Does a Woman Need a Room of Her Own?

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Virginia Woolf wrote* that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write [fiction].” She was writing about writers, but what she said applies to being a woman, period. If a woman is to be her own person, she must have autonomy, which in this world means enough money to live on and the ability to make your own destiny. What does that have to do with a room of one’s own, though? And what does that mean anyway?

I noticed a couple of years ago that HGTV (Home and Gardening TV Network) began referring to “man caves.” These are set-apart rooms for the man of the house where he can pursue what he’s interested in and be himself. The implication is that a man can’t truly relax anywhere else in the house, as if all the other square footage belongs to his wife (and children, if there are any).

The other implication is that women don’t need “woman caves” because they have the whole house in which to pursue their interests and be themselves. The belief that the house is primarily the sphere of women probably dates back to the days when everyone lived in caves. The women stayed home and took care of the children, prepared the meals and fashioned utensils (and later, practiced agriculture) while the men went out and “earned a living.” The larger world was not for the female sex, but by the same token, men didn’t feel entirely welcome in the smaller world of home and hearth.

Even in this day when men and women both work outside of the home, women are seen as the primary housekeepers and men the householders (the ones who own the home). It’s a usually unspoken agreement between the sexes that women can do what they want with the inside of the house and men make the “bigger” decisions that have to do with the world outside the home.

I have a friend from high school who recently posted pictures on Facebook of the interior of his house. Some of the comments referred to his taste as well as his wife’s and suggested that they should both take up house staging (which is arranging the furnishings in a home so that it is more appealing to potential buyers). Apparently my friend had as much to say about how the interior of his home looks as his wife did.

I don’t think this is unusual. More men are taking an interest in home decorating (without automatically being thought of as gay). As a result, women are feeling pushed out of the house a little (until it comes to cleaning it—although that is changing somewhat, too).

The husband is no longer relegated to a workshop in the basement or garage. Now he is more likely to have a study, home office or man cave. But what about the wife? Where is her special place, where she can conduct her own affairs in private? I’m sorry, but the kitchen and laundry room just don’t qualify.

But the assumption persists that taking care of the home completes a woman in ways that would never be enough for a man. It is thought that all women have a nesting instinct and that they just tolerate their husbands’ presence, let alone his interference.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your home and feeling completed by taking care of it. The problem is that too many people, male and female, believe that that’s all a woman should want out of life. Even women talk themselves into believing that their priorities are skewed if they want to do anything but keep a house and raise children.

A room of one’s own doesn’t have to be a physical one; but it does need to exist. Autonomy requires the presence of privacy and the absence of interference. If you find that you can’t retreat into your own “space” where you can create who you are, then your personal growth will be stunted. You will only be a reflection of what other people want from you.

*Source: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, 1928.

Thoughts on Femininity and Feminism

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On Facebook today, “Muslim Feminists” asked the question, “What makes you feel feminine?” Apparently there was a discussion about this on a radio show and the women who called in said everything from dangling earrings to being on their periods.

I commented that I feel feminine when I get dressed up to go somewhere. And I feel maternal (which I suppose is a  subset of femininity) when I’m around children (including my own, who are grown). But the rest of the time I feel androgynous. I happen to believe that gender behavior is largely socialized and that somehow I missed out on the training.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that while I don’t feel particularly “girlie,” I do feel like a woman. And I feel more like one the older I get. It’s as if I feel like I’ve earned the designation by all that I’ve been through: puberty, menstruation, PMS, sex, relationships, marriage, birth control, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, mothering and menopause.

But I don’t think I really started to feel like a woman until I became a feminist. There’s something about being aware of the injustices done to women that makes you begin to identify with them. And that’s not even counting the sense of pride you feel when you realize what women are capable of and have been able to accomplish, despite forces that try to keep them down.

Gender identity is a double-edged sword. If your entire being is wrapped up in your gender identity, it’s easy to feel discouraged when you don’t live up to society’s expectations. But if you don’t identify with your gender at all, you lose a significant part of what makes you feel both unique and part of a group.

(And that’s not even taking into account how you feel if you don’t fit into the gender construct assigned to you at birth.)

Another thing that occurred to me is that no matter what your gender identity is, there are times when you feel like the opposite gender. What if the radio host had asked men what makes them feel feminine? Or women what makes them feel masculine? How many of us embrace the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into our assigned gender?

I can see why some women don’t like to identify as feminists. They think that doing so sends the message that they care too much about their gender identity. They would rather feel free to express both masculine and feminine traits. Or, more typically, they prefer to call themselves “humanists.” (The author Alice Walker is a case in point.)

There’s something to that argument. But it also misses the point of feminism. Feminists are not saying that women are best. It’s not a form of female chauvinism. What they are saying is that we need to collectively support and assist our gender to achieve its highest potential as human beings. So in a sense all feminists are humanists. And all humanists should be feminists.

When do I feel feminine? When I take pride in being a woman, in doing things only a woman can do. But I also feel feminine when I exhibit the gender behaviors that society approves of. The real question is: how much of my sense of femininity is determined by positive forces and how much by negative ones?  Do I only feel feminine when I’m weak and submissive? Or do I feel feminine from a position of strength and self-actualization?

A New Book Series for Girls (8-12)

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There is a new series for girls coming out which sounds like just the thing for budding feminists (or feminists’ daughters).

None of the books have been published yet (more about that later), but I thought they were interesting enough to report on. Watch this video, then read the description below it.

Wollstonecraft

London 1826: The Advent of the Steam Age

11-year-old Ada has a problem: her governess, Miss Coverlet, has quit her job to go get married (a dumb idea if ever there was one, if you ask Ada) and her new tutor Percy (“Peebs”) is a total drip.  She’d rather be left to her own devices – literally – inventing things and solving math problems and ignoring people altogether.

She’s also forced to study alongside the imaginative girlie-girl Mary, who’s always going on about romance and exotic travels.  Fortunately, Mary’s appetite for adventure leads her to propose the two girls open a detective agency, and when an heiress shows up with a case about a missing diamond, it’s the perfect puzzle to coax Ada out of her shell.

Illustration: Claire Robertson (Loobylu.com)

This is the made up story about two very real girls – Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science fiction author – caught up in a world of hot-air balloons and steam engines, jewel thieves and mechanical contraptions.  For readers 8-12.

This is a pro-math, pro-science, pro-history and pro-literature adventure novel for and about girls, who use their education to solve problems and catch a jewel thief.  Ada and Mary encounter real historical characters, such as Percy Shelley, Charles Babbage, Michael Faraday, and Charles Dickens – people whom the girls actually knew.  If Jane Austen wrote about zeppelins and brass goggles, this would be the book.

Why “Wollstonecraft”?  Mary names the detective agency after her mother, the famous feminist writer. If this is the kind of book you’d like to see, please support this project.

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The author, Jordan Stratford, is using a unique platform to finance the books’ publication. Go to his page on Kickstarter.com to find out how you can help these books become a reality.

Adrienne Rich: Not Just a Feminist Poet

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Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.

It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.

Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her.  For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she  refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.

In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)

That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.

 

 

Why Fight the War on Women?

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There’s been a lot in the news lately about the War on Women. What most people don’t realize is that this “war” isn’t only about abortion. It’s a series of battles over a woman’s right to live her life purposefully. This doesn’t just mean her right to birth control or abortion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Women are still having to fight for these things and more:

  • access to education
  • jobs, promotions
  • health benefits
  • reasonable rates for life and health insurance
  • maternity leave and other accommodations for child-rearing
  • effective prosecution of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence
  • elected office and other positions of power

Many people think that the War on Women was fought in the ’60s and ’70s and that women won it. They point to female CEOs and other professionals, to the number of women obtaining higher education, to greater attention being paid to women’s health issues and  to greater protections in general under the law. But these advantages are not being given equally to all women.

As long as there is one woman who is treated wrongfully and unequally because of her gender, the war has not been won. And the fact is, there are still millions of women who need things that many of us, privileged as we are, take for granted. Not only that, but women who feel that they have never suffered gender or sexual discrimination are either unusually fortunate or delusional.

One of the most insidious ways to keep women down is socialization. It’s hard to point a finger to the culprit here when the entire society participates in the practices that keep women from fulfilling their full potential. Even women themselves cooperate in their own socialization and often seem proud of it. The woman who drops out of college to get married, the professional who stops working to have children, the mother who praises her daughter for being pretty, but not for her participation in sports—all of these women are shortsightedly dooming themselves and their children to discrimination in the future.

These women protest that they have the right to choose to work part-time or not at all (except for in the home of course), to have as many children as they want and to raise them however they see fit. I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to choose whatever they want to do with their lives. I’m just asking them to think about the long-term effects of their choices.

The War on Women can’t be fought only by the people who already have the advantages some women only dream of. It has to be fought by all women. Each woman has to think purposefully about her life and do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She has to stop thinking about what everyone else wants her to do and start thinking about what she wants.

Some say that the feminist movement has done nothing but create a society of self-centered and selfish women who think nothing of abandoning husbands and children and who could care less about their families’ fates. There will always be those who think only of themselves (female and male), but the feminist movement didn’t cause that. And that is certainly not its goal.

All that feminism asks is that women think and act responsibly with an eye to the future, both their future and that of their children. Do they really want their daughters (and sons) to be saddled with children they didn’t want and can’t care for? Do they want their daughters to continue to have to bear the brunt of housework and child-raising? Do they want their sons to take women for granted, even to the point of abusing them?

Maybe the War on Women will never be over. Patriarchal attitudes are ingrained in nearly every society. Add to that the resistance people have to change. But humankind’s progress doesn’t depend on staying in the present or even going back to the past. Progress means to go forward. What was “usual and customary” for our ancestors has to be re-examined and reworked in order to serve our future.

 

 

Is Being a Crone a Bad Thing?

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There are many books out that refer to the older woman as a “crone” and claim that the crone years (menopause and beyond) are the best part of a woman’s life. I’ll be sixty in February and I went through menopause several years ago. So I guess I qualify as a crone. But it’s hard for me to see that as a positive image.

Wikipedia describes the crone this way:

The crone is a stock character in folklore and fairy tale, an old woman who is usually disagreeable, malicious, or sinister in manner, often with magical or supernatural associations that can make her either helpful or obstructing. She is marginalized by her exclusion from the reproductive cycle, and her proximity to death places her in contact with occult wisdom. As a character type, the crone shares characteristics with the hag.

Here is a more positive view of “crone-hood” from a review of Jane Shinoda Bolen’s Crones Don’t Whine: Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women on Amazon.com:

Banish all thoughts of crones as withered and barren: crones are `juicy,’ having zest, passions, and soul.  Upon entering the crone years, women can now devote creativity, energy, and time to things that matter. Having developed instincts, having endured pain, having learned the importance of meditation, crones choose their path at the fork in the road with heart. This is woman power at its core. Girl power is a mere warm up.

Crone proponents believe that a woman’s experiences make her uniquely privy to the deeper meanings of life. By the time she reaches menopause, she has supposedly achieved true wisdom; that is, she has learned to embrace what’s really important in life and to reject those things that are mere distractions.

Wiccans and pagans describe their Triple Goddess as the personification of the three stages of a woman’s life: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The problem is that in our society the Maiden is considered the preferred feminine archetype. The Mother is sentimentalized, sometimes revered, but definitely not considered sexy. (For example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is presented as the holy Madonna.) And the Crone is either ignored or reviled. In this society, the older a woman becomes, the more she loses her value.

I understand that those who use the “crone” to describe the older woman are trying to reclaim the word by presenting it in a positive light. This is similar to when women proudly call themselves “bitch.” But personally, I think that strategy is self-defeating. I don’t understand when African-Americans call each other the “n-word.” What purpose does it serve to associate yourself with something that is usually considered to be a slur? I would much rather find a term that bolsters the idea that the individual should be treated with respect and dignity.

So how about replacing “crone” with “matriarch”? (It fits better with Maiden and Mother, for one thing.) A matriarch is any female leader of a family, clan or tribe or a woman who dominates any group or activity. She is respected and looked up to, even in some cases venerated. She often is, but doesn’t have to be, a mother.

When my parents died, one of the things I grappled with is that I became the head of the family. My parents were no longer around to host Thanksgiving and Christmas and carry on other family traditions. I was left to make decisions about their funerals, their estates and the welfare of the family. And I wasn’t at all prepared.

It would have been far better if I’d been groomed to be a matriarch. We socialize our daughters to be maidens and mothers, to be young and beautiful and maternal. But we don’t tell them that someday they will be the female heads of their families. We don’t train them to be leaders. We don’t give them a vision for their later years, when the children are raised and they are “out of a job.” And we don’t show them very many examples of older women who are treasured for their wisdom and experience.

Many young women mistakenly think that they have power because of their sexuality. Men want what they have to give, whether it’s for sex or reproduction. But that power dwindles as they age, because men think they no longer have anything to offer.

We need to teach men and women that the older woman can be just as powerful, but for different reasons. She is often more productive than the young woman or mother. She has the accumulated wisdom that comes from living through many stages of life. And she no longer cares what other people think, so she’s not afraid to speak her mind.

As I age, I struggle to replace the sense of worth I had in my younger years (from being seen as sexual and maternal) with one that comes from knowing that I’ve seen and done it all and survived to tell my story. I have more to offer now than I ever did as a young woman, wife and mother. I’ve lived through divorces and economic uncertainty, worked hard to raise and support a family, and most of all, learned from my mistakes. I am uniquely qualified to dispense wisdom and guidance to those who will inherit the world some day.

I am a Matriarch.