Tag Archives | feminism

Ladies Night at the Ice Rink

The image of the veiled woman remains a potent symbol of the “mysterious” Middle East and the question of “do you have to cover…”  is almost always the first question that anyone asks me when I tell them where I live.   It’s easy, particularly in the West, to lose sight of the fact that behind the veil is a person, and to keep in mind that gender politics are complicated here — but then again, point me to a place where gender politics aren’t complicated.

I wrote about Gloria Steinem and feminism the other day, and then the other day, at the ice rink, of all places, I was reminded that “feminism” has many different forms.  I had gone to the ice rink in the ginormous sports complex where Liam and Caleb play football because Caleb and I had to wait for Liam to finish practice, Caleb was hungry, there is a pizza place inside the ice rink, so off we went…only to be told that Caleb couldn’t come inside.  It was Ladies Night, no men allowed, not even nine-year-old men.

Inside, the place buzzed with energy as girls of all ages skated, watched the skaters, or walked around gossiping with each other, safe from the eyes of the men working in the restaurant kitchen:

IMG_8520

I bought Caleb’s pizza and brought it to him outside on the patio.  I’ve never seen so many people coming to the ice rink as I did that night, including some who were clearly coming for the gossip and a night out, and not for the skating, at least judging from her shoes:

IMG_8525can you see the heels she’s got on? Four or five inches, at the very least

The girls in the skating rink seemed entirely delighted to be there, and many of the girls on the ice were twirling and jumping and speeding around with the ease that comes only with a lot of practice.

Did it seem strange that “ladies night” kept out my little boy?  Yes.  Am I reminded that change happens incrementally, in loops and swirls and swerves, and not in a straight unbending line? Yes.

Because that night at the ice rink, sitting outside with my son, I was reminded that the girl in the abaya isn’t a metaphor but just a chick with a wicked slapshot, who perhaps daydreams about an Olympic medal in women’s hockey.

IMG_8524

 

Continue Reading · on March 31, 2014 in Abu Dhabi, expat, Feminism, Gender, Politics, UAE

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

Friedan, Fifty Years Later…

Well, not Friedan, exactly, but The Feminine Mystique. It turned fifty last week, you know, and I have to say that I think it (she?) is holding up pretty well, all things considered.  As some of you have pointed out in comments, the book is flawed–there is no substantive discussion of race or class, and the attitude towards lesbians is, at best, uneasy.  I don’t want to gloss over those differences, but I will say that Mystique did, at least, prod the conversation about gender equality in a new direction–a direction that ultimately enabled a whole lot of other things.

I wrote about the book in The National, the Abu Dhabi/UAE newspaper, and I’m reprinting it in this site because…well because I think that no one has yet come up with a word better than “feminist,” so I want to keep defining and redefining that word until it’s not automatically associated with “man haters” and other ridiculously dated stereotypes.

Here’s the piece.  What do you think? Feminism as a movement is over? Feminism as a word should be retired? Or is it nope, nope, we’re still here, still insisting that feminism is about making the world a better place for men and women, boys and girls–and everyone in between.  (For another take on feminism, read this fantastic piece in Jezebel, about the misogynistic bullshit that rang even louder than usual at this year’s Oscars.)


It’s the question that bedevils us all, men and women alike; it’s the question that floats through our minds when we lie awake at night or daydream at our office computers or watch our children at the playground: “Is this all? Is this it?”

It’s the question that unsettles complacency; the question that can, in the right context, topple despots and inspire revolutions. And it’s the question with an equally potentially explosive corollary: “Isn’t there more?”

As I move closer to that comfortably upholstered majlis known as “middle age”, these questions loom large: after all, as one approaches 50, it’s perhaps time to come to terms with the fact that one is not, after all, going to be a ballerina or a fireman; that David Beckham’s career trajectory will not be one’s own.

At 50, one can only hope that “is this all?” returns an answer balanced between satisfaction and aspiration: if 50 is the new 30, maybe we can still finish that novel, learn karate, make an impact on the world in whatever small way is available to us. As that plague victim in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” protests, “I’m not dead yet … I think I’ll go for a walk this afternoon.”

“Is this all?” is the question that Betty Friedan used in the opening paragraph of The Feminine Mystique, published 50 years ago last week. Her book, which one reviewer described as “pulling the trigger on history,” provided the impetus for feminism’s second wave, the so-called “women’s libbers” who staged protest marches and stormed beauty pageants, who insisted that loading dishwashers and making meatloaf were not the ne plus ultra of the female experience.

Even though Friedan’s book overlooked (or ignored) the very different situations confining women of colour, The Feminine Mystique nevertheless inspired a revolution in the way questions of gender equality were discussed – indeed, in the very fact that gender equality became a subject for public discussion and debate.

Now that the mystique is 50, however, can we turn its question back on itself and ask, “is that all”? How have we handled the gauntlet thrown down by Friedan’s study? In grimmer moments, as when I think about some of the recent encroachments on women’s freedoms in the United States, the epidemic of rape in India and in African countries, the struggle to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it seems as if we’re going backwards, that perhaps no society will ever be capacious enough to tolerate the full scope of female autonomy.

I think about my students, male and female, who hail from all the countries of the world and say things like “I’m not a feminist but …” and then conclude their statements with ideas that would be familiar to any 1960s-era women’s libber: that there should be equal pay for equal work, universal day-care, equal access to quality education, and that everyone should have the freedom to marry (or not) whomever they please.

In more optimistic moments, I think that maybe my students’ attitudes reflect the success of the feminist movement: the goals of feminism have embedded themselves in social consciousness, so maybe the refusal of the label “feminist” shouldn’t matter.

And yet, the phrase “feminine mystique” served as the spark that galvanised a revolution. Would that energy have been released without a sense of shared identity, shared purpose, shared anger? Without a common starting point, could people have moved from “is this all?” to “is there more?”

These questions, which seem innocuous enough when we’re asking about extra pudding at dinner, became paving stones on the path that led from what Friedan called “this picture of a half-life” to “a share in the whole of human destiny.” That’s the part of Friedan’s description of feminism that most people miss: it’s not just a “woman thing.” It’s a “people thing”, a reminder that everyone has gender and that none of us, really, want biology to dictate our fate.

Friedan would argue that we still need to ask “is this all”, because too often, all over the world, biology does dictate fate: health, education, opportunity, mortality. Maybe, at 50, The Feminine Mystique still has work to do; maybe this middle-aged lady can still rattle a few cages, can inspire others to ask “is this all?” and “isn’t there more?”

Who knows? Maybe at 50 it’s time for The Feminine Mystique to be translated into Arabic.

Continue Reading · on February 27, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, Feminism, Politics

The Mystique, Fifty Years On…

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Feminist Mystique. It’s a flawed book, but still, I think, an important one, maybe even more so now because so many people (men and women) in the younger generation seem to think that the privileges they enjoy have always been available them.

And wow, if that didn’t sound like a “back in the day I walked ten miles barefoot to school in the snow…” sort of sentence, yikes. My take on the mystique is here, in the Abu Dhabi newspaper.  I’d love to hear your comments, especially about that vexed word “feminist…”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Continue Reading · on February 25, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, Books, Feminism, Politics

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes