Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Women's Lib, Feminism, Womanism...

Women's Lib, Feminism, Womanism--all describe ways in which women have worked toward the ultimate goal of being able to live their lives as they choose, to pursue happiness in the manner appropriate to each of them, wherever they live, whatever their circumstances.

The theories and practices become more nuanced all the time. The work is not done, for sure.

But here's a great story from a woman who learned how to run like a girl, well, really, throw and hit like a girl, before any of those terms were coined.

Claire, who founded the first dance therapy program in the US, started playing handball when she was around ten years old, in 1938. “I was a very active child,” she says, “all I was told was to sit still.” But she couldn’t. She took dance classes in the after school Yiddish program, but then her parents wouldn’t let her take anymore dance. They didn’t see the point of dance. So Claire took herself off to the playground as soon as she could and started playing handball, and any other game she could.
Handball is an outdoor street game, played, for the most part, in school playgrounds. To get on the court (at the time Claire played, at least), she had to wait on the sidelines until one of the boys got too tired to play and dropped out, and there was no other boy to replace him. As a girl, Claire had to establish and re-establish her ability to play, to be accepted into the handball games. She still remembers that feeling of “outrage” she experienced, standing on the sidelines, having to prove herself to even get on the court. “I’m as good as half of those boys, even better than some, and they’re not letting me play.” Because she was good at handball, she got off the sidelines, but that sense of outrage politicized Claire, in a sense. Long before the women’s movement, much less feminism, had gathered steam, Claire had learned and earned her independence on the handball playground.

“Playing handball is a sport where you use yourself fully, something women didn’t often have the opportunity to do,” Claire says, “you have to be quick, direct and strong.” Traits that Claire’s friends and colleagues would use to describe her outside the playground, too. How we are in sports is how we are in life. We are how we move, says Michelle, the founder of the Society for Martial Arts Instruction and a Certified Laban Movement Analyst.

Claire met her husband on the playground, too. He was playing basketball and she joined in. He was a great basketball player, but also good at passing the ball, including to Claire, when she joined the game. The rest, as they say, is history. He fell in love with “the sweaty gal on a basketball court.” Not surprisingly, he was as political as she was, and they fashioned their version of an equal marriage early—sharing cooking, cleaning, shopping, and child rearing, while they both pursued their careers.

When Claire joined her first women’s consciousness group in the late 60s, she realized she wasn’t facing the same issues as most of the other women in her group. They were wondering how to get out of the house. She was out of the house. They were struggling to find balance and equality in their marriages. Claire had established that dynamic from the outset. “But I could teach them how to throw a ball,” she says. And she did.

Claire taught them how to “throw from the bottom of their toes.” And the women felt good about themselves in a whole new way. They discovered what they weren’t “using” of themselves. They learned how to “maximize” themselves to accomplish the goal of throwing well. When we learn what it feels like to be inside our skin, to pull from the deep well of our inner resources, to maximize ourselves in one area, how much easier it is to bring that knowledge to bear everywhere else in our lives.
In her early eighties, Claire is still going strong. She teaches a course on dreams to seniors, and she does Pilates.

“Women don’t need to call themselves feminists anymore,” Claire says. We can simply live as feminists. Or as womanists. Or as liberated women.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Delete "slut"

Gayle Barron, who won the Boston Marathon for women in 1978, once said that she struggled with being a pioneer. Not so much because of men’s attitudes, but because her women friends thought she ought to be at home with her family, in “a woman’s place,” in other words. Her friends didn’t celebrate her successes. Worse still, they disapproved. She wonders how much she held back from achieving her true potential, for the sake of keeping her friends.

Yes, that was 1978. Have things really changed that much, or enough?

Sometimes the harshest critics, the hardest judges, are women about other women. Why are we so hard on each other? Is it because we're hard on ourselves? We ought to stick up for each other a little more.

Here's one of my Tristram Shandy hobby horses on that issue: Why do we allow the word “slut” to persist in our lexicon? The word characterizes all that is damaging about the double standards that exist between men and women. “Slut,” after all, is a word that is rarely ever used to describe a man, and when used in such a context, generally carries a certain bravado; whereas, when applied to women, the word is ugly and judgmental, about things that are, in most cases, none of our business. I am, by no means, saying that women ought to sleep around. I am saying that how we express our sexuality (assuming the sexual expression is voluntary, consensual, does not harm others and gives us pleasure) is up to us to define. And yet, too often, women refer to other women as “sluts,” riding high on their horses of righteousness. We are not so different from Gayle’s friends when we do so, deeming certain behaviors “unfeminine.” Gayle’s friends were threatened by her strength. What are we threatened by when another woman exerts her sexuality? Let’s eliminate the word “slut” from our personal dictionary. And I haven’t even gotten to the word “spinster” yet.

Things have changed. While there are certainly still women out there like Gayle’s late-seventies friends, there are many who are not. There’s so much we can go out into the world and do and be, when we aren’t holding ourselves or other women back.