Tag Archives: feminism

Writing Women Into History

To my readers: Tomorrow’s my 55th birthday and I’m struck more than ever with how appropriate a birthday during Women’s History Month is for me. The stories I love and the stories I tell  honor the roles women have played throughout history, but they also explore how our view of history changes when we look at women’s contributions. What follows is a guest blog I wrote about Women’s History Month for the Center for Digital Storytelling. You can also click here to view it on their website. My thanks to Dr. Anne Marie Pois, whose digital story I discuss below, and to women everywhere who inspire me everyday.

Writing Women Into History

“Where are the women?” is the question behind the celebration of Women’s History Month each March. The absence of women from much of recorded history and scholarship has left gaps that undermine women’s progress toward equality. While the conditions under which women’s history has been lost, erased, and suppressed may be familiar—prejudice of all sorts; sexual violence; second class status; lack of time and resources—such conditions continue to impact the inclusion of women in private and public discourse today.

Women’s history month was established to bring the stories of women’s experiences into view by uncovering, discovering, and recovering women’s lives throughout history. Many of these women were famous in their time; others led quieter lives that, nevertheless, shaped families, communities, and movements. Collectively, the retrieval and celebration of their stories has led to new understandings of history as small steps in time, as well as the cataclysm of big events.

Digital storytelling is the perfect vehicle for recording women’s stories in ways that honor both women’s individual lives and larger collective experiences. A wonderful example of this synthesis is found in the digital story “Right into History: The Dinner Party as Catalyst for Social Activism” by Dr. Anne Marie Pois. This piece was made for the Activist Archive, the service learning project in which my University of Colorado students facilitated digital storytelling by elder activists in our community, and is now archived through the Maria Rogers Oral History Project in Boulder, Colorado.

Pois’s story shares her experience working on “The Dinner Party,” a feminist art installation directed by artist Judy Chicago in 1976. “The Dinner Party” featured a banquet table with 39 place settings for innovative women throughout history, with another 999 names inscribed in the floor beneath the table. 129 volunteers produced the installation, from historical research to identify the women commemorated, to the ceramic and textile creation of each intricate place setting.

Pois became one of the volunteers on this project when she answered a bulletin board call for participants. Her digital story details her involvement with the project, at the same time that it portrays her growing interest in women’s history. Her work on “The Dinner Party” inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. and teach women’s history at the University of Colorado.

Pois’s story shows how individual women’s lives contribute to larger collective movements. Her personal story inspires us to follow our dreams; her story of “The Dinner Party” portrays the evolution of second wave feminist activism. “Right into History” exemplifies how by paying attention to the particulars of women’s lives, we not only learn about women’s history, but about the larger sweeps of history itself.

Many of the CDS participants with whom I have worked are interested in making digital stories about the women in their families, from mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, to unmet female ancestors who left traces of their lives in photographs, books, and commonplace objects like sewing baskets and jewelry boxes. Beyond preserving the stories behind these artifacts and memories, the participants are interested in relating how these women’s lives have shaped their own. Each time I watch one of these stories, I imagine another piece of the women’s history puzzle snapping into place.

I call this type of story an “I-in-Relation” story because it explores the influence of a relationship on the storyteller’s life. As I wrote in a previous CDS blog post about this concept, “Although these stories may ostensibly seem to focus on another person’s life, they express the identity, values, or truths of the storymaker’s life as well.”  This dual focus—honor and remembrance of another juxtaposed with examination and disclosure of the self—generates a complex story in polyvocal, multi-layered modes.

Women’s history month works that way, too. We not only celebrate the women who are finally taking their places in history books or who have gained fame or celebrity through radical words or deeds. We also admire the women with whom we interact every day. While we’re inspired by the greatness of women who have come before us, it’s our own lives as women we’re inventing—our own stories we’re writing, our own experiences we’re living. Most of us don’t act in the big ways that conventionally count as “history,” but women’s history month directs us to view everyday actions as history, too. As we look to women’s history for models of women’s strength, creativity, innovation, and courage, we also create new models for the next generations to follow. Anne Marie Pois’s story ends with a photograph of her baby daughter Emily, named after Emily Dickinson, one of the women honored at “The Dinner Party’s” table. Pois’s story, in turn, becomes her legacy to her granddaughter.

I like to imagine that a hundred years from now, my young great-great-great-granddaughter will come across the digital stories I’ve made about my female family members, ancestors, friends, and community members. I hope the stories help her fill in the blanks of her own history as she makes her way into the world. These stories are my legacy to her, but they’re also my answer to the question, “Where are the women?” We’re here, they say, writing our way into history.

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One theme I’ve been passionate about in women’s history is the growing, preparing, and preserving of food. Come share your  food preservation stories at a workshop I’ll be facilitating with Allison Myers at our farm in Colorado on September 18 and 19, 2014. More information on this workshop–including an afternoon of tomato canning instruction by Luther Green of Preserving Community–will be posted by the Center for Digital Storytelling soon.

 

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Filed under memoir, women's writing

Farm Women

On the way to town last week, I slowed for a pick-up truck to pull in front of me onto the country road. The sign on the back said “Hoof Care,” but it wasn’t the truck or the company of the farrier who grooms our friend’s horses nearby. A farrier could find lots of work in this part of the county, where ranches and farms line the side roads between small towns.

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As I followed the truck, my eyes fell to the sticker on the driver’s side bumper above the high wheels.

No Farms
No Farmgirls

I’d never seen that sticker before and it gave me pause. The logic was similar to the bumper sticker on my own car:

Know Farmers
Know Food

As I point out in my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, the homonym is also true:

No Farmers
No Food

But the truck’s bumper sticker seemed a little different—and certainly less political. I wondered in what context it should be read. I thought of the lascivious jokes about farmer’s daughters, the kind of joke that embarrassed my mom when she was growing up. Was “Farm Girls” an updated version of “Farmer’s Daughters”? Was the message a sexist reference to dating girls who grew up on farms and their supposedly loose ways?

What did it mean by “farm girls,” anyway? Did “girls” include grown-up women, in the infantilizing way it often does? I’m not one for calling female adults “girls” because I find it belittling, but I realize that women often refer to each other that way as a playful term of affection. Still, “girls” are rarely granted the authority that men have. I always referred to my female college students as “women” because I didn’t refer to my male students as “boys” and I wanted to encourage my students to see themselves as up-and-coming adults.

Still following the truck, I couldn’t see the driver because the headrest was in the way. I couldn’t even see whether he wore a cap or a cowboy hat, a possible indication of whether he lived on a farm or a ranch.

He.

Whether based on the sticker, business name, truck size, or residual prejudice in someone who should know better, I realized I’d made a gendered assumption about this truck and its driver. Maybe the person with the bumper sticker wasn’t even male. I had to find out.

By now we were on a four-lane road on the edge of town, with a stoplight ahead. I pulled into the right lane and up alongside the pickup as we stopped for the light. Glancing around to cover my curiosity, I peeked over quickly to see who was driving the pick-up.

The driver was a woman. Well, that put a different spin on “farm girls,” one falling in the playful “girlfriend” camp rather than the “farmer’s daughter” mode. “Farm girls” might even be read as a feminist statement, I thought, one asserting that farmers can be female as well as male.

But something about “farm girls” just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as “farmers” or even “women farmers.” If a woman wants to call herself a “farm girl” on her bumper sticker, that’s okay with me, but it’s not a term I’d like to see used in agricultural policy. It’s hard enough for women to get included in the term “farmers” in the first place. “Women farmers” at least lets us into the club.

I’ve been thinking about women farmers a lot lately, first of all because I am one, and second because the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture found that women are the principal operators of 14% of farms. Although the numbers of women farmers has decreased since 2007, the overall number of farms did too, with men and women leaving in equal numbers.

Here’s what the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network had to say about the USDA’s latest figures:

“Women were listed as principal operators of 288,269 farms nationwide in 2012, compared to 306,209 in 2007. The overall number of farm operators declined from 2.2 million to 2.11 million during that five-year span. Women continue to operate smaller farms than men, earn less income on average, and own a greater percentage of their farmland. This corresponds to the type of farms a majority of women operate: small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale, rather than the large commodity farms that tend to be operated by men.”

Women running smaller, diversified farms selling directly to consumers at farmer’s markets or through community supported agricultural farms fits with my knowledge of women farmers, the ones I’ve met through national networking and in my local area. Making less money than men probably corresponds to the type of farms women run. Big agriculture runs on big money, the kind needed for big machinery, big loans, and big risks. It’s also more likely to use chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to export to other countries, and to depend on federal crop subsidies. The women farmers I know—and many of the men—aren’t interested in that kind of farming.

In A Bushel’s Worth, I write about the women in my family who were farmers before me:

“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were never called farmers. Even though they raised livestock and vast gardens to feed their families, even thought they worked in the fields, made decisions about crops, and kept track of farm finances, they were called ‘the farmer’s wife.’ ‘Farmer,’ in those days it seems, didn’t only refer to the work that one did but to the gender of the person doing it.”

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

I didn’t mention in the book—because I hadn’t learned it yet—that my great-great-grandmother Anna Dokken had a blank space under “occupation” on her daughter Josephine’s birth certificate, unlike my great-great-grandfather, Ole Dokken, whose occupation was listed as “farmer.” They had both come to the US from Norway to farm, but only one of them could claim the title.

As I say in A Bushel’s Worth, the face of farming is changing, and with it, the gender of that face: “With small-scale farming, farmers can build close relationships with people in their communities, putting a member’s or customer’s face on food as well as a farmer’s. This person-to-person contact is drawing women of all ages to farming, women who see a future for themselves in creating local food sheds and connecting everyone to the food they eat.”

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My Great-aunt Myra farming with her father, my Great-Grandpa Jasper Smith

I’m happy to see women driving trucks and tractors and proclaiming their right to farm on bumper stickers, even if they do call themselves “farm girls.” But if a man had been driving that truck, would I have felt differently? Language, after all, exists within social, historical, and political contexts, as does identity.

But I think I would have chosen to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, to think that he—like she—valued women on farms, as well as farms themselves. It’s the “No Farms” part of the message that the pick-up shared with my Subaru. More farms, especially organic, small-scale, local farms—the kind women are most likely to run—is something I can always get behind.

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Introducing the Friedman Feminist Press Collection

Following are remarks I made last Friday at the opening reception for the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at Colorado State University, the largest collection of books in the Rocky Mountain West published by feminist presses. Providing original sources in feminist/lesbian literature and second-wave feminism, the collection archives multi-genre works by feminist publishers of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that brought women and women’s words out into the world.

I want to share these remarks because I hope that the collection will draw students, scholars, and readers to learn more about this important period in second-wave feminist history and its print movement, but also because the collection is dedicated to my friend June Friedman as a legacy to her passionate commitment to the struggle for women’s rights. Thank you to everyone who came to the opening reception last Friday. For further information or to donate to student and scholar outreach and research opportunities for the collection, readers can go to https://advancing.colostate.edu/ffp

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I welcome you all to this dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection at CSU’s Morgan Library. It’s no coincidence that we’re dedicating the collection in March because March is Women’s History Month and the Friedman Feminist Press collection has much to do with women’s history, both for the books that are included and for the woman after whom it is named. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit of those histories.

When I was an undergraduate at CSU in the late 1970s, I spent a lot of time in the basement of the Lory student center. It’s been remodeled, but some of you may remember the big room at the bottom of the stairway where students could eat and study, a room that was ringed by metal cubicles that served as the offices for student organizations. I was a member of one of those organizations, The Feminist Group, a student activist group working to challenge the sexism in those early days of what was then called “women’s liberation.” I loved coming down to the office every day to debate and strategize about how we, a small group of women, could bring about social change, not only on campus, but in the world.

I don’t know what year the group started, but I do remember a framed dollar bill on the wall labeled “Won September 20, 1973.” That was the day Billie Jean King played Bobbie Riggs in a tennis match that was billed the Battle of the Sexes. I loved looking at that dollar every time I went into the office because in September 1973, I was a ninth grader in Ms. Fenniman’s social studies class. Notice I said Ms. Fenniman, because she was a feminist who brought the women’s movement into our study of contemporary social issues and often wore a t-shirt with the audacious slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

One day after our class discussed the upcoming Battle of the Sexes, the boy sitting behind me bet me that Bobby Riggs would win. I am ashamed to say that although I hoped King would win, I didn’t know much about tennis or about women athletes. If I had, I would have bet against Riggs, an aging, pompous self-promoting has-been, and for Billie Jean King, one of the premiere women athletes of her time. But instead of betting on King, I told the boy behind me that my parents didn’t allow me to bet, which was true but still a really pathetic excuse. Of course, King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. So every time I saw that dollar bill in the Feminist Group office, I remembered the importance of standing up for my beliefs, whether I thought I could win or not.

As a student group, we did stand up for what we believed in. We published a newsletter, organized women’s film festivals, and wrote guest editorials about campus safety, sexual violence, reproductive rights, gender roles, and the newly flowering field of women’s studies. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Ft Collins, marching to jeers—and some cheers–past the shady bars downtown in the days before Old Town was re-developed. The activism of which I’m most proud was shutting down a campus Playboy Club in Ingersoll Hall, a so-called student tradition that clearly needed challenging in its sexist representation of women’s roles and rights.

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A big part of what I learned by these actions was that in standing up for one’s beliefs, an individual voice became even stronger when raised in unison with others. The group embodied the notion of sisterhood, where mutual support and trust inspired us to do things we wouldn’t have taken on alone. We became friends and activists together as we worked to change the sexism in our lives.

One of my closest friends was an out-of-state student named June Friedman. An agronomy major in the early days of women entering the sciences, June understood how gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and glass ceilings prevented women from achieving their highest goals. With other Feminist Group members and our faculty mentors and role models, June and I worked on what was then called a “chilly climate for women” on campus. As we met in our little office in the basement of the Student Center, we dreamed of a world where women were valued equally with men. We graduated together in 1981 on the soggy field after a rainstorm at Hughes Stadium. And then, a year after we graduated, June’s life was ended by the very kind of violence against which we had marched.

I went on to graduate school, first at CSU for my master’s and then to CU for my PhD. For my dissertation, I decided to examine the books of the early women’s liberation movement, books that had influenced the times in which I had come of age. I focused especially on the development of small-scale feminist presses, publishers that arose in the 60s and 70s because, with the exception of a few high profile spokeswomen like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, few feminist and lesbian books were being published by mainstream publishing houses.

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Now I have to admit that feminism did challenge the very underpinnings of society, so it makes sense from an ideological perspective that feminist books would not be entirely welcomed. That many of the books reflected the lives and perspectives of lesbians made such books even less appealing to male publishers—and the majority of publishers at that time were men.

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But the rejection of feminist books wasn’t just ideological, it was financial as well. Because male publishers weren’t interested in feminist writing, they didn’t believe such books had a viable sales market. They were wrong, of course, and in their place, the feminist/lesbian presses began to create from the outside a growing market segment for women’s books—books that centered on the rights of women to determine their own destinies—books that began to sell decades before Oprah’s book club championed such plots. And as the feminist presses created a market for those books, the mainstream presses began to notice, so that by 1977, the year I started college, a book like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room could become a bestseller for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, particularly in its mass market paperback form.

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But the difference between the feminist and conventional publishers was that the women’s press movement not only pushed the edge of mainstream publishing, but also formed an essential arm of the growing women’s movement, furthering activism committed to the larger political and social changes that have advanced women’s lives. The feminist presses understood that getting women’s words into print and seeing women’s lives reflected in books was liberatory. The slogan of Oakland’s A Woman’s Place Bookstore, the first women’s bookstore in the US, was “A woman’s place is in the world” and Louise Knapp, our speaker today, named her bookstore “Word is Out.” Being “out” in the world meant many things: claiming one’s sexual identity, gaining access in employment, politics, and education, and encouraging young women to think of a future beyond and beside marriage and family. Most of all, getting women out into the world meant making a difference in that world and the books carried in these bookstores helped bring that idea to life.

Similarly, I titled my dissertation Out into the World: The Print Evolution of Feminist Revolution. Here I talked about women who took it upon themselves to buy paper and ink and learn how to run off-set presses and hold women in print conferences and create distribution networks, newsletters, and catalogs and drive vans with cartons of books cross-country and open bookstores to sell the books the feminist presses had produced.

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I talked about books like Woman to Woman, the first all-woman anthology every published, printed by poet Judy Grahn and artist Wendy Cadden as the Free Women’s Press in San Francisco in 1970 on a mimeograph machine with onion-skin pages that sold for $1.50; and books like True-to-Life Adventure Stories published by Diana Press, which started in Baltimore and merged with The Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and run by women who, according to Judy Grahn, cut their hair when it kept getting caught in the press.

I wrote about Cherie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, recovered by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press after the white women’s press that had originally published it went into debt and out of business; and about Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, published by Daughters, Inc. in 1973, which was such a runaway bestseller, Daughters sold the paperback rights in 1977 to Bantam, a corporate publisher who by then had seen the dollar signs, sparking a debate within the feminist print movement about “selling out” and the value of mainstreaming feminist books. Some of those publishers are still with us, while others published just a few influential works, but all of those books circulated within the women’s movement and led to the changes that shape society today.

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In the process of my dissertation research, I collected books published by independent feminist presses. I found them in used bookstores, feminist publications, and a women’s book catalog called Luna Books. It became quite a collection and I realized that others could benefit from access to it. Now, almost twenty years after I finished “Out into the World,” that collection will be “out into the world” here at CSU, along with books contributed by Foula and the GLBT center, as the Friedman Feminist Press Collection in memory of my friend June.

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I can’t think of a more appropriate place for books that evoke the feminist activism June embodied. Like the courageous, generous, and adventurous women who established these presses, June lived her beliefs. She was a feminist who loved nature and books and had a bright future as an agronomist here in Colorado. We miss her dearly.

I hope you all have a chance to visit and read and use and recommend these books in the years to come. Bring your students; assign papers and projects; get other scholars interested; donate to fund outreach and research opportunities; and just come and pick up a book to experience the delightful, controversial, inspirational, and radical words written by feminist authors and published by feminist presses. I hope these books continue to bring women and women’s words out into the world, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be free.

In closing, I’d like to share another memory of June. While we were students here at CSU in the late 70s, June and I organized a women’s book group that met for potlucks in the basement apartments we rented in those days. I only remember two of the books that we read. One was The Women’s Room, which I mentioned earlier, and the other was Monster, a poetry collection by Robin Morgan, a book that seemed to bite right into the side of the patriarchy we opposed. In dedication of the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to June, here is an excerpt from Morgan’s poem “Letter to a Sister Underground.” I hope you will take it in the spirit of 1970s feminist social change in which it was written:

 

How to close such a message?

I miss you.

We are all as well as can be expected.

Hope you are fine and

having a wonderful time.

Don’t send a picture postcard when you can.

Stay hidden.

Come back to us.

We’ll join you.

Don’t accept rides from strange men,

and remember that all men are strange as hell.

Think of us sometime, my sister,

Forget us, my friend.

Watch for me when you look in the mirror;

I see you all the time.

Take care of ourselves.

See you soon.

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Literary Foremothers

Pearlmoonplenty readers: I’m sharing here a short piece I wrote for the “Inspired Books” column of my alma mater’s library publication.  

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel . . . and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

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So spoke Jane Eyre, the fiery heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s book of the same name. Reading the novel as a young girl, I felt the injustice of Jane forced to stand on a stool in the middle of the schoolroom because she had accidentally dropped her slate.

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From the time my schoolteacher grandmother taught me to read, I was drawn to young women protagonists: Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, and Jo March of Little Women were some of my favorites. When I started college at Colorado State University in 1977, I majored in microbiology but pursued the newly created Women’s Studies certificate as well. I took every women’s literature course I could, all taught by wonderful professors who were building this new program. But I thought of these courses as electives, taken more for fun than as preparation for any career.

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Following my sophomore year, I discovered Ellen Moer’s Literary Women: The Great Writers at the small library in the New England town where I was spending the summer. Akin to my Women’s Studies courses, Moer’s book examined writers like Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand as women–for their gender–rather than as members of a literary movement, regional location, or social affiliation. With the Dictionary Catalogue of Literary Women at the back of Moer’s book as my guide, I set myself a course of summer study of whatever women writers the small library offered, taking notes on yellow legal pads that I wish I still had today.

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What began as a passion became the topic of my Master’s and PhD research, followed by 24 years teaching a diversity of women’s literature courses at CU-Boulder. On the first day of class, students always asked me to choose my favorite book from the syllabus. I would tell them why I liked each of the books and, while I could never choose just one, how all the protagonists were in the mold set by Jane Eyre years ago: women speaking against injustice, defending their rights, and insisting their voices be heard.

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VAWA before V-Day

Hey, House Republicans! Know what US women really want for V-Day? We want you to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act!

Two emails just came across my desk. The first was from our Colorado Representative, Diana DeGette, with the news that although today the Senate has passed an expanded version of the Violence Against Woman Act, some House Republicans are refusing to bring this essential legislation to a vote. VAWA was enacted in 1994 to provide a comprehensive federal approach to violence against women, including strengthening penalties, protecting victim identities, assisting with the expense of rape exams, training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges, and establishing a National Domestic Violence Hotline. VAWA has helped create a criminal justice system that takes violence against women seriously and has raised societal awareness about the horrific nature of these crimes. Despite the critical need for this legislation, the House blocked reauthorization last year and is poised to do the same this week.

The second email came from SheWrites with an announcement of the One Billion Rising campaign in recognition of the 15th anniversary of V-Day, the movement to end violence against women and girls around the world generated by Eve Ensler’s courageous play The Vagina Monologues. One Billion Rising calls for women to rise up in activism this Thursday by sharing stories, messages, images, and rallies to protest of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and all acts of violence that continue to restrict and endanger the lives of women and girls.

These two emails are the same email. Conservative forces want to limit the power of women to live without fear of violence by failing to enact and enforce legislation and policies that protect women’s rights to safety, liberty, and justice. But resistance to that fear and the crimes behind it is growing around the world, from the outcry against the gang-rape and murder of a young woman in India, to the admiration for Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teenager attacked by the Taliban, to the US movement demanding immediate reauthorization of VAWA.

For me, these emails come at a time when I’m thinking a lot about my friend, June Friedman, who was murdered 30 years ago last June. Next month, a collection of books published by feminist and lesbian presses will be dedicated in her name as part of Morgan Library’s Special Collections at Colorado State University. The collection is comprised, in part, of books I collected while writing my dissertation 20 years ago on the history of feminist presses in the U.S. and donated to CSU where I was an undergraduate and member, along with June, of the student feminist group.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll say at the reception next month regarding this collection, the 1970s women’s movement that launched my feminist activism and my friendship with June, and the importance of protecting the rights we have gained. I’m angry that less than 20 years after the enactment of VAWA, we’re still fighting sexist, misogynist, conservative views on women’s rights, down to the basic idea that woman have a legal right to protection, enforcement, and prosecution against gender-based violence.

If VAWA had been enacted when my friend was murdered so many years ago, perhaps her murder case would not be unresolved today. Perhaps the resources necessary to bring her murderer to justice would have been available. Perhaps attitudes about the seriousness of crimes against women would have changed the outcome of her case. Perhaps if her murderer had lived in a world that believed that all women have a right to freedom from violence, she would be with us today.

Don’t wait until this Thursday to be part of the One Billion Rising. Send an email to House Republicans or your Congressional Representative demanding reauthorization of VAWA right now. Let’s hope that by V-Day this Thursday, VAWA reauthorization won’t have to be another of our demands as one billion of us rise against gender violence.

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For June

Dear June,

Tomorrow I’ll have been missing you for 30 years. You would be in your 50s now and we would have celebrated so many important milestones together. Instead, you were taken from us at much too young an age in a way no one should have to bear.

We were students together at Colorado State University in the late 1970s and early 80s, where we joined the CSU Feminist Group to try to make a difference for women on campus. We organized the first Take Back the Night March in Fort Collins and shut down a campus Playboy Club. We held Women in Film festivals and published The Feminist Newsletter. You wrote “A Touching Story” about the need for skin-to-skin contact in our lives.

When we graduated in 1981, we found each other on the football field at Hughes Stadium in the midst of hundreds of other graduates to hug and celebrate how far we had come. We stayed in touch during the next year as we began a new phase of our lives in neighboring cities. And then, on June 11, 1982, you were gone.

Thirty years ago, my daughter was only five months old when I turned on the noon news—something I rarely did—and saw the gruesome photos of a young woman’s murder. Although your name wasn’t used, I knew it was you. It took hours to confirm that fear.

I wish I could have been more involved in the investigation from the beginning, but with a newborn baby, I had to depend on others for help. Now I wish I had been the one to ask the questions and I wish fewer mistakes had been made along the way. None of that would have brought you back, but justice might have been served in some small way to offer a healing for those who grieved your loss.

Almost a year after your death, I was in my bedroom while my daughter took a nap when I sensed a strong smell of flowers from a bush outside the window. I’d never smelled it that strong before. And then I felt you there with me, assuring me that you were all right and that it was time for you to leave. I cried because I realized that you had been with me from the beginning, helping me to care for my daughter despite my sorrow and pain.

You had been so excited at her birth, you brought me the flagstone slab you found hiking when you came to see her for the first time. That was so typical of you—supporting others by sharing your life. I carried that stone with me from home to home for years, until I decided it was time for it to stay in one place as I continued on alone. But your memory never faded and when I could face your death again, I began to ask the questions I hadn’t before.

Five years ago, the police returned to your case with new eyes and new methods. They still believe the original suspect is guilty but they haven’t yet been able to find the evidence they need to convict him. Last week I talked with one of the detectives about the possibility for new types of DNA testing to provide the proof necessary for an indictment. A murder case is never closed. We’re still waiting for a breakthrough, but it hasn’t come yet.

I have missed you constantly the last thirty years and will never give up hope for your murderer to be brought to justice. But it’s time to mark your life with something other than your death. We were in a feminist book group together one summer thirty-some years ago; I remember reading The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Monster by Robin Morgan, books that placed women’s lives at the center rather than the margins of the world. Because you loved women’s writing, I want to dedicate a collection of feminist press-published books to you, my friend, in the Special Collections library at Colorado State University.

These are the books I collected while writing my dissertation on feminist publishing of the 1970s, books that carried forward the work you and I began while students at CSU. I want the Friedman Feminist Press Collection to inspire other young feminists to challenge the limitations they face in their lives as you and I did together more than 30 years ago. The collection is a reminder of how far women have come and a call to continue that activism in these reactionary times.

With these books, I dedicate the memory of our friendship to the joy we felt at the work we did. I will be missing you, June, forever, but I will never forget what a wonderful friend you have been.

Love,

Kayann

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Letters Between Friends

This pearlmoonplenty is lengthier than most; the author asks her readers’ indulgence for her own.

 

My dear Virginia

How much I like getting letters from you. 

With what zest do they send me to meet the day.

So much do I like getting them, that I keep them as the last letter to open of my morning post, like a child keeps the bit of chocolate for the end—

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 2 September 1925

 

Virginia Woolf was born 130 years ago today. She has long been an important writer and role model for me, but I didn’t know much about Woolf’s seventeen-year relationship with Vita Sackville-West until friends gave me The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf for Christmas. Reading these letters not only introduced me to intriguing aspects of Woolf’s life, but also inspired an appreciation for Sackville-West beyond her historical status as Woolf’s lover, friend, and muse behind her most imaginative character and novel, Orlando. A poet and novelist herself, Sackville-West strode through Woolf’s life in breeches and pearls, a devotee of Woolf’s artistic genius and maternal protector of Woolf’s fragile health and self-confidence.

The book contains all the surviving letters written by Sackville-West to Woolf, as well as relevant excerpts from Woolf’s letters to “My dear Vita.” Together they sketch a charged and complex friendship that evolved from romance to affection to deep appreciation and support between two avant garde women well matched in their conflicting personal desire for love and independence.

Begun in 1923 when Sackville-West invites Woolf to join the P.E.N. club of which she was a member (an invitation Woolf politely declined—she was no joiner), the letters continue until March 22, 1941, six days before Woolf’s suicide. Woolf’s last letter did not allude to her ensuing madness and her death shocked Sackville-West, who years later confided to her husband, “I still think that I might have saved her if only I had been there and had known the state of mind she was getting into.” Perhaps that help was something Woolf intended to avoid.

Both women had been raised with the privilege of English upper-class consciousness but were determined to live beyond the gendered expectations for propriety it bestowed. Sackville-West used her aristocratic position and open marriage to a diplomat to shape a life of sexual freedom and world travel; ten years older, Woolf used her intellectual capacities and marriage to a supportive husband to pursue literary achievements that have earned her lasting renown. Their letters portray a mutual impulse for pushing life to its edge, an emotional necessity for Sackville-West, while for Woolf, an artistic one.

As their relationship turned from recognition of each other’s social rebellion to a more intimate level of affection, they often used pet names or their own pets to express their feelings. Days after their short-lived sexual affair began, Woolf referred to Sackville-West as a “dear old rough coated sheep dog,” an image she repeated over the years, while Sackville-West jokingly referred to Woolf as “Potto,” a name Woolf created for the child-like creature she became in her desire for Vita: “Potto kisses you and says he could rub your back and cure it by licking.”

Over the years, both women used letter-writing to discuss their ideas about writing that reveal important insights into both their literary styles. For Sackville-West, Woolf is the writer to whom her own writing can never compare: “[Passenger to Teheran] is a rambling, discursive sort of affair. And I think of your lovely books, and despair.” She complains that Woolf has “the mot juste [Flaubert’s term for the “right word”] more than any modern writer” she knows: “I wonder whether it costs you a lot of thought or trouble, or springs ready-armed like Athene from the brow of Zeus? I don’t believe it does cost you trouble (confound you!) because you have it in your letters too, where you certainly haven’t made a draught (draft?), and where there is never anything but an impatient scratching or two.”

Woolf sidesteps this compliment by debating literary strategy instead: “As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” For Woolf, rhythm “goes far deeper than words”: “A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, . . . and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.” [Click here for the only surviving recording of Woolf, speaking in a radio broadcast about words]

Although their writing was quite different in style and story, their letters share a concern for novelistic form. Writing from Germany in 1928, Sackville-West begins to imagine her novel The Edwardians (for which she and the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press made a nice sum) as “a sort of patch-work counterpane . . . beginning to form, but so far the patches are only laid side by side and I have not yet begun to stitch at them.” Wondering whether it is better to “fail gloriously than dingily succeed” (the clear answer for Sackville-West being the former), she concludes that “one’s pen, like water, always finds its own level, and one can’t write in any way other than one’s own.”

Woolf’s reply reflects the anguish she experienced about form and voice echoed in her diaries: “I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that its to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable: but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.”

Despite the commercial success of Sackville-West’s novels and poetry, both women recognized Woolf’s superior artistry. “When I read you,” writes Sackville-West, “I feel no one has ever written English prose before.” In reply, Woolf reminds her friend of the work involved in writing well: “Yes I do write damned well sometimes, but not these last days, when I’ve been slogging through a cursed article, and see my novel [To the Lighthouse] glowing like the Island of the Blessed far far away over dismal wastes, and cant [sic] reach land.”

But for all their literary aspirations, Vita and Virginia were friends who wrote about the common things that women share: food, family, small gifts, gossip about friend’s love affairs. Early in their friendship when Woolf earned money from the publication of Mrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, she wrote, “And, dearest Vita, we are having two waterclosets made, . . . both dedicated to you.” They pierced their ears together, after which Vita wrote, “Are your ears still sore? Have you enjoyed the sensation of twiddling the rings when they have stuck?” They took only one extended trip together to Burgundy but until the later years, they met in London frequently and dined at each other’s houses like friends do. During the war, Sackville-West sent butter on Christmas Day, eliciting Woolf’s grateful delight: “Oh Vita what a Cornucopia of Bounty you are!”

Woolf and Sackville-West used letters as a space for first creating, then maintaining a long and loyal friendship that survived jealousy, distance, debate, illness, the boredom of predictability, and the distractions of their busy lives. As WWII brought fear that each visit would be their last, their correspondence assured each other of their continuing love and affection. In 1939, when Sackville-West sent Woolf a copy of her book Country Notes, Woolf called it “a dose of sanity and sheep dog in this scratching, clawing, and colding universe.”  In April 1940 as bombs fell around their homes, Sackville-West wrote, “Your friendship means so much to me. In fact it is one of the major things in my life—.” And in August, Woolf lamented the bombing near Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle and reaffirmed her love: “What can one say, except that I love you. . . . You have given me such happiness.”

Reading such an intimate friendship between these vital women makes me value my own correspondences with women friends all the more. Email has taken the place of twice-daily postal service by which we can keep in near constant written contact, but the sentiments are the same. Writing to each of my friends has its own timing—some weekly, some monthly, some more intermittent, but all valued for the support they lend to my goals and my sense of self.

One dear friend and I still write letters on stationery and mail them in envelopes with stamps; I look forward to their arrival and read them as Sackville-West did, like children save chocolate. I’ve kept every letter she’s sent in pretty dresser boxes; perhaps someday I’ll read them all straight through again. Another friend mails postcards from her travels; I’ve saved those too, as well as the poems she sends in exchange for my ramblings. And I have stopped corresponding with a few friends when I felt the support became less mutual and interests no longer met.

It seems letter-writing for me, no matter the form, is as important an indication of continuing love and affection for my friends as it was for Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. My friends, near and far, are lively correspondents. How excited I am to find their letters in my mailbox or In-Box. A letter says “I’m thinking of you” and so much more. Preserving our friendship’s history and anticipating its future, we write of ourselves, our dreams, our joys, and our sorrows, trying always to find the right words to say, “Thank you for being my reader.”

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