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: Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sarah M, Women's Health
“Hey, the 1950s called, they want their stereotype back,” I said during a somewhat intense debate last night. I was asking a new friend, let’s call him Adam, what he thought of Garance Franke-Ruta’s recent article in The Atlantic called “Why Isn’t Better Education Giving Women More Power?”
If I’m being honest, I probably already knew his response; I just really wanted it to be different, because… I like him. The article is basically about how even though women are generally more successful in school, the same behaviors and tools that helped them to succeed in the academic arena, don’t necessarily translate into the workforce. The article gives statistics on the disparity between genders and points out that studies show women in the workplace are criticized more, make less money, and are generally judged more negatively. But, the most important piece of this essay, and the part that I am most interested in, deals with the root of the problem: “The university system aside, I suspect there is another, deeply ingrained set of behaviors that also undermine women: the habits they pick up—or don’t pick up—in the dating world. Men learn early that to woo women, they must risk rejection and be persistent. Straight women, for their part, learn from their earliest years that they must wait to be courted. The professional world does not reward the second approach. No one is going to ask someone out professionally if she just makes herself attractive enough. I suspect this is why people who put together discussion panels and solicit op‑eds always tell me the same thing: it’s harder to get women to say yes than men. Well, duh. To be female in our culture is to be trained from puberty in the art of rebuffing—rebuffing gazes, comments, touches, propositions, and proposals.”
Bingo. This makes total sense to me. I am a woman. I have all too well mastered the art of rebuffing. It’s March: Women’s History Month. There are signs in stores that are supposed to be “celebrating” women. They read: 60% of our employees are women! But, it’s a party trick. “Hey, look over here!” Because when you look at upper management, it’s only 4% female. Now, Adam’s initial response to this article was to also look at the numbers. He’s very logical. He’s very smart. I like him. He would like to see the holistic ratio of employees in business. He’s had a 50/50 ratio of male to female bosses. Then, he gives me a word problem: If there are 100 employees in the office and 10 are women, and there are 10 spots to move up from that 100, then 1/9 women should be promoted and 9/90 men should be, too. His point being that no one thinks about the actual numbers, they only look straight to the top and see that there are 9 male bosses and 1 female boss. I acknowledge that he is speaking from a place of privilege, and in my mind, this isn’t the problem either. The problem is much deeper; it’s much bigger. The problem is that there are only 10 women who are employees going after that promotion in the first place. The problem is that we (women) have been taught all of our lives to accept our position, to be submissive, and to self-objectify. These behaviors and states of being are so deeply ingrained that sometimes I’m not even aware that I’m participating in this dynamic. From a very early age, we lose belief in our own political and social efficacy. We learn to see ourselves and value ourselves how the media and the collective consciousness see us.
BUT… still, the real problem is even more insidious and subtly woven into our social makeup. The REAL problem is that we still exist in a time and place that perpetuates an accepted culture of violence against women. At some point in our debate, Adam says that men and women ARE different, right? He brings up the obvious difference: our physical traits. This is the in. Yes, I think, herein lies the issue at the core of our patriarchal power dynamic. Our physical traits have been held against us and kept us repressed since the beginning of time. This is usually where I lose my male readers. They hear sexual assault/domestic violence and distance themselves, because they would never do that, so this part doesn’t apply to them. This is where we’re all wrong. Let me give you a scenario that most of the women in my life can relate to: