The Rights of Women: Somewhere in Perth Part 2

The first week of my retreat did not go as well as I planned or imagined. This is understandable. Very little in life meets our expectations; one of life’s crucial skills is learning to adapt and be content with what we can achieve. In my case I managed over 4,000 words, not bad considering I failed to stick to a writing routine. Perhaps I am not a writer who can follow a routine? Then again, if I stick to my routine in the coming week I may achieve more in terms of word count. The point is, I have been writing. My novel boasts more words today than this time last week, though their quality will be tested during the first edit.

I have also been surprised to learn that my imposed solitude has not been as pleasant as I hoped. My accommodation is excellent, I am eating well, I have access to the internet and a mobile phone but I never sleep well when alone and this week has been a challenge for me. I am positive this will settle down, but in the short term those 4,000 plus words might be the result of a tired and occasionally overwrought mind. I’ll let you know how I have coped with this challenge next week.

The real pleasure of this first week comes from reading Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley. It’s been on my shelf for years and I am glad I had the sense to bring it with me.

Mary Shelley, nee Godwin, was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and William Godwin, a political philosopher. Godwin_Wolstonecraft

Best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley started writing the book when she was only eighteen, barely two years after she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in July 1814. Percy Shelley, mercurial and impulsive, declared his love to the sixteen year old Mary, a love she ardently requited, despite his marriage at nineteen to the then sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Harriet had one child, a daughter, and was pregnant with her second child when Percy ran off to France with Mary and her sister Jane (also known as Claire Clairmont).

When Harriet committed suicide in 1816, Mary and Percy were free to marry, albeit reluctantly. Early in their relationship Percy Shelley hoped to create a commune ‘in which sexual freedom could be practiced,’ and, like Mary’s parents, they were both religious skeptics.

Mary and Percy were together for only eight years. From the begining the relationship was severely tested, particularly prior to Percy’s death in Italy in July 1822. The couple were always short of money. Percy Shelley’s aristocratic father refused to support him and they had to move constantly to avoid their debtors. Mary gave birth to four children, three of them lost in early infancy, but despite this Mary wrote and published one novel, started another, made ‘fair copies’ of Percy’s poems, taught herself Italian and Greek, entertained her husband’s many literary friends and endured the tantrums of her intemperate sister Claire.

A well-educated, erudite woman, Mary was stoic despite, like her mother, suffering from periods of depression. It was not being Mrs Shelley, however, that gave Mary cause for grief, it was her husband’s continual philandering. It is almost certain Percy and his sister-in-law Claire had a passionate love affair, which possibly produced a child. There were several other ill-conceived passions on the part of the poet, mostly with younger women, women he expected Mary to welcome into her house as friends.

Seymour’s detailed biography is scrupulously even-handed. Where facts about, for example, Percy’s love affairs or Claire’s antics (incuding a brief affair with Lord Byron, another famous poet and pursuer of women) are not known or lost, Seymour suggests plausible scenarios. This allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions about events and Mary’s attitude towards them. Seymour is also searingly honest about Mary’s depression and occassional bad temper while at pains to demonstrate Mary’s extraordinary intelligence, warm humour and her love of learning and the theatre.

As a result of reading Seymour’s biography I decided to adopt Mary Shelley as the patron of my small retreat. Her resilience, love of literature and witty, intelligent conversation, plus her moments of dissatisfaction and despair at the thoughtless, lascivious behavior of her husband, are admirable. I do not see her as a victim, despite the fact that well after his death she championed a man who did not deserve her. Mary Shelley raised her son alone and supported her aging father with her writing. While in later life she may not have been accorded the respect she earned with Frankenstein, she never gave up doing what she loved.Mary_Sh

And neither will I

Where are all the Angry Women?

I recently heard two separate interviews, recorded at different times and in different locations, with the same woman writer. Both interviews were about her new book and in the second interview her comments were the same or similar to the first.

While there is nothing wrong with this, the second interview gave me a chance to reflect on the writer’s response to both interviews and her comments about how she wrote the book. I discovered I had several problems with what she said. While her book is in some ways shocking and disturbing, it contains only a couple of descriptions of overt violence. I applaud the writer’s decision regarding the depiction of violence. I am sickened by books (or movies) that graphically portray the abuse, torture and maiming of anyone, especially women. In the second interview, however, I detected a sense of squeamishness in the writer when it came to writing about violence and sexual intercourse. Again, the book has a couple of sex scenes, written with assurance and skill but also curiously detached. This may be a good thing; books with too much sex, even pleasurable, loving sex can be boring. After all, as a friend once said to me, how many ways can you write about the mechanics of sexual intercourse that aren’t, well, mechanical?

On the other hand, invasive sexual congress, which occurs when one of the partners (usually, in heterosexual intercourse, the woman) is for whatever reason coerced into having sex, makes me really angry. So does the abuse of women, be it their bodies, their minds, their self-respect or their sovereignty.

Am I reading the wrong books or is no one writing about women’s anger anymore and if not, why not?

I wonder if it is because there exists a clutch of women literary writers, many of them aged between thirty and forty-five, who are a tad fastidious about women’s suffering? Who shy away from the awful reality of most women’s lives? If this is true, if women are too refined to write the truth about woman’s suffering, does this reluctance condone women’s abuse? Does it allow the perpetrators of that abuse to get away with their crimes? Does the absence of anger silence the women who are forced to negotiate, on a daily basis, ways to survive their abuse and their abuser.

I also think too many women writers shy away from so-called ‘feral’ female protagonists. Medusa cover I don’t necessarily think we should all write feminist versions of ‘Lord of the Flies’ but I don’t want to read novels where women are complicit in their abuse even though our conditioning and living situations can mean we willingly accept the status quo.

How long will women remain compliant? In straightened circumstances women eventually behave like any other human: they access their power and they fight back, they openly and proudly assert their rights and express their anger and frustration. It’s also true that women can hurt others, be abusive and violent. To say otherwise repudiates women’s humanity, the first dictate of which is survival by any means.

Many women are angry about how they are treated. Anger, however, is not action. Anger motivates: it can be, when properly and wisely directed, a potent force for change. Women have resisted unequal treatment and fought for equality for centuries and many continue the fight.

Do I want a bunch of novels about angry, violent, abusive women popping up on our bookshelves? Can the current crop of young-to-middle-aged women writers express such anger? How is it possible for many of these women writers, university educated, upper middle class, quasi-radical feminists, to ignore the often horrific daily reality of the majority of women? Are they unable to understand this reality because their university education failed them or is it because they simply don’t want to be sullied by the truth that lies behind the statistics, the truth that sits outside their safe, theoretical books and journals?

Why is this important to me? Apart from having been a feminist for over thirty years (and lamenting the ongoing situation many women continue to endure), I am trying to write a themed collection of stories about angry women. It is hard to write about anger without being confronted by one’s own anger. I am wary of alienating a potential reader with my characters’ anger and I want to avoid being didactic. Nor do I want my characters’ anger to be the action but be the motivation for their behaviour. I know it’s vital to show (not tell) the anger and show (not tell) how my characters face, accept, and use their rage to make the change they wants to make.

Every woman, from birth, must have access to good health care, an education, financial independence, safe and accessible contraception and access to safe child-birth and child care. Every woman has the right to have a career, if they want one. Every woman should feel, at the end of their lives, respected and nurtured. I want to put my characters’ divine and justifiable rage out into the world, to represent anger as a legitimate, reasonable reaction to the intolerable fact that too many women are denied these basic rights.

It’s just that writing about anger can be as taxing as feeling angry.

What do you think? Are you angry? Are you comfortable with expressing your anger? Have you created an angry fictional character? What problems did you confront and how did you solve them? Do you know of any books where angry women characters feature?

Blogging Challenges, Therapeutic Writing and Feminism

Blogging Challenges, Therapeutic Writing and Feminism? That’s quite a title isn’t it? I hope it didn’t put you off, but if you’ve read this far you’re willing to read more, though you are probably wondering if I can tie it all together.

First, here is a list of the things I’ve learned when I completed the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge.

  • Blogging is simply another form of communication. It’s easy to assume, as we sit tickling our keyboards hoping something useful can come of it and scanning our computer monitors (or mobile phones) for typos, that blogging is about technology; the internet, phone lines, satellites and such. Far from it. I’m communicating with you right now and if you’re so inclined you’ll respond to this post either by reading it carefully, thinking about it and maybe incorporating some of the content into your life, or simply by writing a comment (or, as my father used to say, ‘Adding your two bob’s worth’). Only humans can do that. The medium might be the message but the message is there are sentient beings at both ends of the process. Like any other interaction in my life, the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge has taught me that humans are invariably kind, generous, intelligent, supportive beings.
  • Blogging is giving; it’s about sharing ideas, opinions, domestic tips, recipes, images, poetry, music, goals, losses, hopes, dreams … and we’re back to the human element again. Bloggers share their lives with their readers and will do so for years to come. It’s a heady thought, but it’s also a responsibility. This leads to the next point …
  • Blogging is about honesty. I’ve learned that bloggers can spot a sham in less time than it takes to type supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. By honesty, I mean genuine self disclosure (which is not the same as sharing deep intimacies too soon). Genuine communication is sharing what we think is appropriate for the person and the situation. In other words honesty is, in this sense, meaningful and contextual. Maybe I’ve been lucky; the bloggers I’ve met since I started blogging last July, and in the last week, seem to have found the balance between healthy boundaries and honest communication.

I’ve learned more, of course, but I want to move on to therapeutic writing. The main reason for starting a blog was to share my research about therapeutic writing, but as my wonderful daughter-in-law said over lunch on Friday, the Seven Posts in Seven Days challenge revealed a less serious, less formal and, dare I say it, more human blogger. Blogging is a way to get my message about writing as healing across but I need to speak ‘to’ people, not ‘at them’, to make my message meaningful and to have fun in the process. This drive to inform people about therapeutic writing leads to the last part of today’s title: feminism.

Last night I realised the seeds of my interest in therapeutic writing were sown back in 1983 when I returned to university (for the first time, I have a habit of periodically drifting back into study, but that’s for another blog!) and enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Women’s Education. My suspicions about patriarchy were very quickly confirmed as were my concerns about the status of women. The issue of women’s silence, of women being denied a voice in how they run their lives, became, and still is, important to me. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde wrote, ‘there are so many silences to be broken.’ My commitment to breaking those silences  has endured for over thirty years and culminated in research about the silence around women’s (and men’s) mental health problems.

Audre Lorde also wrote,

And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.

32951  There are still too many women who are forced to be silent. There are too many words spilled about women and not by women. If, by writing therapeutically I mean writing as woman about our needs, our desires, our losses, our heartbreak, our oppression, our fight for justice for every single person on the planet, our fight for the planet itself, then I will write therapeutically, and blog about therapeutic writing, for as long and as loud as I can.

This, along with the opportunity to connect with people from around the world, is for me the true power and joy of blogging.

Your Turn: What is the real reason you blog? Is there something from your past that you think has culminated in your blog? What have you learned about the world since you started blogging?

 

I want to say here that I don’t hate men. My father was a man, my two sons and my partner are all men. I like most men. Then again, why do I feel the need to say this? As I saw on Facebook the other day, why is it when women (not all women, but most) say they are feminists, they hasten to add they like men? Why is it necessary to bring men into a discussion about feminism? End of rant.

I don’t mean therapeutic writing and feminism are the same thing with the same goals. I do think, however, they can inform and enhance each other.