Archive | Gender

happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.

At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?”  It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.

Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it.  We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.

Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.

But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work.  Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise.  We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.

And ironically, on the same day I was reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.

I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting!  But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.

So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven.  Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men?  Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.

I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North AmericaAnd what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.

A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.

I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight).  I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more.  And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.

And yet.

If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year,  I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it.  Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.

That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.

Happy Birthday, Gloria.  I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.

Gloria at my commencement

Continue Reading · on March 26, 2014 in aging, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics

in which teaching becomes a metaphor. or something.

Next week I am teaching Virginia Woolf’s brilliant and amazing essay A Room of One’s Own.

So on my list of “to do” for the weekend is this note, jotted down while I was in a meeting: “find a way in to Room.”

Indeed.

Of course, what I meant (I think) was that I need to figure out how to help my students tackle this long essay.

But the metaphor?

Woolf says that if each woman could have her own income (which Woolf pegs at being about 500 pounds a year) and a room with a lock on its door (one assumes locking from the inside, not outside, which is to say locking out and not being locked in), then it would be possible to develop “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

It is a room of independence, I guess you could say; and Woolf was smart enough to understand that without freedom from economic worry, it’s very difficult to feel the freedom to create.

In this house that we’re renting, there’s a little room tucked in between the entrance to the garage and the laundry room. On the floor plan of the house, this room is designated “maid’s room.” Lots and lots of people have live-in help in Abu Dhabi, in part because if you hire someone full time, you have to sponsor the person’s visa–and in order to get a visa, you have to have a place to live.  We don’t have any live-in help (I don’t want any witnesses), so I have adopted that room as my office.

My god. It’s another room-based metaphor: my “room of my own” is…the maid’s room.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In between driving and errands and laundry and housekeeping, in between earning money and making lists and going to meetings, somewhere in all that, a person should find the courage to write exactly what she thinks.

image source

 

 

Continue Reading · on October 5, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Education, Feminism, Gender, me my own personal self, teaching, writing

What’s In a Beard?

I’m traveling this week and so I’m bringing up some of my favorite old posts to keep you company while I’m gone. Circus Amok used to be one of our favorite NYC summer traditions, but I’m not sure they’re still being funded, alas. Here’s a link to last summer’s Kickstarter fund. If ever there were something worthy of being kickstarted, it’s the Amok-ians.

 

IMG_1920.JPGCircus Amok brought its chaotic carnival to city parks again this past September, culminating in two performances in Tompkins Square Park, that former battleground in Manhattan’s never-ending gentrification wars (remember the riots of the late 1980s?). Gentrification won, of course, which is why King Tut’s Wa-Wa Hut no longer stands at the corner of 6th and A, and why I can’t afford to shop in the precious wee clothing boutiques that dot Avenue B.

But I digress.  The Circus was in town and as always it was a splendid mashup of burlesque, slapstick, acrobatics, and deeply political satire. All ringmastered – excuse me – ringmistressed by Jennifer Miller, who is not a bearded lady, but a lady with a beard.

Liam and Caleb wanted to know if she is a lady or a man and if the beard is real – questions that everyone else was thinking about too, I’m sure – along with other, perhaps more prurient questions that my boys haven’t quite glommed onto (yet). Yes, I say to Liam and Caleb, she’s a lady, and yes, she has a beard.

That answer satisfies their curiosity and they settle back to watch the men in tutus, the African American “Dorothy” (in a blonde afro wig, natch), maniacal tumblers, and Jennifer herself, devilishly juggling what look like razor-sharp machetes.

What do they see, I wondered, watching them watch the juggling. Is it just juggling and funny clowns and the faint fear that Jennifer’s sharp knives will slip out of her fingers and go slicing towards the front row of the audience?

Are they in any way feeling the message of gender outlawry that pervades Circus Amok?  Could the anarchic street theater of Jennifer Miller’s circus help loosen the net of gender conventions that – all of our best intentions notwithstanding – ensnare us all, more or less?

Here’s an example: last spring, I took the boys to a family reunion of sorts, in Florida, where they had a great week romping around with all kinds of cousins and aunts and uncles.  On the second-to-last day of our visit, two girl cousins, both about ten years old, gave Caleb and Liam full mani-pedis.  The boys got the complete treatment: sparkly colors, little dots of decoration, tiny painted flowers – as elaborate as Hindu brides.  Beautiful.  And they loved it! Waved their fingers around, wiggled their toes, showed off to all and sundry.

These are Liam’s fingers – sorry about the inadvertent product-placement for Dibs –
IMG_1249crop.jpgBut after we got home, on the Sunday before Liam was due back at school, I wondered whether I should stick to my progressive guns and allow my second-grade boy to go off to school with his manicure intact or strip the polish off in deference to the unwritten rule that boys don’t have painted fingernails.

I caved. Off came the silver flowers, off came the purple sparkles.

I hated giving in to convention but I didn’t want him to be teased (he’s got enough problems, given that he’s the smallest kid – boy or girl – in his grade).  We decided to leave his toenails painted, however – but sure enough, that week at karate, a couple of boys gave him grief for his decorated tootsies.

Before I became the mother of boys, I used to think that gender codes wrapped mostly tightly around women – and probably that is, in fact, the truth. But as I watch Liam and Caleb grow up, I’m increasingly reminded that there are lots of rules about being a boy, too – and that those rules constrict just as tightly.

Jennifer Miller and her troupe smash the rules with gleeful abandon; inside their ring, it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, who has a beard, whose toes sparkle. It only matters that when you do a head-first swan dive off the shoulders of the burly (wo)man in the gold spangly dress…someone is there to catch you when you fall.

IMG_1902.JPG

Continue Reading · on August 18, 2013 in Gender

because we all know that girls can’t do math, right?

Here we go again:

1146596_546445112069717_706905320_n

This t-shirt is for sale just in time for “back to school.”  Isn’t that just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? A girl’s t-shirt that tells her (and us) that she can’t do math but it’s not a big deal.

It’s funny, you know? I looked on the website for The Children’s Place and didn’t see a corresponding boys’ t-shirt that says his best subjects are…football, TV, and accidentally breaking things.  What would the unchecked box be….reading? writing? empathy?

A few weeks ago, I was in a children’s store–Gap, maybe, or Old Navy, something like that–and the boys noticed that the store was divided into the pink section and the non-pink section (Okay, they’re a little slow. Give ’em a break, they’re boys.)  When I said that the store marketers figured that it would sell more merchandise or something, Liam (who is 12), had a very succinct response:

“That’s stupid.”

We’ve weathered the ridiculous JC Penney shirts, the disgusting Victoria’s Secret underpants…and corporate America keeps right on swinging back, hell-bent, it seems, on sending the message that girls are…less than boys.  And, as Liam would say, “it’s stupid.”

You want a funny shirt? Try this:

HN3281

source

Now that is a shirt any kid could wear, just in time for back to school. Funny–and grammatically correct.

Continue Reading · on August 6, 2013 in Children, Feminism, Gender, kids, Parenting, Politics, shopping

The F word

“You’re a feminist? But you’re so…calm!”

A male college student of mine said that to me years ago, when we were discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant novella The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the female narrator slowly goes mad, due in large degree to the misogyny of the world around her.

I’ve never forgotten that comment, for several reasons, not the least of which is that no one has ever, before or since, accused me of being calm.  But his shock about the f-word has stayed with me too, because you’d have thought that by 1994, when I was teaching that class, “feminism” would no longer be associated with hysteria.

If it weren’t so sad, it would be almost funny, the way in which the stereotypes of feminists have remained the same for more than a century: a feminist is a shrill, man-hating, emasculating, humorless, ugly bitch with no fashion sense.

tumblr_lempfuC7HG1qaz7nzo1_500source

Wouldn’t you think we’d have come just a little further, baby?

youvecomealongwaybabysource

And yet clearly, we haven’t come that far at all. My female students say “I’m not a feminist but….”  And then they say they expect equal pay for equal work; that they want to choose when, how, and who they want to marry; that they have control over their own bodies; and that they have a say in the government.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, my students from non-western countries where women cannot rely on being in charge of their own destiny are far more likely to define themselves as feminists.

As Grace Hwang Lynch wrote a few days ago, even people like Susan Sarandon and Marisa Mayer distance themselves from the term “feminist.” Mayer said that she’s not “militant” enough and doesn’t have “the chip on her shoulder” that feminists do; Sarandon said that people think feminists “are a load of strident bitches.”  Et tu, Louise?

thelmalouise

Really? Strident bitches? I know that the history of feminism in the US has its ugly moments, such as the cynical calculus done by the white leaders of the suffrage movement to jettison the needs of immigrant women and African American women, in order to woo Southern Senators to vote for the 19th Amendment. And no less than Betty Friedan, in the concluding pages of The Feminine Mystique, ranted about the dangers of “the lesbians” who were going to destroy feminism.

Clearly, then, feminists are not angels and clearly the feminist movement has made some mistakes. But to be a feminist is not to want this:

washday_A

What then, as Freud asked, do women want? Well, in the early 20th century, when women were all, you know, uncalm about suffrage, they had a list that looked like this:

Suffrage 3

Hmm.  Education, healthy food supply, workers’ rights…That’s absolutely a list compiled by a complete man-hater. I mean, only a strident bitch with a chip on her shoulder would make these sorts of outrageous claims, right?

Sarandon says she wants to call herself a “humanist,” and that’s all fine and hunky-dory because hey, humans are great. Everyone should be able to be a human, don’t you think?   The problem is, though, that gender matters. Just ask Malala, or Wendy Davis, or Lily Ledbetter. Malala wasn’t shot because she was a human trying to go to school but because she was a girl; Wendy Davis stood for eleven hours in the Texas capitol because someone had to speak for all the women whose autonomy has just been squashed by the (mostly male) Texas state legislature; Lily wasn’t underpaid because she was human but because she was a woman.

Two other less serious examples: Entertainment Weekly just put out an issue of the “100 All-Time Greatest” in movies, books, TV shows.  Of the 100 Best films? 97 were directed by men and of those men, all but two were white. The same ratio applies, more or less to the list of TV shows. Women fare slightly better on the list of authors: 29 (although Toni Morrison appears twice so really it’s only 28).  Forbes just put out its list of top earners in comedy: not one woman is on the list.

And for an all-time dispiriting–enraging–list, see the VIDA list of women in the literary arts. You’ll want to cancel your subscriptions to…well, to almost everything.

Okay. I can hear what you’re about to say: calling ourselves feminists isn’t going to change anything; it’s not going to fix these problems. But I think it’s important to see that these problems are not individual isolated cases but instead create a picture of a society in which women are consistently, constantly overlooked and unheard. And is that a society, or a world, in which we–men and women–want to live?

Here is an assessment of what might happen if women remain unheard for too long:

Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

Abigail Adams wrote that to her husband John, in 1776.

I wonder if she’d be disappointed at our relative lack of progress?

The F word hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been, she would have used it.

Calmly, of course.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Continue Reading · on July 13, 2013 in Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics, ranting, Uncategorized

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes