Today in Feminist History: Flo Kennedy, 1916-2000

February 11 is Flo Kennedy’s 100th birthday.  A lawyer who defended the Black Panthers and was instrumental to winning abortion rights in New York State, a founder of the Feminist Party that nominated Shirley Chisholm for President, a long time star of the speaking circuit that spread feminist ideals and supported feminist work, who built coalitions with a range of organizations and activists ranging from Adam Clayton Powell to Gloria Steinem. She was famous for her quips and style and she was incredibly effective.  Kennedy breaks down all the lazy categories people rely on to separate idealists from pragmatists and talkers from doers, and reminds us that social justice coalitions across race and gender lines are possible whatever their challenges. I just ordered the recently published biography by Sherie Randolph which I’ve heard wonderful things about. I’m especially looking forward to an account of the protest mentioned in her 2000 obituary, of leading a “mass urination” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.

 

Friends with Books: Class War by Megan Erickson

There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us.  When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul.  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Martha Griffiths, or What Is “Liberal Feminism” Anyways?

Today is the 104th birthday of Martha Griffiths, a ten-term congresswoman sometimes dubbed the “mother of the ERA.” Her most significant contribution, however, came as a key figure in the inclusion of women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a hugely important and fascinating story that understandably isn’t much known – understandably because it was purposefully done behind the scenes, so as not to induce the ridicule of an establishment who by and large still saw women’s rights as a joke at best.

I’m interested in people like Griffiths right now for a lot of reasons, partly because of the way “liberal feminism” or “bourgeois feminism” are sometimes used to describe people who really really really want to see a woman President or Sheryl Sandburg pontificating at Davos.

Having been immersed in the feminist archive from the 1960s and 1970s for a better part of the last year, I think this is unfair: not to HRC of Sandburg but to liberal feminism. In the activist history of the period, there were, by and large, clear divisions between the liberal and radical wings of the movement. Liberals wanted to integrate the public sphere, the professions, and end not just job and pay discrimination but the complete job segregation that existed at the time. It’s found in figures like Griffiths, journalists like, Marlene Sanders and Judy Klemersrud, who snuck sympathetic coverage into the mainstream, and organizations like the National Organization for Women and many local and national organizations that fought for the ERA. And they fought for the reform of abortion laws – an issue on which liberals and radicals were united.

This wing was criticized by radicals who thought not only the public sphere but the family, sexuality and all human relations needed to be reconsidered. They rightly targeted figures like NOW founder Betty Friedan for their homophobia. Many saw the ERA as a distraction and the demobilization that followed its defeat suggested there was much to this. Certainly, the remarkable cultural, social and political changes could not have occurred without the radicals pushing at the wing of the possible.

At the same time, the liberals achieved a lot, starting with NOW’s huge win right at its founding when the Times desegregated its job ads. And it was a real movement – Griffith’s work was supported by a real grassroots network. Given how many forests have died over whether it matters to call oneself a feminist, I don’t have too much invested in these terms either, but if you’re interested in the real “inside/outside” dynamics of change, disingenuous claims about “making change from the inside” shouldn’t take away from the legacies of those who actually did it.

Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

Very Belated Mini-Review: Selma and Viola Liuzzo

I watched Selma last night and really enjoyed it.  As usual, I agree with what Eileen Jones says: it’s a great and rare-for-movies portrayal of political strategy and tactics.  I was especially impressed by how many different activists were given important and distinct parts: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Diane Nash,  Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: we get a sense of their particular work without any cheap backstories.

But there was one, very small touch that really struck me: the way the family treated the story of  Viola Liuzzo.  I knew just a little about her story, mostly the outlines of her story Corey mentions in his wonderful post: that of a white mother of 5 and local activist from Detroit who heeded King’s call to come lend aid to the march, only to be murdered right after the third and triumphant march by KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma.  When I saw her introduced in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would handle this: portraying this senseless loss just after the moment of great triumph. That’s not the way the scripts go, and who would have blamed Ava Duvernay or the film for leaving it out? But they don’t. It’s right there in those usually triumphant final titles: we read: Viola Liuzzo was murdered 5 hours after this speech just as the music swells. It’s not a story of sacrifice and then triumph: the sacrifices just keep coming.

 

Most days I take my son to school on the bus and there are a couple of high schoolers who ride it regularly. Recently I heard them complain about their English teacher and why she kept talking about racism and King: “We get it. He made a good speech. Get over it.” I understand the resistance of many to using a Hollywood film, even a very good one, as the basis for education, but there’s no doubt Selma offers lots of people a lot more than what they’ve been getting.

Best of 2015: Ten Essays and Articles from Ten Magazines

Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.

The profiles: 

  1. “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review.  A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.

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10 Great Books for Small Children, and What Makes Them Great

Nearly four years into this whole parenting thing, I have no great unified theory of parenting. I do have a theory about kids books, though. To me, there is no failed literary experiment or abstruse academic text so baffling as the children’s book written by someone who has apparently never read a book to a child. What’s interesting about these books is that if you describe them they often don’t sound so terrible, but trying to read them you have no choice but to change the words. The words don’t track, don’t fit the story, don’t fit the pictures. They’re invariably overwritten. I’ve never gone along with the whole kill-all-the-adjectives and adverbs thing, but it’s really true for picture books.

With this lovely Ben Lerner LRB piece in mind, about (among other things) how the existence of Really Bad Poetry can help us think about what good poetry is, I’ve been thinking about what these baffling books can tell us about what makes a great book for little kids. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a good picture book aspires to the condition of poetry. That is, it has to use some combination of the things that make poetry poetry: condensed and/or heightened language, attention to rhythm, rhyme or sound, repetition and variation, attention to how words are presented on the page. With picture books of course that means not only arrangement and typeface but how the pictures interact with the words. A bad or mediocre picture book often reads like the author had an idea, often seemingly based on something they liked as a kid, wrote it up in excruciating detail, then had someone draw some related pictures.

So here are ten picture books that have given me a lot of pleasure, and that my son also loves. (There are lots of so-so books that kids love that can drive parents crazy with enough repetition; there are lots of crappy ones that can’t hold a kid’s attention; the really good ones appeal to both.)

Some of these are pretty well known but I tried to included some less known ones, or somewhat lesser known ones by well known authors.

In no particular order:

1) Harold’s Fairy Tale, by Crockett Johnson (1956).

One of many follow-ups to the also wonderful Harold and the Purple Crayon.  An epitome of words and pictures synthesis, as Harold draws the world as the words create it. Lore Segal, best writing teacher I ever had once told a story about sharing a hallway with Malamud who told her he was writing a story about a runner, which was very hard, because he had to make the world he ran through. That’s what these books are about. For me, Fairy Tale is even better than the original because its story, about how creating an imaginary king and imaginary gardens, is so wittingly subversive. So imagine my delight to find out Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk) was a big old commie who wrote cartoons for the New Masses. The books are funny too. (An interesting thing I’ve learned is that a lot of children’s book authors and illustrators had really fascinating lives.)

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Today in Feminist History: Johnnie Tillmon

Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of 69. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news, the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of  poor women, a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms. which I was reading religiously.*  Tilmmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children:  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Alice Paul and The Night of Terror

On November 15, 1917, Alice Paul, the thirty-two year old founder of the National Woman’s Party, had begun serving a seven month prison sentence,  purportedly for blocking traffic but in reality because of the series of provocative protests targeting President Wilson. NWP called Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” targeted a meeting between Wilson and the new Russian government, and staged the first ongoing picket of the White House and burned copies of his speeches, a particularly bold action during a time of war and repression of dissent.

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