Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.
Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.
Sometimes, I despair of this world and the people it contains.
I try to work hard, to take responsibility for my mistakes, to be grateful for my privileged life, to see the world from other people’s vantage points. I try to raise my children to do the same. I try to remember that most people in my life do so, too. I try to remember that there are many, many decent and reasonable people in the larger world. And then something like the Isla Vista killings occurs – only a month after the terrorist kidnapping of some 270 Nigerian schoolgirls. I haven’t a single wise thing to say about either.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the most insightful responses to Elliot Rodger’s killings I’ve read so far, by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman. (Thank you, Vee, for posting this to Facebook.)
The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.
The Belle Jar is equally thoughtful:
We don’t know if Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. We don’t know if he was a “madman.” We do know that he was desperately lonely and unhappy, and that the Men’s Rights Movement convinced him that his loneliness and unhappiness was intentionally caused by women. Because this is what the Men’s Rights Movement does: it spreads misogyny, it spreads violence, and most of all it spreads a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Pretending that this is the a rare act perpetrated by a “crazy” person is disingenuous and also does nothing to address the threat of violence that women face every day.
I hope you’ll read both linked articles in full. I’d appreciate knowing what you think.
My overwhelming sense is of a need for urgent action: we have to push back. We need to weed out any sense of entitlement in ourselves and in our children. We need to speak up in the presence of misogyny, and do so persistently and constructively and fearlessly.
And that is always the hardest part.
Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.
This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.
– One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.
– Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.
– This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.
– There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.
– Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.
– Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.
And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?
Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.
I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.
I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.
The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.
I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.
I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.
Hello, friends. You may have seen this already but this week, I wanted to highlight Caroline Heldman’s crisp, powerful TEDx Talk, “The Sexy Lie”. In thirteen engaging minutes, Heldman defines objectification; teaches us how to identify it; and outlines a few strategies for how to deal with it.
This brilliant talk is aimed at young people and it doesn’t talk down or attempt to be chummy. Instead, it takes a fraught subject and distills it. I know I’ll be taking its lessons and teaching them to the young people in my life. I hope you will, too.
What did you see or read this week that really impressed you, made you want to share it with everyone, and maybe even realigned the way you see things?
Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, I clicked through to the comedy sketch State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It’s fairly funny, in my opinion, although there’s a clangingly callous throwaway joke at the end that ruins it for me. But I was slightly irked by its underlying assumption that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is the main thing to be mocked: stupid MPDGs, who start out so refreshing and redemptive, until men weary of their whimsy. Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the mockery be aimed at the creators of the MPDG? There’s a brief flash of this in the State Home video, but it goes unexplored.
I was going to write a post about this until I realized that Feminist Frequency has already done it! It’s a bit more serious than I’d have been, but it’s all there. Take it away, FF!
The best thing I read this past week was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, in The Atlantic. (Thank you, Stephanie Burgis, for linking to it on fb!) It’s a long, thoughtful, nuanced article that, despite its deliberately provocative title, is a powerful argument for fairer, more flexible working conditions for Americans.
Essentially: nobody who is tied to a rigid work schedule can hope to “have it all” – by which Slaughter means professional success and work-life balance. And while Slaughter is talking primarily about women like herself – affluent, powerful, highly educated mothers, the kind who most people see and marvel, “How does she do it all?” – it’s also applicable to men.
Are you up for a long read? If so, I’d love to discuss it with you. My main questions so far are:
– Slaughter is a seriously elite academic, talking about other super-high-powered women. What does her argument mean for average workers – for example, someone who works in retail and has to be in in the workplace in order to work?
– Why hasn’t Slaughter questioned the very idea of the mega-hour work week? Is it really an achievement to work from home if you’re still sending email at one a.m.?
What are your thoughts and questions?