digging up dead women and rewriting history

cover-full-204x300I used to write in a graveyard. I went to college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there was a little Episcopal church in that town with an old cemetery and a small labyrinth made of stones. I’d sit on a bench and write, and when I needed a break or inspiration, I’d walk the labyrinth or wander among the fading tombstones. One day I discovered the grave of the man who had been mayor in 1869. W.B. Scott was the second black mayor in the US, and here he was leading this rural Tennessee town just a few years after the Civil War.

East Tennessee was mostly pro-Union with all kinds of slavery opponents, but it still surprised me to see that a predominantly white town had a black mayor. The place was clearly proud of this fact all these years later because they’d erected a fancy new tombstone that also mentioned his work as a newspaper editor. I was mighty impressed until I noticed a crooked, faded, half-sunken stone next to it.

Who do you think that grave belonged to?

His wife.

The woman who fed him, sewed and washed his clothes, bore and raised his children, and kept his home clean and his bed warm. The woman who likely listened to his concerns, fears, and ideas; buoyed him when he faltered; and gave him advice and an idea or two of her own.

To leave her grave that sad while her husband’s positively sparkled was a shame. I haven’t been back to that cemetery in years, but I hope they’ve rectified their mistake.

It made me think of Shakespeare’s sister. Virginia Woolf imagined that William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister named Judith. The young woman’s story goes something like this: forbidden to study and married off too young, she ran away, but her inability to get work in the theatre and subsequent impregnation led her to commit suicide. Woolf wrote:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

 

The point is that there may have been all kinds of female Shakespeares, Raleighs, DaVincis, Copernicuses, etc., but we never had the chance to meet them because society did not deem it appropriate or beneficial to invest in women’s intellect and creativity.

Not only that, but history is missing women’s voices from all walks of life. History is made up primarily of men’s stories; the whole narrative of Western history is shaped by men, and white Western men at that. Even women who achieved have been written out, erased, forgotten. Women are responsible for the DNA double helix, signal flairs, and computer programming, to name a few, but you wouldn’t know that because men got credit for the hard work of these innovative women.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to serve on the advisory council of the Tennessee Women Project. Led by American Association of University Women of Tennessee, this project resulted in a book that highlights women who are missing from Tennessee’s history text books. The book, Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage, just came out, and it includes an essay I wrote on social reformer Fanny Wright.

When I was given the assignment, I knew nothing about Fanny Wright–or many of the other women included in the book. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee, so I didn’t learn state history in school like kids do around here. Over the years, I’ve gleaned bits and pieces, attended history museums, and read essays, but women were often missing from the story. And then I was offered the chance to dig them up and restore them to their rightful places.

The niece of moral philosopher James Mylne, Frances “Fanny” Wright was born in Scotland in 1795, but the promise of egalitarianism led her to the US, where she did decades of work for racial, gender, and economic justice. She created Nashoba, an intentional community outside of Memphis, devoting her attempted utopia to ending slavery and promoting racial integration.

In my research, I discovered that Fanny spent the final years of her life in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, she’s buried in historic Spring Grove Cemetery, where my grandfather and uncle lie and where I will someday go to visit the graves of my mother and stepfather.

She came all the way from Scotland to Tennessee to work for freedom, and I had to come to Tennessee to find her when she had been in my back yard my whole youth. I’ve worked for women’s empowerment and the elimination of racism for years, and nearly 200 years after Fanny’s arrival, it’s still an uphill battle sometimes here in the great state of Tennessee.

But now I have Fanny’s words to remind me how relatively easy my battle is: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked my fortune on it, my reputation and my life.” True indeed, as you’ll see when you read the essay.

These words are engraved on her tombstone, which, unlike Ms. Scott’s, is prominent and tended. May her memory be as well.

Want to know more about Fanny? Check out the Tennessee Women Project and buy the book from Amazon or CreateSpace.

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women in film: fewer than you think

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”

NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:

DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?

LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?

DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.

These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”

Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.

One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.