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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unibrows & Feminism

Remember this billboard? They were up all around in Seattle in 2007. There was also another one that went "she has a mole," with mole crossed out and yacht penned in above. Some people found them sexist, but I recall there was one about a guy going from bald to BMW, or was it back hair to Bahamas? Others were offended because the equation $ = who cares about your imperfections, when in fact the wealthy spend big bucks on tummy tucks, collagen implants, botox, etc. Call me a cheap laugh, but I cracked up every time I got stuck in a red light near one of these.

Not that I don't fight battles elsewhere. Case in point, the current issue of American Poetry Review. In his interview with Ruth Stone, Chard diNiord asks Stone if she's a feminist. Her reply is nothing less than baffling:

I don't think I'm what you call a real feminist at all. I tried to be. I tried to be and I didn't know how. Because actually I had a brother I loved and I was not anti-male in any way. I loved men, you know.

With all due respect, could someone please take Ms. Stone aside and explain to her what a feminist is? Pardon me, but does it mean man-hating, icky, selfish, unpleasant person?

Goodness me, I know she's 93, but there were feminists back in the flapper era, so you can't use her age as an excuse. Or, help me out here, has feminism gone the way of totalitarianism? I thought it meant treating women fairly, on equal footing, not discriminating, not assuming a woman couldn't do a job as well as a man, ahem, that perhaps she could do the job even better. Is Stone suffering from some kind of internalized misogyny? Institutional misogyny? Rampant misogyny? I expected her, a highly educated woman, a fine poet, to not be dissing feminism, but maybe I ask for too much.


Anonymous said...

it really gets my ire up when women act as though it were demure to cast aspersions on feminism. If you've enjoyed having the right to vote, the right to control what happens to your body, the privilege of determining a career path for yourself, and even the ability to publish your work alongside that of men, then yes, Ms. Stone. You *do* know how to be a feminist.

Matthew said...

People often misunderstand when men say this, but I'm a feminist in exactly the ways you describe. Treating women fairly is high on my list of things to care about.

Martha Silano said...

Kelly: Thanks for the reminder about what it means to have equal rights; for instance, voting, publishing, not being accused of being "hysteric" for wanting to make art. I get annoyed by successful, career women who scream out "I'm not a feminist," meanwhile riding on the backs of thousands of feminists who paved the way for their glass ceiling to be smashed.

Matthew: I know and love many, many male feminists; it's not about hating men--duh.

Supervillainess said...

It is super icky and man-hating to want to have human rights, right? Voting, owning property, super icky stuff!

My grandmothers are both in her generation, and both of them were super progressive. So it's not just her age. Some women just like to have the benefits of feminism, but want to be in a boy's club of some sort, just as you said.

Martha Silano said...

Dear SV,

My grandmas were born in the early 1900s, and I doubt they would call themselves feminists (the word might not have been coined yet?), but one of them was worked her way up to being a "forelady" in the cigar factory where she worked. She knew all about equal rights and the fight for them, and she adored her MALE partner.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for the billboard and for this heads-up. I have just been reading some Ruth Stone poems, and, like you, am baffled by this. But I guess she's old enough to have lived through so many definitions and versions of feminism she may indeed be confused.

I remember telling some students one day in class that yes, I was a feminist, and they were shocked. "You, Ms Kirk?" This was in the 1990s. We stopped to explore our definitions, and they thought all feminists were scary, man-hating militants who wore metal spiked chokers. Really. I'm not kidding.

So we talked about equal rights and about language, and this developed into an essay assignment about defining terms. Plus, while they weren't quite ready to call themselves feminists, having grown up with some scary connotations attached to the word itself, several of these young men and women realized they probably were feminists, in terms of values.

Z said...

Ruth Stone was at Indiana University during the mid-1970s, when the major modern push of feminism was burgeoning through the midwest, rolling in from either coast. She was there at the same time as Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert, whose book Madwoman in the Attic became a major force in that second wave of feminism. Why in the world even mention the 1920s?

These and other women read, published, loved, and celebrated Ruth; they recognized that her struggles were theirs, that she had been there: she was, indeed, one of the mothers of the movement. She in turn was very moved by and interested in this new wave of women raising feminist issues, and many of her poems of that period--and earlier, and later!--reflect her intense level of engagement. But there were plenty of women around then, as now, who called themselves feminists but enacted the role by being separatists, hating men, and so on. An intense battle for the meaning of feminism--which version is "real?"--raged for years; many of the memoirs recently published by women in the movement chronicle this battle and its outcome.

Ruth's story reveals how she fought with her own desperate ambivalence toward men--just for starters, her husband killed himself, leaving her heartbroken, penniless, and with three daughters to raise alone. These feelings have been endlessly explored in her poetry: feminism is one of her central themes. Surely the emotional complexity of widowhood, which includes not only grief and hopeless love but an enormous anger at betrayal and abandonment, contains many of the emotional seeds of feminism.

At 93, Ruth Stone is making a gigantic statement in very simple words when she first pinpoints a terrible truth at the heart of this never-absent war not only between the sexes but among them, and declares herself nevertheless for love.

"All due respect" implies some actual knowledge of the subject you claim to respect. I'm not surprised that you're baffled, though, since it does help to know what you're talking about before you start. Thank you for letting me briefly take you aside to explain to you, if not what a feminist "is," then at least some of the enormous complexity involved in our history of struggle to achieve that definition.

--Rosanne Wasserman

Martha Silano said...

Dear Z,
I appreciate your response. I am not a feminist scholar, but I do know that there was plenty of infighting (and male-bashing) among feminists during the 70s-80s; I guess that's how a woman like, for instance, Camille Paglia were a welcome breath of fresh air--instead of blaming men for all the ills of the world, she instructs women to take responsibility for their self-imposed victimization.

And you're right--I do not know Stone's work as well as you do, having only read her intermittently over the years. I did learn much about her from the APR interview . . . including her grief after the death of her husband.

What I objected to was how she defined feminism in such a narrow way: man-hater. Her definition is stuck in an era that's over. The feminist movement, has suffered set-backs and yet it lives on--many young women do not want to wear that label, but even those who lived through the 70s-80s--both women and men--still proudly call themselves feminists despite the errors in thinking (if you can call them that--really it's more about an evolving movement?) as women struggled with how to cope with patriarchal oppression. Blaming and bashing men, it turns out, was not the solution. Neither was the attempt at becoming more man-like, or androgynous. But at the time, these seemed like logical ways to march to a matriarchal drummer. I respect those women--Steinman and her ilk. They were helping to lay the groundwork of feminism; I wouldn't be so quick to call them selfish or petty, though I can see where Stone is coming from. But to be so dismissive. To say "but I love my brother." It caught me off guard.

I do have respect for Stone but you're right, reading more of her poetry, learning more about her life, might help me to better understand why she replied the way she did.

Martha Silano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen said...

This has been a very helpful discussion, putting things in context and rescuing things out of context. The differing definitions of feminism have indeed confused things, and have often confused me personally!

I'm glad to get my information straight from poems themselves most of the time, and will continue to read In the Next Galaxy closely, with respect and delight.

Thanks, all, for the chance to mull this.