Feminism: The advocacy of equal rights for women. Or, if you prefer, the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, that definition was coined by novelist Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, as famous nowadays for being a feminist as a writer. Referenced by Beyonce on her recent album and by Dior, their 2017 spring/summer white t-shirt displaying the words We Should All Be Feminists is commercialising the matter, but it is also creating a mass movement of support for gender equality. Equality: an eight letter word that seems reasonable, achievable and simple enough, but why isn’t it? Because it’s not simple. It involves changing the world as we know it, the hetero-normative, patriarchal, intolerant, capitalist world. Until that happens, for most of us, equity is a castle in the sky.
Some men I know love to quote Plato: At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something. Only the dead have seen the end of war. But I never hear them quote from Book V of The Republic: Plato’s philosophical dialogue with Socrates where, in his ideal state, he says women should work alongside men, receive equal education and share equally in all aspects of the state. This was ancient Greece. BC! In Islam, Matrilineality – that’s the tracing of descent through the female line – existed before Muhammad. Even in 12th century Islam, women in business were the norm, they studied and were equal to men in all respects.
Men and women were created equally. However, throughout history, decisions about whether women will be revered in this century or reviled in the next have been taken by men. Why?
Biology aside, the differences between men and women are cultural and societal. And if people create society and culture then it must mean that there is capacity for change. That is, if we use our reason and logic and not blindly submit to the way things have always been. We’ve been traversing this uneven pathway of injustice and inequality for hundreds of years. In 15th century Europe, there began what was called The Quarrel About Women and smart men like the Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione wrote that everything a man can understand, a woman can too. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, the German scholar and theologian said that God endowed both male and female with the same soul, the woman with no less faculties of mind, reason and speech than the man. Female voices such as French princess Marguerite de Navarre and Marie de Gournay, writer and editor of Montaigne added to The Quarrel and before them, Catherine of Aragon, the queen of England, commissioned the controversial book, The Education of Christian Women by Juan Luis Vives. Claiming that women had the right to an education, Catherine fought for that during her time as Henry VIII’s wife, earning much admiration from subject and enemy alike.
Last year, I wanted to write a poem for my mother. I’d planned to trace her strength, grace, courage and selflessness through all the great women of history and before I knew it I’d written two pages of names! From Sappho, the poet who pretty much founded western literature to Simone de Beauvoir, the French philosopher whose 1949 book The Second Sex, highlighted women’s oppression and was banned by the Vatican for doing so. Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt; Harriet Beecher-Stowe, anti-slavery campaigner; Amelia Earhart, pioneering aviator; Benazir Bhutto, Rosa Parks, Indira Gandhi, Nina Simone, Mary Robinson, Malala Yousafzai – we are inventors, scientists, scholars, theologians, presidents, activists, aviators, philosophers, women count for 52% of the worlds population – why are we still being treated like a minority group? And why is it necessary to conduct research to find out who all these incredible women are? Women are either written out of history or are ineffectually recorded in it. For example: after the death of former deputy first Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, all the powers that be praised him and his colleagues Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Bill Clinton, John Hume, George Mitchell for brokering peace, but no mention of the contribution made by British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, who continued in politics until 2001 despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1997. It’s as if she never existed. And she’s not the first woman to be overlooked. I could fill a
library, but what about NASA’s mathematicians? The hundreds of African/American women employed as computers at the Langley Research Centre whose calculations sent man to the moon! William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, whose journal entries were the inspiration for much of his poetry! Out of all the roads in Paris named after public figures, only 2.6% are named after women. One night in 2015 a feminist group known as Osez Le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist) decided to celebrate all ignored women by covering all the blue plaques with their own versions which included Rue Simone de Beauvoir & Quai de Nina Simone!
Even with the gains made by first, second and third wave feminists, women are still struggling for recognition in every sphere. Equality, respect, or the full humanity of women: this is what feminism is all about. Basically, fairness. It’s not about misandry and it’s not about bringing men down; it’s about bringing women up. And feminists, I think, would like men to help them. At its heart it’s that simple. But equality challenges patriarchy (mechanisms that exert male dominance over women) and is dismissed as radical. Nobody wants to be cast out as a radical, so hence the negative sounding F word. And this is where I’m taking you today people! We’re venturing into the minefield that is Feminism. Protectively clothed in poetry we’ll be finding out why this loaded word, embroiled in so much controversy is more necessary now than ever. We’ll be making our voices heard with Radmilla Lazic and Carlyn Kizer; re-writing history with Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; celebrating womanhood with Lucille Clifton and throwing a light on the Irish situation with Eavan Boland.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking book A vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792, proposed that women were the equal of men. Years ahead of her time, it was one of the first pieces of feminist writing and preceded the first wave suffrage movements of the mid 19th century, which sought access to education, property rights, suffrage, reproductive and economic rights for women. The second wave feminists of the 60’s were more concerned with ending gender discrimination, the third wave began to consider race related subjectivities, because not every woman is white and middleclass and we are now in what some would call forth wave feminism, propelled by technology and inclusive of diverse voices whose goal is a society unrestricted by gender. Whatever wave we’re riding, it’s about having a voice and we can hear that voice loud and clear in the feminist poetry of Serbian poet Radmilla Lazic, in particular A Woman’s Letter from her collection A Wake For The Living. Lazić, a respected editor, critic and activist is the founder and managing editor of a Serbian journal of women’s studies, ProFemina. As a feminist with a sense of humour, her honesty is compelling. Rather than fit into patriarchy’s idea of what a woman should be, the speaker here wants to make her own choices, express her femininity and live her life according to her own rules. Translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic, Lazic first tells us what she doesn’t want and then what she does:
I don’t want to be obedient and tame.
Coddled like a cat. Faithful like a dog.
With a belly to my teeth, hands in the dough,
Face covered with flour, my heart a cinder
And his hand on my ass.
I don’t want to be a welcome flag at his door,
Nor the guardian snake under his threshold,
Neither the snake nor Eve from Genesis.
I don’t want to pace between the door and the window,
To listen hard and be able to distinguish
Footsteps from night-sounds.
I don’t want to follow the leaden movement of the watch-hands,
Nor see falling stars
For him to gore me drunkenly like an elephant.
I don’t want to be sewn with needlepoint
To the family portrait
Next to the fireplace with balled up children,
In the garden with puppy children,
And I the shade tree,
And I the winter landscape,
A statue under the snow.
In a pleated wedding dress
I’ll fly to heaven.
I don’t want a bridegroom.
I want gray hair, a hump and a basket
To go roaming in the woods,
Picking strawberries and dry twigs.
With my whole life behind me,
The smile of that boy,
So dear and irreplaceable.
Feminism has tried to make a space for women in a world that has always privileged men and masculinity. Women are underrepresented in politics, science, architecture and the arts. During the French renaissance period, Salons were unwelcoming to women. By the 17th century, they began running their own cultural gatherings and though their writing went unpublished they were, according to writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, considered a threat to the natural dominance of men. In her 1929 essay A Room Of Ones Own, Virgina Woolf argues for a space for women in a literary world dominated by men. A woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction. In other words, the same civil liberties as men. In the mid 19th century women used male pen names in order to see their work published. The Bronte sisters became Currer, Ellis & Acton Bell, Mary Ann Evans was George Elliot and how much has changed? JK Rowling, since her Harry Potter series, has published as Robert Galbraith. Women in the arts are continually overlooked. In Ireland, a grassroots campaign, Waking the Feminists, calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector, ran from November 2015 to 2016. Plays by women generally have shorter runs, smaller venues and are less reviewed and publicised. We never hear about the success of playwrights such as Stacy Gregg, Ailis Ni Rian, Stella Feehily or Nancy Harris, playwright in residence at The Bush theatre in London and whose plays No Romance & Love in a Glass Jar are highly acclaimed, running in Dublin, London and New York. American poet Carolyn Kizer studied with Theodore Roethke, the only woman in a class that included poets James Wright and Jack Gilbert. According to her, they were all chauvinists and treated her like wallpaper. Being a highly gifted academic her poetry eclipsed theirs, but she still felt ignored. A Muse On Water is her response to an incident with one of her fellow poets who suggested one night, that women ought not to try to be artists and should stick to the kitchen:
We who must act as handmaidens
To our own goddess, turn too fast,
Trip on our hems, to glimpse the muse
Gliding below her lake or sea,
Are left, long-staring after her,
Narcissists by necessity;
Or water-carriers of our young
Till waters burst, and white streams flow
Artesian, from the lifted breast:
Cupbearers then, to tiny gods,
Imperious table-pounders, who
Are final arbiters of thirst.
This abridged version of the poem is from the collection Cool, Calm and Collected and in it she connects women to water and man’s abuse of it and her. He pollutes it, diverts its course, seeks to impede a woman’s progress in every way. He tunnels her underground out of sight, dries up what could have brimmed and in realising she is necessary to life, still doesn’t deign himself to recognise her:
And yet these buccaneers still kneel
Trembling at the water’s verge:
“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,
Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”
So he needs poultice for his flesh.
So he needs water for his fire.
We rose in mists and died in clouds
Or sank below the trammelled soil
To silent conduits underground,
Joining the blindfish, and the mole.
A gleam of silver in the shale:
Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!
So flows in dark caves, dries away,
What would have brimmed from bank to bank,
Kissing the fields you turned to stone,
Under the boughs your axes broke.
And you blame streams for thinning out,
plundered by man’s insatiate want?
You know, Kizer had a difficult relationship with her father, he was remote, indifferent and demanded academic excellence. She was radicalised to feminism by her highly educated mother, who turned down a job with Eleanor Roosevelt saying ’who would get your fathers breakfast?’ As it turned out, after she died, he got his own breakfast for the next thirty years! Outspoken against injustice throughout her life and in her work, her most famous poem is a five part prose piece Profemina, in which she addresses all women, highlighting their vulnerabilities and strengths – many encouraged by men and often reinforced by women themselves. It’s a call for women to do better. I guess feminism is something that must keep happening, it must be a constant process of renewal. The final stanza from part three reads:
But we’re emerging from all that, more or less,
Except for some ladylike laggards and Quarterly priestesses
Who flog men for fun, and kick women to maim competition.
Now, if we struggle abnormally, we may almost seem normal;
If we submerge our self-pity in disciplined industry;
If we stand up and be hated, and swear not to sleep with editors;
If we regard ourselves formally, respecting our true limitations
Without making an unseemly show of trying to unfreeze our assets;
Keeping our heads and our pride while remaining unmarried;
And if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes
And defect to the typewriter. And if mothers, believe in the luck of our children,
Whom we forbid to devour us, whom we shall not devour,
And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.
Adrienne Rich was another intelligent and influential poet active in feminism and movements for LGBT rights and reproductive freedom. Her poem Diving Into The Wreck, seeks to explore the truth behind the myths of difference and inequality. To write the future we must first read the past, so Rich is taking the plunge on our behalf; diving into the patriarchal sea to better understand what has happened to the men and women submerged by it – our assigned gender stereotypes and specifics; how men are raised to be aggressive and women are taught to submit to that hostility:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armour of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
Rich’s own personal conflict and sexual alienation (first as a wife and later a gay woman with three children) were mirrored in the wider social and political events of the 1960’s and she developed a poetic voice that spoke for all women; the same way she collected her National Book Award – on behalf of all women. In the poem she manages to achieve a degree of equality, albeit of the poetic sort, in the form of an androgynous being who circles the depths of history searching for answers, tasked with salvaging what remains of a disappearing, water-eaten book of mythology. The idea of androgyny is interesting. Not only does patriarchy serve to subordinate women, it defines masculinity in narrow ways too. A man must be hard, fearless and invulnerable, when really, men and women should be free to be both strong and sensitive. English actress Emma Watson, in her capacity as UN global goodwill ambassador is heading up a campaign called #HeforShe which is about freedom from the prejudice of gender; because gender is unjust – we are all imprisoned by it. Maybe we need to stop linking education, career, salary and position with masculinity and femininity and align them more with intelligence, aptitude and creativity. The poem concludes:
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armoured body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
I recently posted a topic for discussion on a facebook book-club page. It was an article about publishers hiring sensitivity readers to flag offensive content before going to print. It kind of sounded like censorship to me, so I put the question to the group. Within minutes, I was under attack, there was a barrage of posts about: minority groups being misrepresented/abused/vilified in fiction; the value of sensitivity readers; that thinly veiled homophobia must be highlighted; that it’s not censorship, it’s about protecting people’s feelings. Everything from size to age seemed to be an issue; everything that is, except for how women and children are written about. It would appear that it’s okay to rape, murder, torture and abuse women and children, but people draw the line at a homophobic remark or the misrepresentation of a small person. (Fault finders will find fault in paradise – Thoreau) Before taking her own life, the American poet Anne Sexton pretty much gave convention the two fingers. As a 1960’s suburban housewife, a mother, a woman battling depression and a poet, she was out of sync with what society expected of her and felt the pain of the disapproval and isolation that ensued. In her poem, Her Kind, from the collection To Bedlam and Partway Back, apropos her experiences of madness, she speaks on behalf of the marginalised about what it’s like to be ostracised by society. There’s a puritanical strain in society that sees a woman as either a slut or saint; this isn’t right, a woman needs to be everything. Maybe for some women, marriage and kids is not the fairytale they were expecting and that should be okay. But in an oppressive society, Sexton feels condemned, a witch:.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
In the middle ages, women who spoke out about religion or challenged the patriarchal order were burned as witches. It was a form of societal regulation. But despite her vilification, Sexton’s speaker is not giving up on what she believes, she’s creating a new place in the woods, where everyone is welcome. She’s riding the cart to the pyre affronting society with her nude arms waving. Like Rich, in the previous poem, had to search unfathomable depths, Sexton embarks on some kind of night-time reconnaissance mission above the houses, in order to first, express her true nature and second, find some definition of womanhood she can relate to; because reality isn’t reflective of her truth:
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Feminism has evolved over the years to encompass not just women’s rights but rights for all marginalised groups, the disabled, LGBT, ethnic minorities and minority religions but I’m not certain that the intersectional nature of the movement is working. It’s proven difficult to establish a feminist world view to suit everyone. Feminists of course acknowledge the discrimination faced by others and can offer support, advice and share information but can feminism successfully advocate for the rights of all without risking taking the focus off women’s issues specifically? Gender discrimination applies to all genders of which there are many. Cis, bi, Non-binary, Trans, and the fifty-four other gender options recognised by some social media sites. Gender diversity is new ground for many of us, and incorporating the language into mainstream vocabulary will take time, we‘re all learning. American poet Rebecca Foust in Abeyance, a letter to my transgender daughter is a poem about a parents love for a child. A child who happens to be transgender. Not a pariah, just someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth. TENI, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland seeks to advance the rights and equality of trans people and their families, who often feel isolated, misunderstood and excluded from society. In the same way the speaker in Anne Sexton’s poem feels like an outcast, transgender people too, live on the periphery of society, at risk of violence and discrimination:
letter to my transgender daughter
I made soup tonight, with cabbage, chard
and thyme picked outside our back door.
For this moment the room is warm and light,
and I can presume you safe somewhere.
I know the night lives inside you. I know grave,
sad errors were made, dividing you, and hiding
you from you inside. I know a girl like you
was knifed last week, another set aflame.
It’s normal for parents to blame themselves when something about their child is considered an issue: ill-health, mental/physical disability, behavioural problems, learning difficulties. The same is true for parents of non gender-conforming children. Some parents learn the hard way that doing what they think is best, may not be the best option. In 1970 the mother of Kirk Murphy took her 4yr old to a gender identity clinic where doctors claimed they could cure pre-homosexuality. After years of invasive treatment to correct his effeminate nature, he remained gay, ashamed, mentally damaged and died by suicide at 38. David Remer, born male but reassigned after a bungled circumcision also took his life at the age of 38, prompting transgender advocates to suggest you either accept a child, or lose them. Why is difference always seen as dangerous? Will there ever be a time when every human being is understood, accepted, respected and welcome to participate fully in all aspects of society?
Rebecca Foust might not have the words but she wants her daughter to know how much she was/is and will always be loved. In her own notes on the poem she recalls watching cabbages in her garden nearly turn themselves inside out to take in as much sun as possible and she compares this to the love a parent has for a child; it goes deep:
I know I lack the words, or all the words I say
are wrong. I know I’ll call and you won’t answer,
and still I’ll call. I want to tell you
you were loved with all I had, recklessly,
and with abandon, loved the way the cabbage
in my garden near-inverts itself, splayed
to catch each last ray of sun. And how
the feeling furling-in only makes the heart
more dense and green. Tonight it seems like
something one could bear.
When parents feel a child may be disadvantaged in some way they automatically fear for their future. In a article I was reading, the mother of one transgender teen who transitioned from female-to-male, said the fear she felt dissipated because her son was so joyful after the breasts that tortured him had been removed. The most important lesson she learned was hope – knowing her child could be happy and productive. And hope is what Foust leaves us with also. Parents brought together by mutual love for their daughter. Hope fills the air and their hearts, because parents love heart and soul, not gender:
Guess what, Dad and I finally figured out Pandora,
and after all those years of silence, our old music
fills the air. It fills the air, and somehow, here,
at this instant and for this instant only
—perhaps three bars—what I recall
equals all I feel, and I remember all the words.
So how do women in Ireland fair and what’s the gender situation here? Well, not great to be honest. Notwithstanding the gender pay gap which sees women earn at least a quarter less than men; patriarchy in Ireland has ensured the following: that women are underrepresented on boards (about 36%), in politics (35 dail seats out of 158!), academia and the arts; that 1 in 5 women experience domestic violence; that access to basic healthcare for women is denied, forcing thousands to travel overseas to obtain an abortion. Women don’t have autonomy over their own bodies. Ireland was the last country in the world to legalise contraception and is the only country affording equal rights to life to both woman and foetus. The UN has repeatedly criticised Ireland for failing short of its obligations under international law to protect the human rights of women. The state and church have consistently blocked the advancement of women. For forty years there was a marriage ban for female teachers! Up until the 1960’s the church considered that childbirth made women unholy or unclean because it resulted from sexual activity and they were often ostracised and forbidden from going to mass until they had been ‘churched’, that is: had the sin of childbirth washed away! Thousands of unmarried pregnant women, vilified and banished from their families and communities, were sent to live and die in secret, in state funded mother-and-baby homes or laundries. The gruesome and harrowing truth of one such place came to light recently with the discovery of the remains of hundreds of babies in a disused septic tank on the site of the Bons Secour sisters home in Tuam, Co. Galway. Child trafficking and illegal adoption were state policy and the government, according to Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance, are terrified of opening an investigation, fearing it will dwarf anything that has gone before. At Mary Robinsons inauguration speech in 1990, she called for an open, tolerant and inclusive Ireland, and with the strains of Mna Na H’eireann ringing in the countries hopeful ears, the poet Eavan Boland read her poem The Singers:
The women who were singers in the West
lived on an unforgiving coast.
I want to ask was there ever one
moment when all of it relented–
when rain and ocean and their own
sense of home were revealed to them
as one and the same?
every day was still shaped by weather,
but every night their mouths filled with
Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars
and exhausted birds?
And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
their true measure of rejoicing in
finding a voice where they found a vision.
Eavan Boland, like many Irish women, has struggled to find her place in a society hell-bent on silencing the voices of women. Over the years she has located herself centre stage in a habitually male dominated poetic tradition. Myth is a huge feature in her poetry, myth and the lost history of women. Her work focuses on the troubled role of women in times past and like Adrienne Rich diving into the wreck to find our names were never written, Boland combines domesticity and myth and focuses on the exclusion of women from the history books. What we read/have been told is at odds with what actually happened. For example, this years centenary celebrations acknowledged for the first time in decades, the roles played by over three hundred women in the Easter Rising. Boland’s poem Domestic Violence reflects the social and political shifts in Ireland as she equates the disharmony between a couple with that of a country:
It was winter, lunar, wet. At dusk
Pewter seedlings became moonlight orphans.
Pleased to meet you meat to please you
said the butcher’s sign in the window in the village.
Everything changed the year that we got married.
And after that we moved out to the suburbs.
How young we were, how ignorant, how ready
to think the only history was our own.
And there was a couple who quarrelled into the night,
Their voices high, sharp:
nothing is ever entirely
right in the lives of those who love each other.
In that season suddenly our island
Broke out its old sores for all to see.
We saw them too.
We stood there wondering how
the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,
the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes
we thought we knew
had been made to shiver
into our ancient twelve by fifteen television
which gave them back as gray and grayer tears
and killings, killings, killings,
then moonlight-coloured funerals:
nothing we said
not then, not later,
fathomed what it is
is wrong in the lives of those who hate each other.
It’s a poem about conflict: within a country and within a relationship. Thinking again about the misrepresentation of women in history, it’s not surprising that she’s the victim here because that’s how women have always been portrayed. I mentioned Mo Mowlam’s disappearance from the roll-call of names associated with 1998 Good Friday Agreement (Why? Because she was brave, clever?) but why do politicians make constant referrals to the disappeared mothers of Northern Ireland (Because they were victims?) In Domestic Violence, we hear the silent voices of ordinary people howled down, by a country tearing itself apart:
And if the provenance of memory is
only that—remember, not atone—
and if I can be safe in
the weak spring light in that kitchen, then
why is there another kitchen, spring light
always darkening in it and
a woman whispering to a man
over and over what else could we have done?
We failed our moment or our moment failed us.
The times were grand in size and we were small.
Why do I write that
when I don’t believe it?
We lived our lives, were happy, stayed as one.
Children were born and raised here
and are gone,
As for that couple did we ever
find out who they were
and did we want to?
I think we know. I think we always knew.
Our final three poems today are a celebration of womanhood or two aspects, at least, of womanhood that are rarely praised – menstruation and menopause. Lucille Clifton was born in New York. The first in her family to graduate, she was poet laureate of Maryland in the 1980’s. Like Rich and Sexton, her poetry reflects the upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s, and she writes about relationships, child abuse, black heritage and slavery. In her Poem in Praise of Menstruation she compares the menstrual flow to a river, the river of life. Traditional odes to women compliment their eyes, hair, lips, etc., here Clifton sings the praises of the fertility of women, the monthly cycle that is beautiful and faithful and ancient and female and brave:
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in
the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
It’s such a liberating poem about the truth and beauty of menstruation. Fertility is something to be celebrated not condemned as it has been in patriarchal societies. Menstruation gives rise to gender inequality and is a taboo in many cultures and religions. In Asian countries menstruating women are considered unclean and are forbidden from cooking, praying or even sitting with the family at mealtimes. A haemorrhaging woman is seen as a pollutant. Organisations such as Binti UK, work to empower women in disadvantaged communities, by promoting awareness about menstrual health and providing dignity and practical guidance. In her collection Quilting, published in 1991, Clifton offers two companion poems that address the menopause. That wonderful time when, as the Chinese say, the body’s energy moves from the womb to the heart, to a place of wisdom and self discovery, away from caring for others and into, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase, a room of her own. To My Last Period is both a tribute and a measured goodbye, not to womanhood but to the girl who never arrived:
well, girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn’t she
beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?
Clifton’s poems are clean as bones. Insightful and unflinching, her language is casual as she most sincerely addresses her womb in Poem to my Uterus and wonders where she can go without it, her black bag of desire. You know, the way something is described to you can have a huge impact on how you perceive it. Women have always been fed the same line – that once they enter menopause it’s game over, they are no longer of any use to society, they become undesirable, invisible. This is another one of those myths Adrienne Rich was talking about; we perceive menopause as bad. Clifton doesn’t view the loss of her uterus as the end; she might not know yet where she’s going but she’s going somewhere, she’s still a woman. Her femininity will be changed but not lost. Echoing Rich who alone, dove into the wreck of womanhood and Sexton, who alone rode into the fires of ignorance, Clifton must now walk alone and barefoot into a new future beyond roles and stereotypes and without her old girl – beyond sexuality:
you have been patient
as a sock
while i have slippered into you
my dead and living children
they want to cut you out
stocking i will not need
where i am going
where am i going
my bloody print
my oestrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
where can you go
So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of feminism! When I was younger, anytime any woman appeared on TV talking about women’s rights, the males in my household would roll their eyes and change the channel and being an impressionable child, I found myself doing the same thing! But the lonely voices for gender equality: Bell Hooks, Coreta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther who devoted her life to civil rights work), Betty Friedan, Yoko Ono, Gloria Steinham and Germaine Greer have now become a symphony of millions of men and women fighting to change our oppressive society from the inside. Members of the Men’s Rights Movement, which originated as a backlash against feminism have become the Pro-Feminist Men’s Rights Movement, because they too see that patriarchy reinforces unequal gender relations. Pro-feminist men are involved in anti-violence work with boys; counselling male perpetuators of violence and supporting anti-pornography legislation. Social media, has been instrumental in highlighting the sexism, discrimination and injustice faced by women on a daily basis. #yesallwomen was set up in response to #notallmen (asserting not all men are sexist) because all women are subject to sexism, and it’s used by women throughout social media to share experiences of sexism and harassment. Sexism and misogyny are so normalised, so insidious in our society that we sometimes fail to notice it or we question, when we feel uncomfortable about something, whether it‘s really happening. The everyday feminism project, set up by feminist writer Laura Bates, raises awareness of women’s experiences by cataloguing instances of sexism faced by women around the world on a daily basis. Notwithstanding the over-sexualisation of women in music and cinema; the fact that Women’s fiction is a sub-genre (Men’s fiction is simply fiction); the gender pay-gap; educational, occupational, political and social inequalities; there are thankfully, a plethora of groups out there empowering young women today. The National Women’s Council Of Ireland provide workshops for young women on leadership, public speaking, media training, body image, self-esteem building. Free To Run is a charity that uses outdoor activities to empower women. Girls Brigade Scotland challenges patriarchal traditions and Hockey Club teaches girls to get up when they fall down, to play fair, to push themselves but help their team-mates. The girls themselves found playing team sports with other girls to be more inclusive, whereas the boys were too aggressive and never passed the ball! We could take that as a clear metaphor for inequality – men refusing to pass the ball.
Our lives aren’t one-dimensional and being a woman isn’t the only identity she possesses. She may be black, Asian, disabled, Islamic, Christian, short, etc and so face many forms of discrimination. Intersectional feminism seeks to understand how sexism relates to race, religion, size, age, appearance. So for example, as well as advocating for the white woman who makes 77c to the man’s Euro, intersectional feminism includes the black woman’s 60c and Hispanic woman’s 54c! But is intersectional feminism broadening the movement too much? Is it creating more labels, separating, classifying, perpetuating the idea of ‘other’, ‘difference’ – which are patriarchal constructs – and creating more confusion and room for disagreement? Actually, this is the problem I have with feminism. It’s become so fractured leaving many women afraid to identify as feminist for fear of being scorned by whichever brand of feminism they are not aligned with. For instance, are you a liberal feminist or a radical one? Do you want a seat at the patriarchal table or would you rather smash it to pieces? Are you an eco-feminist or a theological one? Do you believe pornography is exploitative or see it as a way for women to express themselves sexually? Do you believe that transgender women, having enjoyed the privileges of men, should now be recognised as female? There are over 100million women living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (cutting of female genitalia) does feminism fight this human rights abuse or would that be an attack on cultural identity? The latter, according to Germaine Greer who has always been critical of the imposition of Western attitudes on the rest of the world.
Can feminism advocate for all marginalised groups? If the answer is yes, then I believe that women will always be seen as a sub-category, a minority group and will always experience sexism. Maybe I’m wrong, but feminism started out as advocating for the equal rights of women, ALL women. We’re not there yet. Just look at how much ground has been lost since the recent Trump presidency. His Global Gag Rule –that’s the withdrawing of funding for NGO’s providing information, counselling or abortion services – will wipe out any assistance to women in countries like India where the US invests $16m in health programmes, or Latin American where 13% of maternal deaths are the result of botched back-street abortions. On a more positive note, before I conclude, on International Women’s day last month, Iceland announced it will be the first country in the world to make employers prove they offer equal pay regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality. You have to hand it to Social Affairs Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson who said ‘you have to be bold in the fight against injustice.’
I think feminism, as a movement, needs to stick to the plan. Then, going forward as equals, men and women can work together on securing a greater equality for all of humanity, through another movement, something akin to Humanism. Is it foolish to envisage a world within which every gender, race, religion, physicality is equal, a world without minorities, where markers of difference are opportunities for unity? Is humanism a castle in the sky? If it is, then maybe feminism could be the foundation we put underneath it.
You might enjoy reading work from other feminist poets such as: Alice Walker, Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood, Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser, Medbh McGuckian and Louise Gluck.
Music today from: Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Anthony & The Johnsons, The Gloaming, Aretha Franklin, Caged Bird Sings, John Spillane & Eric Serra.
The Guardian – Jessa Crispin 2017