Tag Archives: feminism

Girls, Intercepted

Even before Winona Ryder produced and starred in the film with Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted was a strikingly honest memoir that exposed the consequences of rejecting traditional female gender roles for white, affluent girls in the late 1960s. In the book, Susanna Kaysen alternates memories of her stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts with analysis of a mental health system that recommended institutionalization for rebellious girls whose families could pay the $60 a day fee, an enormous expense that, as Kaysen ironically notes, could have paid for several college educations.

But Kaysen refuses to go to college, rejecting the upwardly bound expectations of her parents and teachers. Instead, she lives in a Cambridge boarding house, working various jobs without a plan for her future or any particular ambition other than to be a writer. When her self-obsessive thoughts lead to an aspirin overdose, a therapist suggests that she “needs a rest” after a consultation of only thirty minutes (the amount of time is debated in the memoir as an example of the medical profession’s acquiesance in institutionalizing young women from the right kind of families).  He calls a cab and Kaysen checks herself into McLean for what she believes will be a short stay. Instead, she’s there for nearly two years.

One of the debates framed by the memoir is the definition of insanity. Kaysen admits that she knew she wasn’t crazy but instead living in a state of contrariety: “My ambition was to negate. . . . So the opportunity to be incarcerated was just too good to resist. It was a very big No—the biggest No this side of suicide.” At 18, saying No is easier than suggesting an alternative and Kaysen doesn’t yet have the wisdom or role models to find her Yes.

Kaysen is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis given more frequently to women than men and a familiar description of many young women who don’t follow social expectations: instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, or mood; engaging in impulsive acts like shoplifting or spending sprees. BPD can also have a self-damaging side such as self-mutilation or suicide. Still, the diagnosis remains controversial because of its gender bias and because many young women experience these types of symptoms at some point in their adolescence or young adulthood. As a therapist later told Kaysen, “It’s what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.”

One of the delights of Kaysen’s memoir is the inclusion of her hospital records detailing observations by hospital doctors and staff. One admission form notes that Kaysen is “likely to kill self or get pregnant.” Which fate would be worse for an affluent white girl in those pre-women’s liberation days? The note also labels her “promiscuous,” but as Kaysen later writes, “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn [that] label?”

Another debate at the center of the memoir is whether McLean was a refuge or a prison for young women like Kaysen. At that time of countercultural upheaval when attitudes regarding women were changing but social opportunities had not yet met their pace, the options for girls who questioned the status quo were still limited. Trying to live independently of her parents or a husband, Kaysen is confronted with sexist attitudes about women and the lonely struggle to make a living. In McLean, however, she is part of a community of young women who support each other and accept each other’s idiosyncracies within the shelter of a hospital that cares for their every need–except to let them leave the way they are.

Eventually, Kaysen does decide to leave this ensemble of misfit girls in order to pursue her own life, but the admiration and love they’ve provided strengthen her belief in herself. It’s this community of women that makes the memoir so appealing to young women readers, who are drawn to the sisterhood formed within the walls of Kaysen’s imprisonment and the collective antics that fill the time.  They relish its depiction of friendship offered fully and freely, like the young women I saw on campus yesterday, two with arms around the third one sobbing, letting her cry as long as she needed, willing to wait as long as it took. How iconic that image and how important to coming of age for young women today as much as in Kaysen’s time.

My students love Girl, Interrupted. In part they’re fascinated by the story of a girl who refused the script that they themselves are living—college in preparation for a comfortable and interesting life, one they hope will balance work, family, and friends. But they can also see the allure of the hospital as refuge for Kaysen, the appeal of being taken care of while the world’s craziness goes on outside. Still, they know the value of their youthful years and they empathize deeply with Kaysen’s insistence on accounting for each minute she’s lost.

Girl, Interrupted makes me think about my own teenage years and I hope to write more about them someday.  It’s tricky, though, to tell those truths because if they don’t sound trivial, they certainly sound crazy, an admission of behavior somewhere between bad judgment and caution thrown to the winds of wanting more.  If you haven’t read Girl, Interrupted, give it a try and then watch the movie too. You’ll root for these girls and their crazy lives, intercepted until the times can catch up with them.

 

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Girls Wear Pants

“Stingray! Stingray!” the girls screamed as sand and gravel pricked across our bare legs in the wind. The playground of our new school had not been planted yet with grass (nor would it ever fully be), so every windy day brought recess misery. We’d huddle together, legs pulled under cotton dresses, until the gusts died down and we could return to our play. We were girls, after all, so we couldn’t wear pants to school.

Gathering itself across the Colorado prairie, the unrelenting wind blew gravel off the playground and straight into our PE area, an asphalt dome circled by fiberglass curtains that were usually left open. Years later the asphalt was covered with fake grass, but until then, running and jumping on blacktop was treacherous. I still have a small, round scar just under my right knee from a large pea of gravel that embedded itself when I fell, bare-legged, one day. My mother had to remove it with tweezers, exposing the white fatty tissue under my rough skin in a perfect little hole.

An earthen schoolyard did offer a couple attractions. Leave it to children to make the best of what they have. We girls spent hours drawing lines in the sand to mark the borders of imaginary houses, then brushing away a palm’s width for a wall, leaving unswept openings for doors.  These dream houses would be blown away before the next recess, or, at best, left in faint sweepings we could excavate the next day. Busy little homemakers, we would start again, enlarging the living room or adding an extra bedroom for guests.

We could play hopscotch too, drawing boxes with our fingers right on the sandy ground. We’d hop on one foot to the box with our stone, making sure we held our skirts down as we bent to retrieve it. Even on the playground, we had to be ladies.

My first day of kindergarten, properly attired

When the weather turned cold, we were allowed to wear pants or snowpants over our knitted tights on our way to school, but we had to take them off in the coatroom. Even there, modesty reigned: we couldn’t bend over too far or we would show too much, so we quickly shuffled out of our pants and stuffed them in our cubbies for the day.

Constant vigilance was essential to our female integrity. Hard to imagine today, when undergarments are meant to be seen, but back then, all underwear was supposed to be hidden. Bra straps were especially policed since they implied puberty, and hence, sex. Should the boys catch a glimpse of some unsuspecting girl’s panties (even the word was illicit), they’d break into the familiar taunt: “I see London, I see France, I see someone’s underpants!” Then the embarrassed girl would cry, while the other girls huddled around to comfort her, yelling “Shut up” across the schoolyard at the teasing boys.

Maybe parents complained, because the school eventually allowed us to wear shorts under our dresses. This made swinging on the monkey bars much easier because we didn’t have to worry about a nearby boy’s straying eyes or somehow hold onto our skirts as we somersaulted around the high bar. We had special shorts for under our dresses, very short and stretchy in those early polyester days. Still, shorts weren’t pants.

 

The fall of 1970, we sixth-graders were bussed to a larger elementary for our last year before junior high because our own school, built less than ten years earlier, was now too small for six grades. The new school too had a no-pants-for-girls policy, but it also had school spirit and pep rally days where students could wear their Mustang mascot sweatshirts. But who wanted to wear them with a skirt? Not to mention we were tired of cold legs while waiting for the bus. The showdown began.

By 1970, women’s liberation had begun to infiltrate even our little western town. Lots of female “firsts” had occurred by then, and the local newspaper was required to integrate job ads—no more “jobs for women” and (higher paid) “jobs for men.” Although I don’t remember watching the news reports, the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in which a live sheep was crowned Miss America and bras were reputedly burned in a trashcan would have made a splash, even where I was growing up.

Somehow these “women’s lib” ideas filtered down to our sixth grade class and inflamed our sense of youthful righteousness at the bare-kneed indignity we’d been suffering all these years. I wouldn’t call it full-fledged feminism—that wouldn’t come for me until 1973 when Bobbie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets—but at least we recognized that our second-class sartorial status was based on our femalehood. Even though the words “feminism” and “gender discrimination” wouldn’t become part of our vocabularies until junior high, high school, or even college, we knew the words “no fair,” and that became our rallying cry as we demanded pants at school for girls.

The administration, however, refused to change the policy until they’d used it as an example of civic engagement. They would reconsider the no-pants rule only if it could be put to a non-binding vote at a school assembly. The principal would run the show and students could testify by raising their hands, standing up, and offering reasons to revise the policy. The assembly would be orderly, they implied, not like those women’s libbers who demanded change in unladylike ways.

The girls thought this whole charade was another discriminatory tactic. Had we voted on boys wearing pants? We also had years of gender conditioning to overcome. We girls weren’t used to speaking up for ourselves. It was kind of embarrassing, really, to have to talk about the whole situation. What could we say? Our legs are cold? We don’t want boys looking up our dresses anymore?  We think pants are cute? Nor did we have much of a feminist analysis to make our case. Calling down the patriarchy just wasn’t in our consciousness then. Still, we knew this was our chance; we had to do the best we could.

The day of the assembly, we poured into the gym in neat lines and sat in the folding chairs laid out in precise rows. Only the upper grades would participate, perhaps because the administration feared we’d taint the lower grades with our radical demands. The principal stood at the monitor, waiting for us to take our seats quietly so the debate could begin.

“We’re here to discuss changing a school policy that may no longer reflect the fashions and activities of our times.” No feminist analysis here: he didn’t mention that the rule discriminated against women’s rights, that it had been created out of sexist ideas regarding female decorum, or that the administration itself should have changed it years ago. Looking back, I hope the school regrets not taking more of a stand for girls’ freedom and independence or realized that it had failed to send a message to young people about equality. Mirroring much of national sentiment, maybe they hoped that we’d fail to offer any effective reasons, that the vote would go against us, or that we’d just forget about the whole thing.

When the principal called for testimony, the boys’ hands predictably went up first. Boy after boy stood up to testify to the power of pants—pants were cool, they argued. With pants, you could run fast and jump high. Pants let you move around. They gave you the freedom to be all that you could be. Without pants, you’d be—well, you’d be a girl. In other words, they felt sorry for girls because girls couldn’t be boys.

This was hardly the line of reasoning for which the girls had hoped. I rolled my eyes at these arguments, but since I was in my “I’m not going to dignify this with a response” phase, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I sat with my arms crossed, waiting to see what the administrators would do next. But I should have stood up and said something. I was learning my first feminist lesson: “That’s stupid” can start all kinds of challenges to the status quo.

Finally, a tall, pale girl with nearly white hair who would later become a lawyer stood up and reasoned, “Girls should get to wear pants because it’s not fair to let boys wear them and not let girls if they want to.” Bingo! Exactly! The double standard denied us our civil liberties. All the girls cheered! We didn’t want to be boys, but neither did we want to be second-class citizens.

On a show of hands, the vote passed overwhelmingly and the administration relented, at least in part: girls could wear pants, but not jeans. By next year in junior high, that question would be moot anyway, so we celebrated our first feminist victory with pants of all colors.

Two years later, my eighth grade social studies teacher wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I wanted one of those shirts. The obnoxious boy who sat behind me in class bet me that Bobby Riggs would beat Billie Jean King. I wouldn’t bet him because my parents didn’t allow betting, but I was also still a little hesitant about the possibility of King winning. I didn’t follow tennis or I would have realized her certain victory, but I wanted her to win more than anything. She did win and I should have bet that boy. That was my second feminist lesson: stand up for what you believe in.

While older women were fighting for women’s rights on the streets and in the courts to win public sentiment and shape public policy, my first battles were fought on the playground and in the classroom. Today, my students, like me at the time, think those no-pants-for-girls rules were stupid, and they find those struggles quaint. When I tell them I’m an ancient authority on second-wave feminism, they laugh. But I’m glad they can take wearing pants for granted. Such a small victory, but one that opened worlds.

Young Feminists Celebrate their Pants-For-Girls Victory

To my readers: I’d love for you to share this posting with younger people especially so they can see that small struggles add up to large changes! Thanks!

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams

Rather than write this week, I created a digital story based on a previous post called Our Great-Grandmother’s Gardens. I loved putting old photographs to Flora Hunsley Smith’s story. Although she was a quiltmaker herself, none of her quilts have survived, so for background images I used quilts that were passed down to me from my Grandma Short on my father’s side of the family. I had fun with the transitions between quilts and flowers, looking for similar colors and textures. The music came last. I knew I wanted a traditional piece but hadn’t imagined something this melancholy. I loved the title–and Rayna Gellert’s liner notes–and its driving tone captured the sense of perseverance I associate with my great-grandmother’s life. “Coming through the rye” says it all for me–you come through life the best you can by making the most of each day.

Watch Seeds of Never-Seen Dreams:

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June

Today is the 28th anniversary of my friend June’s death. June was murdered in her home on June 11, 1982, just a year after we graduated from college. Three years ago, I decided to make a digital story about June, not only to mark the 25 years since I lost her, but to celebrate our friendship and the 1970s feminism that brought us together.

I can’t remember those days without imagining June.

You can see the digital story here:

June from Kayann Short on Vimeo.

Since the making of this story, June’s case has received new attention and is being reinvestigated by an official cold case unit and a wonderful detective who is determined to see June’s killing solved. The murderer knows that he is again under investigation; he may be laughing now but his time will come. I believe that someone or some evidence will come forward some day to lay this crime to rest.

Making June’s story was painful but necessary because I don’t want to forget her and the movement that shaped our friendship. I loved my life then. I could hardly wait each day to meet my friends at our student group’s office. We argued and laughed and sometimes published our ideas.  We organized and marched and wrote letters and showed up when needed to voice our demands. We held garage sales and feminist film festivals to raise money for our efforts. We simultaneously cared so much and so little because our irreverence for the systems of power just pushed us harder to insist on change.

We didn’t yet know how much could be lost.

But at June’s death, we came face to face with the very thing we most wanted to change—the violence in our everyday women’s lives. And 28 years later, I’m still engulfed with rage and pain and sorrow that none of us could save her.

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