March 13, 2010

"Sometimes, I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one….

In college I was a Sociology major. 77% of Sociology majors are women, and 99% of the classical theorists that a Sociology major will study….are male. Except for one. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She was a breath of fresh air on a hot, windy, Weber-filled day. Not that I didn’t love Weber, and I had a brief, slightly disturbing love affair with Marx, but as a woman hearing the voices of women in history is invaluable, so hard to find, and wholly validating. So, here is Gilman…a 19th century woman working and thinking amongst all…those…men.

Gilman was a Utopian feminist, sociologist, poet, novelist, editor, activist, she created and published her own magazine “The Forerunner,” and was incredibly politically and socially active. Though a great deal of Gilman’s works are difficult to find now, Gilman’s most famous work  “The Yellow Wallpaper”  (1892) is still widely read in Women’s Studies, Literature and Sociology classrooms. It is partially autobiographical as it chronicles Gilman’s own experience with severe post-partum depression. She struggled to convince her doctors of what she knew was the problem, and truthbe told, some women still struggle with the same social and psychological ignorance (a la Tom Cruise vs. Brooke Shields).

Gilman was prescribed “the rest cure.” During which time she was restricted from leaving her room, ate very high fat foods, was only allowed an hour of “intellectual activity” per day and was instructed “never to touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” These “treatments” only further tormented her already fragile state. Her experiences turned her into a lifelong advocate for women suffering from post-partum depression, and she admonished the medical community for its avid use of the rest “cure.” Gilman mailed a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the physician that prescribed the rest cure for her! In the story, she has delusions of women behind the wallpaper in her bedroom.

Here an obvious and stirring analogy for the social state of not only the women suffering from these issues, but all women in the 19th century:

“The front pattern DOES move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!” “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.”

Again ahead of her time, Gilmanwas an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932, and in 1935 she committed suicide. Gilman wrote in her suicide note that she “chose chloroform over cancer.” She passed away on August 17, 1935. She died a sheroe (to borrow Melanie’s new favorite word!), and a icon for women struggling to live what they believe.

March 4, 2010

Women, you owe her everything!

March is Women’s History Month! In recognition & honor of that we will be posting some pieces on historical female figures that we feel a special connection to. The first woman that always comes to mind when I’m asked that question is Simone de Beauvoir.

I was exposed to feminism for the first time when I was 19. My roommate at the time had just changed her major to Women’s Studies and – as such – was always going on about women in the military or single mothers or some other idea that at the time felt revolutionary and subversive (yeah, we felt that way in 2003). Well, I moved out and all of those crazy thoughts stagnated. I decided to take a philosophy class a year or so later.

I believe philosophy is still offered in college for one reason and one reason only – to infuse students with the drunken effects of the realization that they’re intelligent and capable of abstract thought. I loved philosophy! It was the most incredible class I had ever taken. Though, it was strange to me that we never talked about any women. I still have that text book. I remember getting to the incredibly tiny section of the book dedicated to feminist epistemology and our professor (who was a woman) telling us that it was “optional” reading. Of course, I read it.

Though she was not one of the few feminists they were focusing on, Simone was mentioned in the section by virtue of “The Second Sex.”  It was not even a paragraph. They mention her long enough to quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” But that was enough….I was curious. I went to the library after class and picked up their copy. “The Second Sex” was originally published in 1949. It proposed such radical ideas as men creating  a false air of “mystery” and “piety” around women so as to avoid understanding them or their issues (still not so far from reality today). She also maintained that women were the ultimate “Other” in society. This book is credited with starting the Second Wave of Feminism, and she its mother. What resonated with me in was her admission that she had been oblivious to these states of being for most of her life. Up until that point she had felt empowered to do whatever she wanted with her life (by virtue of her race & class standing, of course).

I read every thing I could find about she and Jean-Paul Sartre, her life-long partner & philosopher. Sartre gave her credit as being his “filter” which many have taken to mean that she not only edited his work, but also may have wholly written much of it. When you google her name much attention is paid to the relationship that she had with Sartre in part due to his fame, but also because she herself said that her relationship with him was “the greatest achievement” of her life. They were in effect the poster-couple for open relationships and polyamory. Simone had a highly publicized and passionate relationship with American author Nelson Algren when she was in the United States doing research for “The Second Sex” in 1947. (Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis are making a film about their relationship set for filming this year!) 

Simone’s realtionship with Sartre has earned her a great deal of criticism and scrutiny from her fellow feminists. We can postulate as to why that is or whether or not she was happy with him, but it doesn’t really matter. She chose to stand outside of the norm and engage in a relationship that is just as radical today as it was in 1929 when she and Sartre agreed to it! She wrote autobiographies and metaphysical novels. She was active in the French feminist movement, and human rights campaigns. But, she lived in Sartre’s shadow. Even still, on the day of her death in 1986 the newspaper headlines read: “Womens, you owe her everything!”

I’m not sure what it was about her that moved me initially, but she became this ideal in my mind. A hero. Something that I had long maintained I didn’t have, didn’t want and was not seeking. But, her intellect and beauty inspired me to become a more grounded, active, and knowledgeable woman. A woman of action and thought. Her words are my personal mantra: savior et expriemer (to know and to communicate)!!

Mots à vivre près!!