Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Feminist at Fifty

I wasn't born a feminist. Life made me one.

Don't get me wrong, I love men. I just wish we would see the likes of Nietzsche, Kafka, and Darwin in skirts. So far, this has yet to happen.

There's always Susan Sontag, of course, Anais Nin, and Virginia Woolf, but there aren't nearly as many women in the annals of world literature as there are men. And, for that matter, how many Helen Thomas's, Molly Ivins, and Maureen Dowds find themselves on the op-ed pages of our mainstream newspapers?

In 2007, Modern Library, a division of Random House, released the results of their board's selection of the 100 best novels, and fewer than 10% of them were written by women.

Can it be that the females of the species are genetically less predisposed to higher order thinking? The Kabbalah would certainly have one think so, but so might Bill Maher. But, all I can think about is why. Is it just that the big bad corporate media won't allow us to penetrate that glass ceiling? Glass does break, after all. Or, do women have some personal responsibility for our conspicuous absence on registers that include seismic innovators from Galileo to Einstein?

When the women's movement was at its zenith, in the 1970's, I was out protesting the war in Vietnam, joining groups like Students for a Democratic Society, and participating in antiwar sit-ins, at SUNY/Buffalo, with friends and professor friends like J.M. Coetzee. I considered myself a humanist not a feminist, and thought feminism reductive as it didn't address the exploitation, and unfair burdens, placed on men.

No doubt, guys have their issues to deal with, too. Look at how many rich and powerful men who got scammed by Madoff have taken their lives in the past few months alone. Men still suffer under the weight of gender expectations that they be breadwinners, and providers, even though women now make up 49% of the workforce.

Men are still not allowed to admit that they feel depressed, to cry, or say they need someone to talk to. Still, despite the obvious pitfalls, like having to live up to a stereotype of "manhood," there are many more advantages to being born of the male persuasion.

After adding a few gray hairs, and a few more years, I see the world differently at fifty (more or less) than at 20. After all the technological inroads, scientific advances, the legalization of choice, we are still lightyears behind where we should be when it comes to gender equity. Women are still not taken as seriously, in the arts and sciences, as their male counterparts. And, while I may not identify myself as a "woman writer," others do, as if they were grading on a curve.

Ever think about what would happen if Friedrich Nietzsche had been born Frederika, or Bob Dylan had been born Barbara instead of Bob? Most likely, instead of "building monuments," Barbara would have been taking down notes.

Surprisingly little has changed over the past thirty-odd years. Women who choose to devote their lives to their writing are still made to feel like freaks. While this is clearly less the case now than in the days of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, women poets suffer depression, and die by their own hand, at rates astonishingly higher than their male counterparts.

We're still made to feel as if we must choose between a life devoted to our creative work, or a life devoted to our man. Men don't have to make that kind of choice. James Joyce, author of what is widely considered the greatest novel in the English language, had a partner who may not have understood every word he wrote, but who understood that his work was his reason for living. He didn't feel that it was necessary to subordinate his physical desires to his creative urges.

Often it is seen as conjugal heresy to evolve at a rate higher than one's spouse.

Again, I'm not speaking about career women here, but women artists, when I say that women still don't have the same options as men of having a full life, and still face making wrenching choices.

It would be great if we could make the argument that men are oppressing us but, in truth, it's our value systems, and what we strive for, that keep us down. That said, I came up on the tail end of the Beat Generation, knew Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and I can only name one woman who was considered a member of that movement, Diane di Prima. In light of the obscurantist view of women in literature, still prevalent today even in selectively progressive cities like San Francisco, one can understand why Sylvia Plath, and not her husband and fellow poet, Ted Hughes, was the one who ended up with her head in the oven.

You may have caught Nikki Giovanni interviewed recently on Bill Moyers Journal. She was brilliant, and I couldn't help but be struck by her allusion to Snow White, and the "Some Day My Prince Will Come" song. I thought back on all the princes who've come and gone in my life; those I've loved more, those I've loved less.

I couldn't help but recall how many restless nights I spent looking up at the ceiling, and prevailing upon higher powers to help me find my astral twin; time that could have been far better spent writing for cripe's sake.

Close your eyes and think about this: how many guys lay around in their Victoria Secret lingerie crying their eyes out because they have no one to spend New Year's Eve with? Nope, guys are better compartmentalizers-----they're better at going to work, and focusing, in the midst of marital catastrophe, or a third world war.

Frankly, I think guys get the short end of the stick precisely because they're socialized into thinking they're less "manly" if they show a little emotion. Guys need to be able to express their feelings more, and women need to stop visualizing themselves as incomplete without men.

Women have to learn to reinvent themselves the way men do. Somehow, we feel less than fulfilled if we aren't at the nucleus of a nuclear family. Our focus is on outward creation---giving birth to that which is corporal not cerebral.

Human beings are evolving physiologically at a pace far greater than their intellectual, and emotional, pace. If things keeps up this way, this can only mean a technologically evolved species that can't figure out how to tie its shoes.

I wasn't born a feminist. Life made me one. I only wish it made me richer for it.