RNC vs. DNC: A Reading List Examining the Conventions

In the past two weeks, Cleveland, Ohio hosted the Republican National Convention and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania hosted the Democratic National Convention. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton earned the nominations from their respective parties; they will face off in November. Not everyone is thrilled with this outcome. Ted Cruz urged delegates to vote with their conscience and didn’t endorse Trump, and Bernie Sanders supporters walked out of the DNC or protested outside the convention. I’m equally intrigued and exhausted by the political realm right now, so I’m relying on the thoughtful analyses and on-the ground reporting by talented writers.

1. “The R.N.C. on TV: Ivanka’s Weaponized Graciousness.” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, July 2016)

The dangerous choices of the postergirl for the Family Trump, who, you know, probably isn’t actually a Republican. If you haven’t read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story about Melania Trump, read that, too.

2. “I’m With the Banned.” (Laurie Penny, Medium, July 2016)

Troll king Milo Yiannopoulos throws a party for gay Republicans, and he invites his un-friend, feminist Laurie Penny, along for the limo ride.

3. “Bread and Circuses in Believeland.” (Benson Cowan & Kyle Grillot, Roads & Kingdoms, July 2016)

“For four days, photographer Kyle Grillot and I wandered the city, drinking, eating, and talking to people: Republicans, Democrats, independents, and anarchists alike. We went straight into the belly of the beast and mingled with the delegates. We drifted through the pods of protesters. And we travelled off the beaten path to parts of the city where the RNC was an afterthought or a distraction. This is what we found.”

4. “Shadowing My Gregarious GOP Grandma at the Republican National Convention.” (Tom Markham, Narratively, July 2016)

Beth Campbell, affectionately known as “Honey,” is a delegate from Tennessee. She’s thrilled to introduce her grandson, and you, the reader, to the world of the Republican National Convention.

5. “Bim Adewunmi at the RNC and DNC.” (Bim Adewunmi, Medium, July 2016)

Four installments by culture writer Bim Adewunmi on Chris Christie, the American flag, being Black in Cleveland during the convention, Bill Clinton, and splitting the Democratic party.

6. “Donald Trump’s Man in Philadelphia.” (Michael Kruse, Politico Magazine, July 2016)

Meet Calvin Tucker, the man determined to rally Black people in Pennsylvania to the Republican cause.

7. “Hillary Is Poised to Make the ‘Impossible Possible’ — for Herself and for Women in America.” (Rebecca Traister, The Cut, July 2016)

A great follow-up to Traister’s earlier article, “Hillary Clinton vs. Herself.”

8. “For RNC Merch Vendors, Business is Business” & “Outside the DNC, a Sea of Sanders Fashion.” (Eliza Brooke, Racked, July 2016)

Racked sent writer Eliza Brooke and photographer Cole Wilson to the RNC & DNC to scout out the merch.

9. “He’s No One’s Idea of a Liberal Hero, But Tim Kaine Is a Natural Fit for Clinton.” (Patrick Caldwell, Mother Jones, July 2016)

Embarrassingly, I’d never heard of Tim Kaine before this election cycle, but then again, I’m nowhere near as plugged into politics as I should be. This piece at Mother Jones was a good primer for me.

10.  “The Hillary Haters.” (Michelle Goldberg, Slate, July 2016)

It could be that the reasons people give for disliking Clinton have changed simply because she herself has changed. She entered the White House as a brashly self-confident liberal. Early on, some of the president’s advisers sought to undermine her plans for health care reform because they were thought to be insufficiently business-friendly; in response, Carl Bernstein, one of her biographers, quotes her snapping at her husband, “You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics.” Then, after the epic repudiation of the 1994 midterms, in which Republicans won a House majority for the first time since 1952, she overcorrected—becoming too cautious, too compromising, too solicitous of entrenched interests. As she would say during her 2000 Senate campaign, “I now come from the school of small steps.”

Finally, Longreads has already shared two excellent articles relevant to the DNC: “Obama’s Aesthetic of Cool” and “The Long, Hot Summer Hillary Became a Politician.”

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/31/rnc-vs-dnc-a-reading-list-examining-the-conventions/


The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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1. ‘How’s Amanda?’

Eli Saslow | The Washington Post | July 23, 2016 | 23 minutes (5,892 words)

A story of a mother and daughter facing heroin addiction.

2. We Are All Witnesses

Jordan Ritter Conn | The Ringer | July 21, 2016 |15 minutes (3,833 words)

Twenty months after Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland, his mother is still grappling with how to grieve in private following her son’s public death.

3. The Story of The Equals, Britain’s First Interracial Rock Band

Jason Heller | Pitchfork | July 18, 2016 | 12 minutes (3,220 words)

In the swinging ’60s, Caribbean immigrants and born-and-bred Londoners came together to create a new pop-rock sound.

4. After the Fall

T.J. Quinn and Simon Baumgart | ESPN | July 21, 2016 | 25 minutes (6,300 words)

High school basketball star Johnathan Turner punched his friend, Troy Causey, leading to his death. What happened that night?

5. How One Colorado Man Disappeared While Hunting For Hidden Treasure

Robert Sanchez | 5280 | July 26, 2016 | 30 minutes (7,525 words)

A man goes missing near Santa Fe, New Mexico after searching for an eccentric arts and antiquities collector’s buried treasure.

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/29/the-top-5-longreads-of-the-week-128/

Obama’s Aesthetic of Cool

On stage a young black man, the president of the United States, warmly embraced an older white woman in front of god and all the world. It is now an iconic photograph. If it had occurred on a weed-choked street in Mississippi within the lifetime of many of the people who were cheering the moment, the young man might have been beaten, burned, hung, thrown into a river with a cotton fan tied to his neck. A song began to rise through the history of the moment:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees…

But it was not those days any longer. The young man was the President of the United States and he has rung his changes on that song, and on an occasionally baffled democracy.

– Charles Pierce, writing in Esquire, on President Obama’s Democratic National Convention Speech and uniquely American brand of “cool.”

Read the essay

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/28/obamas-aesthetic-of-cool/

A Reading List of International Nonfiction Comics

Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.

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Comic books bridge continents. Superman spin-offs are a hit in China; Japanese manga trickled into American culture through Frank Miller’s Ronin and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Adventures of Tintin was translated from French into more than 50 languages. Alongside the superhero franchises and funny pages, a thriving genre of nonfiction comics has created new audiences and new appreciation for everything from war reporting to memoir. Here are five modern classics whose intricate illustrations have shaped the form.

1. Joe Sacco, “The Fixer and Other Stories”

The Fixer is a war story set in peacetime. In 2001, Joe Sacco traveled to Sarajevo, hoping to find the interpreter who’d helped him during the Yugoslav Wars. By this time, correspondents had cleared out and soldiers had become civilians. Memories of atrocity were starting to slip beneath the surface—but Sacco’s book excavates them. During one flashback, Sacco portrays his wartime arrival to Sarajevo, and it’s styled like film noir: hulking architecture, empty streets, long shadows. In a surreal scene at the Holiday Inn, the concierge points to the hotel on a city map. “This is the front line,” she says. “Don’t ever walk here.” Then, in the lobby, Sacco meets his fixer.

(Read an excerpt here.)


2. Lynda Barry, “One! Hundred! Demons!”

Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! is what you get when you mix together a few cups of fact, a spoonful of fiction, and innumerable cups of coffee. Barry says her memoir was inspired by “a hand-scroll painted by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku, in 16th century Japan.” Her own colorful variant on the hand-scroll, which falls somewhere between comic and collage, tells tiny stories of growing up that are both playful and profound.


3. Riad Sattouf, “The Arab of the Future”

In Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf transforms six perplexing years in the Middle East into an elegant and ironic memoir. When the story begins, Sattouf—a former Charlie Hebdo contributor who now draws a column for l’Obs—is a wide-eyed toddler. His mother is French and his father is Syrian. “In 1980, I was two years old, and I was perfect,” Sattouf declares.

Through a child’s eyes, Sattouf builds a backdrop for the Arab world we know today. In Syria, where young men style their hairs like characters in Grease, Sattouf writes: “Using their hands, the women began to eat the remains of the meal eaten by the men in the next room.” In Tripoli, houses belong to whomever moves in, but families have to wait in food lines for baked beans and green bananas. After the disappointments of the Arab Spring, it’s easy to be cynical about the history of the Middle East. But Sattouf chooses the more challenging approach—to look for hope and humor where there’s not much to be found.

(Read an excerpt here.)


4. Art Spiegelman, “Maus”

Maus helped nonfiction comics go mainstream when, in 1992, it became the first graphic novel to with the Pulitzer Prize. In simple black-and-white strips that were serialized for more than a decade, Spiegelman tries to make sense of his Jewish father’s memories of the Holocaust. He wryly casts Jews as mice and Germans as cats, as if World War II were a horrifying version of Tom and Jerry. As Spiegelman alternates between his present and his father’s past, he sketches out his own complex relationship to his roots.

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 1.42.38 PM

5. Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis”

As a girl in Iran, Marjane Satrapi saw herself as a prophet and a revolutionary. “The revolution is like a bicycle,” she tells her friends in her memoir Persepolis. “When the wheels don’t turn, it falls.” In the next frame, we see dozens of people trying to pedal an unwieldy five-wheeled contraption. Needless to say, it’s not going anywhere.

Satrapi’s simple black-and-white illustrations capture a turbulent history with surprising depth. In one historical panel, British colonial rulers—embodied by a bald man sipping liqueur and a greasy man smoking a pipe—plot the takeover of Iran. In another panel, after the execution of one of her heroes, Satrapi argues bitterly with God. She can forsake her faith, but for most of her childhood, she can’t escape her home. And since she can’t leave, she starts to love Iran. “This old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism,” she writes in her introduction. Persepolis changes that.

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/27/a-reading-list-of-international-nonfiction-comics/

The Cat’s Meat Man, From Dickens To Jack The Ripper

Black Cardigan is a great newsletter by writer-editor Carrie Frye, who shares dispatches from her reading life. We’re thrilled to share some of them on Longreads. Go here to sign up for her latest updates.


Harriet Hardiman was ‘a cat’s meat man.’ That is, she went out most days with a handcart full of chopped meat on skewers to sell to cat owners. So, just to emphasize, meat for cats, not of cats. Specifically, horsemeat—gnarly leftovers collected from nearby slaughterhouses. In Victorian-era London, there were hundreds of cat’s meat men (and women and, sometimes, kids), with beats in poor neighborhoods as well as posh ones. Hardiman would have had regular routes, regular customers, as well as regular cats padding behind her as she made her rounds, attracted by the scent of her cart.

I know about Hardiman because she lived at 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields, and it was at 29 Hanbury Street where, early one morning, in 1888, the body of Jack the Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, was discovered, lying against the steps at the house’s back entrance. Chapman didn’t live at the house—she lived at a lodging house nearby—but because of where her body was found, everyone at 29 Hanbury was interviewed and questioned. Seventeen people lived there in all. Hardiman occupied two rooms on the house’s ground floor with her 16-year-old son. Their front room served as a cat’s meat shop by day and as their bedroom at night. (The smell!) One side effect of reading about Jack the Ripper is learning about some of the people who lived in these crowded London neighborhoods, and who, because of the investigation and the ongoing fascination with the murders, have had their names, professions, and daily routines recorded and faithfully kept when otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been. “Cat’s meat man” is one of many now obsolete professions—like “sieve maker” and  “laborer in an indigo warehouse”—you’ll bump up against. Reading about the murders themselves gives me nightmares, but I do like this other part of it: that while we still don’t know who Jack the Ripper was (and I doubt we ever will!), we do know something of the people who lived at 29 Hanbury Street. I like especially the “two unmarried sisters who worked at a cigar factory” who lived in a back room on the second floor.


29 Hanbury Street.

I was reminded about Hardiman’s profession because of a biography of Charles Dickens I’ve been reading, which is Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth one. Dickens—as you probably already know—had a great passion for the theater, dating back to his childhood. Even by the theater-loving standards of the day, he was crazy about it. He would go as many days a week as he could, and he studied to be an actor before pivoting to writing and journalism. There’s an endearing mention in the biography of the practice he put in to these acting studies, working on his exits, entrances, and “such apparently simple theatrical tricks as sitting upon a chair.” As Ackroyd describes it, the love of performing was always with Dickens, and, as a very young child, he’d be set on a table to sing and dance for the amusement of his parents’ friends.

“‘The Cat’s Meat’s Man’ was one of his favorites,” Ackroyd writes of these performances, continuing with the lyrics:

Down in the street cries the cat’s meat man,
Fango, dango, with his barrow and can.

It’s the sort of yesteryear lyric that would have been completely mystifying if I hadn’t known about Hardiman. Fango, dango!

Looking into it more, I ran across an 1868 article about the trade in a children’s weekly paper of the time called Chatterbox. The author estimates that there were then upwards of 300,000 cats in London (the city’s population was then a little greater than 3 million so that’s about 1 cat for every 10 people):

As the cats’ meat man passes by the different houses, and announces his approach by a peculiar nasal yell, the cats may be seen furtively stealing up their respective areas, and eagerly seizing the meat which is thrown down to them. In large warehouses or breweries in the city, where numerous cats are kept, ‘feeding-time’ is a scene almost worthy of the Zoological Gardens.

So there you are, your horrifying-wonderful visualization for the week: cat’s meat-man-arrival frenzy.

A few other obsolete professions have been creeping into the Dickens bio as well. My favorite so far has come in this description of one of his schoolmates: “the natural son of a soap-boiler.” Earlier this week, I was out and overheard our own time’s version of this. One woman was speaking to another and she said, “I was a travel agent. That’s what I was! I was a travel agent.”

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from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/27/the-cats-meat-man-from-dickens-to-jack-the-ripper/

The Miseducation of John Muir

Justin Nobel | Atlas Obscura | July 2016 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Justin Nobel, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

It’s quite possible that America’s future was changed on the evening of March 6, 1867, in a factory that manufactured carriage parts in the booming railroad city of Indianapolis.

The large workroom, typically smoky and bustling with workers, was near empty. Factory manager John Muir’s task was simple: The machine’s drive belts, which looped around the vast room like the unspooled guts of a primordial beast, needed to be retightened so the following morning they’d run more efficiently. Muir had already made a name for himself as an impressive backwoods inventor. His “early rising machine” was an intricate alarm clock that tipped the sleeper onto the floor. His “wood kindling starting machine” used an alarm clock to trigger the release of a drop sulfuric acid onto a spoonful of chemicals, generating a flame, igniting the kindling. For the carriage factory, this unique mind was a boon. Muir had already improved wheel design and cut fuel costs.

In the darkening workroom he grasped a file and grinded it between the tightly-woven threads of the leather belt. The file slipped, sprang up pointy end first, and sank deep into the white of Muir’s right eye. Out dripped about a third of a teaspoon of ocular fluid. “My right eye is gone!” he howled back at his boarding house, “closed forever on God’s beauty.” In fact, thanks to a mysterious immune response known as sympathetic blindness, his left eye was gone too. The promising young machinist was blind.

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Yosemite National Park. (Photo: Esther Lee/CC BY 2.0)

Yosemite National Park. (Photo: Esther Lee/CC BY 2.0)

Now, of course, we remember John Muir quite differently. If you can measure America’s regard for someone by how many things get named in their honor, John Muir may be one of the country’s greatest heroes. He has at least one high school, 21 elementary schools, six middle schools and one college named after him, as well as a glacier, a mountain, a woods, a cabin, an inlet, a highway, a library, a motel, a medical center, a tea room and a minor planet.

He has been called “The Father of our National Parks,” a “Wilderness Prophet,” and if you visit a National Park this summer you may indeed have Muir to thank. His writing and activism are credited with inspiring Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier, among other national parks. This August, the National Park Service celebrates its centennial—Yellowstone was established by Congress in 1872, but it wasn’t until August 25, 1916, that President Woodrow Wilson, in an effort to put America’s sprawling park system under one department, signed an act creating the National Park Service. Galas are planned and Muir is featured prominently—his visage will be cast into gold, on a $5 coin alongside President Teddy Roosevelt.

His brand, as they say, is strong. But do we really know this man? Over the past few years, Americans have confronted the country’s past with vigor, removing problematic early leaders and symbols like Confederate flags from monuments and money and street signs. College and government institutions are regularly fielding calls to remove more. It might be time to reassess Muir’s legacy, as we tend to see only the pictures of the explorer in later life, greeting presidents amid the jaw-dropping splendor of America’s West. Largely absent from the official record is his early journey through Appalachia and the Deep South, one that helped shape his future adventures and worldview. A close reading reveals some ugly truths about the paternity of American park systems.

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Dunbar, Scotland. Muir was born in the house on the left; later, his father bought the bigger building on the right to be the family home. (Photo: Public Domain)

Dunbar, Scotland. Muir was born in the house on the left; later, his father bought the bigger building on the right to be the family home. (Photo: Public Domain)

Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland, the third child of a zealot Christian father and a mother who enjoyed flowers, poetry, and walking alone in the countryside—her husband eventually forbid this unchaste activity. Muir’s childhood was strikingly brutal for a contemplative future tree-hugger. He built a homemade gun and fired it at seagulls, he asked the town butcher for a pig’s bladder and then played football with it, and he was a prolific schoolyard fighter. Then, in 1849, at the age of 11, he moved to America.

Upon settling with his family in rural Wisconsin, young Muir was immediately put to work, preparing the land for farming. Days were often 16 to 17 hours long; grinding scythes, tending cattle, harvesting corn, potatoes and wheat. Single-handedly digging a 90-foot well through solid sandstone with nothing but a mason’s chisel, 18-year-old Muir nearly died of choke-damp—a condition common in mines, when oxygen levels drop too low for sustaining human life. Still, there was time on the occasional holiday, and a few hours on Sunday, for romping through the woods to gorge on dewberries, hickory nuts and wild apples, or riding his horse Nob, who he fed live field mice, or hunting deer, muskrats, Canadian geese and even a loon. “The bonnie things, but they were made to be killed,” his father told him, “and sent for us to eat as the quails were sent to God’s chosen people, the Israelites, when they were starving in the desert ayont the Red Sea.”

Later, as his new homeland was being torn apart by civil war, young Muir escaped his tyrannical father and slipped into the woods. Near Niagara Falls he fended off a pack of wolves, and in the frozen swamps of Ontario, according to letters written to friends and family, he discovered an orchid so beautiful he cried. But by 1866 he had settled back down, earning his job at the Indianapolis carriage parts factory.

Just months before the accident, Muir had enthusiastically written to his brother Daniel: “I really have some talent for invention, and I just think that I will turn all my attention that way at once.” But blighted and bedridden, Muir realized he was on the wrong life track. It was not the machines he missed most, but his beloved plants. A month later, his vision miraculously returned. Muir was like a man resurrected. “I have risen from the grave,” he wrote in a letter.

A map of Muir's 1867 journey, from his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain)

A map of Muir’s 1867 journey, from his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain)

Goodbye now to the world of machines, he would follow his plant heart after all. Inspired by 18th century adventurers like Mungo Park, who journeyed deep into Africa, and Alexander von Humboldt, who trekked across South America, Muir burned for a botanical adventure. Although he wanted to see the Amazon, his first trip would be the American South. He packed books and a plant press into a rucksack and on September 1, 1867, at the age of 29, starting at the Indiana/Kentucky border, Muir embarked on a 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, it was a bit like walking across Iraq. Some 250,000 Southern men had been killed in the Civil War, certain Tennessee towns lost nearly an entire male generation, and much of Appalachia remained thick with bandits. Yet Muir, with twinkling eyes, a scratchy beard and just one change of underwear, lit a course straight through the territory.

It is here, in Tennessee, where Muir, who went on to become a respected mountaineer, climbed “the first real mountains that my foot ever touched or eyes beheld.” Further along, in Georgia, while camped in Savannah’s Spanish-moss draped Bonaventure Cemetery, Muir realized death was not the hellfire his father claimed it to be, but “stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.” And in the swamps of Florida, Muir spied his first palmetto, and wondered whether or not plants had souls. You can see it forming, Muir’s aesthetic, nature not just as a wellspring of vitality, but a forgotten religion, where plants, animals, and even frost crystals and bacteria are an extension of god.

“Many scholars feel that Muir’s baptism happened in California,” says Muir historian James Hunt, whose 2012 book Restless Fires examines Muir’s thousand-mile walk. “That’s just not true, it happened by walking through the South.”

One of the site's of Muir's walk, the Bonaventure Cemetery Savannah. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain)

One of the site’s of Muir’s walk, the Bonaventure Cemetery Savannah. (Photo: Internet Archive/Public Domain)

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Ranger Travis Bow wears a tan uniform with a gun on his hip and a Muir-like beard. But before leading the way to the remote canyon where he imagines the derailment happened, Bow, who grew up on the Cumberland Plateau, a swath of steep forested ridges and sandstone cliffs in northeastern Tennessee points out that Muir wasn’t too enamored with the local populous. Muir describes neighboring Jamestown as, “poor, rickety, thrice-dead… an incredibly dreary place.”

From a man whose pen breathed so much beauty, vulgar descriptions like this seem ill-fitting. Yet they characterize a part of Muir that gets little attention. While he revered the plants discovered on his walk to the Gulf, he rejected many of the humans.

“Muir dismissed people he thought were technologically backwards,” says Hunt. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Muir was a technophile, “very much oriented towards the values of the Industrial Revolution,” says Hunt.

After all, Muir was an inventor. His mind’s gears turned towards efficiency and progress, a preoccupation shared by the nation. In a rabid quest for farmland and minerals, America had forgotten about the plants. Muir was there to remind them. “In the wake of industrialization,” says Hunt, “there is a moral purpose for wilderness.”

Bow leads the way up wooden steps and onto a rocky finger of land that juts over a steep cliff like the prow of a ship. A gnarled bonsai-like tree arches delicately into the void, a Virginia pine, perhaps twice as old as the country. That night stars spill across the sky. Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are visible too, blazing like hot coals. Pickett State Park, recently named a “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark-Sky Association is the darkest spot in Tennessee. The distinction, says Bow, once belonged to the Smokey Mountains, protected since 1940 as a National Park. But in recent decades, cities neighboring the park, like Asheville and Knoxville, have grown, and tarnished the once dark skies. National Parks were put aside for the people, and the people have come. This in turn has changed the wilderness experience.

Death Valley National Park, where the Timbisha community resides. (Photo: Ken Lund/desaturated/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Death Valley National Park, where the Timbisha community resides. (Photo: Ken Lund/desaturated/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Muir much preferred sleeping beneath the stars than under a roof. “Only by going alone in silence,” he wrote, “without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” Yet, Yosemite’s Majestic Hotel—formerly the Ahwahnee—has a solarium, valet parking, and rooms, according to one luxury hotel website, “accented with original Native American designs.” Less than five miles from the rim of the Grand Canyon is a chalet-style hotel with an indoor pool and spa. The Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, in Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on earth, has an 18-hole golf course, spring-fed swimming pools and a stately dining room that serves steak, rabbit and omelets.

“I’ve thought many times,” says cultural critic Stefany Anne Golberg, via email, “that Muir’s project was almost too successful.”

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Whether or not Muir truly got lost in Pogue Creek Canyon, he made it out, climbed through the rugged mountains of southeastern Tennessee and eventually crossed the Hiwassee River, in North Carolina. The “very rough” channel and “leafy banks” impressed him. It was here, in the Smokey Mountains that in 1838 the Cherokee Indians were evicted from their homes in the dead of winter by white settlers’ hungry for their land and gold—even though a U.S. treaty and a U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteed their land rights—and forced to walk more than a third of the way across the continent to Oklahoma, a march that would kill 4,000 people and come to be known as the Trail of Tears.

In the Village Creek State Park in Arkansas,  a portion of the Trail of Tears remains. (Photo: Thomas R Machnitzki/desaturated/CC BY 3.0)

In the Village Creek State Park in Arkansas, a portion of the Trail of Tears remains. (Photo: Thomas R Machnitzki/desaturated/CC BY 3.0)

Muir, apparently, was ignorant of this history. He described the Cherokee homes he found as, “the uncouth transitionist …wigwams of savages.” He described the homes of the very settlers who may well have drove them out as, “decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without, and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement.” For a man who supposedly walked with eyes wide open, this is a profound moment of blindness.

Today, the wigwams are gone, but the Cherokee aren’t, and on a recent June afternoon Sonny Ledford sits sharpening axes under a shade tree in front of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. It’s a beautiful spot, hidden among deeply forested mountains, and has been occupied by Ledford’s tribe and their antecedents for more than 11,000 years. Ledford wears a pair of bear claw necklaces. Lightning-shaped tattoos streak his arms. His head is shaved, except for a ponytail of hair that sprouts like a plant from the middle of his skull. And as the hot June Smokey Mountain sun beats through the leaves, beams glint off his metal axes, and flash in the rapt eyes of the small crowd gathered around.

“Everyone out there is lost,” says Ledford, gazing past the mountains, toward the exurbs, the interstates, burger joints, malls, John Muir middle schools. “You go to college to sit in some class for four years so you can get some piece of paper that gets you some general manager position so you can do some job you hate, just so you can be fired for a reason you don’t even understand…forget that,” says Ledford. “I don’t need some piece of paper to tell me who I am, I have this,” and he holds up a sacred turtle rattle.

When asked what John Muir means to him, Ledford, after first having to be told who the man was, scoffs at the question. “My people commonly walked from here to Florida,” he says. “The difference is, we were all touched with that desire to be in nature, we just did it. And we didn’t glorify this one man.” Native American tribes, Ledford wants us to understand, were full of John Muirs, and between Spanish explorers, Christian missionaries and American settlers, a countless many John Muirs were killed. For Americans to idolize a figure who suddenly believed what his people had always believed was the ultimate irony. “We’ve accomplished so much that we don’t get recognition for,” sighs Ledford. “It has always been like that.”

Ledford is not alone. “This isn’t something that we are really jumping up and down about,” says a battle-worn Barbara Durham, historic preservation officer for Death Valley’s Timbisha tribe, when asked what John Muir and the National Park Service’s upcoming centennial meant to her. Durham’s community is located just downhill from the sumptuous Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort. The Timbisha are the only Native American tribe that officially resides within the bounds of a National Park, a privilege the tribe fought long and hard to guarantee—at one point park policy was to knock their earthen homes down with powerful hoses then take over the land. In 2000, just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, formally recognizing the Timbisha tribe’s right to exist. But relationships remain tenuous. Durham says National Park Service officials recently asked her to talk at an upcoming centennial event. She refused. “It is their celebration,” says Durham, “not my celebration.”

This is the dark side of the Muir mythology, and one that was highlighted on his Southern journey. The man who thought of nature as a cathedral, and regarded, “whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats,” and even “invisibly small mischievous microbes” as divine, regarded Native Americans as subhuman. Later, in California, he called them: “dirty,” “garrulous as jays,” “superstitious,” “lazy.” Such denigration is particularly surprising, as Muir’s spiritual embrace of nature could have been taken right out of a Native American mind. “Frankly, I think that is where he missed the boat big time,” says Hunt. “He totally missed the beauty and knowledge that Native American culture could offer, and what that could add to his own world view.”

Was Muir so caught up in American Manifest Destiny that he refused to notice what came before? Was he so caught up with plants that he failed to notice who first tended them? Was he still under the influence of his parochial father, who once said, in a debate with a Wisconsin neighbor, “it could never have been the intention of God to allow Indians to rove and hunt over so fertile a country and hold it forever in unproductive wildness while Scotch and Irish and English farmers could put it to so much better use.” Or, was Muir’s aversion to Native Americans merely a product of his dislike for people he saw as technologically backwards? The distinction might not even matter.

A photograph from c. 1920 of a Cherokee home in North Carolina. (Photo: State Archives of North Carolina/Public Domain)

A photograph from c. 1920 of a Cherokee home in North Carolina. (Photo: State Archives of North Carolina/Public Domain)

* * *

On October 15, 1867, John Muir arrived in Florida via a steamship from Savannah, allowing him to bypass the Georgia coast—an “unwalkable piece of forest.” He immediately bought some bread, and darted into the woods, but the vegetation was so impenetrable that Muir could barely step off the path to inspect it. “Oftentimes,” he wrote, “I was tangled in a labyrinth of armed vines like a fly in a spider-web.”

Later, after a difficult night sleeping on a soggy hillock and out of bread, Muir spotted a shanty occupied by a logging party. “They were the wildest of all the white savages I met,” he wrote. Nevertheless, they shared with him a meal of yellow pork and hominy. Still, Muir remained skeptical of Florida’s swampy citizens. They were too poor, too dirty, too primitive.

“He really despised dirty peoples,” explains Harold Wood, an educator with the Sierra Club, the environmental organization Muir founded in 1892. “He couldn’t understand why people were dirty when bears and deer were not dirty.”

Outside of Gainesville, Muir came across the “most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen.” A couple was seated around a fire, in the ashes Muir noticed a “black lump of something”—it turned out to be a young boy. “Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young,” wrote Muir, “but these negroes [sic] allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.” The following day the dirt parade continued, as Muir came to a hut, weary and hungry. “I saw only the man and his wife,” he wrote. “Both were suffering from malarial fever, and were very dirty…the most diseased and incurable dirt that I ever saw, evidently desperately chronic and hereditary.”

Those are hateful words, though not the sum total of Muir’s perspective. In other writings about his trip through the South, he sympathizes with African-Americans he meets, and bemoans the bigoted mindset he encounters amongst whites. His views on humanity, though, reflect deep ambivalence, and in nature, he seems to see a blank slate, a chance to write his own story upon the land.

The problem for Muir, for the National Park Service, for all of us, is that America was never a blank slate. And we know now Muir’s story was wrong. As new research by ecologists like Kat Anderson, of University of California Davis, shows, Native Americans in California, including those in Yosemite Valley, intentionally used fire to open land, increase pasturage, prevent even larger more catastrophic fires, and promote biodiversity. Muir’s sacred Yosemite was not a garden tended by God, as he wrote so passionately about, it was a garden tended by Native people.

Muir’s blurry human vision is something Native writers and historians have been grappling with for some time. “We do not know why Muir was blind regarding the original people in all of the beautiful National Park locations he waxed about so eloquently,” wrote Native author Roy Cook. “Indian people are the true conscience of the American character.”

It is also true that Muir’s views did change over time. He was 29 on his walk to the Gulf, and not much older when he first entered California. Later in his life, he traveled to Alaska. Muir lived among various tribes, including the Chukchis and Thlinkit. “He grew to respect and honor their beliefs, actions, and life styles,” wrote scholar Richard Fleck, in a 1978 article in the journal, American Indian Quarterly. “He, too, would evolve and change from his somewhat ambivalent stance toward various Indian cultures to a positive admiration.”

As we sweat through summer, and laud this American hero anew and even cast him in gold, it is indeed important to remember his nature writing and his nature story. But it is equally important to remember, as we celebrate the creation of the National Park system and all of the beauty contained wherein, that a powerful story has already been written upon this land. It is sometimes the thing hiding in plain sight.

* * *

This story was co-published and funded by Atlas Obscura and Longreads Members

Editor: Reyhan Harmanci

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/26/the-miseducation-of-john-muir/

The Case for More Female Cops

Sarah Smarsh | Longreads | July 2016 | 20 minutes (4,886 words)

Betty was in the bathroom dyeing her platinum hair black while the kids played with her teenage sister down the hall. Betty had recently left Bob. He’d beaten her, which was officially a crime, but there wasn’t any use in calling the cops. A hometown boy and typesetter for the Limon Leader, Bob knew everybody in their small Colorado burg on the plains, from the police station to the butcher. Betty, my future grandma, was a 23-year-old outsider from Wichita—a social challenge likely not helped by her unapologetic wearing of miniskirts in 1968.

Two years prior, Betty had blown into Limon, 90 miles west of the Kansas border, with her four-year-old daughter, Jeannie, and a pair of go-go boots. Her mom, Dorothy, and little sisters, Polly and Pud (as in “puddin’”) were along, too. Betty and Dorothy both had just washed their hands of Kansas men. Back in Wichita, Dorothy’s third husband, Joe, had strangled her. Betty’s jealous first husband, my biological grandfather, routinely beat her up and, Betty suspected, had paid someone to throw gasoline on her male friend’s face and set it on fire. So Betty and Dorothy piled the kids in a jalopy and headed west, destination unknown, to start over.

“Why Limon?” I asked her once.

“It was where our car broke down,” Betty said with a shrug.

Betty and her daughter Jeannie at City Park in Denver in the mid-1960s, when she worked as a highway-diner waitress in Limon, Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Betty and her daughter Jeannie at City Park in Denver in the mid-1960s, when she worked as a highway-diner waitress in Limon, Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Betty and Dorothy took jobs working in diners along the highway that cut through town. Betty waited tables, her mom cooked specials. Before too long, Betty hooked up with a customer named Bob. Then she got pregnant. She drove past the chapel the first time and left him at the aisle, but on the second try they got married. She gave birth to a son, Bo. Then Bob hit her and snapped his belt at Jeannie one too many times. After just a couple years of marriage, she moved out and filed for divorce.

Now Betty had a 6-year-old daughter with a dangerous Kansas man, a 2-year-old son with a dangerous Colorado man, and a divorce decree pending at the courthouse. Custody of their child, Bob had assured her, would go to him. He’d make sure the judge knew what kind of woman she was.

She had the dye worked into her hair when the phone rang. A voice warned that Bob was on his way over, and he was mad. There wasn’t time for Betty to rinse her hair. She wrapped a towel around her head. Dark dye dripped down her neck as she and Pud put the kids in the car. They rolled through town until the road turned into a highway.

Then, sirens and flashing red lights.

Betty pulled the car to the shoulder. A police officer approached her window. It was hard to see with blinding lights in the rearview mirrors, but Pud thought she could make out Bob sitting in the passenger seat of the patrol car. The officer took Betty’s toddler son from her car and drove away.

Betty was distraught that their son was with Bob but worried for her and Jeannie’s safety in Limon. She escaped to the Denver area for a while and finally returned to Kansas, where her mom and sisters were living again. She would spend the next five years fighting to get her baby back.

Bob’s attorneys used both her gender and her poverty against her—shaming her for being single with two ex-husbands in her early twenties, saying her numerous past addresses suggested an unstable environment and an unfit mother, rescheduling court dates once she got to Colorado after begging time off work and saving up gas money for the nine-hour drive from Wichita. A judge awarded custody to a violent man with small-town community standing rather than to a twice-divorced waitress with a court-appointed attorney.

Betty ached to hold her son. She sobbed over the custody papers she had been served. She had what people called a nervous breakdown. Then she got her act together, found a different lawyer, and fought again. Eventually her son barely knew her anymore. She stopped trying. She focused on raising Jeannie. She put pictures of Bo in a drawer—the great injustice of her life owed to a system that not only failed to protect her but kept her from protecting her own child.

Betty with son Bo and daughter Jeannie visiting family in Wichita, Kan., in 1967, before she lost custody of Bo to an abusive ex-husband in Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Betty with son Bo and daughter Jeannie visiting family in Wichita, Kan., in 1967, before she lost custody of Bo to an abusive ex-husband in Colorado. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)


Nationwide, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, three million incidents of domestic violence are reported to police in the United States each year. Ninety-five percent of them are committed by men against women. In most police departments, domestic abuse consistently ranks as the most common reason for calls—often more than half of them.

Meanwhile, about 88 percent of law-enforcement officers in the United States are male.

Men thus compose the immense majority of both women’s assailants and women’s official protectors.

This structure is so calcified that we tend to sense it as a natural order rather than a social one, even as it harms women around the globe. (Worldwide, 91 percent of cops are male, according to 2009 data.) The United Nations noted in a 2011 report on women and justice systems, “in rich and poor countries alike, the infrastructure of justice—the police, the courts and the judiciary—is failing women, which manifests itself in poor services and hostile attitudes from the very people whose duty it is to fulfill women’s rights.” As Betty’s story demonstrates, women in poverty endure that infrastructure’s worst effects, as do women of color and members of the LGBT community.

“The history of police is the history of state power,” political theorist Mark Neocleous wrote in The Fabrication of Social Order. State power for millennia belonged mostly to men, of course, societal beneficiaries of a biological evolution in which size meant control. Modern policing thus centers on armed males trained to subdue civil disruption—most recently and notably, mass killings by male shooters with histories of violence against women—with physical force. The 20th century was a crescendo of militarization, first by the state and then by a fearful populace. It brought us to our current, boiling-point moment in which mostly male cops kill innocent civilians and mostly male civilians kill innocent cops. Racism is often the undercurrent, but toxic masculinity is the force that makes it lethal.

Meanwhile, a modern officer’s work more often involves driving a homeless person to a shelter than it does tackling a perp or drawing a weapon. For a society that in recent decades has dismantled many of the public institutions that once cared for citizens in need—mental health care, welfare, after-school programs—today’s American cop is among the few remaining tax-funded administrators of public wellness. He is less called upon to be a soldier than a caretaker.

Often the person who needs his care is a woman. In that process, gender can be a detrimental divide.

One result of that divide is that women are often disbelieved when reporting assault. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, ten officers in a Michigan police department—seven of whom were male—described their personal approaches to evaluating rape reports: “If there is no physical evidence and you said you got raped, did you get raped? …No,” one cop said. Other officers described giving alleged victims “a light interrogation” in the event that “there’s any inclination that there might be another motive” for the report. Such scrutiny of sexual assault victims deters reporting, of course. Unsurprisingly, the presence of female cops makes women more likely to report, according to United Nations research.

A police department’s treatment of domestic violence in its own ranks is telling of the culture it brings to work. In the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence claims against its own officers from 1990 to 1997, 227 complaints were filed, 91 were determined to be worth investigating—and just four resulted in a criminal conviction. The validated claims weren’t mentioned in performance evaluations more than three-quarters of the time, and over a quarter of accused officers were promoted while under investigation. Calling out bad cops is risky business, of course. When a legal consultant in a civil lawsuit noticed these scandalous mishandlings in LAPD personnel files and leaked the story to the press, he became the first person in U.S. history to serve prison time for violating a judge’s protective order.

An even more sinister outcome of a gender-lopsided police force: Sexual assault of female civilians by male cops. Last year, the Associated Press reported that, over a six-year period, about a thousand officers lost their badges for rape, propositioning citizens and other sex crimes. Victims—mostly young, poor females compromised by addiction or criminal records and unlikely to file complaint—included “unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs… women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.” The study doesn’t capture the size of the problem, as it only counted revoked licenses, thus leaving out untold reported and unreported offenses that went unpunished. (Nine states and Washington, D.C., including highly populous California and New York, didn’t provide numbers or have no state-level system for dealing with officer misconduct to begin with.)

High-profile cases of serial-rapist officers leveraging the power of their badges to assault women have brought recent arrests in Los Angeles and convictions in Oklahoma City. In March, an Alabama state trooper who raped a woman when responding to her call for help after a car accident was sentenced to just six months in jail. In June, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf said of a scandal involving over a dozen male officers accused of having sex with a teenage girl and supplying her with money and information, “I’m here to run a police department, not a frat house.” In 2009 and 2010, sexual misconduct was the second most frequent complaint against officers, according to the Cato Institute.

The most frequent complaint: excessive force. This topic of broad public discussion for the last couple years has rightly centered on the race of victims, but relevant too is the gender of cops: Female officers are, in general, far less brutal. They are over eight times less likely than male officers to face sustained charges of excessive force, and two to three times less likely to receive complaints. This data, compiled by the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) in a 2002 report, also shows that female police officers favor—and succeed with—non-physical means of interaction with suspects, though they still use force when necessary. In 1991, an independent commission formed after the videotaped beating by white officers of black motorist Rodney King highlighted similar findings to little public notice.

Preference for nonviolence does not constitute physical weakness. The NCWP report cites studies indicating that women’s typically smaller stature doesn’t hurt their survival in the field. When physical force is required, training—not brute strength—better predicts success. Meanwhile, communication skills important for defusing dangerous situations, commonly measured as higher among female officers, are under-emphasized in officer-selection standards—hiring criteria that would encourage less violent male recruits, too. In these ways, a police force over-fueled by testosterone endangers not just women but people of any gender most likely to come into contact with police, including people of color or in poverty.

As someone who grew up with cops for family and friends, I’m sensitive to reactive discourse that casts every officer in a negative light—especially concerning so harrowing a job that I doubt most critics would perform any better. As recent killings of innocent black civilians by white male cops reveal, though, our police departments reflect the unjust power paradigms of our country.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where a white male cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenager but was not criminally indicted in 2014, the police department was 55 percent more white than the community it patrolled—making for cultural chasms and fostering racist policing. Departments like these must rectify a dangerous racial imbalance, many have argued, to look more like the people in their precincts.

For similarly proportional representation, gender is easier to map than most demographics. Almost anywhere you go, about half the population identifies as female. Yet we have scarcely recognized the need for more female cops.

Our officers are the stuff of this country, no better and no worse. They are our prejudice, bravery, history, decency, and inequity sent down the street with a gun. Female cops carry these things, too—including, sometimes, bias against their own gender. But for a society in which the most common police call involves violence against women, half of all people are women, and almost nine out of ten police officers are male, there is no greater agent of positive disruption than a female cop.


In 1974, when she was in her late twenties, Betty got a government education grant—likely federal funds for women by way of Title IX—to attend a small business college in Wichita. A woman who had left school after ninth grade, she soon landed a job working for the state of Kansas as a secretary in the county court system.

There she earned $800 a month in a comfortable office, which struck her as a joke after years of making far less for grueling work in restaurants and factories. She got bored quickly, typing and filing documents while male coworkers came and went. So when she heard the county subpoena officer for the juvenile court was leaving, she wanted the job.

A judge told her that serving subpoenas was no job for a woman. A few years prior, though, the Civil Rights Act had been expanded to prohibit employer discrimination against women in state agencies.

“Check the law on that,” Betty told the judge. She got the job.

As a subpoena officer for the juvenile courts in Sedgwick County, Betty drove through Wichita’s rough neighborhoods to walk up crumbling sidewalks and deliver bad news. She told parents they had to show up in court for their children’s crimes, or that they were on the verge of losing custody of their kids. Sometimes they got irate. A drunk man with a gun said he would blow her away. A woman pulled a knife on her in a stairwell. Betty calmly talked her way out of such situations. She never got hurt on the job.

Emboldened by her success as a subpoena officer, Betty signed up for the Wichita Police Reserve. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 had opened doors for female officers, previously barred in many places from, say, arresting adult offenders or riding patrol after dark. They didn’t even have to wear high heels anymore. There was just one other woman in the mix when Betty joined the reserves, but she didn’t give it much thought. She enlisted to do a job, not to make a point.

Betty notes 2 copy

Betty’s notes taken during training for the Wichita Police Reserve in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

When I was a kid, I found the blue spiral notebook Betty had taken to training classes: notes on chain of command, types of traffic accidents, how to identify pot, when to discharge a gun, the meaning of a “29.” What type of evidence goes to the lab? When can you enter a house without knocking? What is the differences between aggravated battery and battery? What do you do when the person you’re arrested is intoxicated? She’d never had to spell the word “detox,” but as the daughter of a violent alcoholic, she knew what it meant.

Drunk (taking into custody)

  1.    Take custody of drunk
  2.    Frisk, place in veh
  3.    10-15 to D-tocs
  4.    10-23 at D-tocs
  5.    Take the drunk in
  6.    Wait for arresting off or cut case—paperwork.

After long days serving subpoenas, Betty put on a blue uniform, got in a patrol car with a male partner who was a full police officer, and went out into the night. Mostly they put drunks in the tank, which she found satisfying. One night, though, she opened her car door outside a robbery-in-progress and heard the zip of a bullet. She and her partner ducked behind their car doors before they gave chase through a nearby graveyard. Betty’s heart pounded as she ran with her heavy holster. The man escaped.

“Was it at all a relief that he got away?” I asked her, since she’d admitted she was scared.

“No,” she told me. “I wanted to catch the bastard.”

Betty’s gumption with a badge was not unusual for her gender. The 2003 NCWP report delineates 20 years of research supporting the hiring and retaining of female police officers: They are more assertive, independent, flexible, and creative than male counterparts, and less authoritarian and prejudiced in their behavior. They receive more favorable evaluations and fewer complaints. They exhibit more empathy and respect. Based on studies by police departments in Mexico City and Lima in the late 1990s, female officers are less likely than male officers to take bribes. The greater the number of women in a department, the less sexual discrimination and harassment—on the whole experienced by 68 to 86 percent of female cops. They receive more favorable evaluations from domestic violence survivors and are less likely to blow off such crimes by failing to write a report. Their presence benefits men by decreasing a force’s emphasis on physical strength, which can create hierarchies among male cops. Male cops themselves receive higher marks in responding to some crimes when they have female partners.

Betty in the 1970s, the decade she was among the first women to serve on the Wichita Police Reserve. (Courtesy of Sarah Smarsh)

Acknowledging the strength of the female cop is one thing. Recruiting and retaining her is another.

In 1975, a year before my grandma entered reserve training in Wichita, the Pittsburgh police department comprised just 1 percent female officers. Thanks to an affirmative-action court order that year requiring that half of new hires be female, by 1990 the percentage of women in the department was 27 percent—the highest in the nation. Once the hiring quota was lifted in the early nineties, female hires dropped to 8.5 percent, and the percentage of female officers fell to 22 percent by 2001.

If public policies not just tolerating but encouraging the recruitment and retention of female officers had existed when Betty put on her uniform, she might have spent her life as a cop. Instead, in the late seventies she moved up the judicial job ladder from subpoena officer to probation officer, tasked with keeping tabs on freed criminals.

It was no small emotional feat for a woman who herself had been victimized so many times. In 1969, my biological grandfather casually shot her in her living room with her own gun while my mom, then seven, played in the front yard. Now, as a probation officer, Betty’s job was to advise and help men who shot people. She did so with compassion.

“Thanks for being such a tough bitch,” her probationers would tell her when their parole ended.

“My pleasure,” she’d say.

While maintaining her course load, she was assigned a second position as a judge’s bailiff, until her retirement nearly 20 years after she began work for the courts. But she never stopped thinking of herself as a sort of cop.

Around 1991, when I was a sixth-grader living in Betty’s tiny house in a working-class neighborhood near downtown Wichita, her pair of golden Pomeranians disappeared from our backyard. The yard was separated from the alley by a flimsy chain-link fence; someone had stolen Feisty and Fancy, everyone agreed, since Pomeranians were valuable to breeders. They were Betty’s only indulgence, except the emerald ring she had bought herself when she got on at the courthouse, the first time she could buy a ring for herself if she damn well pleased. She had an idea about who might have taken the dogs.

One night during a party at our house, while she and the other adults were pounding beers and discussing the disappearance, Grandma told me to grab a flashlight and get in the car.

She slid behind the wheel of her small Toyota with the full ashtray. She tossed a heavy fold of shiny black leather into my lap. I opened it, and silver shone in the glow of the streetlight near our driveway. A thrill ran through me as I touched her old badge—probably illegal for her to use now but a means of self-protection she’d kept all those years in a drawer with a gun.

She drove slowly for a few blocks and turned onto a side street. As on our own block, gutters sagged, sofas decorated porches, flower beds were full of weeds. She parked at a house with its lights turned off. I handed her the badge. We spent the next half hour trying to glimpse her kidnapped dogs: quietly entering an enclosed porch, shining the flashlight around, jiggling doorknobs, crouching down to basement windows.

Betty finally whispered, “Let’s go,” but I knew the search wasn’t over. She’d write down the license plate number of the car parked in the driveway. She’d run the number through the computers at the courthouse to look for a criminal record, the way she had done with the number I wrote down after a man in a truck followed me around the block one afternoon. Back in her car she lit a cigarette, teared up, and tossed the badge back into my lap.

“I hope whoever snatched ’em gave ’em a good home.”


In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells, a Kansas minister new to Los Angeles, talked the LAPD into giving her a job. She sewed herself a floor-length dress and pinned to it a badge, designed by the department to be distinct from those of her male colleagues and therefore carrying the number “one.” She wore it for 30 years. (Nationally, she was preceded by two women who had joined the Chicago and Portland police in 1891 and 1908, respectively.) In 1915, Stebbins founded the International Association of Women Police, through which she traveled widely to promote the hiring of female officers. The organization celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and now has members in more than 60 countries.

During that century, progress for women in police departments was slow and intertwined with American history. In the early 1900s, on the heels of the abolitionist, suffragist, and prohibition movements, female officers tended to be upper-class, white, educated and motivated by social reform. After World War II, class dynamics changed, and working-class women of all races vied for policework. It wouldn’t be until 1968, though—half a century after Stebbins began her campaign, the same year Betty fled a violent ex with her children while hair dye ran down her neck—that two female cops in Indianapolis would be the first in the nation assigned to patrol cars. During that period, from 1960 to 1980, the percentage of female cops doubled, according to the NCWP, due largely to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. However, women remained mostly at lower department ranks, as they do today.

Finally, in 1985—75 years after Stebbins got her badge and two years after we sent the first woman to the moon—came the first female police chief of a major city: Penny Harrington in Portland. The first black female police chief, Beverly Harvard, took charge in 1994 in Atlanta. The next year, Harrington cofounded the NCWP with Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation. In the last 25 years, though, as women have entered many professions in historic numbers, the national percentage of female officers has risen wanly from 5 to 12 percent. You’d never know it from television criminal procedurals, bursting with female agents; even sexist Hollywood is ahead of reality in representation, if not in accurate portrayal.

Countries around the world are addressing gender in law enforcement. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Kosovo, Liberia, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda and Uruguay all have established specialized units or local stations for female cops—problematic professional gender segregation in countries with highly discriminatory laws and cultures, in some instances, but an effort that makes way for female officers. In 2009, the United Nations launched an initiative to recruit more women into national services and UN police operations. Last year, Ukraine undertook sweeping police reform with two women at the helm as first deputy interior minister and national police chief; the country has since seen a fast increase in female officers in spite of vast gender inequality in the country at large.

Such integrations will not pass without strife. This year in Querétaro, Mexico, female officers filed complaints for being forced by senior male officers to submit to inspections of their attractiveness. The chief of that department had previously formed a unit of female officers who worked in high-heeled boots and tight, frilly uniforms in the state of Aguascalientes.

As for the United States, 21 percent of city and county law enforcement agencies had recruitment efforts directed at increasing female hires in 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (The number for state agencies was much higher at 83 percent.) Sluggish gains for women have as much to do with retention as with recruitment, though. Once hired, as female cops have attested for decades, they face sexual harassment or even assault, doubt about their ability to do the job, general hostility, ostracizing, and discrimination in salary and promotion. The disadvantage is compounded for female officers of color, who contend not just with sexism but racism; according to a 2001 survey by the NCWP, women of color are nearly absent in small departments, representing about 1 percent of employed officers, and account for just 5 percent of officers in big-city agencies.

Amid protests over police brutality in black communities, in 2014 President Obama created a taskforce on “21st-Century policing.” The president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, Barbara O’Connor made the case for gender parity during a panel discussion on diversity. Some of the $120 million funneled from the Department of Justice produced research recommendations for improving response to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, especially among LGBT communities, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants. Oklahoma law enforcement agencies received support for a summit addressing, among other things, gender sensitivity in hiring practices. But gender diversification of the police was not a direct goal of the federal initiative.

A female cop herself might be reluctant to bring gender into focus. Perhaps, like trailblazing women in many professions, she’s kicking ass at her job and would prefer that speak for itself. Perhaps she has worked so hard for respect that the best she can hope for on the job is that her gender be forgotten altogether. For that matter, she may scarcely resemble our stereotypes about what a female is. She may be physically faster and stronger than her male colleagues. She may be cold when assisting victims. She may have no children or any intention to do so. She may have a temper and punch her locker. She may have defied every social construction and resent conversations thus framed. A female cop’s performance is not for being female, it is for being herself.

A female cop’s life experience, however, has everything to do with being female. Women, people of color, members of the LGBT community, and other oppressed groups can’t put on the uniform without embodying a particular truth: Their presence diversifies a mostly male, mostly white institution that historically has harmed people like themselves. Just as there is necessity in acknowledging gender to reduce the number of female victims, surely we must acknowledge it to increase the number of female cops.

A serious effort to do so might involve affirmative action in hiring, department education and training, federal improvement of childcare and family-leave options, accessible police-station facilities, and even increased access to police equipment, which is designed and constructed with the male form as a model. Before policy and politics, though, we must acknowledge what that male form has represented, with a gun on his hip—power in the form of both gender and threat of violence. We must say loudly that women, both most vulnerable to victimization and least likely to draw an unnecessary weapon, are not only qualified for a sound police force but essential to it.

Women like my grandmother may be no more innately qualified for good police work than men are, but by merely walking through the world as females they have gained a valuable empathy for patrolling it. In this way, women are unequivocally the stronger sex. Give them half the badges and let them protect this country.


This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Sarah Smarsh is a journalist who has reported on public policy and socioeconomic class for The New Yorker and Harper’s online, The Guardian, Guernica, and others. Her essays have been published by Aeon, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, Creative Nonfiction, Vela, and The Texas Observer. Smarsh’s book In the Red, on the American working poor and her upbringing in rural Kansas, is forthcoming from Scribner. She lives in Kansas and Texas.

Editors: Julia Wick and Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles

from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/07/26/why-we-need-more-female-cops/