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.)

Women in the Resistance

(Sojourner Truth, Library of Congress image)

A friend of mine has expressed frustration that most people who “like” the Gender Shrapnel Blog posts on Facebook are women.  Another friend has counted up numbers of women and men at the many resistance events she has both organized and attended and has found that participants are at least 75% women (both cis and trans).  Another friend and I organized a workshop on women’s rights and gender justice.  Of the 166 people eligible to join the workshop, all of the ones who joined were women.  In my experience, working with women (cis, trans, African-American, Latina, white, living in poverty, and middle-class) on issues of gender justice is effective and rewarding.  At the same time, the roll-taking and roster-building become a frustrating exercise of organizing groups whose members are already fatigued from the daily struggle of losing lives, being threatened, earning less, and having less expected of them.  Sometimes, when the white men do get involved, they’re busy telling everyone else all the things they should have already done, or the ways they should have organized the group, or the strategic plan that should already have been put in place.  They tell you all of this, but then don’t roll up their sleeves to get any of the shit done.  This is tiresome, meddlesome, and ineffective.  We need both the less and the more powerful white men to step up and give a shit.

As more people absorb the realities of the loss of black lives and the lack of justice in the adjudication of these losses, more people understand that it is impossible for an oppressed group to effect change alone.  Nevertheless, in the seven months of active resistance I have practiced (and decades of academic-style resistance), I still don’t see enough cis, hetero, white men involved in social justice struggles. Oftentimes, too, resistance movements forget the embedded oppression of women within the movement itself.  When the Communists did their power play on the Socialists in the Spanish Civil War, they relegated the active fighting women to the gendered roles of nurses and cooks.  The patriarchal Communists decided that there should be second-class citizens, and woman was that name.

This interview by Kaavya Asoka with scholar and activist Marcia Chatelain points to the need across all movements, and specifically in the Black Lives Matter movement, to consider the experience of women.  Chatelain says: “I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women. Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered. There are now renewed conversations about how sexual violence and sexual intimidation are part of how black women experience racist policing. You don’t have to dig deep to see how police brutality is a women’s issue—whether it’s the terrifying way that Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw preyed on black women in low-income sections of the city, or the murder of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones inside her Detroit home. We know that girls and women of color are also dying. The question is: does anyone care?”

Ah, this poignant question—“Does anyone care?”—must be asked at every turn.  When we don’t ask, we don’t care, and women are forgotten.  I believe this has been the fundamental downfall of every justice movement, whether based on economy or social group or both.  I saw it in Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric, gestures, and actions.  The disastrous Democratic Party Unity Tour launched by Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders reinforced the ways in which women in the resistance are supposed to shut up about women’s rights.  I’ve seen it in local and state politicians who appeal to small groups of voters by assuming that women will sacrifice their own rights in the name of the Democratic party, or who assume that everyone in the room has experienced the life of the boy scout, just like they did.  They are perceptive on other social justice issues, just not the ones for and about women.

A coalition of amazing women, comprised of Linda Martín Alcoff, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, Nancy Fraser, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and Angela Davis, composed an opinion piece about women’s resistance published in The Guardian in February (2-6-17).  In the piece, they state: “In embracing a feminism for the 99%, we take inspiration from the Argentinian coalition Ni Una Menos. Violence against women, as they define it, has many facets: it is domestic violence, but also the violence of the market, of debt, of capitalist property relations, and of the state; the violence of discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women; the violence of state criminalization of migratory movements; the violence of mass incarceration; and the institutional violence against women’s bodies through abortion bans and lack of access to free healthcare and free abortion.”  This platform sees women as part and parcel of the whole platform, not as an add-on to get votes and then not care. The Women’s March and the March 8th protests were worldwide and thus have signaled a generative force across the nations, a group of women and men who are willing to envision many types of equality that sometimes criss-cross and sometimes don’t.

(*See more coverage of International Women’s Day here and here. See also this interesting piece on Chinese-American women’s resistance from the 19th century and the ways in which women’s resistance is less visible than that of men.  This academic piece by Mary E. Triece provides a history of three centuries of resistance movements in the United States. It demonstrates the ways in which African-American men and women at times coincided with mostly middle- and upper-class white women’s movements and at times were marginalized from or necessarily separated themselves from such movements.  The piece is interesting and thorough and also addresses Latinx civil rights movements and environmental justice movements.  Sady Doyle’s April, 2017, piece in Talk Poverty provides statistics about women in the anti-Trump trenches in the United States.)

The activists who wrote the February piece for The Guardian have gracefully integrated the issues of the 99% with issues of women, who comprise a disproportionate number of the 99%, and even more disproportionate when you consider race or perception of race.  The less money you have, the less valuable your time appears to be, and the more people think your labor should be free.  Maybe that’s why black and brown women and men and white women do so much of the labor of resistance—a labor that is never-ending and is never remunerated.  We’re used to having to fight oppression and we’re used to doing it as part of the third or fourth segment of the work day.  Some Cuban women have called this “la tercera jornada” (third workday) because they hold a formal job in the labor sector, continue to do the work of the home, and complete the family’s required volunteer labor.

Here’s how to get involved when you’re not sure how:

  1. Just show up at a resistance event and look and listen. This is a solid start.
  2. Read up on the issues so that you can understand them from a variety of perspectives and speak about them in more fully representational ways. Ask questions of many people.
  3. Sign up to do a small task—invite a speaker, reserve a space, bring food, write a protest script, create a Facebook page.
  4. Support the people who are running events. Ask them how you can help.  Tell them you have 20 minutes a week (or an hour or five) to devote to this work.
  5. Have an opinion and express it well and often.
  6. Write to your representatives on a variety of issues. They don’t have to affect you personally.  They just have to matter to someone or to a group of someones.
  7. Understand different styles of leadership. Some leaders work from the trenches, and for free.
  8. Consider intersectional possibilities, realities, and challenges.

We’re in this for the long haul, so we may as well keep growing and moving.