Gallows Tale II: The Hanging File of Tanganyika 1920-1928 and the Risk of Escape!

  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot [of 230 miles] to the place of execution must be considerable

Britain had took control of German East Africa and renamed it Tanganyika Territory in 1920. This meant that the German justice system, which had been found throughout the territory would be replaced with a British system. Among other things, this meant that death by firing squad would be replaced by hanging. But to do this required the installation of proper gallows (with sheds) to be erected at the gaols where death sentences would be carried out. Or alternatively, mobile gallows could be installed.

As specified in Gallows Tale I, for Morogoro in central Tanganyika, this meant that a proper pit needed to be constructed. And as specified in Gallows Tale I, one of the big problems there was the problem of a socket, which would catch the bar underneath the trap door. It seems that the bar was ricocheting off the concrete wall of the pit, hitting the condemned during or shortly after the drop where the neck was broken—clearly an inhumane situation not befitting of British justice.

Songea which is in the southwest corner of the country had another problem. It seems that the nearest place for the court to hang someone was 230 miles away in Tukuyu to the east. Tanganyika Territory at that time had few roads, and even fewer vehicles—which meant that the condemned man would need to walk for five weeks through a tsetse infested bush before he could be executed. Such a walk would presumably have involved several local police officers, and of course one European officer. It is not clear how they would have been fed, whether they would have carried their own food, or whether there were stations where they would be fed.

Irrespective of the organizational difficulties for such a trip, there was also the chance that somewhere along the way the condemned man just might try to escape—and have plenty of opportunities to do so. Thus Songeia’s request for that special execution apparatus, “the mobile gallows.”



DAR-ES-SALAAM, 26th February, 1921

Registered Number: H.Q. 40/36

The Hon’ble

The Chief Secretary of the Government



With reference to your file No. 3093 and further to my H.Q.40/18 of the 2nd of November last, I have the hour to recommend on the following grounds that a portable gallows be issued to Songea to serve the requirements of that district:-

  • The distance from Songea to Tukuyu is 230 miles
  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot to the place of execution must be considerable
  • The journey from Songea to Tukuyu occupies at least 5 weeks.
  • The District Political Officer is of the opinion that in many cases it will be desirable for executions to take place locally as an example to the population, in order to convince the native mind that the murderer has been duly punished for his crime.

The District Political Officer concurs with my recommendation.

(Signature illegible)


Tanganyika Police & Prisons

Gallows File II Songea Gallows


America’s Cemeteries are Filled with Good Folks

We lose students all too often at Chico State. Some die from accidents, some from overdose, some by their own hand. Not many die as Melinda Driggers did last Thursday, though, on campus, in the middle of the day, in the middle of our Student Services Center.

We got an email Monday from the University, telling us of Melinda’s death, and my breath caught in my throat as soon as I saw the subject of the email: Passing of student Melinda Driggers.

Melinda was a non-traditional student. She came to the university after she had raised her son and twin daughters, after she had married and then lost her husband suddenly. She was the one who found him, unresponsive, much like she was found on Thursday. She performed CPR on her husband, that day, hoping to save her husband, and I imagine, her own life. She donated her husband’s organs so that others may live, and that her husband may live on. In a paper she wrote for me last semester, she said that knowing she had done everything she could to save him, and then donating his organs, brought her peace.

Her first semester at Chico, she became a Social Work major, and enrolled in my class. She was quiet, but a guiding force in discussions in my class. When she spoke, it was deliberate. She listened critically, and made invaluable contributions to the class.

I tell stories about my kids and my husband a lot in my class and often; she would nod her head in empathy when I complained about late nights spent with sick kids, the trials of married life, and juggling work and school and family life. She had been there; she had done that.

Life had worn her down by the time I met her. She carried a bit of extra weight, her hair was always a bit disheveled, and she always looked tired. The death of her husband had left her heartbroken, and trying to go back to school and rebuild her life in her late 40s had been an overwhelming experience.

Melinda never complained about anything though. When I mentioned the expense of college, time management issues, difficulty with school schedules, she would watch me intently, smile in a knowing way, then would shake her head slightly, nod in agreement, and go back to writing her class notes. She had been there, done that before.

She was worried about money, and doing well in school, and trying to survive after the loss of her husband. She was still traumatized over finding her husband unresponsive, performing CPR until paramedics arrived to take over.

There are a lot of Melindas out there, worrying, stressed over finances, then suffering a catastrophic event. Most who die relatively young are impoverished, most are hard workers who have just had a bad turn of events. They die younger, because of what the stress of “just getting by” does to a person.

This is what stress does to people like Melinda, people who, despite working hard, being good people, doing the best they can with what they have, still can’t make ends meet. I emphasize to my students every day in class: learn how to manage your stress because life is hard, and it’ll kick you when you are down and some of us have more of a safety net than others, and if you don’t figure out a way to handle the stress, you won’t make your 50th birthday.

Cemeteries are filled with folks like Melinda, people whose only fault was they lived in a world without a safety net for blue collar workers.

Melinda’s husband didn’t make it to 50, and neither did Melinda.

I walked into class Monday afternoon, the same classroom and the same subject, Sociology of Stress, where Melinda sat 7 weeks ago. Last semester, we talked about the stressful lives we all live in this fast paced world, and we talked about the diseases and illnesses that are more likely when stress gets out of control. We watched videos about the stress of inequality and poverty and wrote critically about stress, and the students analyzed their own sources of stress. We meditated and practiced Qi gong, we learned breathing techniques and relaxation methods, and still, for Melinda, it was too late. The stress of trying to get by, the stress of losing her husband, the daily stress of juggling family life and school life and volunteering hours, became too much last Thursday.

From the report from the University, I suspect that Melinda had either a heart attack or a stroke while in the Student Services Center, but regardless of the acute cause, the death certificate won’t mention the underlying stress that was the major contributing factor in her death.

I thought I was going to be okay when I walked back into that classroom, but as I scanned the room full of students, the reality of Melinda not sitting in her seat, her books open, her pen ready, her shaggy brown hair framing her glasses as she organized her papers, hit me, and as I faced my students, I didn’t hide my tears. Instead, I told them about Melinda, and I showed them where she used to sit, and we talked about learning how to manage your stress better, and about taking time for yourself, and learning how to say no to too many obligations, because this life is harder for some people than others, but you never know that it could be you, until it’s too late.

I hope you find peace, Melinda, and that finally, you can stop worrying.


Gallows Tale I: The Hanging File of Tanganyika Territory 1920-1928 and the Extra “Whack”

Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.

Some years ago I was working on a project in the Tanzanian National Archives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While there, I saw a file listed in the catalog called “The Hanging File.” I was not quite sure what to expect, so asked to see it. It turned out to be the bureaucratic correspondence, mainly from the Tanganyika Police and Prisons, about the implementation of the new British government’s policies on hanging prisoners. Tanganyika had only in 1920 been transferred from German to British colonial rule, and this meant proper British methods of execution needed to be established.  And that meant wherever possible, the condemned were to face the hangman’s noose rather than a firing squad.

Much of the file was correspondence back and forth about the nuts and bolts of establishing procedures for executions in a fashion consistent with British colonial law. I had the whole file photocopied in 2004, with the vague idea that there is a great story in the file—though I was never quite sure what it was, so never wrote it up. Now is perhaps the time.  So I will be writing blogs about in coming months in the hope that someone somewhere can tell me what the point of this file is.

This first memo I am posting is dated October 6, 1922, and it is from the prison in Morogoro, central Tanganyika, and addressed to the Director of Public Works, who has been charged by the Governor with establishing facilities to hang prisoners. As you can tell from this memo, such a program is not that easy—proper well-designed facilities must be established so that “every precaution can be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.” Which in the case of the Morogoro gallows means a socket of some kind to catch the bar that is underneath the trap door. It seems there was some evidence that the bar was bouncing off the concrete wall of the pit as the prisoner dropped, and there was some chance he was getting whacked on the head before their neck was broken. Clearly a condition that suggested a degree of inhumanity incompatible with British colonial justice!


Office of the Commissioner of Police and Prisons

Dar Es Salaam, 6th. October, 1922

Registered Number H. Q. . 55/Gen/30

The Director of Public Works



I desire to bring to your notice the following unsatisfactory points in connection with the gallows at Morogoro, which were brought to notice during my recent Inspection of the Gaol at that station.


  1. In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.
  1. The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.
  1. At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.
  1. Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.
  1. Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.
  1. I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

Signature illegible

Source Tanzania National Archives, TNA AB 518

Hanging File 1 Morogoro

So how would you as a anthropologist or sociologist analyze a memo like this?  Would it be about colonialism, bureaucracy, or criminology?  Or the human condition?  I have been wondering about this during the ten years I’ve been sitting on the file, and hope to hear what readers think in coming months.

The story continues here


The Best Book of the 21st Century (so far)

Junot_wao_coverIt’s Monday and I don’t know what you did this weekend but I finished one book (Americanah) and started another (Descent). Since I quit teaching, reading has returned as my favorite thing to do. I always had the time but never took it, something about the frenzy of teaching that made it so I could only make time to read books I wanted to during the summer. Several summers ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’d read Drown, his collection of short stories and so I knew the novel would be good because you can tell a lot about a writer by a short story and his were wonderful, compact tales punched with reality.

Recently, the BBC polled several U.S. critics in search of the best fiction book of the 21st century. They ended up awarding it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoPublished in 2007, it took Diaz eleven years to write and it’s no wonder. The footnotes kept me up doing late-night searches on Wikipedia and reading about the history of the Dominican Republic.

And it’s a fun and funny book, not something I’d usually write about a book that explores socio-political history, love, the immigrant experience, and what it means to be an American (and who gets to call themselves American). But that’s the talent of Junot Diaz. I don’t know what he’s like in person but I really liked Oscar Wao. Oscar is not a typical hero protagonist and is in fact, a huge nerd. If you were a weird, socially awkward sci-fi kid who loved Lord of the Rings and comics, you’ll love him too.

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to. -JD

If you click the link to this article, you can see the top 20 books the critics selected. I was sad that my beloved favorite The Goldfinch didn’t make the top 20 but then that is how it is with books and critics. Many of my favorite books (The Four Seasons by Stephen King) will never make a critics list. But that’s for another blog. In the meantime, check out this list and head to your local library (you do have a library card, don’t you?). Of the 20 on this list, I’ve read and enjoyed #’s 1, 5, 6, 11, and 13 (now you have to click the link!). How about you, what are you reading these days?




The Toothache

“The Toothache” is excerpted from Marianne Paiva’s book Breathe: Essays from a Recovering Paramedic which tells of her life as a paramedic in rural areas of northern California in the 1990s. This particular story tells of the time she was called to take a man by ambulance with a toothache to the emergency room at 3 a.m. You’ll need to read the whole story to find out why this was the case! To understand the context for this story, you will need to read the whole book!

Marianne has since gone on to teach Sociology at California State University, Chico, and blog here at Copies of Breathe can be purchased for very reasonable prices at in both paper and Kindle versions.   TW


The Toothache

By Marianne Paiva

In paramedic school and in the field, instructors and veteran medics downplay the inherent stress of the job. Instructors will say, “As long as you know your job, you’ll do fine. Just always know your job,” and continue innocuous demonstrations such as how to stab an orange with a two-inch needle or how to start an IV on a life-sized plastic arm. And veterans, those people who have been in the field at least ten years or so, will laugh when you ask, “So, what’s the worst part of the job?” They don’t laugh because they think its funny; they laugh because if they knew, they wouldn’t be doing the job. But stress is the reason people leave so quickly, why the burnout rate for a paramedic is less than ten years. Why paramedics are more likely than the average person to have an affair, to commit suicide, and to use illicit drugs. It’s getting better; in the mid-1990s, the burnout rate stood right around four years.

 It comes from all sides in prehospital emergency medicine. The patient yells in pain; the family yells because you didn’t get there quick enough; doctors glare and occasionally, when you’ve really screwed up, they tell you to leave. “Get the hell out of my hospital before you kill someone!” Screaming doctors don’t cause the most stress; the most stress often comes from the unexpected and unlikely sources. When you are a paramedic, the most stress comes from the perfectly mundane. I often ask paramedics who have left the field, “why, why did you leave”? And they tell me stories of broken families, long hours, the managers who expected miracles all day, every day, and the one call—that final call—when they realized they were done.

The call came at 3:00 a.m. on a frigid winter morning in March 1997. A thirty-four-year-old man with an address just up the block from ambulance quarters, in run-down apartments we are all too familiar with, has a toothache. It’s my call and I wonder today, would this have been my breaking point if the call rotation had fallen to my partner? Would I still be working on the ambulance? But the rotation had fallen to me and the toothache was mine.

It takes only a minute from quarters to reach the low-income apartments where the man with the toothache lives. My eyes are still swollen with sleep and my boots are just barely zipped when I spot a Latino man standing on the sidewalk outside the apartments. The man, wearing a thin, worn multi-colored 1970s polyester coat, faded blue jeans, and work boots, bows his head as the lights of our ambulance flash in his dark brown eyes. A girl, no more than eight or nine years old, stands next to him. They are waiting for us, even though it’s nearly freezing and the girl is wearing only shorts, a thin shirt, and flip-flops. Her dark, wavy hair falls to her shoulders and makes a deep contrast to the pale pink t-shirt with the giant purple cartoon dinosaur on the front. The resemblance between the two is noticeable. She has his deep-set eyes and if the man ever let his hair grow out, it would be identical to his daughter’s.

I roll the window down as the ambulance nears the curb. “Did you call the ambulance?” I ask the father. He looks alarmed and glances at the girl.

“Yes, my papa. His tooth hurts.” The girl wraps her arms around her body and tries to capture some of the heat that escapes into the frigid air. The father nods quickly in confirmation.

“And you want to go to the hospital?” I can feel my partner, David, rustling behind the driver’s seat. He’s impatient and would rather be sleeping. And he forgot his Diet Coke. Before leaving quarters, on every call, David grabs a Diet Coke on his way out. On this call, he forgot.

The girl speaks quietly in Spanish to her father. He leans in to hear her, then straightens up and nods. Yes, he wants to go to the hospital.

An involuntary sigh escapes my lips as I open the passenger door and motion for them to follow me. Warm air and bright lights flood the girl as I open the double doors at the back of the ambulance. I wait for her to climb into the giant box, then over the gurney and onto a seat tucked away between the cabinets filled with blankets and medication and plastic tubing. Her father follows, taking his place on the gurney. He sits upright, with his feet still on the ambulance floor and his hands in the pockets of his coat. I pull the doors of the ambulance closed behind me and find the warm bench seat beside the gurney.

“Ready?” David calls from the cab of the ambulance. I look at the man and his daughter and wonder, can I ever be ready?

“Not yet, give me a few.” David turns to glance at me briefly and I shoot him a stare with one eyebrow raised, “Just wait, just wait.” I turn my attention to the girl and her father.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I ask the girl. I do not speak Spanish and my patient, her father, does not speak English. I know the routine better than I should; parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles rely on their children, often too young to read, to translate their pains and injuries to medical providers in emergencies. Children are kept from school to accompany their parents to doctor appointments and are allowed to see their mothers and fathers die because someone needs to translate from Spanish or Hmong (war refugees from mountain regions in Southeast Asia) or Laotian (war refugees from low-lying areas of Southeast Asia) to English and back again. When I was a rookie EMT, we responded to a medical aid for an elderly Hmong woman who spoke no English. Her husband and other adult family members who spoke no English surrounded the woman as she lay in pain, curled up on a couch in a small apartment. We relied on her grandson to translate. But it’s difficult to understand a five-year old whose second language is English and the paramedic didn’t know how to treat her. How do you treat a severe stomachache? We didn’t; we took her to the hospital and let them care for her. She died a few hours later. She had cancer of the stomach, but her grandson didn’t know how to say “cancer” and so she was in pain for longer than she should have been. If we had known, we could have requested morphine. We could have made her comfortable. Instead, she died in pain.

This girl speaks English well, though. Her father has been in pain all night and can’t stand it anymore. He needs a doctor.

“Why did you call the ambulance? Do you have anyone to drive you to the hospital?” Many people will call an ambulance instead of driving to the hospital themselves, thinking they will be treated faster. But if a patient can walk to the ambulance and gurney, like this man has, the triage nurse will escort him to the waiting room even though we delivered him through the back door.

“We don’t have a car,” she tells me. No car and I suspect, no friends they can wake up at 3:00 in the morning for a ride to the hospital, twenty miles away.

“If you go to the hospital, how will you get home?”

She shrugs her narrow shoulders. She speaks to her father in Spanish again. I pick up only a few words of the discussion, but enough to know that he doesn’t care how they will get home; he is in pain now, not later.

“The doctor will only give you aspirin, nothing else for the pain. Do you have any aspirin at home?”

“No”, she says, “We don’t have any money for aspirin.”

“Ok,” I say finally, “I need to see the tooth and call the hospital.” I snap on a pair of latex gloves and move toward the man. “Can you ask him to lay back so I can see his tooth?” The girl translates my question. I adjust the gurney into a reclined position and the father rests his head against the rough pillow. His tooth is abscessed beyond repair, the black shell of what it used to be hangs between other teeth that will see the same fate fairly soon. The stench—not morning breath stench but rotting flesh stench—knocks me back onto the bench. I wonder how he has been able to stand the pain until now.

The nurse on duty who answers my call is not happy. “A toothache?” she asks me, not believing what I have said. I called her so she will know I tried to convince the patient not to go to the hospital, because if I bring them a toothache at 3:00 in the morning, they will question everything I do later.

“Yes,” I confirm, “a toothache. I’ve advised the patient that treatment at the hospital will be equivalent to over the counter aspirin. He is adamant in his desire to be transported to the hospital.” She makes me wait for her reply.

“Copy Westside, ETA?”

“ETA twenty-five minutes. Do you have any orders for me?” Maybe she’ll let me give him a little morphine on the drive, but I don’t want to ask her for it directly. If anyone else is listening, I’ll be a laughingstock. But the nurse says “no, there are no orders,” and I am embarrassed to have asked, although I know my patient needs something for the pain. The nurse has obviously never had a toothache.

Since my patient cannot converse in English and his daughter has fallen asleep on his lap, and there is nothing I can do to treat him. I have time to think on the twenty miles to the hospital. I am surprisingly angry. Not at the patient or his daughter, but at the nurse, for not understanding a toothache and denying the man morphine. And at the way we treat undocumented workers in my town and country. The man refused to give me his name and wouldn’t provide any identification, a sure sign that he was undocumented and illegal. How desperate must we make another human before we break them? It is a long twenty miles. The father and I try not to stare at each other for too long but in the tiny ambulance, we catch each other’s eyes a few times. I try not to breathe through my nose, because the smell of the abscess is overpowering and makes my eyes water.

The nurses glare at me when I escort my patient and his daughter into the emergency department. “Take him to the waiting room,” the triage nurse tells me. “Couldn’t you do anything to persuade him not to come in?” The mild anger I felt in the ambulance flares and I walk back to my ambulance before I say something I will regret. I am done, I realize. I am done. I can’t take any more babies beaten and scalded with hot water. And mothers who extinguish cigarettes on their children and fathers who rape their sons and the people who cover it up. I can’t take the woman who goes back to the man who molested her children. I can’t take one more boy struck by a car on his way to school and my best friends being shot by their boyfriends. No more drug overdoses, suicides, and near misses. No more. No more nurses who turn their nose up as we walk into the department with a drunk transient. No more. And I can’t take any more toothaches in the middle of the night.

The next morning, as I am driving to school, just at the city limits entering Chico maybe two miles from the hospital, I see two figures walking on the side of the road toward me. One is small, dressed in shorts, a light shirt, and flip-flops. Her father’s polyester coat hangs around her shoulders, draping her like a dress. The other is a slightly built Latino man in his thirties. The man with the toothache and his daughter, who should be home in her warm bed, just waking up to get ready to go to school, are walking the twenty miles back home.

The girl shivers as she climbs into the front seat of my SUV; her father takes a seat in the back. He doesn’t say anything when he closes the door, but pulls the seatbelt across his shoulder and tightens it as I shift into gear. I glance at the girl; her pink cheeks warmed in the stream of heat from my dashboard.

“You’re not working?” the girl asks.

“Nope, not today,” I confirm. I wait while she settles into the seat. “Buckle up,” I instruct gently. She pulls the belt tightly and snuggles deeper into the coat. We drive in silence back the way we had come just a few hours earlier. Their little apartment appears even more run-down in the daylight. I wait as the girl’s father gets out of the car and scoops his daughter from the front seat. She has fallen asleep somewhere along the way. He looks slightly embarrassed at the situation. I smile, trying to tell him it is okay; she’s a kid, she should sleep. I shift into gear as he moves away but then he steps back toward me and I think maybe he has forgotten something. I wait.

“Thank you,” he nods slightly. Holding his daughter in his arms, he nudges the car door closed and carries her home.


Why we Make Stuff Up at, and by the way, the American Anthropological Association Decided to Dissolve Itself  

Two weeks ago, we posted a really great essay by David Van Huff “A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge.” David wrote this story for my class, and it helped me see Durkheim concept of the “Dual Nature” of humanity in a new way, which is why I wanted to post it.  Anyway, in coming days we will post more such stories. What they will have all in common is that they are all fiction. So spoiler alert: Good social science can be made up. David’s story is in fact just an extreme version of this genre of social “science,” since not only did David make up the story, he also wrote the story about Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge who is also completely fictional—Dickens made him up too!

For that matter the all-time downloaded article from the American Anthropologist, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” is also fictional. It was made up by the sociologist Horace Miner who at one-time was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. Despite all this blasphemous conduct (sociologist, militarist, fiction writer), the article continues to be a staple of anthropology textbooks because it highlights so well how arbitrary cultural practices are always relative, and always taken-for granted.  People learn from it–the article enjoys its high status for good reason.

Oh yeah, and a couple of weeks ago, we republished Franz Kafka’s brief piece of doggerel Gemeinschaft/Fellowship.  That too, come to think about it was complete fiction, written by someone who was known for the oddity of his imagination.  And of course the “five friends” Kafka wrote about, as well as the sixth, are really quite made up!

Then there is sociologist Michael Young who in 1958 wrote a book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1880-2033. The book invented the word “meritocracy” to describe the dysphemistic world where everyone is evaluated for merit by testing, and those who are successful create an isolated world in places like Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), where alone they rule over the masses who do not do so well on standardized tests. As a result of this relatively unknown novel (i.e. fiction), the word “meritocracy” entered the English language as being something very desirable—in fact it has become a political staple when politicians whine about favoritism and nepotism. Oddly, this was not Young’s point—he though the meritocracy was actually a bad thing because it leads to oligarchy, and the book explains why in ways that are chillingly real over 60 years after it was published.

And just recently I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a fantastic novel about modern England, World War II in Ukraine, migration, gender, and aging. Read it—it is great sociology (the main protagonist even teaches sociology at a British University).

And by the way, the classical sociologist W. E. B. DuBois wrote a great short story “Of the Coming of John” about two boys, one black, and one white, who grew up on a Georgia plantation at the turn of the century. The story is a tragic one which illustrates well DuBois’ main point about “Double Consciousness” and “The Color Line” in race. DuBois made it up.

But isn’t this blog then really about literature, and not sociology or anthropology? Shouldn’t such works be sent over to the Literature Department—why should serious social scientists even consider such work?  Bottom line, if you want the truth, and nothing but the truth check out your home town newspaper (mine is the Nevada County Scooper which you can read here).  Otherwise do not be afraid of too much fiction.

And by the way, did you hear that the American Anthropological Association finally decided to dissolve itself?


Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

From fieldnotes, October ninth, 2004: The Red Tent: A gathering of women

According to the program, it’s time for the final event at The Red Tent, titled: “Living our wholeness” with Donna Carlson-Todd, certified life coach. Before us is a petite blond woman in her fifties who is passing out business cards and telling us about herself and that we are here to celebrate what it is to be a woman. While finishing up, she says we need to stand and stretch, voice aloud what we’re feeling at that moment—everyone stands up and some “Aahs” and whispery moans are voiced from the group. Then she tells us to sit down at our tables where two sheets of paper have been placed during our stretch, one a worksheet the other a guide to it that outlines the “Universal cycles of change” and the “10 keys to living your wholeness”. Donna Carlson-Todd guides us through the worksheet, prompts us to fill out each section honestly, tells us no one will look at our answers. 

After a half hour of being guided through the worksheet, she asks us to stand again, to leave some space in front of ourselves. She tells us to close our eyes, imagine a circle in front of us—doesn’t matter how big—where we place (figured out from the worksheet we just completed) our intentions, groundedness, hearts desire, beliefs/imprints, and goals. We are told to imagine the colors in our circle, the feelings we felt when we filled out the worksheet. Then she asks us to step into our circle of intentions, groundedness and hearts desire, etc and then, step out, step back in again, “how do you feel inside your circle?” she asks.  A woman exclaims, “I feel better!” She asks us to vocalize how we feel, and several women’s Oohs, Aahs, and hums fill the room. She continues in a soft voice, telling us to step out (a woman behind me moans) then back in, and a woman exhales to my left. Then, Donna Carlson-Todd asks us to step out of our circles one last time and bend over and pick them up, hold them in the palms of our hands, and then close our eyes again. 

I’m not bored, but I’m feeling inauthentic, so I squint my eyes and peek at the women around me. Two women to my right are stroking their circles, another holds hers up, close to her chest, as Donna Carlson-Todd is telling us to place our circle to our hearts so that we always remember how it feels and have access to it. Then she tells us to sit quietly with our group and unwrap the purple blobs of cellophane-wrapped clay in front of us to create with it the feeling we felt in our circle of intentions, groundedness, etc.

So, I play with my clay, while everyone else at my table is quiet and busy with theirs. Fae is good, obviously knows what she’s doing, she’s sculpting a woman laying down with her arms entwined above her head, but the others are just making odd shapes that don’t look like much except Connie’s, which looks like a punk Christmas tree to me. I wind up making a heart shape, stick a rose petal in the middle of it and run off to the bathroom for some quick jotting.

When I return everyone is standing in a large circle holding hands and singing. I run in and stand between Connie and Monica and we are lead in several choruses of “Woman Am I.”

Woman am I

Spirit am I

I am the infinite within my soul

I have no beginning          

and I have no end

All this I am.

Several years ago I attended this all-woman gathering as part of my MA thesis research (participant-observation/ethnographic interviews). I wanted to explore the ways women relate to other women in organized, formal spaces such as work and feminist social gatherings. I grew up in a working class family where the women didn’t “return to work” they just worked. And mostly in pink-collar service work: clerical, food service, and light bookkeeping. I was the same as them and worked in low wage, service-oriented jobs with mostly women co-workers. The kernel of the idea for my thesis was the result of a few years of bookselling at Barnes & Noble where I worked with almost all women employees and a male boss. I may be a bad feminist for saying this aloud, but there was plenty of conflict among my women co-workers, what I call bullying and microaggressions these days when I consult with organizations that have problems with employee conflict.

Through my participation in The Red Tent (a public event held on a university campus that served as a means of ritualizing women’s experiences) I hoped to understand what is meant by ‘sisterhood’, this sense of community that middle class feminists talked about and what I observed was lacking at Barnes & Noble. In the process of interviewing women, I started to develop a hunch that the ways women relate in everyday life were influenced by larger cultural ideas (including from mainstream feminism) about how women should relate rather than how they actually do.

What I know now—after the research plus life experience—is that I was right, there are heavy expectations placed on how women should interact, and they are based on cultural and gender norms. That yes, women do have conflict with each other and that it has to do with the structure of the patriarchy. The big question however, the one that still sticks in my brain, is what of class norms? The Red Tent (and I’ve never told anyone besides my husband this) was one of the most awkward social experiences of my life; if I hadn’t been doing research I would’ve quickly made an Irish exit. Despite being a student, I didn’t feel connected to the white women there, I felt like an outsider in the most Goffmanesque way, the stigma of my social class was obvious, I didn’t dress like the other women or look like them, and I did not experience feelings of “sisterhood.”

I thought of all this last June when I read, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” I’ve been stewing about it ever since, wanting to write a giant YES rather than bore you with my MA thesis and why I’m concerned about the state of feminism. Plenty of women have reaped the benefits of mainstream feminist policy, heck, where would middle class white women be without affirmative action? The problem is (and if you’re on twitter you already know this) is that mainstream feminism does little for women of color and working class white women. Mainstream feminism focuses on things like “leaning in” so that women can have it all and encourages women to push against gender norms and over work in the same way as men in order to secure the corner office. But, where does this leave a woman who doesn’t have the resources, the particular motivation, and/or the education to do these things? Where is feminism for them?

What Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In did best was expose the tremendous class and race divide in feminism. I saw it when I was teaching at a community college, several working class women who said they weren’t feminists because they were stay-at-home moms. Or the woman who thought a two-year degree and dental hygienist career was just fine, thank you very much; she said that she couldn’t be a feminist because they were “into getting more education.” The mythology of feminism being man-hating, well-known but what I heard was something more nuanced, it seemed like feminism was perceived as something academic and thus, completely out of touch.

Yes, feminism has a class problem (and a race problem too, which you can read about here and here). A little navel gazing isn’t a bad thing and singing songs and holding hands with other women is nice too; sisterhood is possible but hardly a guarantee in the competitive space of work. What’s nicer though is raising the minimum wage, family-friendly labor policy, free childcare for single parents (women and men) that are also college students, reproductive rights, and greater assistance and outreach for woman headed families struggling to care for elderly and/or disabled family members and children. Real stuff, because what middle class feminists don’t understand, is that leaning in was never a problem for busy, multitasking working class women. What I want middle class feminists to understand is that individual empowerment gets a real boost when the bills are paid, food is in the fridge, and gas is in the car. It’s the simple things, like good policy.