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This Is Not What A Feminist Looks Like

“Some idiot has drawn ladybits on the Queen Victoria statue on College Green.”

Bristol street artist “Vaj Graff” is behind the graffiti, which appeared on the 127-year old statue on 7 January. This isn’t the first time she’s “corrected” art and signage in the city, 120 miles west of London.

“Queen Vic was a power woman,” she told the Bristol Post. “She was the original feminist and she was proud. All I did was show her how she wanted to be seen. What’s so offensive about that?”

Here’s the problem: Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India was many things – as the title implies – but “original feminist” was not one of them. Not by any stretched, steampunked, anachronized definition of the word.

This is a woman that called the suffrage movement a “mad, wicked folly” and opined that one high-born suffrage woman “ought to get a good whipping.” While many in the women’s rights movement at the time held her up as an example of what a woman could be if given the opportunity, Victoria saw her role as female sovereign as “an anomaly” and more than a decade into her reign wrote that “I am every day more convinced that we women, if we are to be good women, feminine and amiable and domestic, are not fitted to reign.” She was fervent in her belief that she, like all women, needed to be guided by a strong man. Her extended mourning after the death of Prince Albert was both a genuine display of grief and a way to step out of her public duties.

Victoria took very little pleasure in any aspect of womanhood. Women, she once wrote, were “born for Man’s pleasure and amusement,” and that was that. A veteran of nine pregnancies, she came to hate the very sight of heavily pregnant woman, and continually compared pregnant and breastfeeding women to a variety of barnyard animals. She was appalled by social reformers who tried to educate woman on contraception, believing it encouraged immorality and prostitution. She rarely showed affection to her children, constantly finding fault with them while simultaneously demanding their complete loyalty to her needs.

And a woman who didn’t think other women should not train to be doctors or nurses because they’d have to look at genitalia would not let her bush fly on the Bristol green.

As graffiti goes, the addition of “ladybits” to the statue is funny, but also a bit sad. In the end, those parts of her anatomy didn’t make Queen Victoria feel strong or smart; they made her feel “feeble” and trapped. Like all queens, she knew the deal. Her body was only valuable for what came out of it: a male heir for the throne.

Peg Away And Keep Smiling: The “Santa Claus” Ship Brings Christmas To War-Torn Europe

Depending on how you look at it, “The Santa Claus Ship” was either a Christmas miracle or an exercise in audacity.

When Lilian Bell and James Keeley called on the children of America to give up their money and their toys and their time to send Christmas to Europe, they made a promise that they would get the donations on a ship, send it into the heart of the war zone, and get each precious gift into the hand of a refugee or war orphan. But on September 5, they didn’t have a ship. They didn’t have access to a ship. They didn’t have a warehouse. They didn’t have a staff or operating budget. They didn’t have the approval of the Wilson Administration – much less that of foreign governments.

Postcard bearing Lilian Bell's "Inasmuch" Flag of Peace.

Postcard bearing Lilian Bell’s “Inasmuch” Flag of Peace.

Then, suddenly, they did. Everything fell into place, and not just on the U.S. side. By the time the Jason dropped anchor in Plymouth, England on November 25, there was a robust distribution system already in place. The same was true in Marseilles, France on December 5 and in Genoa, Italy on December 7. Thousands of civilian volunteers sorted and resorted goods, while he Red Cross took the lead in making sure Christmas Ship boxes traveled along safe routes to the places they were most needed. Not one of the more than 10,000 boxes was recorded as lost.

Even the calendar seemed to align itself in the ship’s favor. The Jason wasn’t going to be able to stop at a port within reach of Russia. So the British government agreed to take the Russian allocation on one of their own ships to Bergen, Norway, where it could be transported via Finland for distribution. This was a much longer trip. But everything still got there in time for Christmas….because the Russian Orthodox Church observed Christmas two weeks later than the West.

Another miracle was the acceptance of Allied governments of the Jason as a “peace ship.” Distributions of gifts and supplies went to German and Austria just as they did England and France. This ecumenical approach reflected not just Lilian Bell’s personal philosophy, but the political reality of the moment: the United States had formally declared neutrality at the start of the war, and had she or James Keeley gone to the President and presented a plan that favored one side, Woodrow Wilson would have almost certainly turned them down.

By mid-February, U.S. newspapers were regularly carrying stories of grateful recipients writing to thank those who had sent them gifts (and who had thought to include a note with a name and address).

A teacher in Belgium wrote a donor in California what had happened the day she walked into her classroom with an armload of presents. “The children were clasping their hands and cried together in our mother tongue, ‘Lang leve onze kleine Amerikaansche vriends – long live our little American friends – and the boys and girls were dancing and singing around me, of them kissing my hands. Their merriment was undescribable.” Madame Valentine Ratel, a schoolteacher in Nolay, France, wrote a class in San Francisco thanking them for their kindness to her students. “Kisses and shake hands!” she signed off in wobbly English.

A high school student in Leavenworth, Kansas received a letter Bletchworth, England, thanking her for a red sweater she had donated. Frances Rushton wrote on behalf an appreciative 14-year old Belgian refugee. “She knows very little English and I doubt if she will have the courage to try to write you.” The girl and her parents had been turned out of their home in a village between Ypres and Lille with a half-hour’s notice “leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs” and with a fifty-mile walk to safety. Times were difficult for the Belgians and their supporters, but in the meantime, “we shall peg away and keep smiling.”

A girl in Minonk, Illinois got a letter from the mother of a young refugee in Scheveningen, Holland. “”The family of De Mal, a Belgian family, refugees in Holland, thank Miss Elizabeth Roberts very sincerely for the beautiful doll which she sent on the occasion of the trouble of the little Belgian refugee. This doll pleases Lily…Her mamma would like very much for Miss. Roberts to answer and tell what she does every day. This war is very painful to the Belgians and you may know that we well appreciate the generosity and the good cheer of the Americans. Lily sends good wishes and thanks with me and signs this with her own hand. Lily.”

Refugee Josef Verhist created a thank you postcard out of a photo and parts of different postage stamps.

Refugee Josef Verhist created a thank you postcard out of a photo and parts of different postage stamps.

Sometimes, people sent tokens. Irene Chappelle, a 12-year old refugee from Reims, sent Mrs. Katherine Roberts of Chicago a bunch of dried violets bound in red, white and blue ribbon as thanks for a doll and coin she had received. “When papa returns from the war and we can return to our home, I shall take your doll with me, and I shall never forget the one who gave it to me. I shall preserve the coin as a souvenir of you and your country.” Josef Verhist, a refugee father of three, sent Minnie Franklin of Vancouver a homemade postcard: a landscape of Holland painstakingly created out of parts of different stamps.

In the fall of 1915, Lilian Bell published The Story of the Christmas Ship, a “charming” account of the project, “full of laughter, of tears, of good fellowship,” in the words of one prominent reviewer.

There was no call to the American children in 1915 to send toys and aid to their European cousins. The U.S. did send a “Christmas Ship,” but this was packed with humanitarian supplies for the starving people of Serbia. Another full year of combat had created more orphans, more refugees, more starving people. A “Santa Claus Ship” seemed, at best, quaint.

“Millions in Europe are dying in the agonies of starvation, cold and disease,” wrote one commentator in widely reprinted editorial. “What a ghastly joke it would be in these circumstances for the richest and luckiest nation to offer those millions of pitiful children a little candy and fruit when they need milk and broth, mittens when they need blankets and clothing, dolls and toy trains when they need doctors and nurses and sanitary supplies. No, this is no time for polite momentoes. Let us concentrate on giving the only real help that would suffice and that would be welcome – peace as soon as possible.”

Lilian Bell’s Vision Splendid was just that – the heartfelt outpouring of millions of Americans to millions of Europeans, and one that did bring a little light to countless lives suddenly and irrevocably changed by war. It was a last burst of innocence at the start of a more cynical era.

Visit Remembering the 1914 “Santa Claus” Ship  on Pinterest for more images. 


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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Vision Splendid: How One Woman Sent 7 Million Christmas Presents To WWI Europe

Sitting in front of a fan in the heat of late August, novelist Lilian Bell was thinking about Christmas. War had broken out in Europe a month earlier. Casualties were mounting. She found herself obsessing on how desolate it would be when the poor and orphaned children faced their first wartime holiday.

Lilian Bell, 1890s

Lilian Bell, 1890s

Suddenly, she was struck by “The Vision Splendid.” Why couldn’t the children of America be moved to give the children of Europe a proper Christmas? The words of Matthew 25:40 echoed in her head: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The Vision came into view – “the Christmas Ship come sailing, and flying from her staff was the beautiful flag of the Christmas Ship – with its white ground from Peace, its golden star of Hope, and it’s motto the single word-“Inasmuch!””

Her imagination, she admitted, sometimes got her into trouble.

Most “visions splendid” die not long after they form, but Lilian Bell wasn’t about to let that happen.

Her first stop was Chicago, where she enlisted the support of James Keeley, editor of the Chicago Herald. Keeley had served for years as editor of the Tribune, but in the spring of 1914 had purchased four failing city papers and merged them into a single entity. Bell – the wife of a promoter – knew exactly what she was doing in pitching her project to him. A splashy, patriotic drive like the one Bell proposed was exactly the sort of visibility-raising campaign he was looking for.

The strategy was simple: Bell would write a front-page call-to-action under Keeley’s byline to the children of America while he traveled east and used his political connections to win approval from authorities in Washington. He would help set up a steering committee and she would work on outreach and publicity.

To the Children of America” was splashed across the front page of the Herald on Saturday, September 5, 1914. In the type of part morbid, part saccharine prose of her era, Bell managed to combine the image of “Santa Claus fell dead on the battlefield,” “the physical agony of the hungry and the underfed,” and countless little Gretchens, Ivans, and Maries waking up to a Christmas without presents into a downright inspiring call to clever, industrious, generous American children to “stretch out your hands across the sea bearing messages of love and hope and sympathy to the children of a war-ridden continent.” They could become Santa Claus by donating their pennies and their toys and sending them on The Christmas Ship. Within days, this open letter was reprinted in newspapers across the nation.

As Bell anticipated, The Christmas Ship fired the public’s imagination. It played into a basic desire to do good and into the slightly less attractive sense of American exceptionalism, of “fortunate America” heaping their goodness on “unfortunate Europe.” It was the perfect project for classrooms, for institutions, for women’s clubs and fraternal organizations and unions and church groups. Newspapers adopted it as a worthy public cause – one that just happened to help boost circulation. The Wilson Administration signed on, offering the services of the military and the State Department.

Most importantly, on October 15, the Navy assigned the USS Jason, a sturdy 19,250-ton fuel ship, to make the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. She would depart Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal on November 14.

Over a period of two months, Americans collected and shipped over fifty full railcars full of goods to Brooklyn. It was the collective work of hundreds of groups and thousands of volunteers, but what struck Lilian Bell was that “[t]he cargo of the Christmas Ship was personal.”

She was particularly touched by the stories of parents who donated the toys of their children who had died young. In Springfield, South Dakota, students collected ‘a mile of pennies’ which they used to buy clothing for children in Belgium, while one young girl donated the five cents she won from her mother every time she got 100 on her spelling, even though “[t]his is a hard way for me to earn money for spelling is against my nature.” A group of little girls in Ridgeway, Pennsylvania, wrote letters to unknown little girls in Europe, enclosed not only fresh paper but international postage coupons. Women in San Francisco sewed 2,500 items of clothing and collected hundreds more. One person even donated an organ. “Just what good this instrument will do the little sufferers who have neither clothes nor roofs to shelter them has not yet been fathomed[.]” But it was packed nonetheless.

People from all walks of life joined in the effort. Practically the first cash donation she received was postmarked from the Penitentiary at Joliet. “Inclosed please find one dollar and an abundance of Good Will toward the Christmas Ship fund. Thomas J. Bent, Convict 195.” The prisoners at Joliet, along with other institutions, turned out an abundance of handmade toys from their workshops. At the other end of the spectrum and the other end of the supply chain, the upper class ladies of New York spent days in the overflowing warehouse at Bush Terminal working alongside soldiers, sailors and Red Cross volunteers to bring some order to the chaos of goods.

Volunteers packed 10,000 crates of goods for Europe in the fall of 1914.

Volunteers packed 10,000 crates of goods for Europe in the fall of 1914.

Although the press focused more on the vast array of toys and games, a large part of the material packed into the Jason was humanitarian aid. Much of this was earmarked for Belgium, which was already on the brink of famine. A bewildering array of foodstuffs made its way to New York. Famine staples like flour, sugar, beans and corn were stacked to the warehouse rafters. California farmers donated dried fruit; growers in Texas sent pecans and peanuts; northeastern orchards provided barrels of apples. There were treats as well, barrels of candy and other sweets tucked in with the more wholesome goods. One merchant in New York even contributed a case of grape juice.

After weeks of nonstop work by hundreds of volunteers, the Jason was ready to depart. Lilian Bell, still working with the coordinating committee in Chicago, looked at the final reports as “the only interesting statistics I ever read.” Donations had come from every state, plus shipments from Canada and even Panama. It was impossible to get a full count, but the estimate was that in nine weeks, 7 million separate items had been collected. The ship was also carrying $42,000 in cash donations – equivalent to about $1 million today. The Jason’s captain, Lieutenant Commander C.E. Courteney, put the final count at 10,000 cases of items packed into the holds.

Thousands gathered around the Brooklyn docksides to watch the Jason set sail. Shortly after noon on November 14, the “Santa Claus Ship” cast off her lines, slid “into midstream  and headed for the sea on her voyage of mercy and happiness, flying the flag of the greatest admiral — Santa Claus.”

Part Two: Peg Away and Keep Smiling: The Santa Claus Ship Brings Christmas to War-Torn Europe
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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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