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Here’s what you need to know about the history of kimonos

The kimono is more than a symbol of Japanese culture that is instantly recognizable to the rest of the world. It is a garment that embodies what it means to be Japanese, worn for centuries since the Heian period (792-1192). Since then, the kimono has evolved into many different styles based on who is wearing it and for what occasion. And because of the many things that the kimono embodies, the possibilities are endless. 

So let’s start with the history of the kimono and how its significance has evolved into its uses in modern-day Japan.

Taken from the Chinese Wu Dynasty in the 8th century, the kimono was first seen with shorter sleeves and was known as the kosode

Like most feudal societies, much of Japan’s history (before the Edo period opened the country to the rest of the world) was riddled with in-fighting. Because of constant warfare between rival daimyo (feudal lords), Tokugawa Ieyasu was suspicious of foreign influence, colonialism, and Christianity. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and becoming the shogun, Ieyasu focused on strengthening the social, political, and economic fabric of a war-torn Japan.

Japan – and only Japan – was Ieyasu’s priority. The Tokugawa Era (or the Edo period, as it’s better known) ushered in a period of peace and prosperity for the country. For the next 200 years, Japan’s ports were isolated from the rest of the world (except for Korea and China), until the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa opened the borders to Commodore Matthew Perry and his American warships. 

It was during this time that the kimono as we know it was born. Up until then it still had been called a kosode and had relatively few style changes. What remained constant was that everyone wore it, regardless of age, gender, or social standing. Granted, peasants made up more than half of the social hierarchy during the four periods leading up to the Edo and Meiji restoration periods (1868-1912)

Fashioned from a single bolt of fabric, the kimono was more than a lavish piece of clothing. It was art.

Wealthy daimyo classes commissioned their kimonos much in the way the Borgias or the Medici of Renaissance Italy commissioned grand paintings for their ornate halls. Fashioned from a single bolt of fabric, the kimono was more than a lavish piece of clothing. It was art. More significantly, it was the wearer’s identity. With every embroidered flower, every hand-painted scene, and every swirl of color, the kimono told a life story. Fabric, pattern, and color were crucial, for they represented someone’s rank, gender, and age, and it all tied into their image within their social standing. 

Today, the kimono is still symbolic of not only the wearer but of Japan itself. Kimonos are worn at weddings, funerals, tea ceremonies, and so much more. For example, 20-year-olds wear their kimonos to shrines on Coming of Age Day, a holiday when boys and girls are accepted into society as adults for the first time. Girls wear furisode, a kimono with long, flowing sleeves, while boys wear the haori half coats with hakama trousers that are decorated with their family’s crest.

For formal events like weddings and funerals, married women wear tomosode, kimonos with shorter sleeves, and subdued designs that highlight their family crest. While it’s more common for attendees to wear Western suits and dresses (thanks to Westernization during the post-Edo Meiji Restoration), wearing a kimono is still very symbolic of the pride surrounding Japanese heritage to this day. 

Another holiday where we see the kimono is Shichi-Go-San (seven-five-three), a Shinto-influenced ceremony that promotes the healthy development of children at ages seven, five, and three. 

Perhaps the most iconic and recognizable kimono-wearer is the geisha. The geisha’s role has evolved over the centuries, but today they provide entertainment, food, and drink for tourists and wealthy businessmen alike. Things like hem length and the color of the collar tell onlookers the geisha’s rank; if her collar is red and not white, then you know that she is a maiko (a geisha in training). 

Despite Japan’s rapid industrialization after the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, the kimono is still deeply woven into the cultural fabric of their society. Japan went from being an isolated, feudal nation to one of the Big Five at the Treaty of Versailles by 1919. Yet for all of this success (like becoming the third-largest economy in the world), they still held on to the kimono, the symbol of their roots in an ancient world.

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History Historical Badasses

Meet the woman detective who saved Abraham Lincoln’s life

Isn’t it crazy to think that if you weren’t at the right place at the right time, your whole existence will change on a dime? The Butterfly Effect is a wild concept and definitely one I think about with America’s first female detective, Kate Warne.

Hers is not a name that often appears in textbooks. In fact, this may be the first time you’ve heard of Warne at all. Did you know that if it wasn’t for her role, Abraham Lincoln could have been assassinated before his inauguration? This conspiracy event has become known as the “Baltimore Plot”.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency caught wind of a plan to kill Lincoln by secessionists before his inauguration in 1861. Initially, the detectives were hired to keep an eye on the train route while Lincoln was making his rounds. He was on a whistle-stop tour before the final destination leading Lincoln to be in Washington D.C. However, this part of the trip proved to be even more crucial because Lincoln planned to switch lines…an ideal time to intercept him. 

Since people didn’t associate women with detective work, Warne was able to pose as Lincoln’s sister and ride the train with him as an undercover backup. Lincoln covered himself with a shawl, pretending to be ill to avoid wandering eyes. All the while, Warne was armed with a gun. Ready to fire at a moment’s notice. The logic? At the time, no one would suspect a woman to have ulterior motives if she was traveling with a sick family member. 

Thanks to Warne’s intelligence, the team of agents were proven to be instrumental in thwarting the plan. Even though this has been known as Kate Warne’s highest achievement, we shouldn’t forget how she landed this history-altering position. 

When Warne first saw the job listing for the Pinkerton’s Agency, Allan Pinkerton immediately assumed she was interested in a secretary role. Female detectives and officers were unheard of at the time and the idea of a woman could step up for the role seemed outlandish. But that didn’t stop Warne. In fact, that only sparked her determination. By pointing out what the agency lacked, Warne made the case on why she would be the best candidate. 

Warne explained to Pinkerton that the agency lacked the distinct advantage a woman detective offered. Because this was a man’s job at the time, no one would suspect a woman overhearing the conversations of important people was actually gleaning information on them. 

Pinkerton was convinced and hired Warne. She even herself to be one of the best officers on the team, according to Allan Pinkerton himself. Kate closed many cases by using her feminine traits to her advantage.

I love that Warne didn’t have to sacrifice a part of herself to conform to a job. She ultimately made the job work for her and benefited from it. This is a great lesson in not losing yourself in any aspect of your life, especially if those key parts can help make you stand out from the rest. 

It’s women like Kate Warne that make me think of my mom. No, she isn’t part of law enforcement but she is a woman in a male-dominated field. She is a courier and delivers packages. It’s a simple enough job description, but it is physically demanding and tends to be monotonous. She has to offload packages into her truck, drive them to the location, and then take them out. The weight varies and oftentimes she doesn’t receive much help. If anything, my mom is the first person to volunteer to help another person, which most of the time is when a man can’t pick up his slack. They have underestimated my mom from the start but for over 30 years, she has proven herself to be a dedicated worker and then some. 

People don’t think about these careers since the end result is all they see. The packages being delivered or the cases being closed. Behind the scenes work can be incredibly tiresome and if the environment isn’t conducive, it just makes everything harder. Especially in a field where you don’t find many others like yourself. Women often have to carry the burden of doing more than they should, especially since society keeps underestimating us at every turn. The need to do more to compensate because of some men doing the bare minimum puts an unfair shift in the balance. 

I’m glad to be able to share Kate Warne’s story. Not much is known outside of her role as a detective, but that doesn’t make her any less inspiring. Being “the first woman” of anything is an incredible feat to obtain. One that definitely doesn’t come lightly either. It’s just a painful reminder that society has a long way to go before we don’t need to start every story with this milestone.

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History Historical Badasses

An aspiring author’s love letter to Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by those to whose opinion I give credence, that Jane Austen is one of the greatest literary greats to ever great. I have so many high opinions of her that I hardly know where to start this article. Should I wax eloquent about the power and impact of the themes she explored? 

Maybe I could point to some of her finest quotes and say, “See, I told you, the woman could write!” Or perhaps I should just point to the existence of Pride & Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, because really what more do you need? 

Scratch all of that.

The thing I love the most about Jane Austen, the fact of her career that inspires the most awe in my little heart, is the fact that she has endured. Jane Austen has been dead for 204 years, yet we as a society are still talking about her. Every day, probably, someone new discovers one of her books.


Authors are still writing modern versions of her stories and filmmakers are recreating them — this year, Sarah Dass wrote Where the Rhythm Takes You (2021), a modern-day YA take on Persuasion (1817). Curtis Sittenfeld wrote Eligible in 2016, an adult novel take on Pride & Prejudice. And lest we forget Emma (1815), which inspired the 1995 film Clueless, a modern classic film. 

Jane Austen has achieved something I can only dream of: staying permanent. 

I can’t speak for future generations if there are any, but I know that after more than 200 years, we’re not over Jane Austen yet. So I highly doubt we’ll get there anytime soon. 

Part of that, I believe, is because many previously disenfranchised voices, after years of scraping and clawing and proving themselves in measures no human should ever have to, are finally getting seats at the table. 

Movements like We Need Diverse Books are working hard to make sure that marginalized creators can tell their stories — and sometimes their stories are fresh takes on old classics. 

Then there’s the Remixed Classics series that MacMillan is doing, where the publisher is hiring authors of a variety of ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, and disabilities to take classics, like Little Women (1869) and Treasure Island (1882), and reimagine them through their lenses. All that to say — diverse voices are finally being given a chance to speak, they are freaking killing it, and I’m here for it.

And so many of them are turning to my girl Jane! Which, frankly, I’m also here for. That’s because, as I alluded at the beginning of this article, the themes she explored in her six published novels have lingered through the centuries. 

Her discussions of things like classism and sexism during her time have echoed to discussions happening today, where despite progress like women’s right to vote, the gender pay gap still exists and at least in America, the minimum wage is so far below the cost of living it would be laughable if it weren’t depressing. So when we read about Lizzie Bennet and her sisters, who fear becoming destitute upon their father’s death because his inheritance will go to a (dude) distant cousin, we may not be able to say “yeah, same,” but we can say, “oh. Yeah, I feel that.”

And it’s not like Austen merely had good stories to tell; her writing style itself was flawless.

“A reason she is admired and looked up to most for is that she proved that women can write as well as men can,” according to Smita Singh in an article for She The People

In preparing to write this article, I looked up a few quotes on GoodReads and was smacked in the face once again by just how great Austen’s turns of phrases are. She was witty and eloquent and even though her sense of humor is 200 years-old British, it still gets me no matter how many times I re-read Pride and Prejudice.

As an aspiring author, and as a fellow bookworm, I can only hope to come close to embodying her literary essence. Every time I put pen to paper, Austen’s name looms large in my mind, and that will never, ever be a bad thing.

Get your Darcy fix and read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen on!

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History Lost in History

What if…Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election?

I’ll never forget the celebration that overtook New York City on Nov. 7, 2020, when Joe Biden officially defeated incumbent Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States. My whole neighborhood exploded in parties and celebrations that swarmed so many streets of the city — and so many cities across the nation. There was a palpable sense of relief, all the sweeter when contrasted to the day Donald Trump won the election over Hillary Clinton in 2016. That day, it rained, and I trudged around McCarren Park in Brooklyn with a good friend as we wondered what the future would hold.

I’d like to take us back to 2016, but to a different version of it: one in which Trump lost and Clinton won. What would the world look like today if that had happened? 

Other than Clinton making history as America’s first female president, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Right now, I wonder how different might the US’s response to Covid-19 have looked under Clinton and a Democratic administration? The world may truly never know what she would have done and if lives may have been saved had a different person held the Oval Office, but what is true is that in 2018 the team responsible for pandemic preparedness was partly disbanded.

It’s quite possible had that not happened, America’s response to the pandemic would have been different: perhaps the debate surrounding masking, lockdowns, and vaccine promotion campaigns would have been handled with less controversy. Under Clinton, we probably wouldn’t have had a president who refused to wear a mask, adding fuel to the fire of anti-maskers. 

Other than Clinton making history as America’s first female president, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

But even further back, if Trump had not been elected, I would not have joined the 2017 Women’s March in New York, because it likely wouldn’t have been as necessary as it was at the time (not surprisingly under Trump, the #MeToo Movement was in full swing).

Politically, Clinton is the very opposite of Trump. To mention a few of her stances, she is pro-abortion, pro-marriage equality, and pro-DACA. Life might have looked so different under her administration that just reading this Ballotpedia entry about her campaign kind of made me weepy. 

Other potential differences involve the Supreme Court. At least two current justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, were appointed by Trump. If Clinton had won she would have been the person appointing both those justices, leading to a strong liberal majority instead of the current conservative, mostly-anti abortion Supreme Court.

If you’ve been following US politics lately, you’ll know that the Supreme Court was involved in a Texas case penalizing abortion providers after six weeks by…refusing to get involved and blocking the law. Now, they may be reviewing cases directly concerning Roe V. Wade, meaning abortion rights are currently on the line. When abortion rights are called into question, women’s rights themselves are at risk. Given Clinton’s stance on abortion, if she had been elected president we likely wouldn’t be having these conversations at all.

Of course, Clinton is not just a politician, but a human, and she would have made mistakes had she become the 45th president in 2017. Even Biden, whom we cheered and celebrated, has made critical errors: notably, the handling of the chaotic removal of US troops from Afghanistan, a lack of follow-through on campaign promises such as student loan forgiveness, and his failure in reducing the border crisis. 

No one can achieve all the promises they make as a candidate. And no one is perfect, meaning some of the promises will have flawed foundations. 

But here’s the thing: I believe in my heart of hearts that Hillary Clinton would have been a less destructive president than Donald Trump was. If for no other reason than the Supreme Court, which has outsized power in US politics, looking differently under her administration, we would have been better off had Democrats been victorious in 2016. 

We can’t change the past now. It’s written. All we can do is change the present to affect the future. And I hope the next time we face a chaotic election 2016’s, that we make the right choices. 

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History Forgotten History

This curse in my hometown involves Mexico’s former empress

Once upon a time, Napoleon III, who to my mind is just as much a sketchy dude as his uncle Napoleon I, sent an Austrian Archduke, Maximilian, and his wife Charlotte to Mexico to create himself an empire. But this story is neither about Napoleon III nor Maximilian: it’s about Charlotte.

I’ve been fascinated by Charlotte since the sixth grade. That’s when my family decided to move from Bologna, the gastronomical capital of Italy, to Trieste. I didn’t think there was much to love about Trieste; I probably made some stupid joke about how if you remove the “e” from the middle of the name you get the Italian word “triste,” which is sad, and that’s how I felt about moving. I pouted, as only an 11-year-old can.

And then we visited Miramare. Miramare, a castle that sits on an outcropping at the edge of Trieste and juts out onto the Adriatic Sea, was for a brief chunk of history the home of Maximilian and Charlotte (Carlota).

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sheer awe I felt while walking the museum halls of Miramare that first time. The castle is a shrine to its creators and initial inhabitants, with bedrooms adorned with all the furnishings of their day. There are gorgeous art pieces adorning the walls, lavish decor, and a jaw-dropping garden outside. It is, frankly, something that dreams are made of. I was in love with all of it, but the part that stood out to me the most was Charlotte’s chamber. A massive bed sat in between two shoulder-height-ish doors, openings to secret passageways that led, respectively, to the chapel and a bathroom. 

[Image description: An exterior shot of Castello di Miremare.] Via
[Image description: An exterior shot of Castello di Miremare.] Via

I was in love with all of it, but the part that stood out to me the most was Charlotte’s chamber.

The castle was my everything. It populated my dreams, my hopes, even my prayers as I started to literally ask God to let my family move in (I’ve always been ambitious). Slowly I learned more of Maximilian and Charlotte’s stories. How they married when she was but a teenager, how they moved to Trieste and built the castle but shortly after they moved in, they were appointed Emperor and Empress of Mexico. As a kid, I didn’t question that last part — imperialism and colonialism weren’t just facts of life, they were lauded as the acts of great nations. As an adult, I know the truth is thornier and darker and that both those things are abhorrent historical atrocities.

 Another thing I learned after growing up was that Charlotte was depressed. At the time, they called it “a state of madness.” I’m extrapolating a bit here, but her depression…makes sense? From a purely circumstantial point of view, her husband had essentially been tricked into taking a throne that shouldn’t have been his, and when Charlotte went to Napoleon (you’ll remember him as the guy who orchestrated the whole emperor thing, to begin with), he refused to assist his failing puppet in conquest. So did the pope. Maximilian was executed by President Benito Juarez’s forces in 1867, leaving Charlotte a widow at 27. 

Another thing I learned after growing up was that Charlotte was depressed.

For the next 50 years, Charlotte lived in Belgium, where she ultimately died and was buried in the town of her birth. Her story is tragic for all involved: for Charlotte, who thought she was chosen to sit on the Mexican throne but was instead a mere accessory to an empire’s accessory. It’s also tragic for the Mexican people who were never actually asked to be ruled by a foreign emperor and fought a bloody war to be free of him. 

And it’s tragic for Miramare, which despite its beauty is reportedly cursed: “whoever spends the night there is destined to die prematurely in a foreign land.” 

Maybe it’s a good thing my family never got our windfall and bought the castle.  

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History Ancient Practices

The history of witches can teach us a lot about ourselves

I was a child angel for several consecutive Halloweens. Dressed all in white, with a halo attached to my head and gauzy wings sprouting from my shoulder blades, I smiled beatifically at the camera. It was what I wanted, in my heart of hearts, too: to be pure, angelic, and perfect.

I never would have been a witch for Halloween. Witches wore black, had tall pointy hats, warts on their noses, cauldrons in which they mixed up hateful potions. Witches are the antithesis of angels. At least until I grew a little older and started investigating my own feminism and realized: witches are just women with a bit of power. That’s why they’re scary. That’s why they’re “bad.”

Growing up, I was also under the impression that witches were merely fictional. That magic wasn’t real, and it only existed in TV shows, movies, and books. These days I know better. There are witches out there — I even know some — and rather than being wart-ridden, cackling wretches who exist to eat the hearts of pretty young maidens, they are genuinely some of the kindest, most caring people I’ve met. They just happen to have a deeper connection to nature and the spiritual realm than many of us. Though witches do not have to be women, many are (at least the ones in my circles) and I think that makes the fear glow brighter.

Witches are just women with a bit of power. That’s why they’re scary.

In America, we’re almost all familiar with the Salem witch trials. But it turns out people were being burned at the stake for witchcraft across the Atlantic even decades before those famous burnings. In Europe, over the course of approximately 400 years, as many as 60,000 people were killed for being accused of witchcraft. According to one theory, it was economically driven by the religious leaders of the day.

As someone who grew up in an evangelical household, I never questioned that negative view of witches, which was that anyone who did not follow God was, obviously, following the devil. It took years of unlearning for me to reach a place where I didn’t see the world through such black and white lenses. I’m now rather fascinated by witchcraft and witches. According to an article on, “Many modern-day witches still perform witchcraft, but there’s seldom anything sinister about it.”

In my experience, witchcraft is often a pathway for people to tap into their deepest selves and to connect to the universe around them. There is also a legit religion, Wicca, whose believers practice witchcraft. 

“Many modern-day witches still perform witchcraft, but there’s seldom anything sinister about it.”

In pop culture, witches are sometimes seen as evil. I can’t stop thinking about the witches in Stardust, a movie I must admit I adore, who were power-hungry and willing to kill and destroy anyone in order to preserve their youth. Evil is in the name of the Wicked Witch of the West, too. 

Of course, pop culture witches aren’t all bad. Take Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although she goes through a dark phase, she’s ultimately seen as fighting her evil urges in order to be good.

One of my favorite witches in pop culture is Wanda the Scarlet Witch of Marvel fame. To be fair, I’ve never read the comic source material, but the movie and TV show character, played by Elizabeth Olsen, holds a very special place in my heart. She does terrible things in her grief and pain, and frankly, I can relate. I watched (and sobbed through) Wandavision earlier this year because though I’ve never confronted the specific griefs Wanda faced, I have my own share of trauma I’m trying to deal with on my own, without hurting others.

Do you see the lesson we can learn from the way witches in pop culture navigate their powers? How their tales, whether fictional or real, can be relatable for all of us suffering grief, trauma, or depression?

I think, ultimately, that if you were an angel or a witch for Halloween, it’s fine, as long as you have respect. Respect for the choices of others that might be different from yours, and respect for the people populating our lives who look a little different, act a little different and connect a little differently.

Read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness!

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History Historical Badasses

Anne of Green Gables was a symbol of strength and resistance during World War II

I first encountered Anne Shirley-Cuthbert, an imaginative, high-spirited red-haired orphan, in the pages of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. My first memory of reading the Canadian author’s debut novel dates back to the seventh grade, over a decade ago. Let me say this: I have never known such warmth as I have while reading this book. It has been 113 years since its release, and the book has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. Anne’s story has been adapted for stage, film, television, and radio over 35 times. Never once has it gone out of print.

Very few know how this fictional, feminist character inspired solidarity in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Over the last century, Anne of Green Gables has been embraced by many cultures around the world. Anne’s talent for imagination is limitless. Her joie de vivre fearlessness and optimistic outlook in life are infectious. Anne is as sincere as she is stubborn. She’s loyal, honest, and more than anything wants to be a good person despite everything she has gone through. Anne’s story is timeless. With its many adaptations, it dominates pop culture today. But very few know how this fictional, feminist character, who was way ahead of her time, inspired solidarity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Not only did Anne capture the hearts of Polish soldiers and inspire Japanese women to reject traditional gender roles, but she also provided an emotional escape for children left orphaned by the war.

When the First World War ended, the Anne of Green Gables series became an indispensable part of Polish life. Screen-writer Barbara Wachowicz says that the series appealed to Polish citizens because it offered “practical romance” and “cheerfulness,” which were desperately needed at the time. The first-ever Polish edition of the novel was published in 1912, and between 1919 and 1939, the book was printed again. The CBC reported that because the series was so popular, the Polish military gave soldiers copies of the novel during World War II to remind them of the values they dearly fought for, such as “love, home, and family.”

While Anne’s character is incredibly diverting, I can’t help but wonder if the landscape of Prince Edward Island and the fictional, close-knit community of Avonlea also contributed as an escapist fantasy for its readers. The Island could have appeared to soldiers as an imaginary place encouraging freedom and, at the same time, seem like a real-world far away from the battlegrounds of war. The combination of Anne’s unlimited power of imagination, the pastoral lands, and the meadows of Prince Edward Island allowed the novel to become something of a paradise, a potential reality within which one can resist anything, national and personal despair included.

Anne also played a profound, influential role in Japan during World War II. In 1939, Hanako Muraoka, a translator of children’s literature, was given a keepsake by Loretta Shaw, a missionary friend from New Brunswick. It was a copy of Anne of Green Gables. Shaw left Japan due to ill health shortly before the war erupted, and Hanako spent the next few years reading the book and secretly translating it into Japanese. English was now the enemy’s language, so she had to continue to work in hiding, protecting Anne’s story while weapons annihilated her home. 

The Polish military gave soldiers copies of the novel during World War II to remind them of the values they dearly fought for, such as “love, home, and family”.

When the war ended, the publishing industry in Japan found itself in chaos. Censorship from allied occupation forces and lack of capital put publishing in jeopardy. In the early 1950s, things began to change. Japanese publisher Mikasa Shobo took a chance on the Canadian author and her book about a fire-haired orphan, whose hard work helped conjure the reality of her dreams. Anne came to Prince Edward Island as a young orphan struggling to find her place in the world, an idea that resonated with the orphaned population in Japan following the war. It’s why the novel has been a mandatory part of the Japanese public school curriculum since 1952

Anne is a person of her own. She isn’t the ideal Victorian-era girl, but she valued little things like dresses with puff sleeves. She enjoys cooking and aspired to fit in with other girls her age. But Anne proves that she never had to choose. She can long for beautiful dresses while staying at the top of her class. She challenges traditional norms by repeatedly stating she can do anything, regardless of her gender. Anne encourages everyone around her to do the same, which is why her character inspired Japanese women to free themselves from traditional gender roles. Anne provided them‍ with both inspiration and encouragement, and they admired her outspokenness. A Japanese scholar has pointed out, “Japanese women admire Anne Shirley’s feistiness as an antidote to the passivity instilled in Japanese women.”

Anne’s story was published over a hundred years ago, during the very beginning of first-wave feminism. There’s much to learn from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s plucky red-headed heroine, who earned her achievements with hope and perseverance. Anne’s consistent refusal to be limited by her gender is a timeless quality, that struck a chord with female readers even though they were a century apart. 

Click here for the full Anne of Green Gables Collection by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

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History Historical Badasses

This unstoppable feminist set fire to Bengali society

Whenever we hear the surname Tagore, our minds drift to the Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Truth be told, the entire Tagore family, or what we Bengalis call Thakur poribaar were stalwarts of their time, and each contributed to society in one way or another. During British rule, they were one of the most influential families and played a key role in the Bengali renaissance.

When I first came across the Thakur poribaar, I was five. For most, it began with listening to a Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s poems-turned-songs). However, I was introduced to the family with a quite different person: Jnanadanandini Devi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s elder brother. Flipping through the dusty pages of my ma’s old books, she introduced me to Devi for the first time. 

“She was so strong,” ma always said. Jnanada, as Bengalis often call her, was my original feminist icon, and to say she was strong is putting it mildly. As ma would read to me what Jnanada had done during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.

During the 19th century, the attitude of Bengal towards its women was misogynistic, restrictive, and immensely sexist, even for the 1800s. People were extremely conservative, and women were forced to obey their husbands and never express their own ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Throughout their lives (from their marriage which happened even before the age of ten) until their death, they were forced to live entrapped within the four walls of their quarters, unable to even go out for a walk.

Such was the condition of Bengal women, and Devi took it upon herself to trailblaze change.

As ma would read to me what Jnanada had achieved during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.

At the mere age of seven, thanks to child marriage, Jnanadanandini Devi married Satyendranath Tagore. Although education was not commonplace for women during the 19th century, Devi’s family exposed her to education and learned to explore the world beyond what she already knew. However, said exploration was confined to books because of the purdah system.

But this setback didn’t stop Devi from breaking free of society’s confinements.

To receive probationary training for his Indian Civil Service, Tagore set out to England while Devi stayed home. When he returned, the couple moved to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) where Devi plunged into educating herself. She even took a solo trip to England, at a time when a woman walking out of the house was unheard of. She transferred this change of environment to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), which shifted the condition of the women. 

Devi was the first woman from Bengal who crossed the Abarodh, or the purdah system. She started on the first thing that identified women as second-class citizens: how they dressed. During the 19th century, it was tradition to wear the sari differently, in an uncomfortable way that restricted movement. Women always had to wrap themselves up (quite literally) and drape a ghomta over their faces so that they weren’t visible to others (think wings for Handmaids in Gilead, but longer).

Inspired by Parsi style, Jnanada created a new technique for draping the sari with pleats over the left shoulder and tucked in the waist. With this more comfortable style, women could finally move freely. She added a blouse and petticoat to offer an elegant look. Advertising this in Bamabodhini Patrika, she inspired and taught other women to wear the sari the Brahmika way. 

Devi was also a pioneer of literature and the arts. She wrote multiple articles for Bharati, and wrote about the patriotism and freedom that every Indian deserved. She wrote, “every benefit that the British have bestowed upon us is a blow to our mission of national liberation” in her article Ingrajninda O Deshanurag (Criticism of the British and Patriotism).

In 1885, she published a children’s magazine called Balak. She wrote two plays, Takdumadum and Saat Bhai Champa, both of which are considered irreplaceable in today’s Bengali literature. If these accomplishments were not rebellious enough, she also took part in multiple plays like Raja O Rani, written by Rabindranath. She also urged the women of the Tagore family to partake in these plays. Not surprisingly, she received waves of criticism from journals and society, but that never broke her independent spirit. Before her death in 1941, she even wrote a few memoirs that were published as Smritikatha O Puratani, carving an ultimate mark in the women’s literature spectrum.

By this point in her life, she’d made a name for herself, but it still wasn’t enough for members of her family to give her the respect she deserved. Debendranath Tagore, Devi’s father-in-law, didn’t approve of her independent spirit, which caused disruptions in the family. So in 1868, she left the Jorashanko house to live in a mansion by herself. Even though Devi and her father-in-law lived close by, they never interacted, which was unimaginable in those days. Living against tradition, she moved out with her husband and children and set an example to the rest of Bengal (take that, Debendranath).

Even though she came from a very privileged and influential background, Jnanadanandini Devi went above and beyond to spark change. For a woman in Bengali society, existence was like a prison, and Devi confronted that head-on. Today in most countries, the female experience has come a long way since Devi’s time, but there are still issues that must be addressed. The word “no” never thwarted her, and Devi’s story reminds us that when it comes to defending what’s right, nothing can make us give up.

To read more about the evolution of women’s roles in Bengal, read The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 by Meredith Borthwick.

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History East Asia Inequality

Why “Squid Game” strikes close to Korea’s legacy of postwar poverty

Editor’s note: Potential spoilers ahead!

You’re probably reading this because you (along with the rest of the world) have been swept up in Squid Game mania. Having watched the show, you can’t get enough of the gorey Korean thriller created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, whose success has been ten years in the making and is Netflix’s biggest hit to date. By now, you know have Googled all things squid, Lee Jung-jae, and model-turned-actress Jung Ho-yeon

I know I certainly did. 

One of the glaring themes in Squid Game is maintaining equality; the players join Squid Game for a chance to win a $38 million cash prize. They are all desperate people clawing for a chance to climb from the pits of debt, so they can give themselves and their families better lives (well, at least the three main characters have a family to worry about). 

Not only does Squid Game present a social commentary on the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, but the show’s bloody six-day game challenge kills players who have an unfair advantage (for instance, by knowing beforehand which game will be played the next day). In this dystopian existence, the players become a spectacle for the rich American “VIPS” who watch the savagery ensue from behind diamond-encrusted masks. So despite the equal field contestants are made to play on, they are still the underdogs…even though they constantly prove otherwise with blood, sweat, and tears. Literally. 

The show is tantalizing with its pulse-pounding high stakes, and its realistic depiction of how savage humans become when greed and power are at play, and the way society is unforgiving when it comes to debts and money in general. 

But for Koreans who live the reality of poverty, the show isn’t all that nail-biting.

South Korea has a long history of poverty, especially considering how it was mostly agrarian following its liberation from Japan in 1945. But for Koreans trying to survive in post-WWII society, that was just the beginning. The Korean War (1950-1953) ensured this, and by the time it was over, North and South Korea were separated by the 38th parallel with 5 million people dead. 

But for Koreans who live the reality of poverty, the show isn’t all that nail-biting.

Like Japan, South Korea’s economy was ravaged by World War II and the Korean War. It resulted in hyperinflation and the destruction of infrastructure and factories that left major industrial complexes in ruins (600,000 housing units alone were demolished, and about 70% of both textile and chemical plants were destroyed). 

But when Korea rose from the rubble in the postwar period, it was to rebuild the economy through government promotion of devoting your entire existence to your job. 

This quickly spiraled into a toxic work culture.

Because of rapid industrialization in the postwar period (not just in South Korea but in the world itself), the cost of labor was cheap. Despite factory assembly workers making the Miracle on the Han River possible (the phrase associated with South Korea’s rapid economic growth starting in 1961), it was these very workers whose standard of living plummeted and contributed to today’s wealth inequality. 

But when Korea rose from the rubble in the postwar period, it was to rebuild the economy through government promotion of devoting your entire existence to your job.

Former President Jeong Hee, who helped hurl the country into a major modern economy, put capitalism before anything else.

While the exploitation of workers contributed to a new middle class and a growing economy, brutally low wages ensured many couldn’t get ahead. In a 1977 Washington Post article, reporter William Chapman shadowed Miss Lee, a woman who worked in a Seoul textile plant for just $2.50 a day. Unionization was illegal, so workers who put in 10-hour shifts seven days a week had no way of improving their quality of life. In Chapman’s article, Miss Lee wasn’t even the woman’s real name; she had to be anonymous because the Korean Central Intelligence Agency had looked into her several times for merely causing “mild agitation” with her co-workers at the plant.

Today, of course, factory workers get paid more than $2.50 a day, but poverty remains an issue. Squid Game premiered during a time when a global pandemic robbed millions of their jobs. Poverty wasn’t too far from everyone’s mind. And for the elderly, who were always more affected by poverty in South Korea, were hit hard. 

Elderly poverty was over 47% despite President Moon Jae-in’s job creation plans for seniors. In 2019, 16.3% of people in South Korea were living with less than half of the median disposable income. While this percentage is lower than in 2018, for a major economic power, this number is relatively high.

But these themes of poverty’s legacy in Asia’s postwar period and the way it traumatized the economy are not exclusive to Korea. Squid Game reflects a desperate, fearful society when incredible power and control lies in the hands of the few, and the feral reaction it tears from people is something we see throughout history and even more recently during the initial lockdowns and mass unemployment of the pandemic. And how does power end up in the hands of the few? Through extreme wealth inequality, and society’s glorification of material success, both of which drive the show’s story from beginning to end.

Perhaps the darkest part of Squid Game is the way we haven’t learned from history, and the power of money is one of the greatest equalizers of human existence.

If you want to learn more about the economic history that inspired Squid Game, read The Economic Development of South Korea: From Poverty to a Modern Industrial State by Seung-Hun Chun.

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History Forgotten History

Here’s why Silicon Valley is haunted

The Winchester House is one of the most haunted places in the United States. It’s a beautiful Victorian mansion with trimmed hedges, Tiffany glass windows, yellow walls, and cherry-red shingles. But the inside is a labyrinth. There are staircases leading nowhere and doorways to empty walls. Its 160 rooms include a grand ballroom, a “witch’s cap” tower, twin dining rooms, 47 fireplaces, trap doors, and a conservatory. The lore around Sarah Winchester, the mansion’s heiress-slash-widow who was driven to insanity, adds to its reputation. But at first glance, the beautiful, dollhouse-like mansion appears to look out of place in San Jose, California. 

The Winchester House sits across the street from a shopping mall. A few highlights from the area include a Japanese stationery store, outdoor coffee near a giant chess set, SoulCycle, and a CineArts movie theater where I watched “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” in middle school. Looking out from the window of the shop where I bought my high school prom dress, you can see the hedges of the Winchester House hovering in the back. But despite growing up in the region, hardly anyone I know has stepped foot on the Winchester House grounds. 

Nowadays, Winchester House is a tourist spot. Over 12 million people have visited the mansion and it’s been the site of documentaries and films. The story goes like this. In 1839, Sarah Winchester was born as Sarah Lockwood Pardee in New Haven, Connecticut. She married in 1862 to William Wirth Winchester, the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms company most known for “The Gun that Won the West.”

After the deaths of her daughter and husband, she became a widow at only 42 years old. She inherited her husband’s 20 million dollar fortune and 50% of the company stock—making her one of the most wealthy women in the US at the time. She moved to a farmhouse in California and for the next 38 years, the farmhouse would remain in constant construction and eventually become the Winchester House. The house was still undergoing additions when Sarah Winchester passed away in 1922. 

There’s another layer to the story. In trend with the Victorian era, Sarah Winchester took part in séances and mysticism. It is suggested that her family was involved in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. According to legend, the grieving widow was told by a medium that the Winchester fortune and family were haunted by victims of the Winchester rifle, many of them Native Americans. As a result, she moved West and began to build—either to appease or avoid ghosts. To be honest, the story gets a bit vague here. An article in the Daily News also claimed that “the owner of the house believes that when it is entirely completed she will die.”

Why else would there be such a bizarre mansion and ongoing construction for almost four decades? Additional claims of ghost hauntings, sightings, and paranormal activity at the Winchester House have added to this lore.

But perhaps there is a simpler reason. Sarah Winchester was supposedly beautiful, fluent in multiple languages, and the “Belle of New Haven” when she married. Additional stories tying her to mysticism and occult were bound to happen to famous people in the Victorian era. It’s the equivalent of modern-day trends like “dark academia” or “cottagecore” or even (in timely Halloween-season spirit) “witchtok.”

After the death of so many family members, Sarah Winchester moved West to be close to her remaining family. She was a philanthropist, but also a very private person—her staff maintained unquestioning loyalty and tight lips even after she died.

As for the bizarre mansion? In the ballroom, one of the Tiffany-glass windows includes a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “These same thoughts people this little world.” It refers to the titular character’s speech from within a prison cell, reimagining his own world within those walls. Similarly, Sarah Winchester might have simply done what we all do—change, update, destroy, build, and rebuild our lives—only she had the money to make it a reality within her mansion. Sarah Winchester was a petite woman at 4’10” tall whose internal machinations and private life ended up casting a large shadow in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.

In the past two decades of growing up in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen the landscape change to accommodate the growth of tech giants, new flashy businesses, and overwhelming crowds. Still, when I left the Bay Area for college, I was struck by how suburban my hometown feels. There is a stubborn commitment to the pretense of normalcy and, like a double identity, there is an understanding that we all have our own private lives and issues.

It’s fair to criticize this committed display of everyday-ness as a thin veneer for privilege and wealth, but perhaps a similar feeling can be found with the Winchester House. Perhaps the unintended aversion to visiting the Winchester House by some of us who grew up in the area is because it feels like an invasion of a deeply private person. Perhaps Sarah Winchester fits in with the Silicon Valley lifestyle more than she initially seems. 

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History Forgotten History Lost in History Historical Badasses

Hurrem Sultan was the Ottoman empire’s femme fatale

I first encountered Hurrem Sultan, the red-haired Ottoman Empress in a Turkish soap opera series, titled The Magnificent Century, which aired in Pakistan a few years ago when I was a teenager. Since Pakistan shares a special affinity with Turkish shows, the show was dubbed in Urdu and became a cult favorite amongst the prime-time audience. 

So this is what I, along with many Pakistanis, learned about Hurrem Sultan from The Magnificent Century

Hurrem Sultan was brought to the imperial court as an enslaved person during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1520-1566). Within the span of a few weeks, she ascended the ranks from a slave girl to the Sultan’s favorite concubine to the Sultan’s chief consort (Haseki Sultan) and eventually his wife. Her trajectory towards the throne was swift because of her power-hungry nature. She crushed all opposition, luring the Sultan towards only her. She turned him against his former favorite concubine, Mahivedran, who had also birthed his first son, Shehzade Mustafa.

Out of jealousy, she demanded monogamy from the king during an epoch where Ottoman emperors had only practiced polygamy. She demanded the King marry her, which broke all traditions in the Ottoman era where Kings did not marry women due to legal complications, but instead only used them to bring heirs into this world. She birthed more than one child, which was a stark violation of the “one concubine, one son” rule that allowed her to wield a monopoly of heirs. 

And lastly, she disobeyed the custom of Sancak Beyliği, which dictated that when the sons came of age, they were to be sent to rule a faraway province with their mothers. The mothers could not return to Istanbul unless the son succeeded to the throne and they became Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan). She insisted on staying put at Top Kapi Palace. 

One transgression after another. She was a serial rule breaker. 

Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner.

She was a threat to the status quo. And in a show which glorified the greatness of the empire, the audiences immediately disliked her. In fact, she entered the show in the space of the “other woman”. And her role in the execution of Shehzade Mustafa, her stepson along with the grand Vizir, Ibrahim Pargali, did not help her popularity. She was the bloodthirsty, manipulative seductress. In fact, in one scene she is seen seeking help from a sorceress to make sure the Sultan remains bewitched by only her. There was even a half-baked subplot about her wanting to marry the Emperor for revenge for the traumas she had had to endure in life. 

To be honest, I could not help but hate her. Every show needs a villain, and she fit the archetype perfectly. Everything from her expressions to her dialogue, to the background soundtrack, emphasized her treachery and deceit

With Netflix airing the show a couple of years ago, and with my recent intrigue for Ottoman history and some nuance in my perception, I decided to re-watch it. I decided to re-watch it, not through the eyes of a gullible audience, but one that can detect the infiltration of fiction into the narrative. I was taken aback, by the concoction of popular history and the host of myths surrounding the most influential woman in the Ottoman Empire. I delved deeper into her life and this is what I found:

Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics.

Alexandra or Roxelana (her original name remains obscure) was captured brutally by a bunch of Crimean Tatars who sold her to the Ottomans. She was separated from her hometown and her family as a teenager. As a Christian, she entered a predominantly Islamic empire and was considered acceptable only as a slave girl or a concubine. When she decided to convert to Islam, her decision was met with skepticism. She navigated through a maze of court conspiracies which ranged from murder plots to being ostracized.

She fell in love with the Sultan deeply, wrote poetry in letters to him when he was on military expeditions. She birthed six of his children. After becoming a mother of the first child, she wanted to be freed of her status as a slave so that she could be with the Sultan out of consent, not coercion. The Sultan named her “Hurrem” (the cheerful one) because of her positive demeanor. But this “positive” woman also witnessed much heartache; one of her own children was executed by his father (the king) for causing much unrest in the empire. Brutal? I know. But where legacy and power is concerned, blood ties begin to mean little. I mean, we’ve all watched Game of Thrones, right?

Anyway, I digress. 

She was a philanthropist who commissioned many public works including a charity soup kitchen in Mecca for poor pilgrims. She advised the King on matters of foreign policy and helped diplomacy between the Ottomans and other foreign states owing through her unique vantage point as a foreign empress. Today her final resting place is in Suleymaniye mosque (Istanbul) which was built as an homage to her. 

See what I mean? 

[Image Description: Hurrem (played by Meryem Uzerli) standing next to Sultan Suleiman (played by Halit Ergenc) in a still shot from the Magnificent Century.] via Turkey Country Guide
One is the narrative spun with the threads of court gossip which we now know as popular history. Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner. It can be titillated by the exotic Other who once seduced their Emperor into challenging the tradition.

The counter-narrative is hard historical facts supported by evidence. Within this narrative, Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics. She was a foreigner stuck in an alien land, which insisted on objectifying her. She was just learning the language (literally) of the people who bought her. She was just insisting on some dignity in her personal relationship by requesting the King not to see other courtesans. Maybe she was just competing for her husband’s attention, not an Emperor’s favors. 

 It’s the same woman – just two different ways of looking at her. 

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History Historical Badasses

The greatest pirate of all time was a widow from China

Who do you think of when you hear of the greatest pirates of all time? Sir Francis Drake, the Barbarossa brothers, Blackbeard, maybe Jack Sparrow? All men, of course. You’ve probably never heard of Zheng Yi Sao, a single Chinese woman who led an entire confederation of pirate crews and terrorized the South China Sea for years. It took three international armies multiple tries to finally bring her to surrender. And when she did surrender, she went out on her own terms.

Her name before marriage was Shi Yang, but let’s refer to her as the pirates did, as Zheng Yi Sao. Zheng Yi Sao was born into poverty before becoming a prostitute and later the madam of a brothel in Guangdong. She married the pirate Zheng Yi when she was in her mid-twenties. Some sources say she was captured by him first. Either way, her marriage with Zheng Yi gave her access to his domain…a pirate fleet that he’d inherited from his cousin.

At the time of their marriage, the pirate crews in the South China Seas were in conflict over ocean territories and where they could operate. Zheng Yi Sao helped stop the conflict and make a confederation of pirates. When her husband died a few years later, she took unofficial control of the confederation. The recognized leader was a young man named Zhang Bao, Zheng Yi’s right-hand man, with whom Zheng Yi Sao likely shared a romantic relationship. Together, they ruled their crews.

Zheng Yi Sao is also famous for her pirates’ code of conduct. This code stated that all bounty needed to be shared equally, and more significantly, that women were not to be harmed. Some sources claim that the rules of conduct were instituted by Zhang Bao and not Zheng Yi Sao.

Although Zhang Bao’s name might very well have been attached to the code, I personally think that Zheng Yi Sao definitely had a hand in formulating them. After all, Zhang Bao sought her counsel in all matters, and while the conventions of the time would not have allowed her to take official charge, everyone knew who was boss.

The Portuguese, British, and Qing China armies tried their best to get rid of her fleet multiple times from 1807 to 1810. But with powerful commanders and an entire confederation under her, Zheng Yi Sao was difficult to defeatBut all things come to an end (I hesitate to say good things; she was a ruthless pirate killer, after all). The confederation started losing its strength, with commanders defecting to the Qing Navy and other more legitimate institutions. After being hunted on the high seas, Zheng Yi Sao finally agreed to surrender.

Ironically, this is actually my favorite part of the story. Her surrender is what sets her apart as one of the greatest pirates in history. Have you ever heard of a legendary pirate willingly surrendering to a higher authority? Some, like Blackbeard, faced death as the more prideful way out. But Zheng Yi Sao was smart. Even in surrender, she knew she had more than enough leverage to secure some kind of future for herself and her crew.

In the year 1810, Zheng Yi Sao met with Qing China army officials to negotiate the terms of her surrender. All of her crew was pardoned, and she managed to get 20 to 30 ships and a crew to enter the salt trade. After retirement, it is believed that she may have lived out the rest of her years as the proprietor of a gambling den.

Despite being forced to surrender, this tale of nautical criminals ends happily, rather than with hangings or sunken ships. Zheng Yi Sao was fearsome during her pirating days, but when it all caught up with her, she was never truly “defeated”. She gained pardons for her men so they were never punished as criminals, secured her future means of income, and lived the rest of her days out in relative peace. Undoubtedly, she was one of the most successful pirates to have ever lived. Not even Blackbeard was this invincible.

If you want to learn more about Zheng Yi Sao and her high-seas adventures, check out Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao by Helaine Becker.

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