Tag Archives: women’s rights

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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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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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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Black Friday Sounds Like a Plague

The media hype surrounding Black Friday this year astounded me in its hijacking of the Thanksgiving holiday into something commercial and crass. As many commentators pointed out, a day that used to mean spending time with your family has become a competitive spectator sport. Stores opened at obscenely early hours for “specials” that had shoppers stealing out of each others’ carts. This scarcity tactic led to people mobbing shops and even pepper-spraying other shoppers to get something they certainly didn’t need in the first place.

In the mid to late 90s, my women’s studies students and I organized an event called Why Shop? Week to raise awareness about the connection between women producers of products—generally low-paid workers in underdeveloped and developing countries—and women consumers—the audience for fashion and beauty advertisements founded on the message that women are never good enough so buy, buy, buy, including products that are unsafe and unhealthy. Both of these groups of women should be natural allies because they face a common struggle for women’s rights. That is, women’s lives should not be limited and trivialized by sexist stereotypes of women as merely producers or consumers of products. When women consumers realize that the products they’re told to buy to improve themselves are often produced by other women in unsafe and exploitative working conditions, shopping can be seen in another light. By learning the story behind the product and asking “Who Made It?” Who Needs It?” and “Who Profits from It?,” we can start to free ourselves from a misogynistic consumerism that profits from women’s economic and social vulnerability. Women are more than what they buy and they deserve fair wages and working conditions for any job they undertake.

Sure, it’s not simple. Women all over the world need jobs, but low wages and dangerous conditions for some women should not be the necessary conditions upon which other women’s self-esteem is based.

These connections are not easy to make but my students came up with innovative ways to—at the very least—start questioning the link between US consumption practices and women’s labor exploitation. One year they staged an alternative fashion show called “Crimes of Fashion: Are They Worth It?” exposing the real world of fashion, especially the labor exploitation of sweatshop workers in the U.S. and overseas.  Here the students modeled “recycled” clothing from a second-hand store to suggest creating one’s own fashion sense rather than following trends found in magazines.

Another year they created an alternative beauty pageant called “Ms. Assembly Line” whose talent segment featured contestants from garment, athletic shoe, appliance, and agricultural businesses demonstrating their production skills, while a red, white, and blue-sequined Ms. Super Shopper displayed her talent running up a hefty credit card tab. The students’ even revised the lyrics to the famous pageant song: “She is the poorest of the poor/ Except in the U. S. where she has more and more.”

Another year, the skit, “Shop ‘Til They Drop,” included talk show host Sally “Dressy” Raphael interviewing guests with shopping addictions, including Cher, a teen shopper from Beverly Hills; “Grandma Claus,” an overly generous holiday shopper; Mikey Swoosh, a Nike fanatic; and Annie Smith, a high school student addicted to beauty products.  Experts helped guests face their addictions by educating them about their consumption habits.

For each of these events, the students decorated shopping bags highlighting the disparity between wages and profits for common women’s products while questioning the message that enough is never enough.

With Why Shop? Week, we tried to raise awareness about the role consumerism plays in limiting women’s rights. I hope when my former students hear about Black Friday, they reflect on the ideas we discussed years ago. I’m discouraged that shopping has been raised to a national holiday and that people are even harmed by manufactured scarcity and media hype. Black Friday sounds like a plague—and like a disease, it seems to have spread a terrible contagion: greed. I hope next year we say “Enough is Enough” to the stores, advertisers, and manufacturers that trivialize our freedoms and cheapen our lives with a shopping mania in service of profits for a few rather than rights for all.

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Stuffed Peppers: A $2 Meal

I’m a supporter of a dedicated non-profit organization called Women Thrive Worldwide that advocates for women’s economic opportunities and rights internationally. I met WTW’s founder, Ritu Sharmu, years ago in Denver at a global women’s rights conference and was impressed by her commitment to increasing our government’s support for policies and budget priorities that help women around the world lift themselves out of poverty. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Ritu lived on $1 a day in Burkina Faso, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to better understand the way many people in the world survive today. WTW also raises awareness of how global crises like famine, war, recession, and natural disasters place a disproportionate burden on women through sexual violence, food insecurity, increased family responsibilities, and social barriers.

Right now, Women Thrive Worldwide is asking for meal ideas, stories, and recipes as part of their Help Women Feed the World campaign. To recognize the fact that 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day, WTW is asking people to cook just one meal for that amount. By growing our own food at Stonebridge, we eat pretty economically, but $2 a meal is still a challenge. Tonight I’ve made stuffed peppers for two people that, I hope, would not cost more than $2 if you either grew the peppers yourself or got them at a farmer’s market or grocery store. I submitted our stuffed pepper recipe and was selected for the Women Feed the World Campaign. Click here to see my recipe and learn more about this fabulous campaign, including $2/meal recipes from around the world.

Here are more pictures and the story I wrote for Women Thrive Worldwide: 

My partner and I have an organic community-supported agricultural farm (CSA) in Colorado. From August through October, we harvest lots of different kinds of peppers and love to make stuffed peppers in a variety of ways. Before the first hard frost comes to the garden, we pick all the peppers and share them with our members. If you don’t grow your own or are a member of a CSA, peppers are also an economical choice at farmer’s markets or grocery stores.

The great gift of peppers is that they’re so easy to freeze: you don’t have to do anything but core out the stem and seed pod, chop or slice them, or leave them whole to freeze for stuffing later. When you’re ready to make stuffed peppers, pull them out of the freezer, stuff, and bake—no need to thaw first.

Our stuffings always include a mixture of grain (bulgar, quinoa, rice), nuts or seeds (walnuts, sunflower, sesame), grated or finely diced veggies (carrot, more peppers, broccoli, kale, spinach, summer squash), and some grated or crumbled cheese (feta, Monterey jack, or parmesan), although cheese is optional if it’s over your $2 budget or for a vegan diet. For extra protein, add cooked lentils or small beans. Buying grains and legumes in bulk saves money; I always make a double batch so I have enough for a couple of meals.

Mix the ingredients in about equal amounts, season the mixture with fresh or dried herbs like parsley, basil, or oregano and a little salt and pepper, and stuff into a cored and seeded pepper like a green or colored bell, poblano, anaheim, or even skinny Jimmy Nardello sweet red peppers. Stuff firmly but don’t pack too hard so that the stuffing can bake inside the pepper. You can top each pepper with a dollop of marinara or enchilada sauce if it’s in your budget but they’re still delicious with no sauce at all. (If the skin gets a little scorched, you can peel it off.)

Bake in a low-sided, oiled roasting or cake pan at 395 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the thickness of the pepper. Once the pepper’s soft and a little wrinkled, it’s ready to eat.

Tonight I stuffed poblano peppers with a mixture of cooked bulgar, grated carrot, chopped fresh flat parsley, sesame seeds, red lentils, and grated Romano cheese. (To cook bulgar, add 1 cup grain to 2 ½ cup boiling water, reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 25-30 minutes. For red lentils, bring 2 cups water to a boil, add 1 cup rinsed lentils, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. You should have enough of both ingredients to stuff 8 good-sized bell peppers.)

In the US, our cuisine is often based on separate protein, grains, and vegetables on a plate and we think it’s bare if it’s not “filled out” this way, but in much of the world, these components are mixed together to form a single main dish. Stuffed peppers is exactly that—a bundle of wholesome ingredients that together create something greater than the parts!

To help Women Thrive Worldwide in their work for global women’s empowerment, join their Dollar a Day Circle

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A Reminder of Our Rights

As we approached the rally at the capital in Denver last Saturday, the first activist we saw was a young woman standing along Colfax with the sign “My Body, My Choice.” I couldn’t take her picture with all the traffic passing, so I hoped I’d find her later as we crossed the street to the steps of the capital where the rally had just begun.

This rally was partly in support of the Wisconsin protests against their governor’s attempts to eradicate the collective bargaining rights of state workers, but it was also in support of state workers here, especially teachers, who suddenly find themselves vilified as making too much money for too little work. Anyone with children in the public school system knows how ridiculous that claim is, but in this polarized political climate, ridiculous claims are floated everyday as justification for the erosion of the middle class and the removal of a safety net for the poor, all to the benefit of corporations and moneyed interests.

Although some of the organizers were in their 20s, most of the people at the rally were middle-aged or older, people who have been fighting these same battles since the Reagan administration and before that, the Vietnam war. We’ve chanted “Whose Rights? Our Rights?” and “Ain’t No Power like the Power of the People” a thousand times but still the struggle over social justice continues. Now the right wing is using the economic crisis—brought on, as one poster reminded us, by the financial sector, not by teachers—as an excuse for the kind of social and economic engineering they’ve wanted all along. It’s easier to take away worker’s rights when jobs and money are scarce.

Organized just three days before, the rally was mellow, with most of the 3000 of us realizing that more rallies are undoubtedly to come. One Tea Party-type tried to argue the benefits of union-busting from the capital steps and was escorted to the sidewalk below by the police. It didn’t stop his tirade, though, as others gathered around, more for amusement than for conflict. The police hovered nearby but nothing got out of control and soon folks tired of the guy’s rant and wandered away in the sunshine.

Another rally and march were starting just after the one for workers’ rights, this time for women’s reproductive rights. As one speaker explained, the same people who want to curtail our rights to collective bargaining also want to curtail women’s rights over our own bodies. The assault on Planned Parenthood funding already shows that not only the right to choose a legal abortion but a women’s access to family planning, birth control, and reproductive healthcare are threatened as well. This rally featured a younger crowd and I was glad to see young women speaking out for their rights.

After running into old friends and wondering how much it would take to stop this class war on the poor and middle-class, we went to the used bookstore near the capital, as we generally do when we’re in that neighborhood. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but let myself, as I often do, come upon a book serendipitously. That day I found The Birth House by Ami McKay and started reading it on the bus ride home. Unlike a lot of fiction that I run across, I didn’t get bored in the middle and skip to the end but read it straight through because its story spoke not only to the importance of the rally for reproductive rights but to all collective struggles against domination and injustice.

McKay is a US writer living in Nova Scotia who discovered that the house she had rented had at one time been a birth house, or maternity home, for pregnant women to have their babies safely delivered by a midwife. McKay made a documentary about the midwife and the birth house but then wanted to fill in the blanks that history had left ajar.

I’m always interested in stories about midwives, birthing, and women’s health communities so I was drawn to this story for its historical as well as fictional aspects. My grandmother’s cousin Daisy was a midwife who ran a maternity hospital in northwestern North Dakota where both my mother and her oldest sister were born. (Their middle sister was born at home during a blizzard when getting to town was impossible.) My own daughter’s birth was supposed to be a homebirth, but given her month-late arrival, the midwives accompanied me to the hospital instead.

The Birth House is set at the beginning of the 1900s in a small coastal town where the joint efforts of the insurance and medical industries are attempting to convince women that midwifery is backwards and dangerous. The main character, Dora Rare, is a seventeen-year-old girl who is apprenticing with the elderly midwife who delivered her and serves as the primary healer in the community, never charging for her assistance but living on the gifts of food, wood, and help offered in appreciation for her skills and care.

Miss B’s training helps Dora understand that women must listen to their own hearts: “Woman’s got every right to look after herself. . . . Only the woman knows if she’s got enough love to make a life.” When the new male doctor in town tries to turn women against the midwife to the detriment of their health and their children, young Dora must make choices about her own future.

Other conflicts arise with family and the law, taking Dora to Halifax and Boston where she learns about the struggles of women to vote and to control their own lives. Home again, she draws together the community’s women to protect their rights to natural birth through valuing women’s knowledge and friendships.

The Birth House is a beautiful rendering of women’s commitments to each other in the service of caring for their families while knitting together the larger community. But it’s also an important reminder of what life could be like without control over our own bodies. In the novel, the women draw wisdom from the past to create the future they want for themselves. In today’s struggle over reproductive rights, I hope that women my age will help young women like those at last Saturday’s rally do the same.

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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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