We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Post-feminism as refuge invention · 17 April 07

Dear Harriet,

I interrupt my reports of the ASECS meeting at Atlanta to dwell on a phemenonon I witnessed and have already partly reported on: post-feminism as the invention of refuges in art. I said in my first report a woman scholar talked about the strong ethical content in Aphra Behn and never used the word “feminist”, and in my second report summarized a paper by a woman who argued “chick-lit” much worse than Bridget Jones’s Diary should be taken as a serious response to the conditions of women’s lives still and their readership engages seriously with Austen as a refuge. This woman said she was describing a new “post-feminism” which ought to be respected.

I go to conferences in part to hear what intelligent people are thinking and doing right now. The other day I bought a volume of poems because two poems from it had been put on WWTTA and I liked them very much. The volume is called Claiming the Spirit Within, is edited by Marilyn Sewell. It’s post-feminist and I want to show you why.

First here is a third poem from it I like too:

For my husband sleeping alone

by Donna Masini

Every night now my husband falls
asleep with the lights on, bent arm
hooked around his head, book tented
across his face. His mouth is open,
lips move as though searching
(here, I imagine) for me. One cat rests
its nose to his armpit, the other,
above his head, moves with his breath.
Sometimes at two or four he wakes to shut
the light, shift, adjust the covers.

Alone in that bed he is half of something, and wholly
himself. A gentle man, a man who could fall
in love with a difficult woman. He holds
her shape beside him. Sometimes she is silent.
Sometimes she hisses and ticks.
I want to ask if he keeps
to one side of the bed—leaving space for her
as you leave unplanted soil between seeds.
Breathing room.
Does he think he will grow into her?

Myself, I sleep in the dark, opposite another
of me sleeps in the mirror. I am a couple.
Sometimes I wake, stumble across the room
blurting words I don’t understand
in the morning. Words I forget. Hunger
is one I always remember. Each day we speak
on the phone, tell each other how we have slept.
I missed you, we say, as though we’d passed
up a chance, as though one of us were a ball
the other had not caught.

Each separation an awful rehearsal
(I know this from my own nights alone in that bed).
So I think I know why he moves into night
lights on, sheltered by fictions. Not to lie
in the dark and listen for the collapse
of a marriage, a home, a life.
It is hard to be married
and left—even for a short time.
To drift, unanchored, untouched.
To rock alone in shapeless night.

Marilyn Sewell’s volume has a consistent high quality of the poems, just like several other volumes I have in the house (No More Masks, ed. Florence Howe & Ellen Bass, The Book of Women Poets, ed Ann Stanford, Fleur Adcock’s Faber Book of 20th century Women Poets and Carol Cosman’s Penguin Book of Women Poets). Like a couple of these, particularly, No New Masks and Adcock’s choices (two of my favorites) and Stanford’s (she goes back in time to medieval era and sticks just with English speaking poets so we get a lot)k, the agenda is what’s called 1970s feminisms (“second wave”?). Sewell’s is, as I say, post-feminist.

I nearly got myself into awful trouble on Wompo when a couple of weeks ago I quoted (in passing) Orwell’s “All art is propaganda. One man (a male poet) on the list began to write long detailed postings attacking me for this terrible statement; he saw me as impugning the sincerity of poetry. Luckily, he has apparently done this sort of thing before (written long detailed hostile postings and kept at it), and no one took up his position; one woman on the list amended the quotation to make clear what I had meant (I had been discussing an article from the New Yorker): all art can function as propaganda.

That is not to say the above poem is not sincere at the same time. But at the same time, as I read this volume and love at least some of the poetry, the volume’s agenda is post-feminist and the poem fits that. First off, I am presented with the insistence I love and have this comforting relationship with my mother. Well, I am not unusual in having no such thing. Then I noticed the volume’s sections are divided up into phases of a woman’s life uncomfortably close to three of the four “m’s” named by Bobbie Ann Mason (in her The Girl Sleuth) as how society constructs women’s lives (marriage, motherhood, menopause are the last three); woman as biological creature stuck in her biology. Sewell has left out menstruation, and I find no poems which correspond to the trauma of puberty for women in our society, the sort of thing talked about in the feminist sociological classic, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. How I wish I had known about this book at age 15 and been able to read it. Perhaps I would not have suffered less, but I would not have felt so alone and so to blame, so ashamed.

One of the two poems I said I liked very much was centered on Joan of Arc, long a figure ludicrously coopted by religious, nationalistic and militarist groups, this as a result of being burnt at the stake (and probably beaten and raped before hand as well as continually insulted and berated as is probably) for delusions about a criminal king and hysterical visions of saints from gods sent to her as she labored miserably in the fields. Sewell tells us she is unitarian, in her introduction talks about the importance of “spirituality” in our lives, and the title of her second volume is anti-rational (Cries of the Spirit), anti-Englightenment reason.

I think the lack of any animus or overt politics, the stance of acceptance in this book is a political stance. I remark from an American standpoint the use of the word “spirituality” is suspect: it’s a new word for religion recently. “Faith-based” has been ruined by Bush and Co and recently instead of presenting religious experiences positively (with admiration), as religion, they are presented as spirituality. It’s very difficult to quarrel with a pro-religious stance in any society so I’ll not (and I saw one person who tried to argue how religion allows for a continuation of poisonous attitudes and its institutions have mostly supported non-egalitarian regimes get into trouble), but I find this too in this volume.

This makes sense to me, as the other volumes were reflecting feminism of the 1970s or 90s (so called third wave) so here we are in post-feminism. I refer the interested reader to my two reports on the ASECS meeting again and Margaret Doody’s reply to Vivian Jones: she doubted there is feminism in post-feminism.

Now I am very moved by Masini’s poem because I have a happy marriage (mostly). Indeed it is I who until about 8 years ago used to keep the lights on in my bed when Jim went travelling. I finally conquered that because of the cell phone and laptop. The last time he began to travel (to England for weeks to be someone helping support the militarist alliance NATO) he had a cell phone and a laptop. So he began to call me twice a day as he had not been able to previously. Previously when he travelled, it was like a hole appeared in the universe and he was sucked into it and gone. I felt at such a loss and so stressed my mind would begin to slip now and again during the day from the tension of maintaining my own life with two daughters. Now it was like he was in the next room. Emails at odd moments, and so I conquered the need for the light.

I find the poem comforting as perhaps the women Vivian Jones described find “chick-lit” and Bridget Jones’s Diary comforting and many fans of Austen have said they find her novels comforting. I find the end of the film adaptations of her novels consistently moving and often comforting too.

But I recognize the poem is used as part of an agenda that is not good for women in general; for example, I know that what appears in newspapers is often not quite the truth (or not the truth at all) so that when it’s reported the reason the university officials at Virginia Tech where there was a mass slaughter yesterday (something like 32 students murdered by a gun or guns) did not immediately begin to shut down a huge huge campus (something like 24,000 students at Virginia Tech), it might be they looked for reasons not to begin the process and “hoped” the incident was one that affected only a couple of people. However, the rationale given for not immediately beginning to close down the campus connects to an incident I read about last week where a woman was murdered by her husband because the police did not imprison him (he had threatened her repeatedly, had stalked her; she had left him you see). The university officials are reported as saying in the newspapers, they thought it was “a domestic incident.” So no need to act swiftly as of course it’s not of general concern—at least that was the rationale presented (even if not necessarily the real one which might be they didn’t want to disrupt everyone in this huge place for what seemed would be a small incident).

Women are still seen as connected not to society but to men they happen to become sexually involved with—like stray dogs said Mary Astell after reading Hortense Mancini’s memoir where she was told to return to her husband as what happened was not of concern to the authorities.

The sincerest art can function as propaganda and in the public marketplace often does or is exploited that way. So here we have Claiming the Spirit Within, turning away to poems as a comfort (or refuge Vivian Jones said of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Austen and “chick-lit” too), post-feminism.


Posted by: Ellen

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