Mary Beard’s Manifesto

This past week, I had a little talk with myself about work and play.  I told myself that I needed to impose real playtime on the weekend, to be more deliberate about not using few and precious free hours simply to do more work.  This is the kind of stern talking-to we all practice from time to time.  For me, the results are variable at best.

In the free hour I had last Saturday afternoon, I marched myself to my little comfy office in our house, sat down as a big gesture into the comfy chair, sipped luxuriously at a late cup of coffee, and opened a novel, one that I thought would be light but not too light, enjoyable for a little afternoon literary siesta.  With many friends and colleagues at women’s marches around the world, I second-guessed my decision to have a much-needed day at home after the previous week’s inaugurations and parades, but I tried to stick to this deliberate approach to free time.

Well, it seems I don’t read “light” too well anymore.  Sure, I can still watch a soap opera and other junk on television and Netflix.  I can even re-watch this stuff.  But the reading I do seems almost sacred these days—you know, so much to read, so little time—that I allow myself to move on quickly if “light” means “fluffy and annoying, treacly and a waste of time.”  When our son was little, he could sit in our laps being read to for stretches of two hours or more.  He could never get enough of hearing the stories, seeing the illustrations, and putting it all together.  Our daughter at that age would sit in our laps, listen to one or two books for a few minutes, make a quick judgment, snap the book shut herself, and announce abruptly, “The End.”  During my first 50 years I was more the two-hour (really, much more) stretch type, but now I’m noticing a healthy dose of “The End” creeping in.  I read three chapters of the novel, closed it with one heavy-handed palm, and reached instead for Mary Beard’s recently published Women & Power. A Manifesto (Liveright, 2017).

I had bought the book for myself back in December, and my husband had also given a copy to me as a gift. I had to read at least one of the copies, didn’t I?  The next hour or two in the comfy chair ticked by very quickly as I absorbed Beard’s brilliant tome—part Greco-Roman cultural history of gender, part UK and USA current events steeped in race and gender, part let’s-stop-putting-up-with-bullshit manifesto.  Based on two different London Review of Books lecture series offered by Beard, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017, Women & Power has two sections: “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”  Beard’s style is at once erudite and colloquial, dazzling with her deep knowledge while inviting in readers who might be less educated on gender and its intersections.  She acknowledges how and when her feminism is intersectional and is clear on when it is not.

Here’s a sample of Beard’s deep knowledge as it erupts in broad manifesto:  “An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that really was ruled by and for women.  Dream on.  The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth.  The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or—to go back to awful Terry—one that had been mastered, in the bedroom.  The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women” (62).  Basically, as many of us felt after seeing the newest “Wonder Woman” movie, powerful women are still often created through the male gaze, and they’re still somehow hell-bent on war and destruction.  I highly recommend this blog post by Edurne Portela for an examination of #MeToo, women’s physical power, and the mockery of demonstrations of women’s physical power that is supposed to serve to put the woman out of place (physically defending herself; lashing out; jumping into the fray to help a friend) back in her place.

A few pages after Beard’s analysis of the Greek myth of the Amazon women, the author establishes Medusa as “one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented.  It is no accident that we find her decapitated—her head proudly paraded as an accessory by this decidedly un-female female deity” (71).  Beard here is speaking of Athena, who wore the image of Medusa on her breastplate.  The illustrations Beard includes (77) of three world leaders depicted and decapitated in the head of Medusa are powerful.  Who are these world leaders?  Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Angela Merkel (Germany), and Hillary Clinton (USA).  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the very real trope of “Lock Her Up,” applied to several world leaders.)  The message?  Take heed, women out there who might consider running for office.  There is a price to pay, and that is your own head.

Beard’s manifesto is the whole work, of course, but several important lessons to be learned include (1) we need to know and understand our raced and gendered history and culture; (2) without changing actual structures of power, people of color and women will continue to be accused and decapitated; (3) we need to “decouple power from public prestige,” thinking of it as “an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (87); (4) we must recognize everyone’s “ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually” (87).  Beard concludes the section by reminding us that the innovative founders of Black Lives Matter are all women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

I have also just read Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America, by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati.  My university’s Mudd Center for Ethics is sponsoring a visit by Professor Carbado this week.  The book’s focus on cultural history of race in the United States and the resultant ways in which individuals and groups can feel they have to perform a certain perception of race is much-needed and very compelling.  What the authors call “Working Identity” (the performance impositions of our everyday lives) is a key concept, and the authors assert that such performance requires “time, effort, and energy” (3).  Indeed.  For individuals and groups in and on the intersections of race and gender, race and gender identity, and race and other “performable” categories, the time, effort, and energy required consistently drain the body, mind, and soul.

It appears I have again converted leisure into work, but what a privilege to be able to do so.  Consider reading Beard, Portela, and Carbado & Gulati!  They will make for a fine weekend.

(Tune in next week for an examination of a Pennsylvania congressman who used taxpayer funds to settle his own sexual harassment case and a Vatican Pope who again doubts the veracity of claims made by people who have been sexually abused by priests and bishops.)

Inauguration in Virginia—A Bit Gender-Deaf, but I Think I’m Supposed to Be Quiet about That

(Photos taken on January 13, 2018, before the inauguration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, State Capitol, Richmond, VA)

This past week in Virginia brought not one, but two, parades on the streets of Lexington.  The first, on Saturday, was sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  The second, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, was sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE).  My family and I eschewed the first parade in favor of going to Richmond to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, and we joyfully marched, sang, and quoted Martin Luther King in the CARE parade, alongside over 700 friends and neighbors.  In this blog post, I offer a few observations about the inauguration in Richmond.

Twenty years ago, I would never have gone to an inauguration unless I had been invited to the inaugural ball as well, which I wouldn’t have been.  The antics of my more youthful days kept me away from gown-worthy, gala-sparkled, gorgeous-people events, where most people don’t match high-top Chucks with their most comfortable dress and most women don’t drink beer out of the bottle.  Let’s just say I’ve grown up a bit over these decades, but that my sartorial and libation styles have not evolved much at all.

My husband, our son, and I loaded our tired selves into a car late last Friday evening to drive two hours and some change on a soggy road to Richmond in order to join a good friend for dinner and get to the inauguration grandstand on Capitol Square by the designated time on Saturday.  Our thirteen-year-old daughter made the wise young adolescent choice to have a sleepover with friends instead of hearing “boring political speeches” in Richmond.  Our seventeen-year-old son reads a lot of books, follows national and international politics, and digs Model United Nations, so he was definitely in from the start.  His knowledge and youthful spirit gave my husband and me much-needed energy for the road trip.  In fact, we surprised ourselves in our commitment to see the inauguration of Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, and Mark Herring.  Virginia’s newly elected triumvirate works close enough to the nation’s capital to make me believe that they can counteract a tiny portion of the evil taking place in Washington, D.C.

Saturday morning was drier than Friday evening, but the temperatures had dropped by about 35 degrees.  The inauguration tickets encouraged us to get to the grandstand by 9:30.  Nevertheless, we lingered over coffee and one of the best breakfasts we have ever had and then hauled chilly ass down Grace Street to get to Capitol Square by about 10:45.  Streets were cleared, and security was tight.  We stopped at the entrance to hear, and then chant along with, a group of people wearing fluorescent orange caps and insisting on a clean Dream Act.  We ran into a few people from the western side of the state, chatted, and then decided to hit the port-a-potties before the ceremony began.  The port-a-potties were in garden next to Capitol Square.  Our path to the port-a-johns brought us by The Virginia Women’s Monument (see photograph below), which honors the contributions of all Virginia Women.  This reminds me a bit of my poem titled “West Virginia Bridges,” which laments the lack of named women—real live women who accomplished namable things—in the 116 named bridges across the state.  Here are the last two stanzas from that poem:

There is one bridge dedicated to Nurse Veterans.

No specific names because West Virginia has no particular women. 

West Virginia needs one hundred and fifteen bridges for men.

 

Steel stringer and pre-cast concrete bridges

require manly names, like Robert and Don

and Stonewall. No Robertas or Donnas allowed.

When I saw the monument with my husband and son, I stated indelicately that Monument Avenue in Richmond has a statue for every man who ever crapped on a battlefield, but here we have the Virginia Women’s Monument, designed to honor a nameless collective of 400 years of women for their nameless feats.  You would have to work pretty hard to get more token than this.

But I digress.  That’s what happens when you leave an event to go to the bathroom!

The inaugural ceremonies themselves had me paying sharp attention.  I was fascinated by it all.  Seeing judges, lawmakers, and staff muckety-mucks behind the podium, observing the fabulous array of hats and tuxes and corsages, watching former governors greet friends and colleagues, hearing political conversations on our less-important side—all of it was fascinating and somehow finely distilled in the cold January air.  At one point, impossibly marshmallowed giant snowflakes fell to make the scene stand out even more.  People in our area of the stands were welcoming, chatty, funny.

If you can see the photo above well enough, you’ll see the listing of speakers and performers at the inauguration.  These included a volunteer choir from Richmond with a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and another singer piercing the cold with his interpretation of “Star Spangled Banner.”  The program demonstrates an effort to include people of all races, religions, and creeds.  The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boys and Girls Scouts recited the pledge of allegiance, two Baptist churches were represented, and a rabbi from a Richmond temple gave the benediction.  Representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes blessed the ground.  As I think was the purpose, the inauguration organizers communicated an overarching message of inclusion and celebration.  I was surprised, though, not to hear any women’s voices in the core program.  (There were two women singing as people streamed out of the stands in the time between the formal ceremonies and the parade, but that was it.)  If you read the Gender Shrapnel Blog regularly, you know I notice these things, but how can you not?  51% of Virginians are women, but 0% of the speakers were.  The judges who swore in Northam, Fairfax, and Herring were also all men.  How are we not noticing these gender-deaf moves? (*See this September, 2017, post on this issue.)

Of the three officials who took the oath of office last Saturday, only one gave an inaugural address.  That, of course, was Ralph Northam.  He stuck mostly to what he knows best—healthcare, and I very much like what he had to say on that count.  He mostly ignored what he does least, which is care for the environment.  In one part of Northam’s speech, shaped around the campaign slogan “The Way Ahead” and concomitant metaphors about paths and compasses, the new governor told a story about a medical diagnosis he had given and how he learned years later that he could have delivered the news in a far more effective way.  I was struck by this simple story and heartened by hearing an elected official admit to committing a mistake and learning from it.  Then I wondered how low I’ve learned to set the bar, through a year of Trump and the trumpholes, when I consider this common act of learning from a mistake a heroic feat.  In any case, Northam’s inauguration speech was better than I was prepared for and slightly less gender-deaf than the rest of the inaugural ceremonies.

See you next week!

(The Virginia Women’s Monument, Richmond, VA / Photo taken January 13, 2018)

Ben Cline. Sigh.

(Poster from the Lexington-Rockbridge Women’s Rights Rally, March, 2017)

For this week’s post, I am sharing a version of the letter to the editor that I have just written for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette (Lexington, VA), along with some additional comments about Ben Cline’s town hall meeting, held last month in Buena Vista, VA.  For those of you who are reading from outside the Virginia 24th or the Federal 6th District, you might want to re-read this Gender Shrapnel Blog post from last March.  Please note, too, that Ben Cline has declared his intention to run for Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s U.S. House of Representatives seat, which conservative, deaf-to-his-constituents-Goodlatte  has held since…wait for it…1992.

Editor, The News-Gazette:

There was already cause for concern that Ben Cline has been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates for an eighth term, but Lexington and Rockbridge County voters should be even more alarmed now that Cline plans to make a bid for the United States House of Representatives. That’s right, the person who claims on his website to be “cleaning up the political cronyism that grips our system” hopes to be anointed Goodlatte’s successor in November.  Let’s not allow that to happen.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won an historic decision in the case of an Arkansas woman who was shackled to her hospital bed while in labor in 2003. The woman was a non-violent offender but was shackled throughout her labor.  When the ACLU won this case, one of the organization’s representatives rightly stated, “Today’s decision reaffirms that pregnant women in prison do not lose their right to safe and humane treatment.”  The decision reaffirms that women are human beings and, as such, have the right to safe treatment.  At that point, groups from various points along the political spectrum, along with over a dozen non-partisan health organizations, celebrated this decision.

In 2012, Ben Cline, of the Virginia House of Delegates, supported the shackling of pregnant inmates, despite evidence that such barbaric practices caused injury to the babies born in these conditions.  In her Letter to the Editor of The News-Gazette (12-13-2017), Ann Huebner rightly links Cline’s shackling stance to his support of medically unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds, his sponsorship of a personhood bill that “would have the potential to outlaw in-vitro fertilization and certain types of birth control, as well as force rape and incest victims (even young teenagers) to bear children.”  Huebner also correctly recalled Cline’s inhumane “Day of Tears” resolution of 2017.

The scant information offered on Ben Cline’s website tells us that, “Ben Cline’s values were shaped growing up right here in the Shenandoah Valley” (italics his), and that Ben never fails “to champion common sense, conservative legislation that challenge[d] the liberal orthodoxy of several sitting Democratic Governors.”  As voters in this area, we cannot possibly link Cline’s support of torturous shackling to “common sense, conservative legislation.”  Shackling pregnant women and women in labor should go against anyone’s values, especially those who impose their “family values” on their constituents.

ELLEN MAYOCK

Lexington

(*Visit this link to Ann Huebner’s guest blog post (2012) about Ben Cline’s support of shackling pregnant women and his double-speak about that support.)

The 350-word limit on letters to the editor means that I didn’t address in the above missive Ben Cline’s town hall meeting, held on December 19, 2017. In January of 2017, Cline held a town hall meeting in now perennially blue Lexington, Virginia.  Many of us here praised Cline for being accessible to all his constituents and for being willing to meet “across the aisle.” His move less than one year later to perennially red Buena Vista, Virginia, just six miles down the road, signals more Goodlatte-like tactics: disappearance from view from any constituents who might dissent; movement to more conservative meeting places; limiting full conversation and expression of a range of views.  By November, 2018, we will have had 26 years of Goodlatte’s fat-cat, me-first, damn-the-rest strategies in the Sixth District.  Ben Cline seems to be following in Goodlatte’s selfish and morally bankrupt footsteps.

We should look carefully at Ben Cline’s website, which expresses this kind of pride: “Ben’s efforts have earned him the American Conservative Union’s (ACU)  “Conservative Excellence Award” as well as top ratings from leading conservative groups like the VA Tea Party Patriot Federation, the Virginia Family Foundation and an A+ rating from the NRA.”  The “A+ rating from the NRA” seems problematic for an area that witnessed a decade ago the deadliest campus shooting in the history of the United States (Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007).

Approximately 65 people attended Ben Cline’s Buena Vista town hall meeting, held in an office of Buena Vista Public Schools.  The public school’s hall included a room to meet and seemed to boast also an extremely large weight room—for whom and for what purposes, I don’t know.  There was a group of boy scouts at the town hall.  They were attentive, and some were even taking notes.  There were concerned citizens from the Buena Vista, Lexington, and Rockbridge areas.  Issues raised included gerrymandering, education and, especially, teacher pay, healthcare and Medicaid, law enforcement, and job and business development.  Cline insisted that he is strong on deregulation, that he wants to remove governmental control from private citizens’ business.  When I asked him if this hands-off approach applied as well to reproductive rights, Cline sighed, and said, “I am pro-life.”

This individualistic, church-IN-government, theocratic, and controlling stance says it all.  Cline is pro-life but is uniquely interested in shackling pregnant women and women in labor and causing harm to newborns.  He is pro-life but is keenly proud of being sponsored by the National Rifle Association, a lobbying organization that boasted of its surge in membership following the Sandy Hook massacre in December of 2012. (*See statistics on gun violence in the United States through the BBC [2015]; NPR [2017]; CNN [2017]; The New York Times [2017]).  He is pro-life but willing to sacrifice necessary healthcare for the people he represents.  He is pro-life but believes that poorly-paid public school teachers should just keep doing their work “for the passion of it.”  He is pro-life but anti-real people.

Many people like Ben because he seems to be a pleasant, God-fearing, middle-aged white man.  This misguided affinity should lead us to read Cline’s website, which codes him as Goodlatte- and Trump-like, communicates very little real policy information to his information-hungry constituents, and makes the assumption that former Goodlatte staffers like himself will simply accede to the next rung of the ladder, the next bit of power, the next opportunity to ignore the wants and needs of the people he represents.

I can’t think of a moment in which we more urgently need to discard shackles and embrace a variety of views, values, wants, and needs.

(I like feline fat cats, but not human ones.)

2017: Hard to Look Back

A few years ago, friends shared a New Year’s Eve drink with my husband and me and toasted to “washing down” the previous year.  I remember agreeing that the year had presented its challenges, but wishing not to wash.  The days had been long, but time still flew.  The clocks melted; time both stood still and moved quickly, transporting us to a Dalí painting in which time is everything and nothing.  I remember also thinking that every year brings good with bad, and we learn from challenges, yadda, yadda, yadda, right?

This past year, though, this past year was something else.  2017 hammered home how the world’s psyche can be delivered, like a cat’s dead rat, to our doorstep, rat-day in and rat-day out, another package full of lies and hatred, its Anthrax particles scattering into our homes, hearths, and hearts.  Despite all of this, I still don’t quite want to “wash down” the year.  I firmly believe that activists are the greatest optimists.  To push the rock up the hill every day, watch it roll back down, and then push it back up is to go necessarily Sisyphus on the regime’s ass.  I’ve got a lot of metaphors working here, but it takes a metaphor juggler to keep so many balls of resistance in the air; it really does.

January brought racist travel bans and lies about inauguration crowds, but also the heroic gathering of lawyers at airports and the awe-inspiring, seven-continent Women’s March.  In subsequent months, we experienced the soul-sucking Trumpcare proposal, James Comey’s firing, growing concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump presidency in general, elimination of DACA protections, the Syrian airstrike, and Trump’s support of Nazis following the events of Charlottesville, natural and national disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, and California, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.  (*Check out Jason Abruzzesse’s piece on Trump’s first eight months in office.)  I haven’t even mentioned the #MeToo wave that implicates Trump all the more.  ACLU President Anthony Romero has even written an outstanding and detailed article on Trump as a “one-man constitutional crisis.”     (*See also John Cassidy’s summary of Trump’s first nine months in office here; Here is CNN’s report on Trump’s first six months in office; Here is the White House version of Trump’s first six months in office.  All citizens should be aware of the White House whitewashing—you’ve got to read this stuff!)  Anyone following the news in the most superficial of ways must be affected by its content, by what it tells us about our nation’s direction and relationship with its own residents.  The sum total is, in a word, trauma.

In the political realm, the worst 2017 moment I witnessed—the very worst day to have to admit I am from the United States—was the day the nation’s “president” traveled to Puerto Rico after the most devastating hurricane in the island’s history and blithely threw paper towels out to people at a relief center as if they were audience members on a game show (reported here by the BBC).  The reality of the White House’s relationship to Puerto Rico already presents abundant and problematic colonial legacies without complicating the personal, economic, and environmental losses resulting from Hurricane Maria (*see this piece from today’s El Nuevo Día for a summary of Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis).  The United States needs a leader who knows enough to listen to his own citizens from Puerto Rico, to appreciate the leadership of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and to understand Puerto Rico from a nuanced historical, economic, political, and artistic standpoint.  The paper towel incident epitomizes Trump’s ignorance, inhumanity, and willingness to do even more harm.

The other day, I read an article from the 12-29-17 edition of The New York Times about increased binge drinking in the United States.  The author, Gabrielle Glaser, writes: “Many alcohol researchers and substance-use clinicians believe the steady increase in problem drinking arises from a deeply felt sense of despair: ‘Since the attacks on 9/11, we’ve been in a state of perpetual war, and a lot of us are traumatized by that,’ said Andrew Tatarsky, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating people with substance-use disorders.”  The key concepts here are despair (in Spanish, desesperación, the emptying out of hope and expectations), perpetual war, and trauma.  Since I’ve gone from 36 years old to 52 since 9/11/2001, I haven’t been sure how to measure the ingredients of the increased sense of deep preoccupation: having children whose future I worry about; having parents whose well-being is/was a daily concern; experiencing my own aging process, physically, emotionally, and intellectually; the military-industrial complex with its trillion-dollar budgets that seem to rob us of any focus on education and health; the troubled belonging to a nation claiming to be the world’s keeper of democracy but continuing to operate dishonestly in the world and to diminish the sense of humanity of its own citizens; the sadness of it all; the shame.

For my friends who read this blog who wish I would stop bad-mouthing the United States, I hope you know that there are many elements of United States culture that I appreciate highly.  One of them is the freedom to write this blog and to express opinions that go against White House policy, leadership, and ethos.  Nevertheless, to be a responsible citizen is to understand when elected leaders have gone way beyond the power of their office, way beyond respect for human beings and the earth.  Being a responsible citizen means thinking through issues carefully, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and expressing platforms thoughtfully.  The Black Lives Matter movement happened for a whole host of important reasons. The knee-jerk “blue lives matter” response creates a false equivalency and gets us absolutely nowhere.  We have to get to the point at which we value and build upon movements that give voice and power to those who have been silenced and oppressed, or whose parents and grandparents were silenced and oppressed.

I keep saying that I was never able to get in front of 2017.  I’m a generally efficient person, but 2017 delivered so much national and global strife that organizing, reading, writing, and protesting had to occupy vast amounts of my time and mental space.  I needed to connect with others—in person and on digital platforms—to effect some change and to feel emotions not linked to shame.  Although this meant sacrificing elements of self-care (never a good idea), I was unable to find a better course of action and still haven’t.  I don’t know how to strike a balance between caring and caring too much because so much is at stake every single day.  The total solar eclipse tells us of how we lost the sun for a time, but maybe the 2018 supermoons will present a new story of how we can care for self and others.