Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Most Sexist Thing I've Ever Done to Myself

I was always good at math.  Algebra, trigonometry, and logic were my favorites.  I worked on equations just for fun enjoying the way the numbers revealed themselves in such tidy order.  I loved to think about the endless possibilities of intersections.  It made me feel more connected to infinity to gaze at a line segment and think, "But it doesn't end there.  That's just where the ink ends.  The line goes on forever without end."  The reality of a line as something more than anything that could be represented...the idea that the signifier is never as profound as the signified, tickled me as a child.  I realize now that this pleasure was the same I feel when I play with language, but I developed my love of language and set aside my love of mathematics because I was a girl and "Girls are not good at math".

In the 9th grade, I aced my Regents math class.  I either got a 100 in the class and a 99 on the state test or the other way around.  I was assigned the seat in the front of the room and enjoyed my math teacher's enthusiasm and energy.  The next year, by chance, I was assigned to a seat in the back of the room.  I didn't know it yet, but my eyesight was getting weaker, a condition that would follow me into adulthood as I continued to engage in "close work" of study and writing.  As a fifteen year old, I didn't figure out that my eyes were bad until I complained to my friend about the writing on the board and learned that she could see it just fine.  My folks took me to get glasses, but the damage was done.  I had fallen behind in my comprehension and enthusiasm for the material, had decided that I was a failure in math, received only a B+ (a shameful grade for me), and refused to take any more math in high school. 

I'm amazed now that no one argued with my perspective.  My parents knew that I preferred English and history just as they did.  They probably also thought that pushing me in a subject I said I despised was unwise given the fact that I was already making myself sick and hysterical with stress.  My father actually directed me to try to get only "C"s in my classes for fear that I would have some kind of break-down if I kept up my perfectionist ambitions.  The guidance counselor advised me to take more math as it would be required in every subject, but did not suggest that I do so because I had any skill in the subject.  I joked that if I were to become a wet nurse, I'd only need to count to two.  I ignored the fact that my grandmother was always quick in mathematics.  I ignored the fun I'd had with my father as he taught me algebra.  I ignored everything my parents taught me about feminism, and my value as a person.  I didn't want to ever risk getting another grade that might jeopardize my GPA.

Why didn't my educators encourage me by telling me that I had a gift in math? Why didn't they explain that mistakes and rough spots are part of a learning process that transcends the petty grading system?  Although I had always had one of the highest mathematics grades in my class throughout school, I did not receive praise for my efforts.  Boys who had lower scores than I did were "gifted."  I was merely proficient.  I was told that boys truly understand math even though in their boyish enthusiasm, they sometimes make more technical errors.  Girls, being obedient and good at following rules, can master the technical manipulation of math facts, but are unable to truly comprehend numbers at the fundamental level.  And I bought that bullshit.  I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.  I convinced myself that "math is hard for me."  When I took the required math classes in college, I aced the courses.  One of my math professors even told me that it was OK if I left the class early since he knew I already understood the concepts and was often bored with the lessons.  Even then, it still did not occur to me to consider myself  "good at math."!   I gave up on math because I was a girl and girls don't like math.  We've haven't the heads for it.

But that wasn't the most sexist thing I ever did to myself.

I discovered the most sexist thing I ever did to myself just this month.  Without realizing it, I've been recording the execution of this self-imposed injustice in this blog over the past three years.  I'm so entangled in it that I think I will have difficulty extricating myself from it.  I will have trouble even articulating it, but I think I have to confront it.  I have denied my own experiences as a spiritual person because I convinced myself that my spirituality was a mark of my inferiority as a woman.

My life has been strongly directed by my embodied sense of that Presence.  I've had visions and dreams, callings, and inspirations.  These feelings have run the range of intellectual inspirations to visions that have pushed me onto my knees. The exchange may be as gentle as the feeling of expansive love to the almost nauseating, trembling, sweating rush of feeling I get before I find myself speaking in meeting for worship.  In dreams, visions, and divination, I find that I am able to follow a silver thread through my life that continues to wind its way back to my sense of the Source and of a mission I feel I must fulfill.  Like it or not, I have a calling.  I've heard it, over and over and over again my entire life. 

It is embarrassing to say such things in a society such as ours.  I don't wish to seem insane.  And I don't wish to seem as though I'm somehow unique and specially blessed.  On the contrary, I feel, very strongly, that there are a great many people who, each in their own way, feel the same as I do.  My evidence is that when I write or speak of these things, I watch people closely and very often I see that it is as though a veil falls from their faces.  They turn to me with some relief an tell me about their own experiences.  All my life people have told me their stories-- wonderful stories, poignant and holy, about spirits, dreams, prayers, sensations, and communion with the Divine.  I am not alone in this.  I suspect that there are far more of us with stories to tell than will ever be heard.

But I convinced myself that it was all delusion.  You see, at the end of a doctoral program spent studying the heterodox, embodied, and mystical relationships women have had with the Divine over many centuries, I went to one...just one!...conference about the history of secular humanism.  I was invited to deliver a talk about nineteenth-century Spiritualism and its relationship to women's rights and the American freethought tradition.  I had a great time.  These folks are my allies since both they and I have great concern about the damaging effects of religious fundamentalism on the development and maintenance of human rights.  My contribution was well-received, and it was a thrill to finally feel like I was playing ball with the big boys.

It was indeed a boys' club.  Of the speakers, I was the only woman.  In fact, I was one of the only women at the entire event.  I saw very few other women in the audience.  This struck me as curious.  I began to wonder if there was a relationship between secular humanism (at least the variety honored at that conference) and gender that deserved exploration.  Following our presentations, I got to hang out with some pretty notable people at a dinner.  It was thrilling to participate in their conversations and to soak in all the brilliance and wit they cast about so easily.  But so much of their brilliance and wit was directed toward castigating spiritual people.  They did not discriminate.  Fundamentalists, spiritualists, New Agers, Pagans, Buddhists, liberal Christians were all deluded and misguided.  I had reminded them of their shared history with Spiritualist feminists, and they were willing to concede the fact, but I knew they considered people like the dissident Quaker Spiritualists, the Theosophists, Goddess women, and radical women's rights activists I discussed a footnote in a more important history of Rationalism.

As I sat there, and for months thereafter, I dissected and deconstructed their celebration of Rationalism and their confidence in the non-existence of the spiritual.  I analyzed their attitudes within the context of my own research and experience and found error, inelegance, and even blatant sexism in their approach.  But I let it begin to hollow me out.  I let it begin to change me.  My confidence began to slip.

They had not experienced anything mystical or spiritual as I had so they said that my experience and those of people like me was delusional.  It was "wishful thinking."  It was socially conditioned.  It was emotional.  It was a product of misinterpreted physical sensations.  There it was.  Women (and foreigners, and people of color, and children, and poor people) are deluded by our inability to fully partake in the pure, enlightened intellectual rationalism characteristic of well-educated, white men.  We are too physical.  Too emotional.  Too raw.  Too religious.  Of course, some of us, adept at following the rules, are able to become proficient.  But are we ever truly as gifted?  Was I not, I thought, just a fraud in their presence?  When would they realize that I was a country parson's daughter and laugh me right out of the building?

They accepted me in their midst as an intellectual woman only so far as I was willing to submit my intellect to their rules of engagement.  But I never belonged there and they treated me as I have grown used to being treated by so many of my male colleagues.  They praised me, flirted with me, and talked right over me.  And afraid of being considered "shrill" and "angry", I let them.  I didn't want to throw myself out of Eden so soon after gaining admittance.  "Boys are gifted.  Girls are good at following the rules."

My intellect, armed with ten years of graduate education in the study of the history of gynocentric and feminist spirituality sounded an alarm and encouraged me to continue researching, continue fighting.  But a part of me believed them...and I could feel parts of me dying.  Bit by bit, I felt my measure of my connection to That Which is Holy slipping away.  Before long, I found myself rejecting any position that struck me as "emotional", or "irrational", or "religious".  Whether the holder of the belief was a man or a woman, I found myself dispatching their arguments with a kind of distorted, internalized sexist demand for "proof." 

 I raged about it here on this blog and in other forums.  I used my arsenal of research and education to protect at least the facade of my feminist spirituality.  But I spent so much energy defending the facade of my structure that I failed to protect my own heart from the deadliest attack.  In the end, no one else was to blame for these years I've spent edging toward spiritual despair.  I attacked my own faith again and again mercilessly and even cruelly.  I belittled and discounted my own experiences, and angrily deconstructed all my hopes.  Why?  Because some clever men made me feel inferior.  And I let them.

It was my own self-loathing and contempt for myself as a woman that led me to believe it was reasonable to hold my own knowledge and lived experience in contempt.  It was my own internalized sexism that told me that my experience was less valid than their lack of it.

It has made me sad to realize that I'm the one who has inflicted this wound.  All the depression and anxiety, all my sense of spiritual loss and futility, all my feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness in these past two or three years were my own doing.  But it also makes me feel a bit relieved to finally see that the source of this pain was my own dishonesty about what I feel, what I think, and what I believe.  It took just a nudge to push me away from who I am and to whom I belong.  It now seems ludicrous that I should have made this terrible mistake.   For the past twenty years of my academic life, I've studied how sexism affects women's intellectual, social, religious and spiritual lives   How could I let the very backbone of my feminism and of my spirituality be broken?  How could I be the one who delivered the most devastating blows? "Never apologize for what you know!" said my beloved feminist theory professor.  I'm sorry that I did not heed her advice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ostara Forgotten

I forgot to celebrate Ostara.  In my adult life, I've never forgotten a holiday like that.  I'm in charge of setting the religious/spiritual tone for the family.  It is my job as the mother to make sure that the traditions are maintained.  I'm the force behind the special holiday meals, the decorations, the gifts, and the storytelling.  I'm the one who is supposed to make the magic happen.  I'm the Easter Bunny.  My children didn't even notice.  We give them Easter baskets with books, candy, and toys each year at this time.  Kids like that kind of thing.  I would have thought they would remind me of the upcoming holiday.  They noted the day, but only in the context of their interest in the advent of spring.  It was as if all those years of getting baskets full of Easter toys didn't leave any impression at all.  What happened?  A few weeks ago when I asked them to tell me about their spirituality, they all said they were Quakers.  When did they stop calling themselves Pagans?  I'm not sure what to think about it. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Knee-Highs on my Head in the Interest of Liberty

I am wearing knee-highs on my head in the interest of liberty.  I'm trying to make ringlets by wrapping locks of hair around strips of fabric.  It turns out that stockings are recommended for this task, and since I have a brand new box of knee-high nylons, I though I'd give it a go.  If the end result is a lovely set of ringlets, I'll be quite pleased.  Ringlets would be just the thing to make me look a little more like Elizabeth Cady Stanton as she appeared in the 1850s.

I also need to launder my costume and make sure I have all the right accoutrements (corset, hoops, petticoats, boots, gloves, brooch, etc.)  Or perhaps I will track down my "rational costume" or "Turkish dress" (more popularly known as bloomers after Amelia Bloomer who popularlized them through her Seneca Falls publication, The Lily).  Stanton wore bloomers in the early half of the 1850s to her family's great consternation.  Her cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller, introduced the dress and Stanton found it most sensible and freeing though she acknowledged that the outfit did nothing for one's hips.  Indeed, I can attest to that fact from personal experience.  This is the key reason why I wear the rational costume so infrequently.  Typically, I am vain enough to sacrifice comfort for the more aesthetically appealing result of  a tightly laced corset.  Sadly, given my current painful condition of costochondritis resulting in pain in my chest and ribs, I might think better of the corset this time.

Meanwhile, as I plan the details of my costume, I am (re)immersing myself in all things Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  I'm reading historical essays on her life and work as well as on Enlightenment feminst theory.  I'm reading a biography and autobiography, and her letters and speeches.  I find that this process is helpful whenever I am called upon to "be" Mrs. Stanton.  People will ask such personal questions of her when I embody her for an afternoon.  It helps to be able to not only be familiar with her theory, method, politics, and aspirations, but also with her childhood and children, her marriage, her housekeeping, her travels, and her idiosyncrasies.

Normally, I am called upon to make a speech as Stanton.  Sometimes the task is quite simple and I need only give the speech just as she wrote it.  Other times, I am asked to give a speech as her, but not a speech by her.  In those situations, I have to channel her as I write, attempting to capture her tricks of speech and rhetoric.  This time, I am not called to do any speech-making, but to sit down in conversation (before an audience of interested persons collected primarily from a large university campus) with the mayor of the town in which she most famously lived.  So that means that I'm supposed to just be Stanton, to think and  to react (believably) as she might have done if she were given the power of reanimating her great Soul in my body to have a conversation with the first female mayor of the first American village to host a women's rights convention.

The request to serve in this capacity was given not more than a month ago.  I would have liked more time to prepare, but honestly, I doubt I would have taken the time even if I had it.  I'm always busy with something that prevents me from preparing myself as I would like.  My children's education doesn't happen on its own.  There's Latin and math, history, geography, music, art, language arts, religion studies, and science to teach.  My students expect me to grade their papers and to prepare lessons for every week.  (How inconvenient!)  I have readings therefore, in European and American history.  I have to be aware of African American and women's history, and I must begin preparing lessons in environmental history and American religious history.  Meanwhile, my own special research projects in Quaker history and theo/alogy are much neglected.

The dog keeps peeing on my son's bed.  No matter how many times I sweep and mop, there are still masses of pet hair that seem to shift across our painted floors like tumbleweed across the desert.  People insist on eating at least three times a day.  They require someone to prepare the meals and do the dishes.  Clothes must be laundered (and blankets, sheets, comforters, and towels too!).  Occasionally, it becomes necessary to do something about the dust and the cobwebs and I can only ignore that sticky something-or-other so long before I must confront it head on. 

I do not feel up to the task of embodying a woman who is credited for being the the chief intellect behind nineteenth-century feminist theory.  Good grief!  If my socks actually match my top, I'm ahead of the game.  For that matter,  if they match each other, it is one more miracle than I can expect on a weekday.

I do not feel up to this task and have questioned my sanity in accepting its responsibilities.  My sister comforts me by reminding me that regardless of my performance, we will inevitably derive many humorous stories from the event.  This is probably true.  I find all absurdity, particularly my own, very diverting.  Even if I fall flat on my face, it will at least provide me with years of self-deprecating hilarity to share at social gatherings.  But wouldn't it be nice if I didn't fail?  I think I'd like that even more.

 In 1854, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was preparing a document to be read before New York State lawmakers in Albany.  It turns out that despite her genius and eloquence, she too felt hurried, hassled, and ill-prepared for the task ahead of her.  To Susan B. Anthony she wrote:

"I can generalize and philosophize easily enough of myself but the details of the particular laws I need...You see, while I am about the house, surrounded by my children, washing dishes, baking, sewing, etc. I can think up many points, but I cannot search books, for my hands as well as my brains would be necessary for that work...Prepare yourself to be disappointed in its merits, for I seldom have one hour undisturbed in which to sit down and write.  Men who can, when they wish to write a document, shut themselves up for days with their thoughts and their books, know little of what difficulties a woman must surmount to get off a tolerable production."

To that I can only say, "Amen" before I save this post and get back to my own dishes.  When my curls are good and dry, I'll take these knee-highs off from my head and observe the results.  Perhaps I'll be lucky and it will work.  There's reason enough to do my best (however insufficient my best may be) to remind people of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  If, in her name, I can remind other women that liberty has not yet been achieved for our sex, it will be worth any humiliation.  Better to stumble toward liberty than to sit still and curse my fate.

"Men and angels give me patience!" I say with Mrs. Stanton, "I am at the boiling point!  If I do not find some day use of my tongue in this question, I shall die of intellectual repression, a women's rights convulsion."  

So wish me luck.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Guest Post by My Daughter, 002, on Equality: "Why can't we turn all the wrongs into rights?"

My daughter, 002*, occasionally writes about her feelings and hopes for the world.  She asks me to share them here, and I like to accommodate her wishes.  I think it is important to provide a space where children are heard.  This is her ministry.

"Men, women, children, blacks, whites, etc. all down to a single atom are all created equal and no one should deny that.  We may all look different, we may sound different.  But we can think, feel, love, and care (well, the atom's a little more different but that's OK)  So, why can't we turn the wrongs into rights in the world?  Even if we can't answer that question, we are all created equal no matter what."

She and I have long conversations about equality.  She feels deeply about others' pain and their need to be loved.  002 worries about the equality of LGBTQ people and people living in impoverished and war-torn nations.  She is concerned about religious and racial minorities and immigrants.  She worries about animal rights and children's rights and women's rights and the rights of indigenous people.  She turns down ice cream and cookies and cakes and pizza just to make sure she causes no more pain in the world than a human body must cause.  When she does chores around the house, or receives birthday money, she tucks the coins and bills away in the UNICEF box and when the UNICEF letters come asking for more money, she sits down at the table in a business-like fashion and reads through the material so that she can see how that money is spent and what more needs to be done.

I worry about that sometimes.  As a child, my father said I had an acute sense of injustice.  I suppose I must have shared that with her.  We both live in a state of near constant outrage at abuses in the world.  But her energy and her innocence in the face of injustice revive me when I grow tired and cynical.  There is something about a child reminding you how few pennies it takes to make a difference to just one person that revives hope and determination.  Will I refuse to help one child because I cannot help all children?  Will I refuse to be a neighbor because I can't be a savior?  So the dollar is donated, and despair is defeated for another day.

In the warm months, she shovels dog poop in the yard (I pay her "ten cents a turd") and this money can be put in the orange box for UNICEF.  "7 cents provides safe drinking water for 50 kids for a day."  A shovelful of shit is all it takes for her to see herself helping 50 other children and then some.  And so she keeps on shoveling.

God, it feels like there is an awful lot of shit to shovel.  I find myself despairing until I look into her earnest little face and read the speeches she writes for me about justice and equality and how much love she has for the world.  So I pick up my own shovel and work beside her.   I teach her all I can about the history of human rights, peace, and justice work.  I teach her, my little feminist vegan Quaker, about animal rights and labor unions, about slavery and factory farms, about picket lines and political prisoners, about marches, and speeches, and lives lived in obedience to the Light.  And she takes it all in and keeps on asking for more.  She keeps asking questions.   In the midst of it, sometimes I feel weary and angry and low.  "Why can't we turn all the wrongs into rights in the world?" she asks me.  Why?  As a mother, I rage against the world she must inherit.

But she doesn't waver.  She doesn't quit.

"So, why can't we turn all the wrongs into rights?" You see her question in italics on this page, but I see it on a piece of lined notebook paper with little jagged edges.  I see the misspelled words (I need to work on that kid's spelling).  I see the large letters in pencil in her own childish handwriting.  I see her serious face peering into mine asking me (again) to please share this with those who read my blog.  I feel the weight of her question as a sorrow I fear I can't carry.  I feel it as fear for her future.  "Why can't we turn all the wrongs into rights?"

  I don't know.  I can never tell her.  But she is not deterred from action. "Even if we can't answer that question, we are all created equal no matter what."  No matter what.  So to that principle, I'll remain true for her sake and the two of us can reach for our shovels and get back to work.

*My children have actual people names which I do not disclose on the internet.  We have always, since their births, jokingly referred to them as Offspring 001, 002, and 003.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...