This week: Maya Angelou and #YesAllWomen

In between the things I juggle, two things crossed my radar this week. Maya Angelou died on Wednesday. And #YesAllWomen, a Twitter outpouring of support and grief and shared stories after the Santa Barbara shootings, passed a million tweets and is still going strong.

My introduction to Maya Angelou was in a women’s literature course –one of the basic ones, women’s voices through time or something– at a satellite campus of University of South Carolina. And it was excellent. We read Margaret Cavendish and Lauren Berlant and Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley. We talked about what it means to write. What it means to have to prove you even have the authority to write. What it means to be an author and not a muse. What it means to define yourself by how you are viewed. We talked about the invisible power structures in language, about old boy’s clubs and old wives’ tales and how knowledge is credited and discredited. We talked about identifying our privilege and overcoming disadvantage. It was a great class.

And we read Maya Angelou.

“Still I Rise” is one of my favorites of hers. I love the acknowledgement of–then resistance to–the framework in which she is supposed to fit.

I love that laugh as she is talking about her sassiness.

It reminds me of Hélène Cixous’s writing about the laugh of the medusa. “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) is Cixous’s most influential article–in it, she identifies the misogyny inherent in language and proposes resistance to that misogyny through a focus on the body as a way for women to write themselves true, instead of being written as the monstrous other. The laugh of the medusa is an embodied resistance, it is that which can overcome, subvert, mock oppression. It is a “call to arms urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.” It is Maya Angelou cackling at your presumption that she is going to droop her shoulders and submit to your classification. The laugh.

But, while the laugh is a vital means of personal resistance, it is not everything. It doesn’t make the world safer.

I’ve been following along, with horror, all of the news that has been coming out about the Santa Barbara shootings. Read about Elliot Roger’s misogyny here. And the misogyny that drove the shootings, while a drastically more tragic incident than what many women face, has inspired a huge out-pouring of personal experiences of sexism under the hashtag #YesAllWomen.

https://twitter.com/ZAmmi/statuses/470871360307486720

https://twitter.com/wheresaddie/statuses/470985776105549824

https://twitter.com/AdelaideKane/statuses/471101252332699648

And there are, literally, thousands more. Read more tweets here, read more about the #YesAllWomen movement here.

Madeline Davis wrote an article about it on Jezebel: “I am not an angry feminist. I’m a furious one.”

Her final lines are what got me. She says

And I’m still angry, still furious. I’m furious that growing up, I wasn’t allowed to do the same things that my brother did because it wasn’t safe for me. I’m furious that my parents ingrained in me from a very young age that I should never wear heels because I should always be ready to run at a moment’s notice. I’m furious that walking alone at night feels more like an act of rebellion than a simple act of transit. I’m furious at myself for worrying that participating in #YesAllWomen would lose me Twitter followers or turn off the boy I’m trying to impress. I’m furious for the women who are afraid to tell a dude at a bar to “fuck off” because they might getbottled in the face. I’m furious at the men who entered this comment thread to complain about how no one wants to fuck them even though they’re nice. I am furious at the commenter who read an article about a girl getting murdered by a fellow student after she declined an invitation to prom and then wrote 18 paragraphs on how he doesn’t believe in rape culture because he’s never seen it. I’m furious that girls get shot in the head or kidnapped for simply daring to go to school. I am furious at my own embarrassing and idiotic impulse to say #NotAllWhiteFeminists when women of color discuss their mistreatment and dismissal by the white feminist community. I am furious about the number of tips we receive daily about the mishandling of sexual assault investigations. I am furious about sexual assault. I am furious at the people who will inevitably tell me to calm down after reading this.

And mostly I’m furious that I’ll eventually shrug all of this off, too, because laughing about it is easier than changing it. I’m furious because I don’t know what else to do.

So. I don’t know. Laughing is easier, but laughing is ultimately a gesture of futility. Today, this week, it feels a bit futile.

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Endings. Beginnings. And Adrienne Rich.

My last class was on Thursday. Yep, the last class. I’m officially almost done –one exam away—with my undergraduate education. Well, for the second time. I already did this once. The last time I did this (er, eight years ago?) my thoughts around graduation all centered around this guy who, in retrospect, was about as wrong for me as possible. He would have made my parents so happy though. And I was late to graduation—I don’t remember why—and I had absolutely no idea how my hair looked after haphazardly pinning on the  mortarboard, and so I felt even more awkward than usual. And that’s all I remember. Lots of drama about a really wrong guy and needing to fix my hair.

There’s a lot that I regret about my first undergraduate degree. I made a lot of mistakes. I spent four years at a college that wasn’t accredited, that only offered two degrees for women (Christian Ministries and Christian Education—for the preachers’ wives and the teachers’ wives respectively) and a lot of rules about how women ought to behave.  I knew I wasn’t in the right place much of the time, I talked about changing schools during several breaks from school, but I couldn’t really see a way out, I didn’t know how to change things.  I wish I had. I wish I’d been stronger, more sure of myself at age 21 or 22. Able to jump ship a little earlier. Oh well.

In her essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Adrienne Rich said,

It’s hard to look back on the limits of my understanding a year, five years ago—how did I look without seeing, hear without listening? It can be difficult to be generous to earlier selves, and keeping faith with the continuity of our journeys is especially hard in the United States, where identities and loyalties have been shed and replaced without a tremor, all in the name of becoming….

I love that, the reminder to be generous to our past selves, to try to understand our mistakes and complications and the things that seem so stupid later. The essay as a whole is talking about Rich’s transition from a second wave to a third wave perspective—she says she initially thought the category “Woman” to outweigh all other categories of nationality or religion (a traditionally second wave perspective), but then, later, she saw the problems with that generalization. Her change in perspective is historically interesting, but her acceptance of her changes is what I find most fascinating. She accepts that humans aren’t static. When we’re wrong, sometimes we think we’re right. We don’t know everything yet. And that’s ok.

I found that paragraph in my first semester, three-four years ago, at this—my current—college. A professor assigned a few selections from The Essential Feminist Reader, and I read the whole thing. Voraciously. Incessantly. Compulsively. It wasn’t academic curiosity, it wasn’t analytical, it was personal. It was therapy. (And god, did I need therapy.) Reading what other women had written about their lives and their politics and their romances answered my questions. They made me think about questions that I hadn’t yet considered. It gave me a different perspective, a wider perspective. And I needed a different perspective so badly.

I’m excited and terrified about the next step. I’m starting a master’s degree at American University in August. I’m moving to D.C.. I want to volunteer at the Sewell-Belmont house and join marches and read books and talk about literature. I’m guessing there will be a lot of stress and coffee in there too, but I’m happy.  And scared. But  mostly happy.

Eight years ago, trying to figure out what in pluperfect hell I was supposed to do next, I’d never have imagined that things could turn out so well.

Next on Netflix: Bramwell

Gracious. Not to be all “this is what you  should watch on Netflix” but yeah, this is what you should watch on Netflix. Bramwell is a British miniseries from the 80’s (and yes, it looks like a miniseries from the  80’s) but it is absolutely wonderful.

Ok, so I just started watching. I’m two four episodes in. Maybe it’s going to get horrible, but right now it’s amazing.

Jemma Redgrave (niece of Vanessa and Lynn, cousin of Joely and Natasha) is Eleanor Bramwell, a female doctor in 1895. After being expelled from the hospital at which she has trained because she told a female patient that she has syphilis, how she got it (her so-respectable husband), and the (many) dangers of the prescribed operation (extraction of her ovaries), she establishes a free hospital in the slums.

So far (episode 2) we’ve dealt with the issue of the “worthy poor” as opposed to the actual poor,  the responsibilities and the politics of medicine, women’s rights, women’s education, bloomers,  temperance and (gasp!) interracial marriage.

Holy mother, this is good. If this were a series of books, I’d have Amazon’d them all tonight… so it’s probably good that it’s available on Netflix Instant.

Anyways. This is what you should be watching. In my humble opinion.

Women’s rights in 19th century Russia

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While every unhappy family might be unhappy in its own way, women in 19th-century Russia could find solidarity in their plight. Like the majority of her European counterparts, a Russian woman’s father and husband controlled most aspects of her life. Even noblewomen, as portrayed by Anna Karenina, could not vote, hold their own passports, or attend high schools or universities — secondary education was unavailable to women until the 1850s, and higher education was unavailable until the 1870s. What little education high-born women received was largely vocational, amounting to skills in marriage, housekeeping, and motherhood. (From a Masterpiece Theater article; read more here.)

Tools, weapons, and armor

There are some seriously fantastic bloggers in the universe. I’m just saying.

I’ve been reading the blog Already Pretty almost daily for about a year. Sal talks about clothing choices and following rules and ignoring the rules and fabulous shoes and all sorts of fun things for the sartorially inclined.

She recently blogged about watching Miss Representation, 2011 Sundance film that explores the ways in which “the media’s misrepresentation of women has led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence” (from the movie website, linked above.)

You want to read the entire post—trust me—but here is a bit that I especially loved:

…and I’ve assumed that anyone who tells you you can’t do exactly what you’ve always dreamed of doing because you are a woman is going to rue the day they challenged you so brazenly.

Based on this assumption, I have sought to arm you. I consider style, fashion, body image, and everything that contributes to how we feel about personal aesthetics to be mere tools. These things are meant to help you with whatever you’re doing with your life: Lawyering, mothering, running governments, farming, writing, cooking, teaching, innovating technologies, making art, doctoring, building businesses, and on into infinity. Whatever work you’ve chosen, whatever opus you’re creating, whatever battle you’re fighting, I want to arm you with confidence in your body and your style. Why? So you can stop worrying about your outward presentation and focus on what’s important.

Jesus, that’s strong. Amazing-strong. Powerful.

And then, because the internet gods love me today, another equally fabulous piece in The New Significance in which Laurie Penny talks about clothes and being taken seriously.

The thing is that these things do matter; fashion, consumerism and style matter, they matter to women in particular because we fritter away so much of our time and energy and money, whether we want to or not, trying to negotiate those boundaries of gender and status that are mediated through clothes, hair, shoes, makeup, bags, accessories. These are the ways that we prove we are good women, good shoppers, people who know how to conform and consume and seduce, people who want to please, to fit in, no matter how complicated the rules or how high the stakes. Not for nothing are feminists so often stereotyped as ugly, unfeminine, shaven-headed, androgynously dressed. To want any type of power other than the power to seduce, to please, to entertain and comfort and excite is to forfeit one’s womanhood on some vital aesthetic level.

I’m a closet-front ditherer. I’ll put on one shirt, then switch it for that one, then try these shoes and then those. And while I’m deciding if my day calls for a blouse or if a long-sleeve tee will do, there is always this loop of —such a shallow girl. this is unimportant. just make a decision already– running in my head. I don’t do that when I’m deciding what to buy at the grocery—I’m allowed (I allow myself) to take my time there because those choices are important. Ok, not crucial, but important. I don’t do it at the library—I can quite contentedly bother the research librarian until I’ve tracked down every one of the sources on my fourteen sticky notes. (They love me there. Mmmhmm.) But the closet? Nope.

To be a good feminist, I need to not care. And to be a good woman, I need to look fantastic.

I know. I don’t have to “not care” to be a good feminist. There are as many versions of feminism as there are women who claim the label. But I’m working my way through stereotypes of feminism to find my feminism, just like everybody else. And there’s a little voice that starts up when I’m standing in front of my closet that says “Alice Paul wouldn’t have cared. She wasn’t shallow. You, on the other hand, are hopeless. You need to find a cause and march for it—picket the White House!– not pick a pair of shoes.” And then I get even more frustrated because not only can I not decide what to wear, I’m suddenly a bad feminist too, and my entire belief structure has been called into question and it’s not even 8 AM yet and dear god how did I already finish the entire pot of coffee?

Let’s face it—I want to look fantastic. I like clothes. I like makeup. I like pretty leather bags and tall boots and scarves and dangly earrings. Why? I feel more like myself when I look my best. I’m more powerful when I look my best. I’m more organized when I look my best. I can express myself more eloquently when I look my best.

I feel like I’m the best version of myself when I look my best.

Not because my best version is based on what I look like—far from it. My best version of myself is organized and powerful and eloquent and kind.  But I can’t be any of those things when I’m focused on my appearance. 

Anyway, I love how both of these pieces articulate the importance of clothes to gender and power. Clothes aren’t just a distraction. They operate as tools, as weapons, as armor.

Theorizing community

I’m in the midst of attempting to formulate something brilliant for an upcoming project… so far I’m feeling a little incoherent. Earlier this spring, I read and re-read Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits; it’s a great book–complex and twisted and frustrating and sad… it’s one of those books that I truly believe everyone should  read, but no one I know has. Sad. But I’ll keep pushing it.

(plot spoilers– but the book is so good that the plot really isn’t the main thing, so feel free)

Horace is a black teenager in a rural community in North Carolina. The community is as many rural communities are:  heavily influenced by religion, race, a sense of history and continuity– redemption after slavery, proving racial equality–, being “respectable,” ideas of family and generation and respect for elders and the past and the upward, promising trajectory of history and ‘the race.’

Horace is gay. He is tormented, quite literally, by the fear of his family and church exposing and condemning his sexuality. He goes a little crazy–he sees bird men and ghouls and a mysterious double of himself that orders him to shoot the pastor–and then, horrifyingly, shoots himself.

This is awful. It is sad when it happens in a novel and tragic when it happens, as it too  often does, in reality. What I intend to look at, however, is not a simple reduction of this novel to a pre-figuration of the “It gets better” campaign- which, obviously, is problematic on many levels- instead I intend to examine the effect of Horace’s suicide, which he postpones until it can be witnessed by his uncle, the preacher, on the community as a whole.

I believe that a community is created by the mutual credence given to a set of stories. That set may exclude as much as it includes–the stories of the unsuccessful long shot, the insufficiently brave, the missed chance that is never reclaimed… these are not stories that are precisely profitable for a community’s sense of self and are not, therefore, usually prevalent in its collective mythos. I believe that stories of homosexual members of the community are most frequently included within this subset of excluded stories. Horace’s suicide, which, as I mentioned, is witnessed by his uncle, forces an acknowledgement of the previously ignored. He destroys the assumption that “none of us are like that”, or that “that’s a white thing” by dramatically–theatrically– forcing everyone to look.

I plan to examine this book and the ideas of community and homosexuality and suicide and religion… my thoughts are circling around a re-formulation of the centrality of history and of memory to the idea of the self. If community is created by mutual credence given to a set of stories, then all (all!) that is needed to fundamentally change that community is a change in the stories that are told and believed.

At least, these are the ideas that are percolating in my little house tonight.