Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, and as you'll learn on the website, the occasion was always intended to honor the local, "ordinary," and culturally anonymous women who sustain countries, families, institutions, communities, farms, banks, schools, churches and temples, archives, traditions, and ideas the world over. In this way, the event is not primarily designed to honor the women we usually honor—although certainly no quota should ever be imposed on how often or how much we express our admiration, cultivate our knowledge, and combat our ignorance about all the women in the world, even the most famous of them, and all of the work that they do.

My heroes have always been women, and on an occasion like today's, I still can't help but think back on the three great heroes of my childhood, not counting little yellow bears from the Hundred Acre Wood: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Madonna. I know, I know, one of these things is not like the others. But these are the people that I read about, talked about, thought about, gave book reports and school presentations about over and over. Sojourner Truth because the "Ain't I a Woman" speech is a clarion call for justice that even a third-grader could understand, and because she showed so clearly how women's rights and the abolitionist cause were really one in the same struggle, and because the fact that it was always hard to know such simple things about her as when she was born and how old she was made me realize, at age nine, that history risked omitting some of its greatest people, and I wanted to know why that was.

Harriet Tubman because her acts were so simple and yet so herculean in their bravery (again, something that even a small child can understand), and because even her name was not her own, and because her story was my single-handed introduction to the world's complexity: I also admired Thomas Jefferson when I was little, and one day it occurred to me that admiring them both was a difficult and somewhat contradictory thing to do (and yet, in both cases, an impossible thing not to do). This Friday is the 93rd anniversary of her death. Save a thought.

Madonna because even when I didn't understand what she was singing about, her creativity with her music and with her own image, and her obviously total devotion to everything she did, and the fact that she got a rise out of people I know in every generation, set a real example for me about following one's own path and insisting on your own voice, even in ways that didn't look like conventional "leadership." And you could dance to it!

Side by side with these fantastic and humbling and utterly improbable women were the women in my own life whom I treasured, and who gave so much to me and to other people: my mother, who always gave love so fully and freely, and who taught me from a very early age without ever talking down to me; my maternal grandmother, who graduated from college in the 1940s when no woman in her family had ever done this, and most women still didn't; my paternal grandmother, who was a constant wellspring of affection and mischief; my aunt Lisa, who seemed so well-read and did everything her own way; my first-grade teacher Rachel Simmons, who saved me from shyness and self-consciousness at such an early age, and who shaped my personality so hugely that my dissertation is dedicated to her; my elementary-school math teacher Becky Salp, who would give me extra games and challenges because she knew how much I liked them; my fourth-grade teacher Judith Ward, who sang the same songs in the hallway and under her breath that I did, and who always asked what I was reading, and who reamed out a fellow teacher who laughed at me when I showed up on Halloween dressed in clip-on earrings and a jean skirt, and didn't let it rest until the other woman apologized to me.

Spotted in and around the culture, as I grew up: Rosa Parks, Christa McAuliffe and her shuttle-mate Judith Resnik, Geraldine Ferraro, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Corazon Aquino, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Nancy Drew, Clarice Starling, Claire Huxtable, Ellen Ripley, Cokie Roberts, Roseanne Barr, the actresses, the writers, the artists. Discovered at the library: Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, "Lemonade" Lucy Hayes, Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Chisholm, Jane Austen, Jane Addams, Abigail Adams, Florence Nightingale, Hester Prynne, Harriet Jacobs, Laughing Water in The Song of Hiawatha, the suffragettes, the abolitionists.

Today, most broadly: women worldwide who work, nearly always for less, very often for pennies; women who nurture and raise, which is work; women who teach; women who do; women who agitate, for labor laws and justice and better government; women who work and collectivize from the literal ground up, like Vandana Shiva; women who use literary celebrity as a platform for articulate protest, like Arundhati Roy and Edwidge Danticat; women who are the lifeblood of local banks, volunteer health-care, and so many of the local-politics movements that are bandaging desperate communities around the world; women who pose the toughest questions in the Senate, like Barbara Boxer; women who are scrutinizing and challenging the machinery of politics, both figuratively, like Cindy Sheehan, and literally, like Bev Harris; women who write, create, perform; women who love women; women who counsel; women who are still disproportionately our teachers, social workers, and non-profit volunteers; women who are my most recent mentors, like Elaine Scarry, Hortense Spillers, and Amy Villarejo; women who are my friends and colleagues and students; my landlady and best friend in Hartford; the women who run the entire department at my bank; the women who organize and ensure my health benefits; the women who find time to do everything else they do while they're already doing all of this. All women, give or take Ann Coulter.

You can find a list here of worldwide events tied to International Women's Day. Trinity is selling T-shirts and raising awareness of the day around campus. Many places are doing something similar or something more. Even if it's just a thought or a thank-you: have it, and say it, and pass it on! And pass it on here, too—leave a comment, tell us all about a woman we should know about.



Blogger Dr. S said...

I really liked this post, Nick; I've been thinking about it for days. I didn't want you to think that I'm ignoring it or something--it's just so lovely and so capacious that I haven't had a rich enough response to offer in return.


1:40 AM, March 11, 2006  

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