"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Women's Room

Caution: Women!
A post to coincide with
Menstrual Hygiene Day ~ 28 May

“We don’t look into menstruation as a man or a woman issue . . .
both have equal roles to play in changing the overall perception.”

~ Dhirendra Pratap Singh ~
helping the Indian government build schools
that have adequate infrastructure for women,
including separate toilets

"We see a world where no woman is held back by her body.
We will work proudly and tirelessly until every single girl
has an equal opportunity for the brighter future she deserves.
By reimagining feminine hygiene products to provide support,
comfort, confidence, and peace of mind,
we aim to eliminate shame,
empowering women and girls around the world."

~ Miki Agrawal, Radha Agrawal, Antonia Dunbar ~
Co - founders of THINX

"Once I had a dream. In the dream I was to receive a diploma
as a spiritual teacher or guide of some sort. There were two of us
being presented with such a certificate at the time. The other was a man -- Swamibabaguruishiroshirabbaisoandso.
He wore long colorful robes and had a fist full of degrees and papers.
To receive his diploma he only had to step forward and present himself
with his long titles, flowing robes, and abundant credentials.
But before me there stood an enormous mountain of laundry.
To receive my diploma
I would first have to climb over this huge heap of laundry."

~ Polly Berrien Berends ~
from Whole Child / Whole Parent

Perhaps nightmares in this vein constitute one of the hidden narratives of the feminine consciousness, an experience that is shared by many but rarely written into the script. American novelist, Marilyn French (1929 - 2009) includes a similar narrative in her 1977 novel, The Women's Room, which follows the progress of a group of friends -- Mira, Martha, Val, Isolde, Clarissa, and Kyla -- through the graduate program in English Literature at Harvard. They struggle against the innate superiority which they sense in their male colleagues and professors. Their submerged feelings of inadequacy are illustrated in a dream that haunts Kyla shortly before her orals. As a prospective graduate student, she is forced to confront a sexist legacy and a pile of laundry similar to that described above by Polly Berrien Berends. In the Women's Room nightmare, Kyla has just entered the exam room, "when she spied the pile in the corner. Instantly she knew what it was, but she was incredulous, she was so ashamed. . . . She was horrified. Those stained sanitary napkins, those bloody underpants were hers, she knew they were hers, and she knew the men would know it too . . . but there was no way she could conceal them" (561 - 562).

The events of these nightmares suggest the ever - present tension between mind and body which informs the female students' educational pursuits. In these dreams, the women feel defined first by their physicality, second by their intellectual activity. When Kyla's test day arrives, the corner of the room is empty; nervously she endures the next two hours, and at last "the judgment having been whispered in her ear by the director, she trembled down the wooden stairs." Willing back the tears, she makes her way, gripping the banister, to her friends who wait below, asking "'How did you do?'" When she answers them, "the words gurgled out of her wet throat, 'I passed,' and they cheered, but they must have seen, must have been able to know" (562 - 563).

Jane Gallop, in her recollection of graduate school, remembers "trying to imagine my future place. How would I pass? In 1977, having 'passed,' I was trying to imagine being an academic speaker as a woman" (71). She places the word passed in quotation marks, giving it the connotation of passed as Blacks once passed for white (Imitation of Life), or Jews for Gentiles (Miss Rose White) in search of social acceptance, trying to surmount the labels of difference and the stigma of otherness. Kyla strives in frustration to battle both the imagined and the real blockades of sexual difference and to maintain a sense of legitimacy in the face of the patriarchy, embodied as it is for her in the three male professors who intimidate her at the exam table. Kyla's wary response to the all - male committee is typical.

In an intriguing essay, "Out of Mere Words," James Klein, says that it is symptomatic of our profession's emphasis on the spoken word "that most horror stories about Ph.D. - getting concern the oral examination." But Kyla's anxiety is informed by more than a fear of verbal articulation; it derives primarily -- as she herself points out -- from apprehensions concerning her gender; she feels invalidated by her own menses and confides in her best friend: " 'I really failed. . . . That's the truth. . . . They said I passed. . . . But I really failed. . . . They demoralized me, they had that kind of power, I gave them that kind of power. And you can tell from the dream what the grounds were. I can't feel legitimate in the face of them' " (563 - 564).

Kyla realizes that the structure threatens somehow to exclude her, sensing what philosophical critic Iris Marion Young (1949 - 2006) would call a threat to her basic security system (and perhaps her presence threatens her patriarchal professors at this same level). Drawing on the work of British sociologist Anthony Giddens (b. 1938), Young describes three frontiers of subjectivity where prejudice can be found: the discursive consciousness (e.g., it is no longer socially acceptable to say that a woman using a library calls to mind a dog dancing on its hind legs); the practical consciousness (e.g., women can no longer be denied access to campus buildings, yet having gained entry, their presence can still be dismissed by those around them); and the basic security system, i.e., "the subject's ontological integrity" and "basic sense of competence and autonomy." Young explains that "In everyday action and interaction, the subject reacts, introjects, and reorients itself in order to maintain or reinstate its basic security system" (Justice and the Politics of Difference, 131 - 132).

The basic security system is the point at which "bodily integrity" is threatened and "the subject must keep herself together." Prejudice at the second and third level is more insidious than at the first because it consists of unspoken "fears, aversions, avoidances, symbolic forms and association, abjection and border anxiety": "There are material implications (e.g., who sits behind what desk) to making judgments based on the feelings lodged at these two levels. Rationalization is very common among the empowered." Prejudice, Young suggests, is receding from the discursive level of consciousness and being internalized in the practical consciousness and the basic security system. What can no longer be said can still be done, can still be thought. Nor do these thoughts go unperceived by the subject at whom they are directed, even though the "dominant social etiquette" may find it "indecorous" or "tactless" to acknowledge these perceptions at the discursive level. Because our culture tends to "separate reason from the body and affectivity," it is difficult for characters like Kyla to trust or express what might be called their gut reactions. Groups or individuals "oppressed by structures of cultural imperialism . . . not only suffer the humiliation of aversion, avoiding, or condescending behavior, but must usually experience that behavior in silence" (comments noted when Young spoke at the "Colloquium on Cultural Narratives," Purdue University, April 1989; see also Justice and the Politics of Difference, 134).

Kyla confronts not only the verbal challenge of the oral exam but a tradition that for centuries cast women as the silent sex. She speaks not only as a student but as a woman; she will be evaluated not only as a Ph.D. candidate but as a woman, making her way in a world where "the feminine alone must bear the burden of sexual difference." Young, in her summary of Simone de Beauvoir, says that "Whatever might be her position in the world and whatever her individual accomplishments, a woman is appraised first as a woman, and only afterward for her position or accomplishments" (Throwing Like a Girl, 75).

The task of making herself heard is one which, by the end of The Women's Room, Kyla has begun to feel herself unequal too. Yes, she has made it into the room, no embarrassing feminine debris is cluttering the floor, and no one is giggling -- but is anyone listening? She may enter the library at will, may cross the quadrangle at leisure yet still feel invalidated, not to mention "slightly crazy": "The courage to bring to discursive consciousness behavior and reactions occurring at the level of practical consciousness is met with denial and powerful gestures of silencing, which can make oppressed people feel slightly crazy" (Young, 134).

Virginia Woolf likewise believes that "even when the path is nominally open -- when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, lawyer, a civil servant -- there are many phantoms and obstacles . . . looming in her way ("Professions for Women," 241). If Young's model is applied to Woolf's image, then these phantoms are lurking in the practical consciousness and haunting the basic security system. In A Room of One's Own [see last week's Fortnightly post: "Room, Board, and Body"], Woolf refers to such obstacles as the structure of traditions, laws, and social policies which have consistently disregarded women; yet, concerning the ambiguous position and the dubious "tradition manque" which women have inherited, she says that "it was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control" (38); that is, they are driven by the need to maintain their basic security systems. One of the obstacles for Kyla, internalized in the practical consciousness and the basic security system is structural exclusion; and she intuits that there is more at stake for her than a pass / fail grade.

In 1977, Marilyn French's fictional students embodied Virginia Woolf's even earlier (1929) insistence upon higher education for girls. With the admission of women, even peripherally, to the academy, changes were required, difference had to be accommodated, and the presence of the Other acknowledged. At the most basic level, the tradition of critical thought intersected with the inevitability of "our bodily givens" and campus buildings began, however slowly, to feature doors which read "Ladies" or "Women." The body of the female student makes her way through the hallways of academia, where she strives to determine her own fate; and through novels like The Women's Room that explore the realm of academic experience from the perspective of a female narrator. In the late 1970s and early 80s, reading and re - reading this "profoundly influential novel" was a consciousness - raising rite of passage -- opening doors, discussions, and minds. Thanks to Marilyn French for re - thinking gender equity, popularizing feminism, and confirming our intellectual and physical experience.

1. Fun Fact: Marilyn French is mentioned in ABBA's 1982 song "The Day Before You Came":
"I must have read a while,
the latest one by Marilyn French
or something in that style."

2. I've been trying to track down a poem that I've misplaced and thought I'd mention here in case anyone out there recognizes the reference. I'm almost certain that the title is "Feast Day." The narrator is a woman who is feeling sad on the first day of her period, and the concluding line is "languorous blood." Does that happen to ring any bells? I remember reading it back in the late 1970s, early 80s, but can't remember where. I've looked through all my old anthologies and notebooks but can't find it; and I've tried numerous google searches with no luck. I can't remember the poet, but vaguely thought that it might be Joyce Carol Oates. It seems to me that in the middle of the poem, she is looking out of a large window, watching children ice - skating on a pond and feeling fearful of their safety, but it could also be that I've borrowed that skating image from another forgotten poem -- that I also need to find -- and merged it with the "Feast Day" poem in my mind. [gmail, October 15, 2013]

3. June 14, 2015: It's tempting to think of Kyla's anxiety as obsolete in this, the enlightened 21st Century -- yet even here and now, a male recipient of the Nobel prize calls into the question the presence of "female students" in his science laboratories. Really?

4. Related posts:

Room, Board, and Body

Throwback Letter to Editor
Too Beautiful to Go on a Diet
Weighing In
The Student Body in the Text
The Fire Was Hot Within Her

Try to See It, Try to Feel It: The Body in the Text ~ Part 1
Try to See It, Try to Feel It: The Body in the Text ~ Part 2
A Girl and Her Book

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