Category Archives: history

“certainly no bimbo”

Did you know the current president of the University of Missouri — Michael Middleton, the man they chose to replace Tim Wolfe — testified about pubic hair and Coke?

This is relevant, I promise. Let’s back up a bit.

Last night, the film Confirmation aired on HBO. Kerry Washington played Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked under Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education. Clarence Thomas. You know, the Supreme Court justice who asked a question in court in February for the first time in ten years. 

When Thomas was going through his confirmation hearings to be on the Supreme Court, Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss.

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Well, you know the ending to this story. He was confirmed anyway. And he’s not spoken much since.

I’m not going to write about the film, because I haven’t seen it. I am going to talk about the hearings, though.

I don’t remember the hearings. They were in 1991, the year I was born. In fact, the first time I’d heard of those hearings was two years ago on an episode of This American Life.  And then, back in December 2015, I found myself reading about the hearings again.

I was backgrounding the University of Missouri Pres. Middleton for a story when I found something that struck me.

Middleton was an aide to Thomas during the time when Hill and Thomas worked together. So, he was called to testify.

This is from a Wall Street Journal article:

One of the oddest of Ms. Hill’s allegations was that one day when she and Mr. Thomas were working in his office, he got up from the table where he had been sitting with her, went over to his desk to retrieve a can of Coca-Cola and, after staring at it, demanded to know, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

Thomas aide Michael Middleton also says that he heard the pubic hair story associated with Mr. Thomas before 1985, when he too left the EEOC. “I have this vision of Clarence at the EEOC picking up a Coke and saying, ` Who put this pubic hair on my Coke?”‘ says Mr. Middleton, now a professor of law at Missouri North Central University. Mr. Middleton adds that he told his wife about it at the time and that years later, during the confirmation hearings, he turned to her and asked if she remembered the story, and she did.

But the memory, Mr. Middleton says, is quite hazy. He says he isn’t sure whether he heard Mr. Thomas say it or just had it described to him back then. “It could have been a joke I heard him tell in the office,” Mr. Middleton says. “It’s vague. I just know that pubic hair in a Coke can was not new to me {during the hearings} with Clarence Thomas.”

anita hill 2

And this is from a Time Magazine story: 

“She was a real straight arrow,” says Michael Middleton, who worked with both Hill and Thomas at the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Very proper and straitlaced. She was certainly no bimbo.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Now, back to work.


vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

how to define “barbarian”: a case study on ISIS

A few days ago, I retweeted this from a fellow Mizzou journalist (ignore the fact that he’s a national correspondent a the L.A. Times and I’m a first-semester grad student–we’re essentially colleagues):

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Oh boy, this got people talking. “As if they have to be mutually exclusive” responded one Twitterer. “Tech savvy barbarians are still barbarians,” said another. One girl asked, “I’m just curious, what would you deem ‘barbaric’? if beheading with a knife isn’t such an act.”

I’ve got a bit of a long-winded answer to that, Ms. @bileej897.* Here’s the thing about words: they don’t exist as entities by themselves. They’ve got no “true meaning” separate from interpretation. I’m going to take a page–well, a passage–out of linguist S.I. Hayakawa’s book Language, Thought, and Action on how dictionaries are written. It’s

a task of one’s recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. (original emphasis)

So let’s imagine that we are dictionary writers, and we’ve gotten through our As. “Authentic” was difficult to define, but we finally did it, and after celebrating with champagne and balloons, it’s time to define “barbarian.” First question we need to ask: how has this word been used in the past?

We start with the Bible. In Corinthians, we find a passage, “I would they were Barbarians..not Romans.” Okay, so a barbarian is anyone who’s not Roman. …We look at each other skeptically. Are you and I Romans? No. Does that mean we’re barbarians? Of course not! We smile and tell our friend, “Wow, orange is definitely your color!” when that tangerine dress looks hideous on her. A barbarian would never have such great manners. But, hey. This version of the Bible was published in 1607, and it’s dealing with a historical time period thousands of years before. Phew. Moving on.

If we’re not going with the Bible, why not make a 180 degree turn and take a look at Darwin. How did he use the word barbarian in An Origin of Species, published in 1869? “Geologists believe that barbarian man existed at an enormously remote period.” Looks like he’s talking about people who have yet to discover reading, tacos, Breaking Bad: you know, uncivilized.

And let’s please not forget that Joseph Conrad text, a staple of every English major’s education, Heart of Darkness (1899). How does the British Charles Marlow describe the so-called barbarians he sees in Africa?

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.

So we’ve discovered that the word “barbarian” has come to mean a wild, savage person–no, not even a person, an animal who seems human-like. Colonialism has framed it this way, that ol’ classic Us vs. Them, Domestic vs. Foreign, or in this case, Civilized vs. Barbarians. When Europeans viewed Africans, Arabs and Asians as barbarians, it became much easier to take over their livelihoods and artificially split up their lands. It became the Europeans’ moral duty to tame the beasts and evangelize.

You might protest: “No, no, not all foreigners are barbarians. You’re talking 100 years ago, but we know better now! Barbarians are people who are cruel, who are murderers.”

But even those connotations come out of a history of colonialism, dehumanizing the Other. We cannot separate words from their historical contexts. With regard to Matt’s tweet, it’s not simply that the words are “old.” They are vestiges from the violent language of imperialism.

This response gets it right:

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Language has the ability to flatten people. If we consider ISIS monsters, barbarians, savages, demons, we risk losing any understanding behind their motivations. I’m not in any way defending ISIS. The group is responsible some of the most horrific murders and ethnic cleansing in memory, not to mention the severe subjugation of women among other atrocious acts. They need to be stopped, somehow.

But calling ISIS barbarians isn’t going explain their extreme religious devotion which has caused them to force ethnic minorities to choose to convert or suffer beheading. Calling them monsters can’t explain the cyclical oppressed-becomes-oppressor pattern that history can’t seem to shake.  Indeed, using the language of imperialism to define the Islamic State certainly won’t stop them from becoming their own brand of 21-century imperialists in Syria and Iraq. That’s irony, my friends.


ISIS. Photo Credit: Reuters

*Twitter handle has been changed, slightly.

**Note: Definitions of “barbarian” from the Bible and Origin of Species from the Oxford English Dictionary. And I wanted to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness to find a passage where he actually uses the word “barbarian,” but my books are stacked in piles on my floor. Looking for that book is a lot more physical labor than I’m willing to do for Joseph Conrad’s sake. So I found this quote on GoodReads.

thoughts on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the invasion of poland

September 1, 1939: Seventy-five years ago today, when my grandparents were twelve years old, Adolf Hitler invaded their country.

My grandparents lived in a village near Lwow in the eastern part of Poland.  Dziadziu (my grandpa) had been in love with Babcia (my grandma) since kindergarden, and, according to stories from my mother, his preferred courting technique was throwing rocks and frogs at her. This method of romance somehow worked, obviously, but I digress. The Nazi invasion rudely interrupted their childhoods.

Map from The Telegraph (, only slightly altered by my incredible editing skills to show you where my grandparents are from.

Map from The Telegraph, only slightly altered by my incredible editing skills to show you where my grandparents grew up.

Dziadziu was too young join the army, but by the time when he was 15, German soldiers began forcing him to help them with odd jobs like unloading Nazi train wagons.

Soviets parading through the streets of Lwow in 1939, before the Nazis took over this part of Poland. Photo Credit.

Soviets parading through the streets of Lwow in 1939, before the Nazis took over this part of Poland. Photo Credit.

Much of the violence inflicted on the Poles in the eastern part of the country was actually imposed by militant Ukranian nationalists with the support of the Nazis. One of Babcia’s sisters had a mother-in-law who was killed by the massacres imposed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists when they burned down her house. She was not the only one. An estimated 70,000 Polish women, children and unarmed men were killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1943 led by Ukrainian Stepan Bandera.

After the war, Poland’s borders were redrawn and my grandparents’ families were forced to leave their home. They left almost everything they owned in their village, stuffed their livestock into train wagons, and actually sat on top of the trains into their uncertain futures. My great-grandfather packed up his belongings into his own wagon. I’ve never met him, but I can’t help but picture him as Tevye singing “Anatevka” at Fiddler on the Roof’s end, pulling a wagon filled with a pot, a pan, a hat, a broom. They had no idea where they were going; authorities dictated where they would stop.

My grandparents’ families stuck together, and they were kicked off the train at a town called Olesno in Silesia, the western part of Poland that was occupied by Germany only a few months before. Ethnic Germans had heard horror stories of incoming Soviet soldiers, killing men and raping women, and most had run away from the area before my grandparents arrived. So, Polish women arriving from Lwow camped out in ditches as men scoured the area for abandoned homes.

Another very impressive display of image editing. The route my grandparents took from Lwow, and where they ended up. Image Credit: Biega.

Another very impressive example of my image editing skills. The route my grandparents took from Lwow, and where they ended up. Image Credit: Biega.

Babcia first lived in a nice brick house, but as it happens, the German family who had run away later returned and reclaimed their house.  That’s how my grandparents’ families ended up living together with a few other elderly couples in a large house on the border a tiny village called Lasowice Wielkie. My grandparents married in November 1948 and continued to live in the meadow house. This is also where my mother was born in the 1960s, and where she lived for the first twenty-some years of her life.

Babcia and Dziadzu's home on the meadow. My mother's home, too, in Lasowice Wieklie.

Babcia and Dziadzu’s home on the meadow. My mother’s home, too, in Lasowice Wieklie. Photo credit: one of my sisters, probably.

Since I’ve come to grad school, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” almost as many times as “Wait–did you say your name is Tasha?” The question always gives me pause. I’ve lived in many towns and cities, but one of the two places with any consistency in my life is this house in Lasowice Wielkie (the other is my Hungarian grandparents’ home in Izsak–more on this in another post, I’m sure).  It’s strange to think that this place that signifies stability in my life also signifies uncertainty and usurping for the generation just before my mother’s.

I come from a family of displaced peoples, people who became refugees in their own land, products of violence from ethnic tension that has dominated Eastern Europe for the better part of known history. If you’ve been paying attention to the news beyond U.S. borders, you may have noticed that echoes of history are becoming louder and louder. If you haven’t heard, it’s time to start listening.

gloria steinem, the undercover playboy bunny

Once upon a time, if you were hunting for a job, this is what you’d find:

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The State, June 1958

This Help Wanted section in The State is from 1958, when job ads were divided into Female Help and Male Help. The best job a college-educated woman could find was a secretary, bookkeeper, teacher, or nurse. The purpose of college for women, after all, was to find a future husband and glistening engagement ring before graduation. The diploma just looked good.

Five years later, a twenty-eight year old journalist named Gloria Steinem was working desperately to find serious assignments, but instead was given stories about stockings and “how to please your husband.” Gloria was unimpressed.

One day, Gloria came across a Help Wanted ad for a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. The ad promised $200-$300 a week (a pretty large income for a woman during the 1960s), and asked if job-seekers wanted to “enjoy the glamorous and exciting aura of show business, and have the opportunity to travel to other Playboy Clubs around the world.”

Gloria was skeptical, but she had an idea. She decided to go undercover as a Bunny and investigate the working conditions of these women.

She applied under the name Marie Catherine Ochs, which she wrote sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie Ochs was a bit flighty, having held several stints as she traveled around Europe, and she was twenty-four years old. The age range posted in the advertisement was 21-24, so Marie needed to be younger than Gloria.

Marie’s interview at the Playboy Club was not so much an interview as a Bunny costume fitting:

 The bottom was cut up so high that it left my hip bones exposed as well as a good five inches of my derriere. The boning of the waist would have made Scarlett O’Hara blanch, and the entire construction tended to push all of my available flesh up to the bosom. “Not too bad,” said the wardrobe mistress and began to stuff an entire plastic dry cleaning bag into the top of my costume.

The heels of the costume proved to be the worst part, though; after standing for eight hours in three-inch heels, her feet were throbbing in pain. In 1995, Gloria wrote that her feet were so damaged that they were enlarged half a shoe size and have remained that way ever since.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Marie Ochs in the promotional photo as a Bunny, taken by the Playboy Club. Playboy still uses this photo in promotional materials today.

Another perk to the job: oh, the ogling. Men harassed the Bunnies often verbally and sometimes physically. Of course, the Bunnies were there purely for the enjoyment of ye old Male Gaze, but they were not allowed to be touched by men nor to go out with any customers (unless they were a Number One Keyholder).  Bunnies were mere decoration. They might as well be hanging in the walls of a museum.

Marie Ochs’ first night on the job was in the coat-check room, and as it happened, she came face-to-face with two friends of Gloria Steinem. The TV executive and his wife looked directly at Gloria/Marie, handed her fifty cents, but did not recognize her. “It was depressing to be a nonperson in a Bunny suit,” she wrote, and recorded several other observations from her night:

 The least confident wives of the businessmen didn’t measure themselves against us, but seemed to assume their husbands would be attracted to us, and stood aside, looking timid and embarrassed. There were a few customers, a very few, either men or women (I counted ten) who looked at us not as objects but smiled and nodded as if we might be human beings.

Back in those days, there was no concept of sexual harassment in the workplace. If there was, though, “Daily sexual harassment from washed up middle-aged businessmen!” should have been part of the Help Wanted ad. But Gloria/Marie was also curious about another part of the ad, a figure that had been cited in several newspaper articles too. Do Bunnies make $200-$300 a week?

So far Marie Ochs had earned close to nothing. Most of her work counted under “training,” which was unpaid. So, she went digging for answers from other Bunnies.

“Two hundred to three hundred a what?” asked one Bunny in disbelief.  She was a waitress, and waitresses generally made the most money because of tips (although the Playboy Club took 50 percent of tips as part of their own earnings). “I got a hundred and eight dollars this week, and the girl with the biggest check got a hundred and forty five.”

Gloria/Marie also learned that although the Playboy Club boasted a roster of 150 Bunnies, only 103 were on schedule because nearly 50 of them had quit. Girls signed up for the promise of glamor and then became jaded. When Marie Ochs finally did find a Bunny who earned $200, the lower end of the promised salary, it was only because she took double shifts and worked around the clock.

Marie Ochs existed for a month, and then Gloria Steinem took over and published her exposé called “A Bunny’s Tale” in Show magazine. It was a bold move, as His Holiness Hugh Hefner was in the glory days of his Bunny Empire. Hefner somehow found the gall to claim that his work was the “Emancipation Proclamation of the sexual revolution”; Gloria’s account told quite another story.

The short-term consequences of the article were frightening.  For several weeks, Gloria received “obscene and threatening phone calls from a man with great internal knowledge of the Playboy Club”—and, instead of accomplishing her intended goal of becoming a respected journalist, Gloria had even more trouble finding work “because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.”

Good thing, then, that the story doesn’t end here. Ten years later, Gloria Steinem would become the face of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. She founded her own magazine, Ms., that covered serious articles about women’s rights when other publications still thought feminism to be the silly ramblings of a few radical women. Gloria continues to write and work as a feminist activist today. As Gloria said, “The truth will set you free, but at first it will piss you off.”

D358GloriaSteinemWSPLunchTo read the entirely of “A Bunny’s Tale,” which is a great first-person journalistic account, click here.

hello women’s history month!

It’s March 1. Welcome to the best month of the year!

You might be skeptical. Fair enough. Snow is currently piling up outside of my window, which is not ideal. In like a lion, out like a lamb.

Consider this, though: March has got St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, and my birthday (March 4!). Most importantly, March is Women’s History Month, which is the glorious combination of two of my favorite subjects: feminism and history.

This month, I’ll be celebrating Women’s History Month by blogging about women writers.

Here’s the deal: writing can sometimes turn into a bonafide Boys’ Club. You know that romantic picture of the troubled writer, a man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, his glass of bourbon half-finished by his pen and paper, his hair unkempt but still complementing the five-o-clock shadow his handsome face? The man might be in Paris in the 1920s, or sitting in a lone, dark room in New York City. The writer in this fantasy is always a man, of course, because serious writers tackle the big ol’ issues like the meaninglessness of our existential lives.

I used to play into this fantasy of The Writer, male by default, although I wasn’t doing it consciously. It wasn’t until college, when my unwitting perception of writing and gender was broken down and challenged on a daily basis, that I realized the irony of a young woman journalist upholding the fantasy of The Writer. I also understood the value of sharing the stories of great women rather than keeping them cooped up inside the sphere of higher education.

Thus, I’ll be profiling women authors and journalists and investigating the political reality for women writers throughout history and today.

Starting tomorrow: Gloria Steinem and her Playboy Bunny exposé in 1963. It’s a good story. Get curious.


Gloria Steinem and Pamela Hughes, 1972.

jazz age january: “down and out in paris and london,” george orwell

The Paris of my imagination was no match for the Paris of my twenty-first birthday. I wasn’t expecting to visit the city at all, due to my dire lack of funds, but I was studying at Cambridge, and my parents bought the Chunnel ticket as a birthday present. I expected excitement, good wine, maybe a two-day love affair with a dark and handsome painter; instead, I found contentment, and I found George Orwell.

Specifically, I found Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London in Shakespeare & Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. The first version was shut down during the German occupation in the Second World War, but before that, it was a pivotal place in Jazz Age literary history. During the 1920s, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway  and James Joyce gathered here; in fact, it was featured in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But I bypassed Ulysses and A Farewell to Arms to buy the lesser-known Down and Out. It seemed appropriate. I was in Paris, after all, my budget consisted of pocket change, and I hadn’t showered for almost three days because my cheap hostel shower room was suspiciously missing its door: down and out, indeed.

Orwell lived in Paris from spring 1928 to December 1929, but he certainly wasn’t featured alongside the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway and Dali and Picasso in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. As you may have deduced from the book’s title, he was dirt poor. He earned his money by teaching English and then washing dishes in grimy restaurants. Just as Paris represented two different places for me–one physical, one fancied–during the Jazz Age, it was a different city for those coming from privilege, and writers who sold the clothes on their back for a loaf of bread.

James Joyce, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier in the original Shakespeare & Co., 1920.

James Joyce, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier in the original Shakespeare & Co., 1920.

The book is divided into three parts: first, Paris; second, London; and third, a brief outline on the British laws concerning the poor and homeless.*  The book seems as though it was written in scraps, with stories about different characters lasting either a page or several chapters.  It’s almost more journal-like then a memoir, but Orwell’s descriptions of the places and people that he encountered during this time actually assigns Paris a living, breathing personality:

Life in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives;… and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.

This isn’t a book about glamorous parties, it’s about how the other half lives. It offers vivid descriptions of hunger from several days without food, and the foul conditions of writers that get by as dishwashers in restaurants that would be considered bastions for disease today. It does not romanticize the bohemian artist lifestyle, nor does it sentimentalize poverty. It is a matter of fact account, but (always) sincerely and (mostly) beautifully written.

The Rue du Coq d'Or in the 5th Arrondissement, where Orwell's narration begins. Photo from BBC.

The Rue du Coq d’Or in the 5th Arrondissement, where Orwell’s narration begins. Photo from BBC.

Down and Out reminds us that the debauchery and irresponsibility of the privileged comes at a cost, and that cost is largely the exploitation of the poor.

“There exists in our minds a sort of ideal or typical tramp – a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink and rob hen-houses… I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.” (my emphasis)

I loved reading the book a second time just as much as the first, even if I finished it over several lunch breaks instead of the Chunnel ride back to London.  It reminded me that Paris is a signifier. Paris might be one geographical point on a map–but it is a different place, a totally different character–for different people.  Quelle ville, quel livre!


*I didn’t reread the last part, since all of these laws are specific to the book’s publication date in 1933.