A Short History of Women | Rant

Sometimes you read books that don’t have a conclusion but they tell you something about the world. A lot of bloggers have said “this story has no point” and while it has no points plot-wise, or nothing to tell you in a sort of moral conclusion, it has a lot to say about women and womanhood.

A Short History of Women gives the story of four generations of women, some suffragists, some trying to find themselves, and some a hollow bone.  It’s painful, it’s a painful symbol for how the world sees womanhood, or how the world expects women to be.

I certainly do not have the strength of a few of these characters.  I could burn a bra against a metal barrel in the back woods of North Carolina, or a field grown over with weeds and clovers.  I could throw eggs at protestors and watch the clear jelly slide down their cheeks.  It’s yellow round – in a pan glowing white, rosing over, sunny side.  Enough of that though.  I’m saying I’ll hold a sign to get the vote, I’ll stand in the silent line to protest invasive sonograms.  But would I ever starve myself for the cause?

How far will I go for my own rights, if starvation…after passing – was the fact my ribs showed and my voice sunk to nothing even worth it?

These are the questions Kate Walbert asks.  How much is too much?  How far will we go and how will we do it?  And why?  When your son is buried in the desert mire during war, or the metal fence boasts “No Photographs after this Point” will you barge through, will you weep, will you seek arrest and council?  What do we do for the control of our bodies…

I think I liked this book so much, not for it’s story climax, or “point,” but because I was forced to ask myself these questions.  What morally is my duty to my body – this body filled with pores, causing hips to round in its shadows, asking for motherhood and spreading it’s legs against the ash of men (or women).  I’m not sure at this point what my duty is to my body.

I rise with the times, I suppose – I expect to be paid the same as a man in the same job, I expect to be judged on my hard work and not what my body was born into, and I believe in poetry and women’s place in literature, although articles are coming out announcing men’s publishing rates are rising higher than woman’s and this great article about chick lit @ Huffington Post. (Thank you Unputdownables).

I believe in Sylvia Plath’s words:

“Out of the ash I rise with my red hair
and I eat men like air.”
― Sylvia PlathAriel: The Restored Edition

If you need to ask yourself these questions – answer them with the literature, read this book.  Ask yourself what your mother, or grandmother has taught you about being a woman.  What did they instill in you – a sense of urgency, kindness, sexuality?  My grandmother instilled power, erratic driving, perseverance, self-teaching.  My mother instilled everything – the idea to be fierce, but soft.  I often think about what my daughters will think when they read my journals (if I have daughters) or what I will teach them in actions, and then later how they’ll discover my voice on paper.  I’m not sure what they’ll say about me – that I over-analyze, I scribble, I make lists.

At least though, I’m thinking about it, and thinking about it more after A Short History of Women.  Thinking about my contribution to not only my own line of females, but my voice in the public sphere (on women).

This brings me to: Samantha Brick, the woman too pretty and attractive to have any female friends.  If you haven’t read it, her article can be found here.   Here is the premise of the article: other women hate me because I’m beautiful and they treat me unfairly due to my stunningly good looks.  She’s a free lance journalist in France.  While I think her discussion is important, I don’t think she went at it the right way.  I believe pretty woman probably do struggle with making friends and it may be that other women are jealous, or it may just be that attractive women constantly discuss their looks, and their suitors and other women get bored with the conversation.  It’s strange how she writes this article with so many stories of hatred from other women who in secret praise her.  Last year, I wanted to watch the Victoria Secret Fashion Show for several reasons.

1. The women are absolutely stunning and they’re fun to look at, their hips ticking like a grandfather clock and those giant wings sparkling along the runway.

2. I like to know what bathing suits will look like next season.

3. I like to have inspiration to continue on my exercising journey.  My favorite model, Miranda Kerr, recently had a baby before the 2011 show and yet she looked flawless.  I did find myself saying, “I’d love to look like that,” but that doesn’t mean I’m jealous, it means I’m appreciative.  Sometimes, I bite down on the strong urge to yell at women running the neighborhood with me, to cheer them on.  It’s good when we can find something in common like loving ourselves instead of constantly putting one another down.   Have I been catty in my lifetime?  Sure.  Have I ever been cruel to someone because I thought they were prettier than me? No.  I don’t think that’s fair, when society is so much more cruel to those who don’t solidly fit its standards of beauty.  What we should be talking about is Bully, not some pretty Brit who’s having a hard time being pretty.

It’s a shame we can’t chalk all this up to: we can’t all be the same, we have different genes, different geographical locations, different unique and beautiful physical qualities.  When I read the article I kept thinking, “it’s not because you’re pretty, it’s because you’re rude about it.  You’re narcissistic.  You live in a house of mirrors and yet throw stones.”

I think this states to me that we’re living in a world where women think they can use their looks against each other.  I have news for people out there: you’re born with looks.  Very few women get nose jobs (unless they play Baby in Dirty Dancing), or liposuction  to suit themselves more firmly in the attractive.   Can you name one friend who’s had breast implants, I can’t.

Slam Poet Katie Makkai – “Pretty”

Why is it that we’re still talking about looks anyway?  Did you know that in England circa 1800 women being overweight and pale was popular?  In fact, if you were skinny or tan, it was considered that you were a maid, or a slave of some sort (often working in the sun, or not getting enough nourishment).

Obviously Samantha Brick has done well in her career with all of the possible promotions she mentions and yet we hear nothing about how she strives to pass the glass ceiling, or how she competed easily with others in her position (regardless of gender, or physical attraction).

It’s sad when high school girls are going through life considering eating disorders because their self-esteem isn’t concerned with how many poems they can quote, or how they understand the periodic elements and their functions, or how improved they are in a chosen sport, but instead how formed their abs are, or how straight their hair.

It worries me.   I was that girl who got up an hour earlier on non-swimming days to straighten my hair.  I had and have quite high self-esteem.  I swam year round all through high school, five hours a day and always had a boyfriend, so I wasn’t supremely concerned with my body but I did concern myself with these golden sea weed strands on my head and the acne forming on my chin.  I wanted straighter teeth, hair, legs.  I wanted less thigh, and didn’t laugh when my mother told me I had birthing thighs given from my grandmother.

So, this all comes back to our bodies.  How will we respect them and use them in the world.  How much do we fight with our minds and how much with our physical womanhood.  Earlier this week, I read a great nonfiction piece in Revolution House.  You can read it by Chelsey Clammer,  titled “Body Home” here.

I’d like to quote just a piece of it,

“I am on my way to work, getting on a train in Chicago. My commute has become a ritual of sitting in my body, mapping out the space she inhabits.   Each day I go through the obstacles of my mind as I judge the way my body moves. At the train stop, I go through the turnstile, and it rushes up behind me as I push it with my hand. The metal bar hits the back of my bag, an overstuffed messenger bag that bustles with snacks for the day, with notes for my job. The metal hitting my bag does not indicate to me that I am carrying a large amount of stuff to work, but it means I exist too much, that I take up too much space, that there is too much of me in the world” (Clammers, 48).

I think Clammers gives us a deep and revolving look at the female psyche.  I don’t want to feel like I am too much in the world because of how much seat I take up on a subway, or how deep a trampoline dips as I’m jumping into the blue air.  I want to feel too much in the world because I’ve written an overwhelming amount of words, because I’ve spoken loud enough for the world to hear, because my journal is so filled with scraps of lettering that it is bunching out, papers are crowding the spine.  I want my body to be my words, my hips small syllables, my eyes rhymes, and my fingers every sweet curve of my unsmooth handwriting.  This is how I will be too much in the world: too much voice. Too fierce.  Too alive with expression, with correspondence, with this, here.

Here is the main question though: What do these messages say about womanhood.  Ask yourselves.

*Next week I will be in Philly working at St. Francis Inn.  I may not be able to blog — head’s up.


31 responses to “A Short History of Women | Rant

  • Obscured Dreamer

    Very good points made here, and I sincerely thank you for writing this post. This is the information that needs be out for younger generations and even women in their 20’s and 30’s trying to be something they weren’t born to be, competing against genes to win what?

    You posed awesome questions that each woman should ask and be able to answer for herself. I have traveled this road of self acceptably, and found a much nicer and happier me!

    You mentioned circa 1800 women and how their look was considered stunning. It immediately reminded me that a lot of men and women I know absolutely love Marilyn Monroe. In her year being a size 6 is equal to our size 12, and people still fawn over her. I have friends with pictures of her hanging in their homes.

    On the flip side of things…I do know women who have breast implants, receive botox treatments, and are constantly exercising their way into being smaller with spray on tans. These are intelligent woman so I often slip a question or two slyly into a conversation about why they are going for a surgery or treatment, and unfortunately I cannot find within their answers anything that would make me jump up for the phone to call a plastic surgeon. Don’t get me wrong, please, I’m not being judgmental I just wish that all people could accept themselves with the beauty they have, love one another without spite or envy, live in today and be healthy about choices.

    Okay, I’m running on here in my reply yet again—my apologies.

    Great Post!

    • Cassie

      I have traveled it as well and I think as I grew and realized what I didn’t want to be, it became easier to be what I wanted to be. I think sometimes people have this fear of being different instead of appreciating the ways their unique.

      I do love Marilyn, but honestly because I can’t seem to figure her out. I don’t think anyone really ever got at knowing her, or she ever removed her mask and I just would love to know her – really know her. You’re so right about her size though. My friends freak out when they go past size four and I have to remind them that I have hips and I’m never fitting into a size four.

      Good for you for slipping those sly questions in to those women. I always wonder just why women believe that they’re going to come out with a positivity about themselves that they didn’t have before. Unless it’s for health reasons, I believe you have a history to follow physically and that you should embrace. My grandmother gave me these hips and so I intend on loving them because they are my history in a way. They may not be everyone’s idea of beautiful, but they’re mine and no one else’s.

      I love your long comments so don’t ever feel like you’re not adding something lovely and insightful. : )

      • Obscured Dreamer

        In all honesty, I have to admit I have been a size 00 in the past. No, I wasn’t trying to form a face of some sort it really means zero zero. Put that size with my height at 5’7.5 it was not a pretty picture. I could eat anything I wanted and I did. Doctors never could figure it out. My weight now varies through time just as I do and did with bearing 4 children, being a cancer survivor and finding a new recipe with high carbohydrates.

        I’ve found that most answers to the questions I pose are sadly in the realm of vanity. A need that drives women to pursue a look other than they were born with to attract a certain mate, to obtain what they believe is beautiful. I personally think and I could be horridly wrong that it boils down to distorted body image. I completely understand any man or woman that does it for health reasons, but don’t understand making changes to satisfy or try to find a mate. We must first love ourselves in order to be loved.

        I still roam between the 4’s and 6’s even though I still have my birthing hips. My dad always told me I would make a man happy with legs of a horse and hips like a cow. Now, I know some wouldn’t find that a compliment, but that was what he meant.

        From now on I will have no qualms about adding lengthy replies, and thank you for not minding them at all. I hadn’t thought that someone would find them lovely or insightful. So thank you also for making my day! :)

  • What is phenomenal? « Obscured Dreamer

    [...] just finished reading “A Short History of Women” by Books and Bowel Movements. If you haven’t run across this in reading through the [...]

  • Geoff W

    My boss recommended this book to me and I’m definitely looking forward to reading it. I feel like her response to the novel was a bit different than yours but maybe that comes from age.

  • Let's CUT the Crap!

    Hear. Hear. Two thumbs up. Well put.

  • grainsifter

    Over the years I’ve known lots of women with serious body issues, some who nearly died from them. Others spent inordinate amounts of time trying to be what they were not, via extreme and endless dieting, surgery, or simply sinking into self-loathing despair.

    Perhaps what I found so interesting and honest about your post is that you recognize that it’s fine to want a little more of this, a little less of that, to conform more to whatever our particular ideal may be of beauty, but that that is not the only thing which defines us, nor should it rule the way we view ourselves or set our goals.

    I love all of your posts, but this one I found particularly important. That last paragraph was one I read several times and am copying. Too. Too. Too. You are not only talented but oh so wise. Seems like your grandma and your mama gave you far more than those birthin’ thighs. :)

    You’ve probably read it, but Meg Wolitzer’s piece in the Times was very interesting… “The Second Shelf – On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html

    • Cassie

      I am going to read that Meg Wolitzer article right now. Honestly, I haven’t read even one of her books but they are constantly being recommended to me so now I’m feeling the need to pick one up.

      Thank you for all the compliments. I definitely understand the little movements toward bettering yourself – I wear make up everyday so I do believe in improving through material goods if it makes you feel better about yourself. I feel fancier with make-up on, more than likely better looking with make-up, so why not. I definitely don’t think it’s healthy to constantly belittle yourself though or have something always to improve on. There comes a point where you must live with what you’re given, and I reached that point young, luckily. I also had a family that has always been supportive and self-esteem boosting and everyone isn’t given that. You’re right – my mama and gramma gave me way more. : )

      You’re so smart, lady. And you sound just like me – copying tidbits of people’s blogs and posts in my journals when I find them especially important.

    • Cassie

      I don’t know why I just zoned out, but I read this two days ago and found it fascinating. She’s spot on and now I want to read that book with the way she describes it. I just love that fact that men can write about the interior lives of women, but when a woman writes a male narrator, male voice, or male main character, the whole world goes into uproar. It’s as if people don’t believe women can truly understand men. Shocks me all the time.

  • annagergen

    Your blog post made me more aware about my body, and for that I thank you. As a sophomore in college, I definitely experience a lot of stress over my appearance. With my metabolism decreasing with age, my hips and breasts becoming bigger, and all of the lifestyle changes that come with college, I find my weight fluctuating more than I would like. My self-esteem suffers because of this.

    Now, the question I ask myself is, am I unhappy with my body because of my own values and ideals about self-image? Or am I just another product of an appearance-crazed society? I suppose the answer, like most, is somewhere in the middle of the road.

    But, perhaps more importantly, how can one empower herself to transcend the body image? And should she? Are we souls with bodies, or bodies with souls? Now, there is a theological component to these questions as well!

    The issue at hand is one of utmost importance, as it involves every single human being, for we all stand somewhere on the gender spectrum, and are therefore linked to the idea of womanhood and femininity. Thank you for your sensitivity and thoughtfulness discussing this topic. I’ll have to ponder these questions you put forth further!

    • Cassie

      Anna —

      I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder two years ago and my weight has been a unthoughtful machine. I’ve been on a healthy eating plan for a while (not a diet) just because I’m going to have to eat healthy for the rest of my life, or gain weight rapidly. It deals heavily with my metabolism and so I exercise almost everyday and try to eat protein, fruit, fiber, and vegetables mostly so that I can maintain and control. It is good to feel like you have control over what’s happening with your body.

      I think in college is where I really discovered how and what makes me happy within myself. I took a lot of women’s studies classes and they really helped develop the mindset I have now. I definitely was bombarded with issues about my appearance though – surrounded by many women and realizing how often during the day you’re being judged.

      I hope we’re souls and bodies. I’m not sure we can separate the two – at least your average person probably can’t. I guess I’m generalizing – I’m not sure I could believe in my body as just a space where my soul lies and it’s discarded at the end of this life (even though I know that’s to be true). As a writer, I’m constantly using my body in words to explain things. I have this weird obsession with skin in my writing – especially when writing about my grandmother because she had a stroke when I was 11 and was confined within her body. Thus why the body is so important to me, I suppose.

      I do wish we’d concentrate less on body image though – you’re totally spot on.

      Let me know if you come up with anymore insightful thoughts as you stew on it. I would love to hear them.

  • a. m. f.

    Shall add this to my list, thank you.
    I fear my answers will not measure to the response that is to come from the questions posed. Perhaps it is my desire to remain small as to not take up space, so there is enough space for my words. Would I starve for a cause, you bet. Would I starve for a man, never. Would I starve because it makes me feel in power…almost. I’ve always played devils advocate, perhaps the most, with myself.
    Adrienne Rich’s death and my recent discovery of VIDA, has me remembering my feminist roots of twenty some years ago. I’m trying to shake off what has been my life since then…mainly, men who think me more as an object than a mind. I fought it, but it still reshaped me. 40 is next year, I don’t look it, yet, I’ve not gained the comfort of self, either.
    We live in the oddest society. People are starving; people are dying from eating too much. It’s alarming that a girl of four is worried about getting fat. It is even worse that a mother got a book deal after writing a blurb on telling her eight year old to go on a diet.
    I am the problem, I am the solution. Someday, I hope to have the courage to put it all down to paper. Lovely post ~ a

    • Cassie

      I would LOVE to hear stories about your feminist roots. I adore Adrienne Rich but I wasn’t around when she was writing her really feminist poetry – although I’ve read it.

      I think you’re beautiful, so you should be comfortable – and you DON’T LOOK 40 AT ALL.

      And please put it all down, that would be wonderful. I’d be interested in reading that.

      PS. Go you for saying that you would starve for the cause. I’m certainly not there yet. I think I’m too into myself for that or something, too selfish.

  • Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’m slow reading Kira Cochrane’s edited essays ‘Women of the Revolution’ 40 years of feminism – lest we forget. Could be that is the point. I enjoy being reminded of the sacrifices others have made before us to progress our experience in the world, and I am also reminded that we need to be wary of complacency, that for some not much has changed yet.

    I have respect for bodies, I work with them most days and am aware that those who I work with are gifting something back to that thing that does so much for us without too much appreciation. Bodies respond when we love and nurture them, when we give something back to them, it has nothing to do with size, how they look or compare – put your hand on a body and send it genuine loving energy. Say thank you.

    • Cassie

      I really want to read Florence Nightengale’s “Cassandra.” Not only because it has my name for a title, have you read that? And is in Women of the Revolution really good – it sounds like my kind of read.

      I definitely agree that not much has changed. Ironically enough, NPR did a special on women today and how we’re in a dull-drums phase of revolution that is slowly coming back fierce to do all the politics.

      I agree about bodies. I’m not sure I could separate myself from my body since it’s the space that let’s me view the world. And I can only think of my father who’s body has been aged since I was born and the differences between how we both look at the world today – through these bodies.

  • Bea

    I was taken with that last paragraph too, and it made me do some pondering about myself and the space I take up.
    As for those “birthing” hips, they are a gift from your Grandmother, and she would be happy to know you have adjusted to them.

  • lucysfootball

    Your posts are just so beautifully and evocatively written. I’m always so joyful when I see you’ve blogged.

    Love your Plath quote. One of my favorites.

    This brings up a lot of thoughts for me, too many for a comment without taking over. I’ll just give one so I’m not a comment hog – just imagine the force to be reckoned with women would be if, instead of wasting all the time we do hating on our bodies, and each other’s bodies, we used that collective brain power to support one another, or to put creative things out into the world, or to fight for things we believe in.

    I’d like to see that day, you know?

    • Cassie

      Well thank you so much for the nice words, dear.

      You’d never be a comment hog.

      I wish we could have a Mardi Gras type celebration where we celebrated each other. Maybe everyday one woman should say to another one nice thing about them. That would start. It would be a pay it forward for women I think. Your idea is fabulous and if only it were true in the world today.

      Hopefully some day….soon. Collective – YES!

      We’ll just start now: You’re one of the people I know that look great in glasses. GREAT. And they’re my favorite kind those black rimmed hipster glasses – I love it. Also, I have been totally intrigued with your blog not only because it’s wonderful and strong, but because I have no idea what Lucy’s Football means….and I’d like to know. : ) Pay it forward.

  • valerierlawson

    i watched a recent documentary on gloria steinhem on hbo and realized how much the women just a generation behind me did for us and how much we’ve gained. i was raised by a very progressive father who always encouraged me to be an equal and so i always assumed i was one. it’s surprising how most women are taught even now – through the media and social expectations – that their self-worth is determined by their physical appearance rather than their talents. i thank my father for teaching me differently and i hope to teach my daughter that she is so much more than pretty.

    excellent post. and the slam poetry was fan-fucking-tastic.

    • Cassie

      Ou, I would love to watch that – I’ll have to google it around. I love your story of your father – you should write a whole blog on that because it sounds just fascinating. I have heard so much about mother’s being influential about womanhood, but it’s different to hear about a father. My father has always been…not progressive, but encouraging. I love that you plan on raising your daughter in that way as well because you’re just passing on the knowledge and progressing & preparing the next generations. : )

      Thank you for the compliments and yes, that slam poem – it gets me every time! Especially the ending. I love it, love it, love it.

  • Ever Dundas

    Hi Cassie!

    I got your letter, and I love it – thank you! It arrived last week along with a mysterious postcard: http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/1870476
    I will send you a handwritten reply :)

    This is a great post – really thoughtful. I’ve been a feminist since i was a kid, and I studied feminism(s) and Queer Theory at uni, so I find this topic really interesting. Dont know if you’ve seen the Marilyn meme that’s been lurking on the internet? but this is a great response to it: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/01/25/the-marilyn-meme/
    and here’s some beauty industry satire for you: http://bloodonforgottenwalls.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/the-company-report/ ;)

    • Cassie

      I love that photo you took of all your mail and can’t wait to see what you write back.

      I’m going to check the meme and article right now – thanks for keeping me informed of these things. I love when people share more info with me after a post.

  • Lipstick Isn’t Love – Teaching Our Daughters to Love Themselves « valerie r lawson

    [...] I leave you with a fantastic performance by slam poet Katie Makkai that I am stealing from another awesome blog. (thank you, Cassie.) [...]

  • valerierlawson

    your post here and the recent ashley judd issue about body image kind of inspired my post today so i linked back to this post of yours in my post. cheers!

    • Cassie

      Thank you darling. I’ve been away from reality all week – what happened with Ashley Judd. I guess I’ll have to google now. I am also going to read your post now.

  • Chelsey Clammer

    You rock. Thank you for writing all of this, and for mentioning my piece. I feel honored to have made it to this blog.

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