This past Sunday, I listened to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Jen Quigley, one of my supervisors at the chapel. Her sermon talked about the time she spent doing work at the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, handling documents that were in the Martin Luther King Jr. collection. While reading these documents, she came across names of several women who were active during the civil rights movement, a movement full of activism and, I would argue, prescience. For it seems that even with the strides that movement made in the 1960s, we are still asking the kinds of questions it raised today as we remember MLK day: how is progress made? How do we aim toward a better future while being active in the present? These are questions that remind me of the achievements many women have made, and the sense of foreknowledge that I associate with them and their achievements.
The association between women and forethought has a very long history. The Pythia, for instance, was an oracle who resided at Delphi in Ancient Greece. People would bring offerings to the temple at Delphi, and she was said to breathe in fumes from the earth and recite prophecies, which often were enigmatic and ambiguous. One of the more famous stories surrounding the oracle is as follows: When a king asked her if he should go to war, she replied that if he did, a great kingdom would be destroyed. The king subsequently went to war believe he would win, and his own kingdom was destroyed.
Then there was Cassandra, one of the priestesses of Apollo in Troy. The myths surrounding her recount that she was cursed by Apollo, so that she would tell prophecies that would come true yet go ignored by everyone. She was said to have predicted the fall of Troy, yet none of the Trojans listened to her. What happened next can be summed up concisely in a phrase my Latin teacher told me: “Ilium fuit,” which translates aptly to: “Troy was.”
Then there was the prophet Anna, who is mentioned briefly in the Gospel of Luke after the shepherds visit Mary and Joseph. The gospel recounts: “She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2: 36-38).
Each of these women had a gift of foresight, catching a glimpse of the future and deciding to speak or act accordingly. Unfortunately, in two of these cases, their words go unheeded. Remembering these stories reminds me of how often the valuable contributions of women in history go unnoticed. This was true for me on Sunday, when Jen read the names of women I had never even heard of, despite their contributions to the civil rights’ movement.
I recently saw the film Hidden Figures with my younger sister, which recounts the stories of three African-American women who served in NASA and made great strides in advancing early space missions in the United States: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. These are stories that I wish I had heard while growing up, as they showed me how three incredible black women, among others, pushed scientific progress forward in the United States. In a time where the country is deeply divided over issues of race and racism, of progress, and of women’s rights, these are stories that need to be told. Not so that we can throw our hands off and conclude that we’ve moved past racism and sexism since these women existed, but so that we can acknowledge that these women are inspiring and ask ourselves: “These women were able to make their mark in spite of all the obstacles they faced. What can we do, as a society, to reduce these obstacles and make it possible for other women, wherever they are in life, to do the same?” That is the prescience, the act of looking forward, that I believe these women’s stories hold. They establish that progress is possible, and they ask us a question: What will you do in the present to make that possible in the future?
I went to the MLK commemoration at BU on Monday, which was entitled “Hope, Despair, and the Blues.” There I heard one of my friends perform, a friend who is currently doing research asking why there are so few female African American instrumentalists by interviewing musicians like her. She also is looking toward the future, trying to understand how the world of music can change so that it allows young, female, and black musicians to perform without barriers impeding them. I also listened to a speech by Kirsten Greenridge, a playwright, writer, and assistant professor at the school of theatre. She was speaking about her experience in the days after the election, and how her ability to write was affected by that experience. At one point she quoted a line from the musical Hamilton, a musical that I’ve listened to a lot recently: “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
This line was the refrain of one of my favorite characters in the musical, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. She and her sister, Angelica, articulate one of the core conflicts faced by the musical’s main character, Alexander Hamilton. On the one hand, Eliza entreats him to be present with her and their son, and to appreciate the progress that they have made. Angelica, on the other hand, perceives that Alexander always wants to keep pushing, never being satisfied with what he currently has. In the end, Alexander chooses the latter, driving a lot of conflict in the second half of the musical. What’s interesting is that these two women are framing this conflict much earlier, in the middle of the first act. The musical motifs that appear in the songs they sing in the first half also appear later on in the second half, when conflict breaks loose. In other words, the conflict they frame and the music they sing recurs, and almost seems to predict what will happen, later on in the play.
Thinking about these characters and the women I’ve talked about in this reflection has helped shape my idea of what progress is. Progress isn’t something that you can be complacent with and know will happen (as Harry Lennix, another speaker at the commemoration, expressed with words much more eloquent than mine). It is something that you have to look toward in the future and act so that you move closer to it. May we continue the stories of the women who have worked toward this progress, and may we remember their prescience in doing so.