Filed under: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
I was pregnant three weeks after I was married. It was unexpected, delaying my undergraduate graduation for longer than I care to admit and derailing my plans for graduate school until a later season in my life. I was just getting comfortable in my feminist skin, full of enthusiasm for equality and full agency for women in our society.
I still remember the day I called to let my internist know I was pregnant. I was coldly informed by the office staff that the internist would not need to see me again until after I had delivered the baby and had an internal medicine issue; they suggested that I call an obstetrician’s office. Just like that, I was severed from the only healthcare provider I had seen since moving to Virginia to attend college. Instinctively, intuitively, instead of calling an obstetrician, I asked a fellow student, who was expecting her third child, if she had ever heard of midwives in the area. It turned out that she delivered her children at home and could recommend her midwife.
Finding a midwife, in my mind, was an expression of my feminism. I felt fully empowered to birth on my own terms, with a caregiver who treated me like a friend—a neighbor, a sister—rather than a number shuffled from specialty office to specialty office in a cold and impartial way. It was a step that began, perhaps unconsciously, with my earlier reading of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. The way in which Naylor’s colorful character embodied feminine wisdom had not left my mind more than eight months after finishing the novel. In addition, just the year before, my aunt, a labor and delivery nurse, chose to deliver at home unassisted. The newly blossomed feminist in me was drawn to these strong women who were questioning the politics of birth and bucking against a patriarchal model of care. They both exemplified full agency in their womanhood.
Years later, when pregnant with my fourth daughter, I traveled to Richmond to lobby for the legalization of home birth midwives in Virginia. In my mind, it was a clear matter of Choice. Women deserved to make their own choices about where and with whom to birth. It seemed a logical feminist issue, but when I approached female Democratic General Assembly members, who typically supported pro-choice measures, I was shocked at their unwillingness to see home birth as anything but a throwback to the dark ages. Instead, I humbly found myself working with politicians on the other side of the aisle—often white-haired conservative men—and linking arms with religiously conservative women. It was a stark lesson in gender politics and the ways in which women can unite whether they identify with feminism or not.
Later I would write a paper that a professor nominated to a national communication organization for an award. It was a project that involved feminist narrative research and women’s stories about birth, in particular birth with a midwife. The professor was an academic feminist legend, a nationally known scholar who had devoted her career to feminist communication; she was shocked when the award committee didn’t take my project seriously. I was not. When researching, I have found very few scholarly books or papers on choice in childbirth. Most of feminism rests on issues around choice in pregnancy and sexual orientation and inequalities in pay and violence against women, still extremely important issues. But, what about the eighty-five million women who give birth in America? Isn’t full agency in childbirth an important issue to embrace in feminism?
Today maternal mortality is on the rise and our minority sisters are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth—no matter economic status or education level. There is feminist work to be done around childbirth. I’ve had the fortune to work, as a grassroots organizer, with women who are bringing awareness to the inequalities in childbirth, and the importance of a woman’s full agency in the birth experience. Women like Jennie Joseph, Ina May Gaskin, Juliana Fehr, and many nonprofit organizations like the International Cesarean Awareness Network, Every Mother Counts, Childbirth Connections, Midwives for Haiti, and the White Ribbon Alliance. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to come together over this issue—whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight—women advocating for better birth options is an issue that embodies what feminism is all about.
Would you like to contribute a birth story? We’d love to hear about your experiences in childbirth, in particular whether or not you experienced full agency throughout your maternity care.
Filed under: Music, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists
The following is a guest post by Sheryl Rivett, George Mason University MFA Fiction student and StS 2013-2014 Blog Editor.
During the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies, my mother referred to herself as a “feminist.” She was a schoolteacher, a mother of three, and the daughter of an educated, single mother who had divorced her first husband in 1945, despite public shunning in the Catholic community where she was raised and despite the cultural expectation that women were to stay in their marriages. Feminism didn’t fall far from the tree. When Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” topped the charts in the seventies, my mother and her friends, all college-educated women who were juggling work and family and cultural chauvinism, would gather in their living rooms to dance and sing the Reddy lyrics at the top of their lungs.
When I attended college in the late eighties, feminism was the last thing with which I wanted to identify. I wanted to be anything BUT like my mother. In fact, I remember raising my hand in Public Communication and asking my professor, “I don’t understand what the big deal is about words. I don’t care if we say MANkind, or “man” for woman.” By the end of that class, my eyes were open to the reality of the power of language, of the nuances of word choices, and the inherent misogyny in the cultural rhetoric. By the end of my undergraduate education, I would understand the importance of feminist theory, whether male or female, white or black, gay or straight.
A year ago, my oldest daughter started her freshman year of college at a private, all-girls school, known for its progressive academics and culture. Leaving the relative stability of a middle-class upbringing in a small town in Virginia, where most families looked like hers, she entered a new world on the college campus. Feminism was a word used proudly and liberally, it was the vogue ideal to ascribe to, and she saw freshman girls acting out their ideas of feminism in ways that didn’t match what her feminist mother had modeled during her childhood: working for equality in women’s healthcare, lobbying for choice in maternity care settings and providers, supporting and fighting for marginalized populations. She arrived home confused, uncomfortable and uneasy with feminism. I struggled in those moments, feeling as if generations of strong women who came before me were staring at me, waiting for the proper response, waiting for me to give voice to the importance of all their hard work, their sacrifices, their need to be heard.
As we talked, I reminded her that when a person has felt oppressed or silenced that it’s natural to feel anger, to strike out and act out, and that being a feminist was not about imitation and what was in vogue, but about being true to yourself and your sense of personal power. I explained that even among feminists, there can be divides. Radical feminism is the outgrowth of years of women, often lesbian women, feeling silenced and marginalized. Radical feminism was an enthusiastic, sometimes angry and sometimes joyful, expression of a marginalized population for which feminism was a necessary outlet—and they advocated for radical social upheaval as a necessary end. But, radical feminism is not what all feminism is about. It co-exists with liberal feminism, which is considered the more moderate feminist thought, a movement that advocates for political and social equality. What was happening on her campus was not necessarily political feminism, but actually typical teen and young adult behavior – a wide range of experimentation and a stretching of boundaries.
Over the weekend, we talked about feminism at length. Sitting on her bed, listening to her worries and concerns, I thought about my great-great-great grandmother who locked her husband, a physician, out of the birthing room, so that she could birth on her own terms with the African-American midwife; about my great-great-grandmother who stood up in a town meeting to give a speech about illegal moonshine and the effects of alcoholism on women and children; about my great-grandmother who was widowed at a young age and who sewed baseballs for a living so that she could send her daughters to college; about my grandmother who had a college education and economic independence and who divorced her first husband and embraced single motherhood for more than seven years in the 1940s and 1950s; about my mother who danced in the living room with her friends to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and I thought about the day that I told the vice president of a large corporation that there was no amount of money or title that she could give me to make up for the time that I wanted to have with my daughter when I chose to stay at home and leave my career. These were the stories that I wanted most to tell her about. This matrilineal line, these women who she came from, they were all feminists in their own way—facing life on their own terms and finding their voice. I told her finally, whatever choices you make, if you make them on your own terms and with full agency, then that is what feminism is about.
Filed under: Announcements, Fiction, Poetry, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
Tonight, at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan (2427 18th Street NW Washington D.C.),we will host our second annual Will Read For Women Donation Drive to benefit the Bethany House women’s shelter of Northern Virginia.
Starting at 8:00 PM guests are asked to bring toiletry items and other pantry necessities as “price of admission.” Suggested items include: Baby wipes, Adult wipes, Lotion, Shampoo, Conditioner, Combs, Bleach, Dish detergents, Dishwasher detergents, Razors, Tweezers, Lip balm/Lip gloss, Vaseline, Brushes, Toothpaste, Toothbrushes, Mouthwash, Bath soaps, Laundry detergents, Toilet paper, Paper towels, Napkins, Diapers (size 3-6), Pull-ups (size 2T-5T).
Our performers for the evening will include Kim Roberts, Kyle Dargan, Nicole Idar, Jill Leininger, and Mel Nichols.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
As I worked on “Empty Cases,” I didn’t think of it as a feminist piece of writing. In fact, I think of my writing as writing and not necessarily as feminist writing, though I’m often told my writing is feminist. I suppose this is because I am a feminist—that’s just part of who I am—and naturally that will come through in my writing, which is also a part of me. It did occur to me in a late draft, though, that the story was very much about women, in particular women who are weighed down by dead-end jobs, single motherhood, poverty, and depression.
“Empty Cases” began as an essay about my time working at Columbia House, the mail-order music club, in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was in high school during the 1990s. Most of my writing begins in an autobiographical place. Over time, as I embellished the story and then pared it back down, I had a hard time remembering what “really happened” and what I had made up for the rhythm of the writing as well as for the emotional effect, or the poetic truth. What I wrote and revised became my memory of that difficult time in my life. To be safe, I submitted the piece as “fiction.”
At some point in the drafting process, I changed the doctor character from a woman to a man. I’m still not entirely sure why I did that, but I suspect it’s because I had a hard time accepting that a woman in authority wouldn’t listen to and help a young woman who was clearly struggling. The narrator in the story desperately needs someone to step in and comfort her, to tell her everything will be OK. Unfortunately, the women who surround her, including the women who work with her in the factory, and her own mother who is trapped by social injustice and depression, cannot give her that. Thinking about the doctor’s gender taught me what my unconscious had previously hidden from me: even though the narrator is on the brink of adulthood, she still needs a mother. I changed the doctor back to a woman (what she was in “real” life).
While thinking about this guest blog post for So to Speak, it occurred to me that in addition to needing a mother, the narrator, as well as all the other women in the story (cold doctor included) also need feminism. I didn’t know anything about feminism until college. It wasn’t until I started taking Gender Studies classes at Indiana University, until I started reading more literature by women that I became a feminist. Through those studies, I began to see the injustice of sexism and classism in America.
The women of “Empty Cases” are lacking. Uneducated, they are unempowered. They have no way of getting out. They are fed a quick fix, a cheap, satisfying-for-a-moment meal from McDonald’s, and when they do seek help, when they do question, their problems and feelings are dismissed and covered up with a band-aid from the pharmaceutical industry.
Fortunately, in college I found an academic home. I found “mothers” in the feminist texts I read as an undergraduate (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich). I found “mothers” in female faculty who mentored me (Susan Gubar and Catherine Bowman), feminist writers who cared about my learning, my wellbeing, and what I had to say. Had it not been for my education, for the nourishment I received from feminists and feminism, I could still very well be in that empty place where I began.
Filed under: Announcements, Starring Local Feminists, Women's Health
On Friday, April 12th, So to Speak will host our second annual reading drive to benefit a local domestic violence shelter. The reading will feature poetry by Kyle Dargan, Jill Leininger, Mel Nichols, and Kim Roberts, as well as fiction by Nicole Idar. We’d love to have you join us!
The reading is scheduled for Friday, April 12th at 8:00 p.m. at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan (2427 18th Street NW). Audience members are asked to bring toiletry items and other pantry necessities to donate to the shelter, Bethany House. The list of suggested items follows.
Kyle Dargan is the author of three collections of poetry, Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003). For his work, he has received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Dargan has partnered with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to produce poetry programming at the White House and Library of Congress. He is currently an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at American University and the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine.
Nicole Idar grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Her stories have appeared in World Literature Today, Rattapallax, and The New Ohio Review, where she was as a finalist for the 2009 Fiction Prize. Her first published essay, “Refrain from Being a Totally 100% Bookworm,” won a 2012 Bethesda Magazine award. She is presently at work on a novel, The Epic of the Toyol.
Jill Leininger’s poems have been included in Shenandoah, Seattle Review, Harvard Review, cream city review, and Poetry International, among others. “Roof Picnic Skies, New York,” her first chapbook, is a series of prose poems inspired by the artist William Kentridge (dancing girl press, Chicago). A second chapbook of poems, “Sky Never Sleeps,” was selected by Mark Doty for publication with BLOOM in 2012. As a graduate of the University of Oregon’s M.F.A. program (’99), Jill has been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and has also received writing fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Lambda Literary. She is currently working at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.
Mel Nichols is the author of four collections of poetry, including Catalytic Exteriorization Phenomenon (National Poetry Series finalist) and Bicycle Day. Her work can also be found at The Huffington Post, Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Jacket2, PennSound, HTML Giant, The Pink Line, and forthcoming in Open Letters Monthly and The Poetry Project Newsletter. She has been a visiting artist at the Corcoran College of Art & Design, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, and others, and she teaches digital poetry and other writing courses at George Mason University. New books are forthcoming from Flowers & Cream Press and Edge, and her punkulele band πhole will be coming soon to a venue near you.
Kim Roberts is the author of five books, most recently Animal Magnetism, winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize, and the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. Roberts edits the literary journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and co-edits the Delaware Poetry Review. She is involved in two large online projects mapping DC literary history: she is co-curator of the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes, and is part of the team creating DC By the Book, a project mapping the location where novels and short stories have been set in Washington, sponsored by the DC Public Libraries. Roberts has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, and the DC Commission on the Arts, and has been a writer-in-residence at 14 artist colonies.
Requested items include:
Lip balm/Lip gloss
Diapers (size 3-6)
Pull-ups (size 2T-5T)