Tag Archives: women writers

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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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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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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