said child, but are otherwise proper guardians and it is for the welfare of the child to remain at home,” states Illinois’ law, then they may be eligible. As one would expect, this law was called the “funds to parents act.” The gender-neutral language of “parents” here both obfuscates and illuminates its purposes: on the one hand, it appears progressive and not family-wage prescriptive by including the possibility of a father or another kind of parent in its scope; on the other, it deflects and ignores the patent reality that women were the beneficiaries of this aid.

Emma-Children's Bureau-Image 2

Propaganda like this illustrates the powerful message “social mothers” had to offer America in a time when infant mortality rates and low public education elicited government intervention. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The language of “parents” also suggests another important attitude, one that can be characterized by the work of the Children’s Bureau in general: that these laws were first and foremost about children. The centerpiece of scientific motherhood is the impetus for mothers to raise better children–healthier, safer, smarter, and more “American” children. It is not hard to understand why maternalists would strategically frame their debates and policies in terms of children: it was a way to depoliticize the undeniably political work of intervening with state funds on behalf of a controversial, “deviant” population of women.

This controversial population ranges in characteristics from state to state. Lathrop’s report on mothers’ pensions lists both “persons to whom aid may be given” and “conditions on which aid is given.” These lists, strict policy points, classify needy mothers as follows:

In California, New Jersey, and Oklahoma the mother must be a widow in order to receive mothers’ aid; in the rest of the states, mothers whose husbands are in prison… mothers whose husbands are in state insane asylums… mothers whose husbands are totally incapacitated, physically or mentally… [and in some states] deserted wives…if deserted for three years. In Michigan are included also unmarried and divorced mothers.[3]

Each state’s case presents a different image of needy motherhood. Notably, there is no mention of a father as a recipient of this aid, contrary to the gender neutrality of the text. Yet despite its contradiction, this comprehensive summary gives us a glimpse of the experiences of women that the Bureau dealt with and sought to address. As in today’s United States, a woman’s freedoms and opportunities vary greatly depending on the state in which she lives; reproductive health laws, for example, illustrate this in the early 21st century.

Notably, two kinds of unmarried mothers are codified in these laws as legitimate mothers-in-need: widows, and less so, “deserted” women. Widows were seen as one of the few “deserving” groups of single mothers, as their status was incidental and tragic, not reflective of a “moral deficiency.” In 1900, 77 percent of single mothers were widows, and 16 percent were “deserted,” meaning they were not formally divorced but their husbands were absent.[4] Single mothers were “illegitimate” when they were never married, with children. As Linda Gordon writes, “welfare reformers redrew the image of the single mother” to emphasize widowhood. Even “desertion” was suspect, and the reformers at the Children’s Bureau needed to garner as much sympathy for these women as possible.[5]

The conditions under which a mother became eligible for aid also illustrate the perceptions of these women and their needs. Under “Degree of poverty,” we see conditions such as “destitute,” “dependent entirely on her own efforts,” and “may not own real property or personal property other than household effects.” Then, in a section called “Home conditions,” the moralist rhetoric of maternalist policy is evident: “requirement is made that the mother is a fit person, morally and physically, to bring up her children.” Most crucial in this piece of the summary is that “in Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, and Utah it is made conditional that…the mother shall not work regularly away from home.” (Emphasis mine.)[6] Here in black-and-white we witness the double-bind of many of these pensions; this aid, in other words, was often designed to substitute wages, not supplement them. Through the language of this legislation, we observe the strict workings of gender ideology as it defined “deserving” poor women–a definition and double bind that remains to this day in the American understanding of single mothers on welfare.

For further reading, please consult the books and articles of historians Eileen Boris, Linda Gordon, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Joanne Goodwin (alumna of SLC’s Women’s History program), and  Theda Skocpol.

 


[1] Julia Lathrop, “Laws Relating to Mothers’ Pensions in the United States, Denmark, and New Zealand,” in Dependent Children Series no. 1. U.S. Department of Labor, 1917, p. 9

[2] Lathrop, 8

[3] Lathrop, 9

[4] Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, 1994, p.19-20.

[5] Gordon, 27

[6] Lathrop, 10.

Beyond “Love Your Body Week”: Can Feminisms Truly Address the Epidemic of Body Hatred?

By Emma Staffaroni

“Whenever woman’s spirit has been threatened, she has taken the control of her body as an avenue of self-expression. The anorectic refusal of food is only the latest in a series of woman’s attempts at self-assertion which at some point have descended directly upon her body. If woman’s body is the site of her protest, then equally the body is the ground on which the attempt for control is fought.” -Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorexic’s Stuggle as a Metaphor for our Age

“The thing with Sarah Lawrence students is that they are very often intellectually, politically, and theoretically rejecting it–rejecting these narrow standards of beauty. And yet…they are asking themselves, ‘What is going on that I still feel more in control when I’m not eating?’”-Dina Nunziato, Director of Counseling at SLC Health Services

It’s a windy day over October study days and I am talking about eating disorders on campus with the Director of Counseling at Sarah Lawrence, Dina Nunziato. Dina was hired by the college in 1994 to run the Eating Disorders Support Group, a group comprised of students that still exists today. Coming from a private practice and a feminist-psychoanalytic perspective in her work, Dina brought her years on the Westchester Task Force on Eating Disorders to the campus, which in the early 90s was woefully under-resourced on this issue. I wanted to talk to Dina first and foremost to get her expert’s insight on the epidemic and its impact at SLC in particular; but secondly I wanted to hear from her about the potential for feminisms to address this issue–not only to bring awareness around body image through campaigns (like NOW’s well-funded Love Your Body Week), but to truly heal ourselves and our loved ones, and to do what feminism does best: shift the paradigm. Change the narrative.

Courtney E. Martin, author and feminist blogger emeritus at feministing.com, says in her TED talk that she needed this book, so she wrote it.

In 2012 it is a daunting task to write about body image and disordered eating among college students. According to the National Eating Disorders Association’s most up-to-date information, 10 million women and girls and 1 million men and boys have experienced an eating disorder. But those statistics are less meaningful than the dozens of personal encounters with people who hate their bodies, constantly diet, and/or have been hospitalized for self-starvation. As feminist author Courtney E. Martin calls it in the title of her book on the subject, the last 40 years have heralded a “frightening new normalcy of hating your body.” I came to write this article because of the women (in particular although many men struggle as well) I love whom I witness in the grips of this self-disgust, this perpetual fear of fat and sense of empowerment and control through starvation and/or over-exercise.

But even as I write this, I am intellectualizing a problem that is deeply visceral and personal. As a feminist, I know that the personal is political; but does the political shroud the personal in this case, making it harder to access the individual woman and her struggle? “‘It runs counter to everything I believe in,’” Dina says, parroting the students whom she counsels. “‘And yet. And yet.’”

Sarah Lawrence’s Health Services department employs a bio-psycho-social perspective for evaluating and serving students who need help around this issue. In the support groups, for example, young women and men are not seen within a “deficit” model. “We start with the assumption that everyone’s doing their best to manage their emotional health,” Dina explains.Thinking of the acts of binging, purging, or self-starving as discrete behavioral solutions to emotional and psychological states, students delve into the questions, How did I come to this solution to whatever I’m going through? How and why isn’t this solution working? It is a process, indeed, of analyzing, as objectively as possible, the steps one normally takes to heal oneself, and the possible alternative strategies for dealing with emotional distress. The goal, Dina says, is to understand what happens in that process and eventually help the student learn to tolerate her emotions rather than fall back on unhealthy and/or self-harming eating patterns.

These emotions vary from student to student, and Dina insists she could never generalize. There is, however, a thread that runs through many discussions with those who come to support group or seek help through counseling: the feeling of being at war with one’s body. The work then, is teaching students to “work with their bodies instead of against them,” Dina says. Only then can these young people move from a place of “self-loathing” to “self-caring.”

So what role can feminism play? In fact, it is the process of learning self-empathy that makes a person start to link the personal and political– or, as Dina puts it, “to start to recognize their relationship with food as symbolic.” Dina’s theoretical influences include second-wave feminist Susie Orbach, writing in the late 70s and 80s about the battle with the body as a feminist issue.

Orbach’s first book on the subject, Fat is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide forCompulsive Eaters, may sound vulgar to third and fourth wave feminists who see “self-help” as a consumerist conspiracy to make women spend money on elusive ideals of self-perfection. Yet when Orbach was writing, no one had yet articulated the link between the personal–the individual dieting woman–and the political–the fight against patriarchy.

She defines “compulsive eating” as the following: “Eating when you are not physically hungry; Feeling out of control around food, submerged by either dieting or gorging; Spending a good deal of time thinking and worrying about food and fatness; Scouring the latest diet for vital information; Feeling awful about yourself as someone who is out of control; Feeling awful about your body.” She describes her initial response to her feminist consciousness-raising group that focused on the issue of dieting and body hatred: “I was confused, having anticipated a discussion of nutritional standards in the United States
and the Third World, or perhaps a look at the food and fashion industries or the incidence of obesity in ‘rich countries,’” she explains. “I was hesitant to explore the topic of compulsive eating outside the context of a political vocabulary… I was uneasy but held on to the slogan that the personal is political.”

Over time, as feminists have noted the pathologizing tone of the term ‘compulsive eating,’ Orbach’s book has been retitled ‘the anti-diet guide.’

Of course, today it is unthinkable to imagine dieting NOT being a feminist issue. Forty some-odd years after the fact, I feel reassured to know that the politics of the body and body image are at home in the feminist activist and intellectual landscape. But there is still a lot to glean from Orbach’s discovery process. “Women…are brought up to conform to an image of womanhood that places importance on body size and shape,” Orbach writes. Employing a psychoanalyticlens that emphasizes childhood and adolescent development as a crucial time, she draws the line between objectification by society and the process of treating one’s own body as a object for control. It is through this line of reasoning that feminists can begin to discuss the ways in which fatness and thinness are symbolic and gendered in our social world.

The impulse, I think, for those of us that love and respect women, is to intellectualize or
politicize the woman’s experience of her fraught embodiment. But as Orbach reminds us,
feminism has given us tools and vocabulary NOT so we can distance ourselves from the
personal, but so we can draw closer to it. At the end of her 1986 book, Hunger Strike, Orbach writes, “Each woman has a difficult struggle before her. Firstly she is working towards experiencing her body as the place in which she lives. At the same time she has to find a way of reconciling the body as owned and lived in with the opposing cultural thrust of the female body as object.” Yes, this is indeed the challenge: to reconcile the juggernaut of fat-shaming, photo-shopped, white-supremacist media images with the very daily experience of nourishing oneself and inhabiting a body.

Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God links disordered eating to the personal and spiritual.

Which brings us back to Dina, whose work is helping people develop self-empathy in the battle for peaceful embodiment. It’s not easy, she told me, to get beneath the powerful intellects of students like those at SLC. Oftentimes the behaviors are hidden–behind specific food choices, like vegetarianism or raw food diets–but always they mask a much deeper emotional or psychological wound, one that is in part personal but also largely societal and political. It is, like all feminist issues, a group solution, employed in the campus support group, in groups beyond campus, and–yes–in intentional communities of feminists. “Turning off one’s judges–mothers, women’s magazines, husbands, lovers, friends, diet doctors, and nutritionists–requires trust in one’s self. Being in a group with other women going through the same process can be of great assistance and support,” Orbach’s book reads. I would add: not just turning off the judges, but talking back to them. Challenging the script about fatness and thinness. Recognizing when we are hiding behind jargon or intellectual rationales when in fact there are political and emotional messages to be heard. And asking our loved ones, classmates, and colleagues to talk about it. Then, listening.

**

Why Women Can’t Afford to Lose Obamacare

By Emma Staffaroni

On June 28, 2012, when the Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known familiarly as “Obamacare,” women around the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Planned Parenthood reports that in the two years since the law’s passage, 20 million women have received preventative health care services.

It was Nancy Pelosi  who first publicly stated that under this law, “being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.”

It is one of my favorite political sound bytes of all time (besides maybe Sojourner Truth asking “Ain’t I a woman?”–sadly they didn’t have sound recording devices back then). But it takes more than rhetorical flourishes to convince American women–especially conservative ones–that health care reform is their law.

Therefore, in honor of the four generations of women in my family, I’ve put together this anatomy of the ACA in four acts.

I. The Little Ones
My big Italian family is growing in 2012. One of my cousins had twins in June, and another will have her second baby in October. Under the ACA, it will be illegal for a health insurance provider to deny my baby cousins, and all children, coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Meanwhile, their mothers are guaranteed full coverage of their maternity costs, including neo-natal care for premies like the twins. When Medicaid expansions go into effect in 2014, families making up to 133% of the federal poverty level ($29,700 for a family of four in 2011) will have maternity costs covered for up to 60 days post-partum, according to the Kaiser Foundation. Other great improvements for children’s health include mandatory vision and oral coverage for kids under all plans, effective in 2014.

II. The Big Kids
My sister and I are in our twenties and still covered under our parents’ private insurance until we are 26, thanks to the ACA. Whereas once my healthy 21-year-old sister, newly an R.N. (congrats, Hannah), could be discriminated against by insurance providers simply for being a woman, under the reform she and a healthy 21-year-old man will have the same premiums. As both of us establish financial independence, we will not be burdened by high co-pays, nor will we be forced to dish out for basic needs like birth control and annual exams. (Did I mention free birth control?)

III. Middle-Aged Mamas
My mom’s nest may be empty, but she still deals with and worries about the logistics of her family’s health care, in addition to her own. According to a study from the White House, she is among the majority of American women who plan for their children as well as their parents, and sometimes even extended family. Women are the most important consumers. One of the most significant–and least discussed–aspects of health care reform is its emphasis on improving competitiveness by making health plans more transparent to the consumer. Under the law, your provider is obligated to provide reciprocal services within your region if your family’s needs aren’t met under its plan. Information about competing providers must be clear and accessible. Women–mothers–will benefit most from this pro-consumer policy.

In addition to improved and more transparent access to family-friendly coverage, middle-aged women like my mother will have their own preventative care covered no matter what: that is, a woman will no longer have to forgo a mammogram because her plan has reached its annual limit; she will not have to delay a medical visit or a trip to the pharmacy (see Figure 13). More women in my mother’s home state of Connecticut will be insured overall: starting in 2014, 42% of the currently uninsured in CT will be eligible for coverage under Medicaid. (In New York, that number is 49%, or half a million women.) Every member of the community will have access to preventative care, reducing long-term state spending on health care overall.

All in all, for my mom this law means “peace of mind.” In terms of positive impacts of the ACA, that belongs at the top of the list.

IV. The Young-at-Heart
Finally, women of advanced years are protected in new ways under the Affordable Care Act. Lifetime and annual limits are no longer legal as of 2014. Additionally, discrimination based on age and medical history is banned as of 2014, and if you get sick, your provider is prohibited from dropping you. “It finally allows coverage for those with a pre-existing condition, something my parents didn’t have when my mom found out she had cancer,” my mom recalls. Until the law takes full effect in 2014, a temporary subsidized program protects adults in a “high-risk pool”–predominantly the elderly.

Health care reform also works to close what is called the “doughnut hole” gap in Medicare coverage. (Google search “doughnut hole” and instead of glazed or jelly the first link you get is the Wikipedia page for “Medicare Part D coverage gap.”) If a person on Medicare has prescription drug costs between $2,700 and $6,154, she must pay for everything out-of-pocket. Below $2,700, 75% of the costs are covered, and above $6,154, 95% is covered. Thanks to the ACA, in 2010 seniors in the doughnut hole received rebates of $250. In 2011, they became eligible for 50% discounts on brand name drugs. The law claims to phase the gap out by 2020.

If there is a pre-existing condition of womanhood in the United States, it is that the burden of finding and paying for health care most frequently falls to her. Obamacare is legislation that benefits all women– though above all, it serves the most vulnerable women and girls. Its physical, psychological, social, and economic advantages for women run the gamut of age, health, and income level. This controversial and oft-misunderstood law is more than a political talking-point; it is a giant leap forward that the women in my life–and yours–cannot afford to lose.

Emma Staffaroni is a second year graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College and co-edits this magazine. Her heroes include Frieda Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Octavia Butler, and Barbara Kingsolver. Emma enjoys post-it notes, board games, and museum gift shops. She can be reached at estaffaroni[at]gm[dot]slc[dot]edu.

For the Record x Emma Staffaroni

By Emma Staffaroni

The Women Who Endure: Long-Distance Racers Find Personal and Community Empowerment

“Get out of MY race!” First-female Boston Marathon runner gets chased by marathon-organizer, Jock Semple, 1967. {Photo Courtesy of Corbis}

A September, 1975 New York Times headline reads: “Women Marathon Runners Are Racing to Equality with Men.” Featuring the story of Kim Merritt, the women’s winner of the 6th annual New York Marathon that year, the journalist, Steve Cady, places Merritt’s story in the context of the turbulent women’s liberation movement happening off the race course. “In long distance running,” wrote Cady, “women’s suffrage means the right to suffer the same mental and physical torment as men and to enjoy the same sweet sense of accomplishment.” Cheeky, indeed–he later refers to Merritt as the “Susan B. Anthony of long-distance running”–but his point may nonetheless have held particular significance, and even giddy novelty, for the generation of women who only three years prior had seen Title IX passed into law.

Today, endurance racing among women manifests as everything from a one-time personal challenge to a full-time profession. Women compete in citywide runs for causes, professional marathons, college cross country, Olympic races, and affiliated local or national events. And as Elaine Harris of Manhattan put it, “Everyone is surrounding you, people of all ages, races, genders… it really is equalizing.” A sentiment not far from Cady’s, though it takes on new meaning in the 21st century.

Harris decided to tackle the challenge of a triathlon during her first year out of college. Signing on with “Team in Training,” a NYC-based organization affiliated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), Harris made a two-fold commitment: in order to compete, she had to raise a minimum of $2,000 for LLS; and, of course, she had to complete the rigorous Olympic-style Triathlon–a 1-mile swim, followed by a 25-mile bike ride, and concluding with a 6-mile run.

“It’s like a trick,” she says. “You tell people you’re going to do it. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve told people I’m going to cross that finish line, so I’m not giving up.”

And she told lots of people. Through a widespread letter-writing campaign and aggressive fundraising, Harris raised five times the minimum—$10,000—for LLS. “Unfortunately, it’s a cause many people relate to,” she says. Her campaign not only raised awareness among her friends, family, and community, it also raised her own consciousness.  Through the scorching hot summer, she spent two or three weekdays and a Saturday each week training in both group and personal settings. One day, she recalls, she got through a “mental block” and ran farther than ever before, telling herself she would not stop until the entire 6-mile course was completed. At 8-miles, she was still going. “I’ll admit I started to surprise myself.”

The day of the race, it was pouring rain in Manhattan. Starting with a swim in the Hudson River, Harris and her fellow triathletes descended from 98th to 78th Street, then biked back up through the Bronx, finishing with run straight back to lower Manhattan. Harris’ entire family came out bright and early to show support; even among the masses of swim-capped heads in the stormy Hudson, Harris says, “my sister could spot my stroke.”

During the run, Harris noticed athletes running together, holding a string. “Blind athletes,” she explains, “Incredible.” She also saw a veteran competing with one leg. Surrounded by such inspiring acts of courage and strength, Harris found her own strength anew during her last 2 miles: “I can’t complain,” she remembers thinking. “I have both legs; I’m a healthy young woman. I can do this and I will.” When she crossed the finish line, she cried. “They were literally handing out bagels,” she remembers with starry eyes.

Davida Ginsberg of Connecticut felt a similar sense of community and personal empowerment when she completed a 115-mile bike ride last year with the Jewish Environmental Organization “Hazon” ( which means “vision” in Hebrew. The cyclists rode over a two-day period, beginning in the Hudson Valley and ending on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the Jewish Community Center.

Like Harris, Ginsberg decided to take part in this endurance race both as a personal challenge and as a way to connect with others. She, too, raised funds for the organization and got her family and friends involved in her race. Hazon’s work and mission was central to her motivation. “I knew I would feel supported and connected to people with whom I shared values of environmental sustainability and social justice,” Ginsberg says.

Elaine Harris of NY, center, surrounded by family members in fan T-shirts on the day of the NYC Triathlon.

Endurance racing thus took on manifold meanings in her life: personal challenge, physical activity, and hobby—but also participation in her Jewish community. It also represents a manifestation of her environmentalist principles and activist work. Ginsberg echoes many of Harris’ feelings after the completing the challenge. “I definitely see myself as more capable,” she reflects. “I feel amazed by the capabilities of the human body.”

Michelle Saindon, of Connecticut, had yet another reason for getting involved in endurance racing: she wanted to be an example of good health for her three children. Although Saindon was not a self-identified “runner,” she decided to do the half-marathon after she watched the Hartford race: “I saw many women that looked just like me crossing the finish line,” she recalls. This inspired her, so she and two friends signed up.

Saindon drew upon the communal experience of the race for support and strength, much as Harris did. “[My friends] and I knew going into the race that were going to stick together, finish together, and most of all have fun,” Saindon recounts. This allowed her to work through that “suffrage” Cady wrote about–the mental and physical pain that endurance racing entails. “Even when my knees were killing me at mile 9,” she says, “we focused on the parts of our bodies that didn’t hurt, like our pinkie fingers… If I had raced by myself it would have been much, much harder.” Harris also had strategies for keeping her mind focused through the pain; as she ran through Manhattan, she looked for familiar places from her memories and worked toward them. “I knew we were going to pass my family’s old apartment, and later on the Met, and other spots I love…I had a mental map.”

All three of the women emphasize the feelings of empowerment they gained from their endurance races. “You can get into the grind,” Harris explains, “[but] there’s more than just living on your blackberry. You can do something for yourself and bring it all back into perspective.”

But more than a feeling of personal betterment, the race made them feel like part of a positive community with a common goal. Saindon was so inspired by her accomplishment in the half-marathon that she rallied her neighborhood together for a 2-mile “Turkey Trot” this past Thanksgiving; where the community event raised $750 for the local food bank. “The races I’ve done have given me the confidence to motivate others,” she says. “The young and the old participated, everyone felt great, and we’ll be doing our second one next year.”

Harris will also compete in her second triathlon this summer, only this time she is serving as a “peer coach” for newcomers to the sport. While the decisions to complete these endurance tasks may not hold the same political significance in 2012 as they did for Kim Merritt in ’75, their accomplishments are perhaps just as significant in the scopes of their lives, communities, and society. “The race is ageless, genderless,” Harris says. “It’s just groups of runners, and we all do the same course.”