Tag Archives: young women

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, 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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