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.