Monthly Archives: December 2007

Friday Feminists – Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier

We are tired of waiting. Sick and tired.At Vanderbilt University’s graduation ceremony in 2002, the top students in each of nine schools received awards. These were exceptional students whose accomplishments in scholarship, service, and leadership distinguished them from thousands of their peers who were also graduating on this day. Of these nine honorees, six were women. Presenting the awards were the deans of the students’ schools. Of these nine deans, two were women – unsurprisingly, they were deans of the education and nursing schools. The remaining seven deans were men.

“So what?” you might say. If you’d been there, you might not even have noticed. Such scenes as this are so commonplace that they seem unremarkable, perhaps because, even thirty years after the start of the women’s movement, we are still used to seeing men in positions of power. Although the presence of these six talented, achieving female students reveals the success of feminist efforts, the scarcity of highly placed women in university administrations, corporate America, and government – to name only the most obvious institutions – demonstrates our very real need for continued feminist activism. Young women today have more options available to them that at any other time in history, and because of these options, they feel, as we ourselves have felt, that not only can they accomplish anything they want to but there are no gender-based barriers; sexism, these young women are sure, is a thing of the past. Yet, as the above example illustrates, in spite of these beliefs, societal structures have not changed as much as feminists might have hoped or expected.

When we point out these kinds of structural inequalities, we generally receive one of two responses. Some people dismiss us as hyperanalytical, oversensitive “feminists with a capital F” who are only wallowing in victim hood. To these people, there’s really no need for feminism, anyway, so the subject of inequality seems irrelevant. Other people, those who are more sympathetic to the idea of women’s empowerment, try to assuage us by telling us that things are getting better and have changed so much already. If we wait twenty years, things will be much more equal.

This is what they were saying twenty years ago. We are tired of waiting.

Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier, “Introduction” in Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century, 2003

Broadcast interrupted

We are making the final move across the Tasman over the next few days, and my internet access will be erratic. I hope to be back on-line early in the New Year.

“A feminist’s Christmas”

There is a wonderful post about Christmas with nuns and feminism on Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose.

Some extracts, but I do recommend reading the whole post.

It’s easy — especially for someone like me, for whom things like toughness and taking no shit are so identity constitutive — to forget that feminism is about women, not just about feminists. We’re all in this together, even the ones of us who aren’t in this, or aren’t in it to the degree we’d prefer. Someone who isn’t ready to embrace feminism or fat activism; someone who has never heard of fat activism; someone who has no desire to embrace her body or rethink the patriarchy: even if these people aren’t allies (yet), they’re not obstacles. They’re the reason we’re here making noise in the first place.

If I didn’t think this would be a better world for everyone without misogyny, patriarchy, and the beauty standards and lack of body autonomy that attend them, I wouldn’t be here writing your ear off. It’s not good enough to have convictions if you’re only fighting on behalf of the people who share them.

Activism for activists is gratifying but senseless. Activism for the reluctant, the uncertain, and the opposed: that’s a chore, and a mitzvah.

Christmas present

We have never told our children about Santa, either his alleged existence, or his non-existence. The news of Santa first came into our family through our eldest daughter, who picked up word of his coming at her pre-school, when she was about four. She was a bit dubious about it, but on Christmas morning, when there were presents at the end of her bed, and at the end of her sisters’ bed, all in pillowcases as is our family tradition, she became an enthusiastic believer. She has always been a good empiricist.

By the next year, Santa-belief was in full swing in our household. So far, so good, all without us having to utter a word. But by the year following that, some doubts were beginning to emerge. Fortunately, Santa to our rescue that year. We don’t like Barbie dolls, and we had told our daughters that we would not buy them Barbie dolls. Our eldest daughter had bought her own Barbie dolls – it was her money, so I didn’t want to tell her that she couldn’t spend it as she wished – and our younger daughters wanted them too. So that year, Santa gave them Barbie dolls. “You see,” we said, when six months later our by then seven year old daughter mentioned the possibility that Santa was a sham, “we would never give you Barbie dolls, and your younger sisters got Barbie dolls from Santa last year, so Santa must be true.”

Belief shored up for another year. However, Miss Seven, by the time she became Miss Eight just a few weeks before Christmas, admitted that she knew it wasn’t true, and that really, the previous year, she had just been faking it. However, she promised to keep the pretence up, for the sake of the Misses Five.

But I goofed. Earlier this year, we visited my parents at Easter. We had a pleasant few days in Taranaki, and then got up early one morning to start the drive back down to Wellington – about four and a half hours if you are travelling alone, but about six hours on the road, minimum, if you are travelling with children. As we drove out of New Plymouth, a voice from the back complained. “Mum, why didn’t the Easter Bunny bring us any Easter eggs?”

While I happily go along with Santa belief, Easter Bunny belief is just one commercialism too far. So I told Miss Five that (a) there had been no Easter Bunny when I was young, (b) that people just made the Easter Bunny up to trick parents into buying more Easter eggs for children and (c) that in any case, they had eaten plenty of Easter eggs.

Silence.

A few hours later, as well pulled out of Wanganui, after the obligatory stop at Kowhai Park, the same small voice came from the back. “But Mum, if the Easter Bunny isn’t true, and it’s just your parents telling you that it is true, then maybe Santa Claus is just your parents too.”

Damn!

So Miss Eight admitted that she didn’t really believe, and one Miss Five expressed some doubts. The other Miss Five, a child who likes to make the world conform with her preferred visions, stoutly asserted that she still believed in Santa Claus, and in fact that she was going to keep on believing, and she would be getting presents and the other two wouldn’t.

As the big day grew closer, we went to visit Santa in the local mall. Miss Nine hung back, but the two Miss Sixes were very keen to have a chat to him about what they would like for Christmas. The previous year, when we had visited Santa, he had told them that they must eat their vegetables. That evening, at dinner, one Miss Five said, “Right, Mum. Which ones are the vegetables? I have to eat them, so Santa will come.” Excellent!

This year’s Santa was just as helpful. “Well girls,” he said to the Misses Six. “You have to keep your rooms tidy.” So as soon as we got home, they shot upstairs to tidy up their rooms. Miss Nine just left hers in its usual shambolic state.

By Christmas Eve it was very apparent that there were no atheists in foxholes. Excitement was intense, made even more so when my mother put a row of candles down the drive to light Santa in. I read The Night Before Christmas to the assembled children – my own three, and my niece and nephew. Empiricist Miss Nine decided to set up an experiment for Santa. Last year, she had tested whether Santa preferred milk or brandy. Santa rejected the milk, and drank all the brandy. This year, she refined the experiment, leaving out whiskey, and brandy. Which one would Santa drink?

As it turned out, Santa drank both. Clear evidence that he is a sot.

The children enjoyed this Christmas, with the trifles from Santa, and some more interesting things from us. In some ways, I dislike pandering to the rampant commercialism of buying more and more presents for people to show that you love them, and the even worse exploitation of the St Nicholas myth. But the children find it magical. And why shouldn’t they have a little magic in their lives, and just one day in the year that is about delighting children?

I hope you have had a pleasant Christmas. Thank you for reading my blog this year, and I hope to see you again in the New Year.

Getting an education

My project of reading the “Little House on the Prairie” books to my daughters continues. We are almost through the 5th book, although we did skip the second one, Farmer Boy – I wanted to stay focused on the main story.

The 5th book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, opens sadly. The family have all been ill with scarlet fever, and the eldest daughter, Mary, has lost her sight.

… and Mary was blind. She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma’s old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light any more. … Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.

In the late 19th century, what this meant for Mary was that she simply could not get an education. Caroline Ingalls, Mary’s and Laura’s mother, prized education. In On the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls family is on the move again, but Caroline insists that the family must settle near a town, so that the girls can be educated. More than that, she wants her girls to be teachers. Laura rebels against this, in her mind, but then realises:

She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.

Later on the book, Ma makes a great discovery, when Reverend Alden comes to visit.

“…I don’t know whether you and Brother Ingalls know that there are colleges for the blind,” [the Reverend Alden said.] “There is one in Iowa.”

Ma took tight hold the edge of the dishpan. Her face started Laura. Her gentle voice sounded choked and hungry. She asked, “How much does it cost?”

“I don’t know, Sister Ingalls,” Reverent Alden answered. “I will make enquiries for you if you like.”

Ma swallowed and went on washing dishes. She said, “We can’t afford it. But perhaps, later – if it doesn’t coast too much, we might somehow manage, sometime. I always wanted Mary to have an education.”

There’s so much to think about in these passages about education. First, that education was so highly valued, and seen as critical to the girls’ success in life. So the lack of education for Mary was a tragedy, and the news that there was, after all, a way that she could be educated, a great ray of hope.

It’s hard to know whether this is really how Ma reacted to this news, or whether Laura, or perhaps her daughter Rose, read these emotions back into the story. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder drafted the Little House books, and is rightly accounted to be the author of the books, her daughter Rose had a substantial hand in editing them.

Laura Ingalls Wilder had just the one child, Rose Wilder. Rose was a brilliant writer and thinker, but Laura and her husband had no money, so Rose could not have the college education she yearned for. Perhaps Ma’s longing for a college education for Mary is in fact Rose’s own desperately held, and eventually denied, desire. But Ma certainly wanted her daughters to be educated. The books don’t explain why, but my guess is that she knew that if they had an education, the girls could at least support themselves through teaching. As Laura said, quoted above, there was nothing else they could do.

Nothing else they could do.

That’s the other thought that astonishes me. When I read that passage to my girls, I got them to stop and think about it. Just 130 years ago, in the land of the free, women had no choices. There was nothing else they could do. To be sure, the Ingalls girls would have been constrained by social conditioning in any case – no working in the fields or in bars for them – but nevertheless, they had pitifully few choices.

And that’s the difference that feminism has made to me, and to my daughters. We have all the choices we want, provided we have the education to make those choices real. And any education we want is open to us, because feminists fought to ensure that women could go to university, could go to medical school, could be lawyers, scientists, accountants, teachers. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in a marvellous, expanding world of new frontiers, but a world that was incredibly constrained in terms of the choices women could make. My daughters and I do not. And for that, I thank feminism. And my mother.