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Wednesday’s Wonder Woman: Mary Electa Adams

‘I dread the idea of living uselessly.’ – Mary Electa Adams

Quick disclaimer: know that neither my husband nor I work for Amazon or have any connection with them.

No, really, we don’t.


Last Christmas my husband told me he wanted a Kindle for Christmas. I scathingly told him he was flying in the face of the spirit of reading and promoting an instant-satisfaction culture. I told him the point of books over television was the media difference of paper and words versus images and screens.

He eventually capitulated, claiming he just wanted to read more and thought the Kindle would help him do that.

After my purist monologue, I thought about what he said, and did some research.

And, I bought him a Kindle for Christmas.

Considering my previous rant, he was completely surprised on Christmas Day.

So was I.

Because it took me only about, oh, three hours before I stole the thing and uploaded my own books to it.

And oh, my. I caved.

No longer was I carting around twelve books weighing thirty (okay, maybe one or two) pounds each. No longer did I have to anxiously watch for my package from Amazon or rush to the store to see if they had the newest story I was waiting for.

I could just click, click, click. And there it was.

Apparently I converted to Kindle so strongly David promptly bought me one for my birthday. I think he just wanted his back.

See, as a mom, I’d love to be able to sit down and consume a book properly, you know, with tea, outside in the quiet sunshine, or warmly in front of a cozy fire. But those moments are so rare, and usually come when I’m just so spent that I can’t concentrate on the words.

But my one-touch-and-turn-the-page Kindle lets me read bits and pieces while I do housework. And then there’s the text-to-speech feature, which I discovered this week. And yes, it sounds mildly like Harvey the Computer from a deleted scene of The Office, Season Three. Office fans, you know what I mean… ‘you ruin good joke, you. Get out of my offive.’ But for a dense book like I just finished – L. Fletcher Prouty’s JFK – it was exactly what I needed to plunge through the details to the fascinating point of the whole story.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, There is no history. Only biography.

A lot of those things we just accept as, well, that’s what happened, may have been very different than what we thought. Or at least have a counter-perspective than the one we’ve been sold as ‘normal,’ or ‘the right one.’

Accurate or not, JFK is one of those books that pushes our minds to the brink, and forces us to realize that what we think is happening and who we think is in charge of it may not actually be the case as well.

Before you dismiss me as a nut conspiracy theorist, know that the point here is not conspiracy or assassinations or anything else like that.

The point is, that we ask for ourselves who, what, when, where, how, and most importantly, why.

Because we’re all just human. Born in the 500’s or 2000’s, we’re still people. We still have psychological messes and jealousies and times when we lose it.

And yet some of these humans used their messes to change the world.

Being careful about what we believe, about history, is important. It pushes us. It helps us become people who aren’t easily deceived, people who aren’t quickly conned, people whose opinions and moods aren’t as easily shifted.

And in order to develop these discerning minds, we need to read. We need to care. We need to learn.

I know how many of you say you have no time to read. And please don’t think I’m judging that. Because I get it. Work and life and children and friends and family and all those things we need to do and think we should be doing usually push out those moments we let ourselves explore the world of information.

I just think that sometimes we forget how important it is that we explore ideas and information as readily as we explore mountains and social activities and small talk.

Some days all I can manage is to kick off my shoes and giggle as David tells me a half-hearted joke before we fall asleep.

But other days, I can carve out five minutes or ten or sixty to think about something in a totally different way.

And – like well-written TV, thought-provoking movies, and reputable internet research – books are the old-fashioned way of persuading others to change – or at least season – their perspective with thoughts from someone else’s.

And, perhaps us homemakers and wives and mothers and women would be wise to consider we didn’t always have the luxury of this option.

Some of our sisters around the world still don’t.

Think about it. Women in less-developed countries, girls in human-trafficking rings, people in abused homes or situations often stay in those situations because they don’t know what they live is not normal.

I’ve talked before about how maybe normal isn’t what we should pursue. I said we should pursue exceptional, or extraordinary. But there are instances where we need to know that what we are currently involved in is not normal, as in, not good.

And one way we discover that what is happening to us shouldn’t be happening to us is by reading.

No, think about it for a moment. What if enslaved prostitutes in Thailand read about women’s rights and education and opportunities? It wouldn’t solve their problems, but it would give them more courage to realize that they don’t have to accept their situation as all they’ll ever be good enough for.

It used to be that all society – developed countries or not – was patriarchal. What I mean is, women were considered property, a shadow, or reflection of their fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, and sons. An ancient text – one many of us know well – instructs women to not speak in public settings, advising them to get the information they are curious for from their husbands, quietly, at home.

My husband is smart. He’s also well-informed and well-read. I deeply respect his opinions, ideas, and decisions. But if I were dependent on him for every piece of information I could possibly learn, I’d go insane.

But I’m not the first to feel like that.

There’s a little-known Canadian woman, who, back in the early 1800’s, decided that no, women shouldn’t only be instructed in whimsical topics like music, art, and needlepoint. She decided that we could be more than housekeepers and children-herders (though, in case you misunderstand me on this one, see my last post on how much I respect and even envy stay-at-home moms, and know that if you’re doing that, I think you’re doing exactly what you should be doing).

Her name was Mary Electa Adams. She was a direct descendant of John and Abigail Adams, one of the first presidential couples of the United States, and one of the first world leadership couples to deeply consider the other’s intellectual opinions. She was born to Loyalist parents and raised in a Methodist family that believed in the value of higher education for both girls and boys.

Mary and her mother were both educated at the same institution in Vermont. Mary eventually earned a Mistress in Liberal Arts diploma and began to teach. Soon to the Picton Academy as the lady principal, she soon became the head of four prominent ladies’ colleges, one in Michigan, one in New Brunswick, and two in Ontario.

Unlike many of her peers, Mary insisted that women learn demanding subjects just like men did – including science, math, philosophy, and Latin. She proved that women could thrive in environments that taught subjects once assumed to be male-oriented.

She, like so many other great women, gave us a choice.

Because of her, we can now pursue university educations, in virtually any subject and discipline we choose.

One of the reasons women were not permitted to speak in ancient societies was that they weren’t permitted to be educated outside the home. They were generally uninformed and ignorant. They needed their husband’s and father’s input, because they were not permitted to develop their own rigorous critical thinking processes.

That’s not true now. We can make up our own minds. We can listen to those around us. We can nod politely while knowing we disagree silently. Or we can gently – or even not so gently – challenge.

We’re allowed to think now. And sometimes we don’t take advantage of that.

I’m not saying we should burst into every conversation as know-it-alls. Nope. That’s not what Mary intended.

But she did intend that when we found something that interested us, or something that moved us, we’d have the means to learn about it in a reputable way.

I’m not saying all of us are meant to be academia rats. Let’s face it, many of academics have to give up hygeine or common sense to be as smart as they are. And, let’s face it, that last sentence was not mine. It was my brother’s. He’s also a pretty smart guy.

But being smart, in the traditional sense at least, isn’t necessarily what we should be after.

Maybe it should be that we think about what happens to us and around us.

Not analyze to death.

Not squeeze all the fun out of it by criticizing it to despair.

But think. And happily question. And explore. And research. And learn.

Not everyone has this choice. But we – those of you who are reading this blog right now, and people like us, people who have opportunity and means and education to read – do have this choice.

Eleanor Roosevelt – whom I wrote about last week – said a lot of amazing things. There are entire blogs dedicated to her wise words. But this is the one I’m thinking about today:

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.

I wonder what would happen to our circle – to society in general – if we momentarily stepped back from all that extra energy we spend on analyzing people around us. As interesting as they are, as much as we need to understand them in order to be somewhat sane ourselves, occasionally we let ourselves judge the crap out of everyone we don’t understand, instead of examining bigger, more important things, like ideas, and what those people we judge think and feel and do, and why.

If we spent more of our time doing that, I think we’d all live a little more at peace. A little more confident. A little more brave.

And a little less concerned with uncertain things like image and reputation; a little more concerned with important things like character and development and teachability. 

This is the kind of woman I’d like to be.

So – as much as Organic Chemistry and Physics were never my thing – I send my huge thanks through the years to Mary Electa Adams. Because of her, she lets me find my thing, even when my thing doesn’t seem like the traditional female thing. Because of her, I could do those first few weeks of those terrible classes I mentioned above and realize, this isn’t for me.

And I don’t need to be ashamed.

I can just be grateful that, in yet another thing,  I have a choice.

May we all work towards a world where every woman – no, every person – has this choice.

Because one of the foundations of freedom is the ability to pursue the truth.

And the truth really does set us free.

(P.S. Any of you wanting to learn more about Mary Electa Adams and other amazing Canadian women, please check out Merna Forster’s two books, 100 Canadian Heroines and 100 More Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. You will be deeply inspired, and encouraged. Thanks to Merna to introducing me to Mary this week; you are another one of those Wonder Women we owe a lot to!)

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think growing up in a culture in which both men and women go to university and obtain professional degrees and become all sorts of things, we become immune to how valuable an education is, especially for women.

    November 2, 2011
    • For sure we do become ‘immune’. Excellent word. We forget how education changes us, how it pushes us to think and grow and gives us choices. I’m so glad for women like this who made it easier for us, especially for us fellow reading fanatics, hey?

      November 3, 2011
  2. Liv #

    Love this: “And a little less concerned with uncertain things like image and reputation; a little more concerned with important things like character and development and teachability.

    This is the kind of woman I’d like to be.“ Me too!!

    November 2, 2011
    • Glad you liked that. 🙂 Now to do it… hmmm.

      November 3, 2011

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