Saturday, March 11, 2017

Life is a New Draft for Every Day

Rolling in the deep of Women's History month, I can't resist.

There was the "Virginia Women: Their Lives and Times" lecture at the Library of Virginia, an event attended by 36 women and 6 men about a two-volume set by that name.

Editors Sandra Treadway and Cindy Kierner explained that they'd intentionally chose women that readers wouldn't know, the better to pique their interest.

Of course Dolly Madison was there, but not the Dolly of myriad social graces we usually hear about.

Instead, this essay dealt with how the North Carolina-born Dolly spent her life denying it and trying to pass herself off as a Virginian. True, her parents were Virginians, but the essay addresses the question of why she felt it preferable to be thought of as a Virginian.

There was Jane Webb, a free mixed race woman living on the Eastern Shore who spent much of her life shrewdly and tenaciously fighting the courts to ensure that her children were free as well. Virginia wasn't the best state for following the letter of the law about freed blacks so she used the law to protect her family at a time when few blacks could read, much less write legal documents.

But the most fascinating woman by far was Grace Sherwood, a woman tried five times - five! - on suspicion of being a witch, specifically, the witch of Pungo. And why did the men think that, you wonder?

Because her husband had died and she didn't remarry, so then she was a property owning woman. Because she was assertive and known to be crabby. Because - gasp! - she occasionally wore trousers. In other words, just the kind of woman that colonial men wanted to do away with.

And the best part of that story is that not only is there a statue of her in Virginia Beach now, but when Tim Kaine was governor, he pardoned Grace.

It takes a feminist man to reach back and right a 17th century wrong.

There was also TheatreLAB's production of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," a one-woman show about the Seattle born and raised activist (who says she ended up just like her mother expected: scattered and deviant and too loud) who died in 2003 in Palestine protesting the bulldozing of innocent people's homes.

The issue is real, obviously, and Rachel's concern for the kind of evil being powered by American dollars in that part of the world resonated with truth, but at intermission, the couple nearest me were discussing how manic the first act was and whether it was even convincing.

I was convinced, but also distracted by how frequently actress Kaelie James rearranged her hair, so it was a relief to see it in a ponytail for the second act.

Granted, it's a heavy subject (Pru had declined my invitation, saying she didn't want her evening entertainment with political commentary because it was too depressing), but given that the script was an amalgamation of Rachel's journal entries and emails, it was a powerful one, too.

The entire row behind me didn't return after intermission, and once it began, I saw two guys nodding off, jerking their heads up repeatedly, a shame really because they probably missed the final point of what a tragedy it is that so many people consider Israeli policy and Jewish people the same thing.

And then, just to rip out hearts out completely, the play ended with film footage of Rachel in a 5th grade speech, passionately making a case for feeding hungry people in the middle east regardless of their religion. In fifth grade.

But by far my biggest project in celebration of Women's History month was about books.

I'd recently seen a video of a mother and young daughter going through a bookcase of children's books, removing all the ones with no female characters, then all the ones with female characters who had no speaking parts until the shelves were decimated and it got me thinking.

I've got a bookcase the length of my living room wall - 23 shelves in all - and I had no earthly idea how many of the books I owned were written by women or about women.

So I set out to find out, pulling titles and authors that had XX chromosomes.

There were the usual literary suspects: Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Anne Porter, Ann Beattie (inside "Secrets and Surprises" I found my ticket stub to see Diana Ross at the Capital Centre..score!), Willa Cather, Muriel Spark and Anais Nin, among others.

There was the feminist element: Ellen Goodman, Marilyn French, Susan Jacoby, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gail Collins and Erica Jong, as well as the food contingent: Judith Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Betty Fussel and Ruth Reichl.

Long a fan of non-fiction, there were plenty of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies: Diane Arbus, Vera Nabokov, Sally Hemmings, Coco Chanel, Carrie Fisher, Georgia O'Keefe, Katherine Graham and Peggy Guggenheim. Not all written by women, but all written about a woman.

Dust flying, I pulled out books on art, photography ("The Female Focus: Women Photographers") and punctuation, a graphic novel, hell, even "Our American Sisters: Women in American Life and Thought," from my first women's studies class in college.

A few did double duty, like "Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette" by Judith Thurman or "First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents" by Bonnie Angelo.

I'm not going to say I sorted through every single book in my collection because I didn't (why is it a deadline always rears its head when I'm in an organizing mood?), but I dug through enough to come up with nearly five shelves of nothing but female-centric books.

And, quite frankly and surprisingly, that's a little embarrassing. Out of 23 shelves, I only have enough tomes to fill five shelves representing the blood, sweat and tears of a woman's mind or life?

Time to preach. Ever Since Eve (also a title on my shelf), there's been an imbalance. The Possible She (yep, another one) is still just out of reach.

We may be scattered, deviant and loud, or even assertive, crabby and trouser-wearing, but that, ladies and witches, is exactly why we still need Women's History Month.

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