Monday, March 10, 2008

Random Thoughts and a Speech

In honor of Women's History Month, the DFAC has decorated its tables with new place mats, or more accurately pieces of paper, with biographies of different important women. I haven't seen them all yet, but so far I've noticed, Janet Reno, Oprah, a few groundbreaking women in the military, and other names I don't recognize (I hope they included Margaret Sanger, Lucy Stone, Mary Wollstonecraft - hey, I don't see the word American in Women's History Month - just to name a few). I think if I were in charge, not only would I have wanted to include biographies of influential and important women, but I'd also want to have pieces of writing by women throughout: excerpts from A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and pieces of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich. Of course, when it comes to this kind of stuff, I'd be worried about overdoing it - too much poster board, and it could easily feel like a elementary or high school class project. We used to have an annual "Sex Out Loud" fair at my university, and while some of the groups and events were interesting and tried to raise awareness about a sex-related issue or simply celebrate sexuality, there were also a few that just seemed thrown together - a title, a few pictures and quotes.

Maybe I'm just being an elitist here, but I also think that in celebrating these events, be it Women's History Month, African-American History Month, etc. there are two dangers:

- An Oversimplification of History - all these displays are simply quick snapshots of a larger historical period, and ongoing debates. There is usually much more going on than can be seen in a one page bio of someone. It also removes the complexity - for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have been very important to the Women's Movement, but that doesn't mean we can't question her stance and willingness to use racist sentiments to further her cause. And it's not just about her - how often do we really look back at historical figures whom we adore and actually evaluate them, and take them as a whole person? Abraham Lincoln, for example, was incredibly important but that doesn't mean he didn't have flaws. He, too, had racial prejudices, but nobody hears about that in high school. I don't think this should/would diminish his status by any means (product of the times, and yet I hate that statement, it seems like it excuses so many things because not everyone has the same views, no matter what "the times") but instead, would allow us to see the real man instead of a mythical figure. However, I guess when it comes down to it, it's better that people be introduced to the history, inspired to research it more on their own, than not have any events like these at all.

- I also think it can let people think that these struggles are in the past when in fact sexism/racism still exist, and these events are not about looking at a distant past but rather illustrate the progress made thus far. (As we discussed in a college class long ago, it's easy to say "I'm not racist" when comparing yourself to the crazy White Supremacists featured in the media; it's easy to say "Things are so much better, what else do you want" when comparing today to a century ago).

Still, if I ever were in charge, I would, of course, include this piece:
Ain't I A Woman?by Sojourner Truth
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

The reason I like this speech so much is that it is simple and to the point. After all these other white women were unable to answer men's arguments, Sojourner Truth (whom some of these white women didn't even want at the meeting) gets up, and using simple logic, shuts them all up. Furthermore, she demonstrates the fact that the idea of womanhood was based on the white middle class - for black women, their gender didn't matter, the masters expected the same from them; lower class white women equally had to work, be it in factories or on the farms; it was only in the middle and upper class that the illusion of the delicate woman could really exist (due to the important role women played on the frontier, many Western states granted women the right to vote long before the 19th Amendment).

While very different from each other, it also reminds me of the simple eloquence of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: they both get right to the heart of the issue in only a few sentences and don't talk around the issue or say more than needs to be said. Maybe I should learn from their example.

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