Last Wednesday evening I went to a gathering of women who wanted to celebrate the 90th anniversary of female voting rights, that hard won triumph of woman’s suffrage that should not be confused with women’s suffering. The potluck supper was announced as “a feminist gathering” and described as a forum for the global future of women’s rights. I was flattered into accepting the invitation by being called “a real asset to the cause.”
I went because I had no idea why I would be an asset to that cause. It’s true I’ve always been an independent who did her own thing—and paid a high price for it, but I’ve never been a protest marcher, a petition pusher or bra burner. My mother instilled deep distrust of people on soapboxes who scream pieties at others while their own life is a mess. She dismissed professional protesters as frauds and charlatans, saying, “If everybody cleaned up their corner, there wouldn’t be much trouble to shout about. Never trust anyone who ignores their own dirty work by egging you on to change.”
When I arrived with a bowl of sticky rice and mangoes, I found myself among two dozen women between the ages of 32 and 87 who had also come carrying cheap and politically correct food: pasta salads, slaws, quiches, baked beans, pickled beets, chocolate chip cookies. Every one was wearing pants, no one else was wearing lipstick and everybody had on sensible shoes. I seemed to be the only one who dyed the gray out of her hair, which I do because it’s definitely not the pretty gray. My handy excuse is Buddhist practice. I’m supposed to imagine myself a deity and I’ve never seen one on any thangka anywhere with mousy gray hair. Remember, they’re supposed to represent eternal freshness—just like blonde hair.
Nevertheless, despite the dye, I‘m infamously “classic” in clothes and mostly lacking in makeup. So it may surprise you that the sight of so many women “letting themselves go”, as society used to say, aroused my suspicion that “feminist” has evolved into a code word for lesbian. I already knew such sexuality was the reality for at least a half dozen women in that room including the organizer, and while I support everybody’s right to be whoever they are, I shy away from loud, I can do no wrong, one-sided we-they “professional” identifications like those deployed these days by gays, Jews, San Francisco cyclists, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the holier than thou Tibetans who disdain the Nepalese who took them in. I am more comfortable with what unites people than what puts up dividing lines of differences between them. So I was happy to recognize two cohorts in their 60s who had been divorced, and one who is always referring to a never seen male “partner.” The discovery that the three in their 30s were married with children really relieved me, for it meant the evening had been centrified.
In the hour of milling around trying to balance wine glasses and paper plates full of food, I waited for the forum on the global future of feminism. But besides the constant sight of two women with cross chest ERA march sashes saved from the ‘60s, there was only catch up chitchat about the new book or the old house or the bakery where the pie came from. Finally after the cookies disappeared, we were told to grab something to sit on. Spontaneously we formed a circle. Women seem to do that whether it is the Cherokee women’s council or the European sewing circle or the deliberately circular nunnery Jetsun Tenzin Palmo just built in the Himalayan foothills of India. Unlike linear male conference tables where hierarchy and privilege play out at either end, females gather round.
In the eternal freshness of this equality, we were told to introduce ourselves by name and perhaps profession before expounding on the evening’s theme: foremothers-- a term the party organizer has been pushing. She wanted each of us to talk about the woman who most influenced us to be somebody or perhaps fought the feminist fight—on the progressive side, of course. I figured foremothers was the forspeis, the appetizer leading us into the mysterious global forum.
For some inexplicable reason, the woman to my right went first. As she was saying: “My name is Wendy,” it dawned on me I was next or going to be the closer—and either way I would need a foremother who didn’t deserve as mine so richly do to be forgotten. I was busily ransacking my memory’s Rolodex when I realized Wendy was silent and Natasha, sitting to her right, was telling everyone who didn’t already know that she was a visual artist. This confirmed me as the grand finale, the sum up. I figured I’d better listen up. Natasha was talking about her mother—a mother of five—who’d been a red diaper baby grown into an adult so angry at the unfairness of the world she took to the streets with petitions and harangues before dying of cancer in her early 50s. I guessed she did not solve any of the world’s problems for they are still with us, and Natasha likes to make angry paintings about them.
Next was a woman who obviously wanted to look like a man: the motorcycle sort shaved bald on the sides with a Mohawk running along the top and down the back in a long pigtail. She wore a black tee shirt with a forbidding design emblazed across the chest, navy jeans with heavy chains pouring like smoke from the pockets, and hardcore work boots. She said she was a general contractor, “woo hoo,” and hearing murmurs of surprise or possibly appreciation, thrust her arm high into the air to salute with another “Woo hoo!”
She was followed by artists and retired teachers—many of women’s studies, a daughter-in-law, someone retired early from finance, a lawyer, a law librarian. Most of the foremothers mentioned were grannies, three of them authentic suffragettes. Two younger women cited our hostess, who at 87 had marched for ERA, written a bestselling book called Words and Women, lived (separate bedrooms) for thirty years with her “best friend”, actively supported the younger generations of her brother and cousin’s large clans, and taught the two never to fear their instincts or inclinations.
Whenever she approved of what was being said, the contractor shouted “woo hoo!” And raised her arm to pump her fist as if pulling the brakes on an old steam train.
Our hostess’ choice of foremother was surprising. With carefully couched affection, she spoke of her paternal grandmother Daisy whom she mostly remembered sitting on the edge of the woods patiently sorting wild mushrooms in her apron, willingly teaching small children how to identify the edibles. “She didn’t care about the vote,” Kate said with reticence, sadly shaking her head. “She always said she didn’t need to vote because she knew my grandfather would do the right thing. She had other matters to tend.”
The most compelling story came from a tall, stately descendant of high Colonial society. It was about a highborn widow who spontaneously devoted her considerable means to saving children both black and white in Civil War Richmond. Apparently she kept a passionate diary about her adventures, but the speaker’s great uncle, a Boston lawyer, as guardian of the widow and eventually executor of her estate, burned it, cavalierly dismissing the woman’s work as female foolishness, indication of her silly disconnect from reality.
After almost an hour, attention passed over the two gray haired sisters who taught woman’s history and settled on me. I introduced myself by name and said my most influential foremother had been my childless great aunt Florie who served as my grandmother. It was she, the only blood relative capable of unswerving loyalty and nonjudgmental love, who showed me the crucial importance of caring. And since that made all the difference in my will to survive, I am devoted to passing her legacy to young people desperate for someone who can be counted on to be there for them.
“I know,” I concluded, “that probably doesn’t sound very feminist since most of the admiration tonight has been for women who did things like politically organize or gather mushrooms or protest. So I need to add my other most influential foremother was Isak Dinesen, who I’m sure you all know was the Baroness Karen Blixen forced to write under a male name. You’ve all read Out of Africa and probably her masterful short stories, but what I read at least once a year is the obscure text of a speech she made at a fancy girls’ school in the aftermath of World War II. It’s in a book called Daguerreotypes, called Oration at a Bonfire Ten Years Late, and it is about what she calls ‘feminism’. I urge you to read it.”
When it turned out not one other woman in that circle had done so, I took an extra moment to explain that Isak Dinesen’s idea of feminism was not the prevailing view that a woman should be more like a man, but rather that we should focus on and fight for survival of the distinctly feminine. Already in 1949 Dinesen had detected civilization tilting dangerously out of balance. So she talked about women who as mothers, wives, grandmothers and household managers embodied justice, healing and miracles of creativity. She reminded the graduating girls that female beauty has always provided artistic and religious inspiration, family devotion strength and turning the world around you into the embodiment of your loving-kindness the sublime human achievement. True feminism, she said, is not rushing out to do things the way men do, but being and radiating the invincible embodiment of virtue, making the whole world a beautiful “home.”
I now know this is, without meaning to be, a distinctly Buddhist view (the ma on lama means to carefully train people like a mother does her child and the ma on torma means to feed the deities lovingly as a mother does her child), but I didn’t go on to say that. I sat there waiting for a “woo hoo!”
Yours In The Dharma
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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