This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. “Birth control is the first important step woman must take toward the goal of her freedom. It is the first step she must take to be man’s equal. It is the first step they must both take toward human emancipation.” -- Margaret Sanger When I went away to college, I made two trips off campus almost as soon as I had dumped my suitcase on my dorm room bed. One was to find the nearest bookstore, where I applied for a job. The other was to find the nearest health clinic where I could get a prescription for the Pill. Both were a success. Young, arrogant, and excited for the future, I took the clinic trip completely for granted. I never questioned my right to that birth control prescription, with or without parental approval, my right to be sexually active, my right to decide when or if I would be willing to get pregnant. Birth control was a thing you did if you were a girl. It was preventative. Like vaccinations. Looking back, now, I realize I was lucky -- certainly to have a family that talked about sex in terms of health instead of morality, but mostly to have come of age at a time when birth control was easily obtained, relatively safe, and reliable. I never thought about it, with my feet up in those stirrups, but my mother didn’t have the benefits of birth control that I did. The Pill had only received FDA approval about 25 years before I decided to lie back on that table. And it took 12 more years to legalize it in every state. So when I walked into that clinic, I was actually part of a brave new world for women everywhere. I wish I had known it. 2. Unlike me, the artist and writer Sabrina Jones did know it. As she explains in the early pages of her recent graphic novel, Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger, her sexual education seems to have begun when “an interesting book appeared at my house.” Jones immediately snuck up to her room to read Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was, and is, the most influential and frankly practical book ever to be written on the topic of women’s health, and one that had the added benefit of being entirely guilt- and shame-free. That book was the beginning of Jones’s own sexual awakening, a journey that eventually led her to the spot that once housed America’s first birth control clinic -- an unremarkable building on an unremarkable street in Brooklyn, N.Y. There was nothing significant about the place, except that one day, 100 years earlier, a woman set up a clinic to hand out information about birth control to the neighborhood’s mostly working-class and immigrant population, and was promptly arrested for obscenity and being a public nuisance. Obscenity. Public Nuisance. Phrases that seem to attach themselves to every feminist who dares to raise her voice. And no one was more daring than Margaret Sanger. “There ought to be a plaque,” thought Jones, standing on that Brooklyn street a century later. But there wasn’t a plaque, so Jones -- a cartoonist and scenic artist -- went home and wrote Our Lady of Birth Control. “Sabrina Jones,” according to RoGallery’s biography, “has been writing and illustrating comics since the Reagan era.” That is, she came of age at a time when the backlash to second-wave feminism was gaining momentum, and when the threat of HIV loomed over every sexual encounter. Alarmed by the political climate, Jones -- a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York -- joined a group of activist artists, Carnival Knowledge, focusing her energies on feminism and social justice. She helped found GirlTalk, a comic about the things women feel safe to say to each other when there aren’t men in the room: “Do we really speak ‘In a Different Voice,’ as Carol Gilligan posits,” Jones asks in her introduction to issue #1, “our speech crimped and curled since elementary school? When men talk, it’s history, when we do, it’s coffee klatch, chitchat, gossip, nagging, shrill, old wives tales -- sorry, I’m ranting.” Jones would also go one to create comics for The Real Cost of Prisons Project, highlighting the disparity between the fates of black and white people in the justice system and the damages of the “War on Drugs.” In 2008, Jones wrote her first full-length graphic biography, Isadora Duncan, about the acclaimed dancer, who defied social expectations. ("100 years ago,” it begins, “Americans liked their statues loosely draped and their daughters laced up tight.”) Our Lady of Birth Control, published last July by Soft Skull Press, is the artist’s tribute to a woman who has affected women’s quality of life possibly more than any other single person; it is also a kind of extended argument for Sanger’s relevancy today. The social attitudes about women she wanted to change, the rights and opportunities she fought so hard for -- these are all issues that are still on the front lines today, something Jones brings to the fore by interspersing throughout the story of Sanger’s life chapters on her own sexual awakening, and the contemporary politics of women’s reproductive rights. Panels showing demonstrations in 1916 are followed by Jones’s account of guiding women to the doors of a barricaded clinic while anti-abortion activists hurled insults at them. Pages on the history of contraception alternate with accounts of contemporary Supreme Court arguments over whether or not access to birth control can or should be mandated. When we consider “life-changing” advances we tend to think of things like electricity or automobiles. Birth control never makes the list. But the ability for women to take a pill and choose when or whether to get pregnant is revolutionary. Pregnancy is no longer an inevitability in a woman’s life; it is something that can be chosen, or not, planned and managed. One pill, and her life is under her own control. It’s difficult to overstate how important that is. 3. “She goes through the vale of death alone, each time a babe is born. As it is the right neither of man nor the state to coerce her into this ordeal, so it is her right to decide whether she will endure it.” -- Margaret Sanger One of the strongest aspects of Our Lady of Birth Control is its portrayal of an activist’s evolution. Jones shows us Sanger’s beginnings in a near-destitute working-class family in Corning, N.Y., her mother ill from tuberculosis and Maggie Higgins, eight years old, doing the housework and caring for her younger siblings. Her mother died at 50, having given birth to 11 children and suffered seven miscarriages. Back from boarding school, the teenage Maggie became matron of the household. Most girls escaped similar fates by getting married as soon as they could manage it. After those years tending to her mother, Maggie decided she wanted to be a doctor, was scoffed at, and enrolled in nursing school. She also collected more than a few suitors, and eventually eloped with one of them to become Mrs. Bill Sanger. She insisted that he support her until she finished school. But she did not finish -- not because her husband objected, but because she had caught her mother’s tuberculosis. It didn’t much dampen her determination. Margaret worked as a visiting nurse on New York’s Lower East Side, where she was confronted with the lives of poor women doomed to a cycle of constant pregnancy, childbirth, or miscarriage. Galvanized by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 young women, Sanger started speaking at party meetings on behalf of working-class women. When she was invited as a speaker for a Socialist Party event on the topic “Women and Health,” the one thing every woman in the audience wanted to know was, “How do we avoid having children we can’t afford?” Sanger was spending her days visiting women who were often suffering from unrelenting pregnancies or, worse, dying from complications from their desperate attempts to self-abort. Sabrina Jones’s illustrations are unflinching, as are Sanger’s words: “Looking out at the city, its pains and griefs crowded me, women writhing to bring forth babies, the babies wrapped in newspapers, six-year-olds pinched and pale, scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lampshades, artificial flowers.” Sanger decided it was not enough just to care for these women. She began researching contraception. 4. “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” -- Margaret Sanger Sanger’s reputation was constantly under attack while she was alive. But in the years after her death in 1966, Sanger is also remembered as a racist who promoted eugenics -- a word that in the 1920s was considered a respectable science, but carries horrific implications now. Any casual search of Sanger’s name will bring up a series of fairly disturbing quotes: “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” "We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population." “Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives." Jones does not shy away from Sanger’s controversial reputation. The section of Our Lady titled “False Charges” makes clear that the most egregious statements have long since been clarified -- they are mostly misattributed or taken out of context. “Exterminating the Negro population,” for example, referenced a program she created to bring contraception information to rural African-American communities via black doctors, since the people were unlikely to trust white doctors and would suspect some government attempt at sterilization. And the comment that it would be more merciful to kill a child is hyperbole in a discussion of what Sanger calls “the immorality of large families” -- giving birth to children doomed to short, painful lives of hunger and deprivation before they die, usually before the age of five, of malnutrition and disease. Sanger’s support of eugenics is another matter, however. ”Margaret’s interest in eugenics was based on health, not race,” writes Jones, with an accompanying illustration of Maggie Sanger holding up a happy infant and proclaiming “Fewer, better babies!” In defiance of Jim Crow laws, that first clinic Sanger opened in Brooklyn was open to all races. But hierarchies of health are no less problematic. And although Sanger’s primary concern was always that women be free to choose for themselves when they wanted to become mothers, she clearly did not support “unfit” women having children -- the very poor who could not afford more children, the sick who might pass along their diseases, or the mentally ill. “Since the emergence of the disability rights movement, we may be more inclined to value people with intellectual disabilities,” Jones acknowledges. “But Sanger’s attitudes were characteristic of her time.” It may be indicative of the artist’s conflicted feelings that “False Charges” is the wordiest, least-illustrated chapter in the book. But, like admiring Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant man who wrote our Bill of Rights yet owned people, although we can say of Sanger, “she was a product of her age,” in truth what we admire in both is their vision, their ability to see a better future -- to be, in effect, not of their age. 5. “A mutual and satisfied sexual act is of great benefit to the average woman, the magnetism of it is health giving.” -- Margaret Sanger Sanger’s influence is always with us. She was the founder of Planned Parenthood, the woman who challenged obscenity laws and made it possible to discuss birth control publicly, the woman who found a young ambitious Harvard researcher named Gregory Pincus and convinced him to develop “a magic pill.” In other words, she is directly responsible for my ability to get through college both sexually satisfied and not pregnant. She deserves more than a plaque for that, and Sabrina Jones has given Sanger at least some of what she is due. Jones’s tribute to Sanger is largely joyful; she has an endearing habit throughout the book of drawing her heroine as a smiling snake or harpy, especially when talking about issues of sexual freedom. But the story has a nagging familiarity. Americans remain squeamish about the realities of sex and all too willing to close their eyes to the consequences of their own prudishness. The juxtapositions of chapters on Sanger’s own sexual awakening and her happy encounters with a string of lovers, alongside sections about Jones’s blooming sexuality among dancing hippies, will make readers of a certain age nostalgic. But it is impossible not to see the parallels between the women of Sanger’s era, dying from botched abortions and riddled with syphilis, and the generation Jones and I grew up in, where sex carried the lurking threat of HIV. Or to see the similarities in the determined way society ignored or condemned the suffering women of Sanger’s time, and the continued legislative assault on women’s health clinics now. The sections alternating between Sanger’s rising radicalism and Jones’s own political evolution are telling. Sanger gave speeches. Jones joined a radical artists’ collective that did street fairs: “Know your right to life senators! Squeeze a senator’s balls, and a noisemaker pops out of his home state on the map!” None of the street fairs I’ve ever been to had games like that, dammit. Still…women arrested in front of health clinics? Going to jail for their beliefs? Being accused of indecency? These are also familiar to us, 100 years after that first clinic was opened. We’ve seen women’s health clinics barricaded, their doctors and patients threatened and even murdered. We’ve seen women charged with assault because they gave birth to babies that tested positive for drugs. Women have been denied access to health coverage for birth control and when one woman took her case to court, Rush Limbaugh called her a slut. “A century after Margaret Sanger began her fight for birth control” Jones notes, “a woman is still publicly shamed for advocating it.” It is disturbing, in fact, just how similar the voices raised against Sanger, and those fighting against women’s reproductive rights now, sound. A pessimistic woman might start packing her bags for Canada. But in the end, Jones holds out room for hope. Hers and mine are the generations that enjoy the life Sanger fought so hard for women to have. We aren’t about to give that up. As Jones smilingly points out on the book’s last page, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” Or the Pill back in the box. All images ©Sabrina Jones
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. “Some writers say, ‘You’ve got to write the book that’s been writing you forever, and then maybe you can go to another topic.’ I’ve never had any other topic but this topic, motherhood.” -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 “I always kept time for myself,” said my mother once in one of those conversations where we talk about how different the world is now from when I was young -- how free my brother and sister and I were to stay out of doors all day, with little to no supervision. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.” I’m sorry to say the remark didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. I thought it was one of those throwaway comments mom made that tended to dismiss whatever she did well in the name of modesty. Tell her “Dinner is delicious” and she would say “I don’t think I added enough salt.” It was a habit of hers I picked up and have been fighting ever since. But her comment came back to me while I was reading Desiree Cooper’s engaging and unsettling collection, Know the Mother (Wayne State University Press), published in March. Indeed, I think it would be impossible to read the book without thoughts of one’s own mother constantly intruding. A collection of about 30 very short stories -- some only a page or two, some a paragraph -- Know the Mother is a constellation of stories about women who are mothers. Not, it must be emphasized, a paean to the institution of motherhood, nor stories of children or spouses honoring their mothers. Not stories of bravery or sacrifices or what they gave to their families, although some of that can certainly be found here. Cooper’s fiction is anchored in the women themselves, the ones who are contending with their unexpected transformation from a person into a role. We live in a culture where our identities and our roles are often inextricably entangled, and nowhere is this so clear as in tension between “self” and “mother.” Mothers are supposed to be selfless -- a troubling idea and an unrealistic expectation of any woman. I found myself wondering if my own mother ever felt guilty or defensive about the time she took “for myself.” I hope not, because it is my memory of her in those moments that I am most drawn to, even now. A sense of self-sufficiency is probably the greatest example she ever set. 2. “Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?” asks Cooper in the book’s first story, “Witching Hour.” And why does the night abandon us to twinkling worry, to the rattling breaths of our children, to the hard floor of our long prayers? What fresh dangers tap against the black window? And why do our men snore so easily while the horror gathers? Every story in the book seems to be an answer to these questions. They are not comfortable answers. There is the physicality of motherhood, for one thing, the grueling toll it takes on the body. “I’d never been so beat up -- like physically attacked,” Cooper told The Rumpus of her own experience of childbirth. She brings the full force of that experience to her work: a woman collapsed in pain on her bathroom floor as her water breaks in “Icthyophobe.” Another at work determinedly finishing her phone call while she feels herself miscarrying (“Cartoon Blue”). Yet another waiting up in the dark for her daughter to get home, remembering how suicidal she felt at nine months (“Mourning Chair”): “I prayed all night as I paced by the cabinet of poisonous things, by the drawer of sharpened knives. I thought about throwing myself down the stairs or starting the car in the garage.” Then there is the fact that the moment a woman becomes pregnant she forfeits her sense of self in the eyes of almost everyone around her. Her career is on hold or over, her life is no longer her own, her husband and children and even the government seem to have a claim on her body. “If you wanted to have babies,” says a law firm partner in “Ceiling,” “why did you go to law school?” The scene is shot through with metaphor -- the man’s tie is “burqa blue and the yellow of a runny egg yolk.” The woman feels faint confronting him, “a useless bride, crossed legs as brown as firewood ready to be doused.” Does becoming a mother mean immolation? Lovers change overnight into people with expectations -- they want her to keep the child or not, to submit to this change in her life, to arrange things so they don’t have to. They demand she take it easy, as if a plus sign on a pregnancy test both turns her into an invalid and invalidates anything she might want for herself: Jim steered with one hand, driving into the quiet evening, preoccupied with important things. Kate stared jealously at how easy driving was for him -- like an extension of breathing. Because she had been put on bed rest -- and then had a C-section -- Kate hadn’t been able to drive for months. She tried to remember that feeling of absolute, one-handed control. (“Origins of Sacrifice”) They take choice after choice out of her hands. More than one woman in these stories is prone to dreaming she can fly away into the night sky. 3. Many of Cooper’s women are persons of color, facing the full range of racism -- casual to overt -- that being “not white” brings down upon them, and “identity” starts to feel like a life or death battle. A simple trip to a supermarket with two tired, unruly kids who want Double Stuf Oreos becomes a kind of gauntlet for one exhausted woman, who can almost hear the accusation “welfare mother” from all the people around her. A young black mother takes her baby to a market off the Japanese army base where her husband is stationed, and endures the leering comments of the vendors when they notice her child’s much lighter skin. The women ignored her, clucking like hens. Tears began to rise up instinctively, but Bobbie Jean resisted the urge to back away. This wasn’t the rural South, where uppityness could cost her life. This was postwar Japan, and her husband was protecting both his country and theirs. She had every right to be in the ginza buying a roasted sweet potato. (“In the Ginza”) “You got white GI?” they ask her, as if she were a whore who pulled off a good trick. Even a modern, middle-class, liberal school becomes a locale for the erasure of black women, as one mother discovers when she finds out teachers are ignoring her daughter in “The Disappearing Girl:” I turn off the radio, which I always do when the kids are in the car, just in case something bubbles up from their mysterious lives. Lately, my daughter has become impenetrable. When I hug her, she stiffens. Even though I am her lifeboat, she will not touch me. She is the kind of lonely that cannot be explained, so it becomes someone else’s fault. Mine. “Did you know I am invisible?” Her words come in a scratchy little-girl voice, but she is too old for make-believe. She is stating a fact. My heart is a block of ice. 4. [A]ll mothers are single mothers. Society is structured in such a way that women have to devise, invent, and cobble together motherhood, each and every time, on their own. -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 If there is an overarching point Cooper wants to get across, I think it is this: The disconnect between social and cultural ideas of motherhood, and the actual experience of the woman who has become a mother. Her stories are centered on the woman navigating this state of motherhood that is perhaps not unwelcome (some of the women in the stories are happy to be pregnant, some are not), but for which she discovers she is unprepared. Cooper eschews stereotypes and archetypes in favor of the messy, gritty reality of motherhood as it feels to the woman who finds herself facing it. Our mothers are flawed, often afraid, sometimes resentful, generally in awe of this role they have stepped into. They “cobble together motherhood” in spite of us, their children. Their family. The people who stand behind them in the supermarket or sit next to them in the waiting rooms, measuring and judging. Like some of the women in her stories, Desiree Cooper left a law practice to become first a mother, and then a writer. She is a poet, fiction writer, and journalist, and -- as will surprise no one who reads her work -- a community activist on behalf of women. But if she has the eye of a reporter, she has the sensibility, and the pen, of a poet. The most gratifying thing about Know the Mother is the beauty and daring of its language: One night, as I lay awake in the sweltering darkness, the stars called me back to the beginning. I went outside and gazed skyward where Orion hung low and the Milky Way dangled within reach. A current of evolution stirred; suddenly I was certain of my fetal wings. Pressing my bare soles against the damp ground, I angled my crooked spine and pushed up on swollen knees. I was aloft. (“Soft Landing”) It would have been easy to let such themes -- motherhood, and particularly black motherhood -- become a polemic. The author is passionate about women’s reproductive rights and critical of the sacrifices women (especially black single mothers) are expected to make: I do think we’re allowed to raise our voices when it comes to single motherhood, but we’re on that pedestal of “hero” and “Big Mamma.” Just taking it on and making it work and keeping our babies safe and keeping that Sunday dinner going. We’re not allowed to say, “This hurts. This is ridiculous. Some of the rest of y’all need to step up here. -- Desiree Cooper, interview in The Rumpus, 2016 But Cooper is interested in deeper things, and she is not afraid to push the language to reach for it. She finds in goldfish a metaphor for fear; in a bright dress, a symbol of death. Many of the stories are set at night, in the dark -- sometimes a warm dark, but just as often a fearful thing. In fact, for a book about mothers, there is as much death as life in this collection, as much mourning as celebration of birth. Sometimes, you think you are reading about a dream -- like the woman who flies into the sky at night. Sometimes, you hope you are reading about a nightmare -- like the increasingly violent scenarios of a woman, a gun, and her sleeping children in “Something Falls in the Night.” One of the most beautiful pieces in the collection is the title story, “Know the Mother,” where the narrator -- we are never told if the speaker is male or female -- is sitting by the bedside of his or her mother as she dies, caring for her wasted body (“already, she smells like a garden unearthed”). The language is intense and immediate, which is why, perhaps, these are all very short stories. It would be unbearable to stay in any of them for very long. Taken together, Know the Mother is a welcome antidote to the fetishization of motherhood that tends to reach its obscenely sugar-coated peak in the month of May. Because let’s face it: chocolate and flowers are a wholly inadequate acknowledgment of the woman you are supposed to be honoring. Possibly the best gift you could give your mother for Mother’s Day would be to read Desiree Cooper’s book yourself.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Lusty adj: Fired/Inspired by Pure Lust: Wanton, Gynergetic, Biophilic, joyous, merry, robust, flourishing, strong, powerful, vigorous, having an unrestrained inclination for enjoyment -- Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I still remember the day Mary Daly stood in front of our class and asked that question. It caused a distant rumble in my head, like a deep tremor portending an earthquake. I spent the rest of the class, the rest of the semester, the rest of my life, trying to answer it. And with every attempt at an answer the fault line slid a little, the supposedly solid ground of my assumptions cracked and broke and fell away. “What does any of this really have to say to women?” It’s a question I have been asking and trying to answer ever since. That I was in Daly’s class at all was something of an accident. That semester I had kissed my first girl. We had been wandering around a local golf course one fall night, talking about anything and everything, when she finally reached across that indefinable space between us and pulled me to her. I was utterly smitten. I would have followed her anywhere. If she had been into race cars I’d have become a NASCAR fan. But she was a feminist -- a radical feminist -- and had been reading Mary Daly. So instead I went with her to womyn-only music festivals, hung out at lesbian bars, and since I was a student at Boston College, where Mary Daly taught, enrolled in her class. It took a little convincing, since I was in the Russian and Middle Eastern Studies department and Feminist Ethics wasn’t on my course list. I remember planting myself in Daly’s office to persuade her to let me in the course -- the one she only allowed women to take -- with all the clueless confidence of a good student who assumes that if it is written in a book, it can be learned. I had this idea that my new romance would be over before it got off the ground if I didn’t get into that class, so I wasn’t taking no for an answer. That was my introduction to feminism. Not the slow or even sudden epiphany of the inherent misogyny of patriarchal culture, but a simple case of horniness and an overwhelming desire to impress a girl. I’m amazed that Daly took me on. But she was always a generous woman under the formidable rigor of her intellect. 2. Elemental adj: [“characterized by stark simplicity, naturalness, or unrestrained or undisciplined vigor or force . . . CRUDE, PRIMITIVE, FUNDAMENTAL, BASIC, EARTHY” -- Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language]: This definition has been awarded Websters' Intergalactic Seal of Approval Daly was born in 1928 in what she called “the Catholic ghetto” of Schenectady, N.Y. She was possessed of a voracious intellect, something her parents and teachers recognized and, to their credit, encouraged, until she declared that she wanted to be a philosopher -- not an acceptable profession for a young Catholic woman. Daly insists she didn’t know where this sudden determination for a life of the mind came from -- “the school library had no books on the subject,” she wrote. Daly was accepted into a small Catholic college, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Since they didn’t offer a major in philosophy, she studied English, presumably the next best option. She earned her masters at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also in English, since her scholarship required she continue her course of study. But she approached her classes as a philosopher. Hers seems to have always been a study of the elemental nature of existence, of what later she would come to call “Be-ing.” 3. Earthquake Phenomenon 1: the experience of cosmic shakiness, trembling, and dislocation, during which time Gyn/Ecologists share with our sister the Earth the agony of phallocratic attacks 2: Ordeal experienced by Crones engaged in the Otherworld Journey beyond patriarchy, which involved confronting one’s Aloneness as the ground splits open, and Spanning the chasm by Acts of Surviving, Spinning, and weaving Cosmic Connections -- ibid. Her determination to pursue studies in philosophy and Catholic theology eventually landed Daly at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In the 1950s, Catholic universities in the United States did not allow women to study for the highest degree in the field -- a Doctorate of Sacred Theology -- and Daly would settle for nothing less. In Switzerland the faculty was state-controlled, and therefore it was illegal to exclude women. “None of the male students would sit next to me,” she would later recall. “They feared the temptations that might arise from sitting next to a female.” She found the lectures stifling, but the intellectual demands bracing, and the connections she made with students exhilarating. She called it “seven years’ ecstatic experience interspersed with brief periods of gloom...a sort of lengthy spiritual-intellectual chess game.” Yet even in that rarefied ivory tower, the winds of change were stirring. Daly felt the breeze in 1965, when she visited Rome at the closing of the Second Vatican Council. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Vatican II had on people of the Catholic faith. The Council was convened with the specific intention to understand the role of the Church and what it meant to be Catholic in a modern era. Daly remembers it this way: The Rome of Vatican II was a sea of international communication -- the place/time where the Catholic church came bursting into open confrontation with the 20th century. It seemed to everyone...that the greatest breakthrough of nearly two thousand years was happening. We met -- theologians, students, journalists, lobbyists for every imaginable cause -- and found our most secret thoughts about “the church” were not solitary aberrations. They were shared, spoken out loud, allowed credibility. There was an ebullient sense of hope. That “ebullient sense of hope” came with a concurrent feeling of outrage when Daly attended a session at St. Peter’s: I saw in the distance a multitude of cardinals and bishops -- old men in crimson dresses. In another section of the basilica were the “auditors:” a group which included a few Catholic women, mostly nuns in long black dresses with heads veiled. The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic. Daly returned to Fribourg inflamed with reformatory zeal, and wrote her dissertation on the role and place of women in the church and in Catholic doctrine. A few years later, having accepted a teaching position at Jesuit-run Boston College, she turned the dissertation into her first major book, The Church and the Second Sex. It was published in 1968 to wide acclaim. In 1969, Boston College fired her. 4. Courage to Sin [sin derived fr. Indo-European root es- to be—American Heritage Dictionary]: the Courage to commit Original Acts of participation in Be-ing; the Courage to be Elemental through and beyond the horrors of the Obscene Society; the Courage to be intellectual in the most direct and daring way, claiming and trusting the deep correspondence between the structures/processes of one’s own mind and the structures/processes of reality; the Courage to trust and Act on one’s own deepest intuitions -- ibid. The Mary Daly I knew came into existence here, on the cusp of the second wave of the feminist movement. The Church and the Second Sex was a call to reinterpret Catholic doctrine from a feminist perspective -- to see the equality of women as central to the message of love that the Church claims to preach. It was in many ways a response to that vivid scene in St. Peter’s. Her termination caused a series of protests among the then all-male student body. It was, after all, the late ’60s, even on a Jesuit campus. The college administration bowed to the pressure and not only rehired Daly, but gave her tenure. She would spend the next 30 years there, fighting different versions of that same battle for the right of women to speak freely. But by the time her tenure was granted she was no longer interested in trying to reconcile her feminist perspective with Catholic doctrine. Her next book, Beyond God the Father, rejects all organized religion. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church,” she once wrote, “would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.” The Mary Daly I knew was no longer interested in giving those women in St. Peter’s a chance to speak alongside their be-robed and be-ribboned male colleagues. She told us that story when we were discussing Virginia Woolf: Let us never cease from thinking -- what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men? I still have my copy of Three Guineas from that class, and it still falls open to that passage, underlined heavily in black ink. In fact, I have all my books from Daly’s classes. Some of the margin notes are embarrassingly naïve, but years later I still find truth in the passages I so earnestly marked, underlined, starred, and (as in the case of the above quote) copied out and taped to my dorm room mirror. 5. Be-ing (verb): 1. Ultimate/Intimate Reality, the constantly Unfolding Verb of Verbs which is intransitive, having no object that limits its dynamism. 2. The Final Cause, the Good who is Self-communicating, who is the Verb from whom, in whom and with whom all true movements move --ibid. From the early ’70s on, Daly’s theory of feminist ethics transformed into something more like a feminist cosmology. Finding no words in the English language to properly convey the free female existence as she conceived it, she created her own. Not as a secret society only available to the initiate (think of J.R.R. Tolkien with his interminable Elvish, or any Trekkie who claims to speak Klingon), but as a conquering of language, patriarchal overtones sloughed off, so that women could speak without constraint. Daly’s lexicon is a joyfully eccentric combination of puns, etymological emphases, and quixotic capitalizations: boredom: a feeling of ennui Boredom: the official/officious state produced by bores (that is, a synonym for patriarchy). Her invented words with their reclaimed meanings first appear in Pure Lust. Eventually she had to write her own dictionary, which she called a wickedary. For a young woman coming to terms with her attraction to other women, that first class gave me a way to talk about women, and about what it was to be a woman, that felt true. That I didn’t know how to do this was not something I realized until Daly flat-out asked me: “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I hadn’t realized that was a question I could ask. Or needed to be asked. Mary Daly was by far one of the smartest and most intellectually brave people I’ve ever met. In all time I knew her, I never once heard her dismiss a student’s challenge, or reward someone for parroting back what she might want to hear. She liked a good argument, Mary Daly did. More than anything else she showed me how a person could be true to herself, a true radical, and still remain alive and awake to the world. Taking Daly’s classes did not, by the way, keep my first female romance alive. Alas, the girl eventually left me for an ex-nun-turned-baker at a vegetarian restaurant. Who can compete with fresh baked bread? But I did eventually answer the Shakespeare question to my own satisfaction. I was far too fond of the plays to reject them in a fit of politically correct pique, and decided he did have something to say to women -- to me, at least. Women speak in Shakespeare not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in intimate exchanges; parrying words with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions. And here they often eclipse the men at their sides. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not one of them was a doormat. “Thou and I,” says Benedict to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “are too wise to woo peaceably.” Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. Shakespeare, I think, appreciated a woman with witty tongue and steadfast heart. Daly’s exuberant feminist ethics have remained a steady guide in my life -- a way to navigate, and interrogate, a culture that is often rancorous and toxic to its members. What does any of this have to say to women? As a lifelong student of Daly’s, I keep asking. Homepage image by Mary Werner via The Feminist Art Project, Kansas Chapter
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Samuel Richardson—writer, printer, author of the 1740 bestseller Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded—often told a couple of stories about his school years. He liked to relate how, though not a stellar student, he was popular for his ability to spin a yarn: “I recollect that I was early noted for having invention. I was not fond of play, as other boys; my school-fellows used to call me Serious and Gravity; and five of them particularly delighted to single me out, either for a walk, or at their father’s houses, or at mine, to tell them stories, as they phrased it. Some I told them, from my reading, as true; others from my head, as mere invention; of which they would be most fond, and often were affected by them.” Another tale, also possibly apocryphal, involved his favor with the neighborhood’s young women—although not for the reasons you might think. At thirteen he was not of an age to be wooing the daughters of the local gentry, but he did have a reputation for turning a nice phrase, and they often sought his advice in answering their love letters: “…these young women, unknown to each other, having a high opinion of my taciturnity, revealed to me their love-secrets, in order to induce me to give them copies to write after, or correct, for answers to their lover’s letters.” It’s an engaging thought that the man who would become famous almost forty years later for writing Pamela—a novel in letters of a young woman struggling with a love affair—would have spent his early days surrounded by young women, helping them write their own love letters. Such a story at least ought to be true, which is perhaps why Richardson—usually notoriously vague on the subject of his childhood—was careful to tell it. 2. Samuel Richardson was already in his fifties, a successful London printer whose contracts included printing official reports for the House of Commons and several daily newspapers, when two bookseller friends first approached him about producing “a little volume of Letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers, who were unable to indite [sic] for themselves.” Up to that point, Richardson’s life had been that of an industrious middle-class craftsman. The son of a joiner—a carpenter specializing in finished woodwork—he had some schooling, although not the intense classical instruction preferred by the era’s educated circles. With little family money, no obvious patronage to support his “storytelling,” and neither the talent nor inclination for woodworking, in 1706 he apprenticed himself to a London printer named John Wilde. Richardson did well in Wilde’s shop, rising to oversee operations. He married Wilde’s daughter, scraping up the funds to start his own print shop, and by 1722 was successful enough to take on his own apprentices. Eighteenth century London was ripe with opportunity for a printer. Literacy was on the rise. The middle class—people with some leisure to read—was growing in both numbers and influence. Pamphleteering was the Internet of the era, and everyone with something to say needed a printer to help them say it. Alongside political tracts, booksellers found a high demand for nonfiction, especially of the instructional variety. Housekeeping handbooks, etiquette guides, gardening manuals, books on treatments for various illnesses, books on improving one’s memory, treatises on how to live a good and righteous life—self-help, it turns out, is a favorite subject no matter what the era. One of the first books Samuel Richardson ever wrote was a manual for apprentices on how they should conduct themselves. (He advised them to avoid the theater, taverns, and gambling.) So it wasn’t entirely unusual for a couple of booksellers, sensing a potential market, to suggest to Richardson, a successful printer known for his way with words, that he pen a book on the art of letter-writing. What was unusual was the result of the endeavor, a wholly new kind of novel: Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded. An epistolary tale written as a series of letters from a young servant girl to her parents, Pamela is the story of the eponymous heroine who, finding herself the object of her master’s unwanted attentions, resists his advances and repeated seductions until he at last consents to marry her properly. She then assents to his proposal and the two live happily ever after—that is, once Pamela’s virtue, beauty, humility, and good sense win over those members of her husband’s family who object to his marrying so far below his station. Modern readers might be somewhat amused to learn that this bodice-ripper is regarded as one of the early examples of “realistic” fiction. Is there any plot less true to life than the lord of the manor marrying his serving girl? Pure fantasy that, albeit a lucrative one for a writer or bookseller. But Pamela’s realism has little to do with the plausibility of the story. It lies, instead, in the novel’s scope and language. Richardson, and some of his literary colleagues like Daniel Defoe, were writing stories not based on rehashed plots from mythology, Biblical parables, or ancient epics, but instead wholly invented and entirely contemporary. The language was deliberately casual, rather than poetic. “I thought,” Richardson would later say when asked about how he came to write Pamela, “the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitably to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.” Usually when a writer starts talking about “a new species of writing,” we gird ourselves for something opaque and avant-garde. Richardson’s novel was certainly experimental, but the experiment was in bringing literature down, so to speak, to the level of the everyday. Pamela herself is a working girl (in the literal sense of the word). She has good principles, but no resources. Her most valued possession is her virtue, and her highest ambition is to not shame her mother and father by losing it. Her one conceit is an addiction to “scribbling”—as her frustrated seducer calls her constant letter-writing. Pamela’s language is simple and straightforward. So simple, in fact that some readers complained of her “coarseness” in early editions, and Richardson would continually refine her language in later printings. Her letters home were filled with both accounts of her trials and detailed descriptions of her day: “I had a pretty good Camlet quilted Coat, that I thought might do tolerably well; and I bought two Flannel Under-coats, not so good as my Swan-skin and fine Linen ones; but what would keep me warm, if any Neighbor should get me to go out to help ‘em to milk.” It is a wonder, wrote one critic, that we are not told the exact number of pins Pamela had about her, and how many could be bought for a penny. Richardson wrote Pamela in a flurry of productive energy, beginning, according to his own account, on the 10th of November, 1740, and finishing exactly three months later. As he completed each new section, he gave it to his wife and her friends to read—his own personal focus group for the novel’s target audience. Because the morally conservative, professionally ambitious Samuel Richardson had a definite goal for his “new species of writing”: he wanted the book to sell. And he knew that even then, as now, women bought fiction. 3. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Pamela must be regarded as one of the most successful novels of all time. It spawned a flood of both imitators and satirical “anti-Pamelas,” as well as a plethora of unauthorized “sequels” that purported to continue the story of the love between Pamela and her Mr. B.—“fan fiction” has apparently always been with us. One of the best and most hilarious satires was Henry Fielding’s Shamela—a riff on the novel that started a literary “war” between Fielding and Richardson that may or may not have been staged (historians are divided on the subject), but did have an excellent impact on the sales of both authors’ books. (“O,” moans Shamela as she feigns a faint in response to her suitor’s attempt to get her clothes off, “what a Difficulty it is to keep one’s Countenance, when a violent Laugh desires to burst forth.”) Richardson himself wrote a couple of sequels, which flopped; Pamela, in these later works, demonstrated a tedious habit of talking philosophy. The moralizing that could be endured for the sake of the original’s more salacious plot was insupportable on its own. And salacious it is. If the book’s wide appeal was founded on the fact that every female reader saw herself as the virtuous Pamela, they were also deliciously shocked and scandalized by the trials she faces and the advances she must defend herself against. Mr. B., the young, impetuous master of the house who is hell-bent on seducing this servant girl, is not at all circumspect. He traps her in a garden and puts his hand down her dress. He molests her whenever he can get her alone—which, since he is master of the house, is whenever he likes. He hides in her bedroom closet and watches her undress. He attempts to get into bed with her and rape her, even though the housekeeper is watching. When Pamela begs to be sent home, he kidnaps her, imprisons her at another estate under the guard of a leering woman who continually urges her to just give in and let the master have his way with her. He tries to purchase her favors with money, making promises to aid her poverty-stricken parents followed by vague threats about what might happen to them if she doesn’t give in. He fires, ruins, or arrests anyone who tries to help Pamela out of her predicament. He even concocts a plan to hold a sham marriage with a false priest. After all this, it is something of an about-face when Mr. B., defeated by Pamela’s steadfast refusal to compromise her virtue, insists that his passion has turned to love and offers to marry her for real. And for the modern reader, Pamela’s happy acquiescence is inexplicable: “Well I will, I think, trust in his Generosity! Yet is it not too great a Trust? —especially considering how I have been used! But then that was while he vow’d his bad Designs; and now he gives me great Hope of his good ones.” In other words, Mr. B. has changed. Even better, she has been the one to change him—the secret hope and desire of every woman ever trapped in a bad relationship. No wonder Pamela was so popular. 4. In his excellent book The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt suggests that Richardson wrote Pamela as both an indictment against the state of marriage in an England rife with clandestine, sham, and “Scottish” unions (Scotland being the favorite destination for eloping couples since the age of consent there was only sixteen, and parental permissions were not required), and as an illustration of the ideal married state: one based on mutual respect, virtue, and most importantly, openly proclaimed and legal proceedings. England in the mid-18th century suffered from a surfeit of unmarried women, while men were marrying later and later—ostensibly because it wasn’t proper to start a family until one could afford to keep one, but in reality because, as the 17th-century Christian writer John Bunyan so eloquently put it, “Who would keep a Cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny?” The birthrate of illegitimate children was skyrocketing. Richardson, a man who liked to make moral arguments in print, attacked the dissolute state of English matrimony with the capable and forthright pen of Pamela. And it is here, perhaps, that Pamela becomes “realistic” to a modern reader, emerging as a real woman amidst the moral lessons and unlikely romancing. As powerless as this servant girl is against the forces arrayed against her, as bereft she may be of either the physical strength to resist an assault or the financial resources needed to flee, she does have one thing—her voice. Pamela will not shut up. It drives her licentious Mr. B. to absolute distraction. She has an answer for every improper advance he makes, a pithy response to every debauched attempt upon her person. He accuses her of being “saucy”—a word with more serious implications than it has now—and “a slut,” which at the time meant something like a bold hussy, not a girl who slept around. But Pamela is not to be silenced: “And what is left me but Words?” she asks, again and again to anyone in hearing distance. “And can these Words be other than such strong ones, as shall shew the Detestation, which, from the Bottom of my Heart, I have for every Attempt upon my Virtue?” Throughout the story Pamela makes several attempts to escape her captivity, which are usually thwarted by her unfortunate tendency to faint when frightened. The one thing in which she is always successful, however, is procuring pen and paper. In the end, it is all the armor she needs. Samuel Richardson would go on to write two more successful novels: Clarissa in 1748—all 900,000 words of it regarded on its publication as his “masterpiece”—and The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753, which he purportedly wrote in response to reader demands for a “male Pamela.” By this point, however, he was in poor health. While he continued to write, most of his energy was spent on nurturing and mentoring other writers. He famously rescued Samuel Johnson from a near brush with debtor’s prison, earning that author’s eternal gratitude. Richardson also went to great effort to support women writers, including Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry Fielding, suggesting that the supposed rivalry between Richardson and Fielding was an amicable one. By the time of his death in 1761, Richardson had abandoned writing epistolary novels in favor of writing real letters to his many friends. His collected correspondence is staggering. Even so, it is in the voice of an impassioned young woman, not of a wise old man, that Richardson will be remembered.