In our so-called “modern” age, one has to wonder why there’s so much continuing hullabaloo over the role of women in our society. I thought most of these questions had been settled a long while ago. Silly me.
At a time when we shouldn’t have to be recycling these same old male-female issues, up jumps the devil. Had I been away for a couple of decades and just now returned to find out how things had turned out, I would have gone straight to some dinosaur museum to study the bones of our earlier era’s ossified thinking. Not the case. Sadly, we seem to be seeing the re-emergence of some pretty reactionary forces who once again want to “put women in their place.” All we have to do is open the paper or turn on the radio to hear the latest depressing story on the age-old theme of control and domination.
Crazy male legislators are springing up in a number of states with new laws on abortion, dogmatic clergymen are proud to defend “sacred doctrine” that “justifies” their desperate embrace of the ancient misogynistic ravings of Paul, pompous and arrogant Donald Trump-types consider it their right to order female PhD recipients to hike up their skirts and go make coffee while being grateful for their $20K “assistant to the VP” salaries, and far too many employers define efficiency by showing single mothers no work schedule flexibility.
A telling commentary on our society in general, these horrid and mind-numbing control games are still playing out in church doctrine, judicial rulings, corporate policies, and legislative formulations over the role of women in topics ranging from religious affairs, abortion, equal pay for equal work, sexism on the job, and women’s rights in general.
What recently focused my mind on this topic were two programs, one from NPR’s On Point and the other an interview on PBS’ The Charlie Rose Show.
On Point’s Tom Ashbrook featured Megan Marshall talking about her book Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, a story of the great intellectual force of the first half of the nineteenth century. Fuller was an early spokesperson for women’s rights and a colleague and equal with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Feminist, writer, and literary critic, she lived in the Boston area where she conducted her famous “Conversations,” discussion groups that attracted many prominent people in the early 1840s. She also joined Emerson and others to found the Dial, a journal devoted to transcendentalist views in 1840.
In her short but influential life of writing a solid body of critical reviews and essays, she became active in various social reform movements. In the fray with a strict patriarchal culture, she fought against artificial restrictions on how women were viewed and what they were allowed to do. What I found especially fascinating was her view that…
“Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
One listener who called in wondered if she might have been familiar with the Hindu teaching of Ardhanarishvara, a composite androgynous form of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati. The form is depicted as half male and half female, split down the middle, symbolizing the equality of man and woman, each containing both elements that are to be harmonized. Emerson and Thoreau were particularly dazzled by the newly discovered translated scriptures from India that had just become available.
In Fuller’s best known book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she examined the role of men and women in the United States. Her argument was simple and direct: Women need intellectual and religious freedom to have equality with men. The book concludes that a true union can occur only if each person is an individual and self-dependent unit. For women to become such individuals, men need to remove their dominating influence and women need to be self-dependent and remove themselves from man’s influence.
As she so eloquently said,
“Meanwhile, not a few believe, and men themselves have expressed the opinion, that the time is come when Eurydice is to call for an Orpheus, rather than Orpheus for Eurydice; that the idea of Man, however imperfectly brought out, has been far more so than that of Woman; that she, the other half of the same thought, the other chamber of the heart of life, needs now take her turn in the full pulsation, and that improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age.”
The other program that fired my imagination was aired over The Charlie Rose Show. Tina Packer, the founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, was on to talk about her production “Women of Will,” a carefully selected gallery of Shakespeare’s heroines featuring Packer and her fellow actor Nigel Gore.
In this captivating twenty minutes of exchange with Rose, we feel the power of language and how it can be used for positive transformation. In the program, Packer tells Rose of Shakespeare’s own evolution and how he changed deeply in his attitude toward women over his lifetime. At a certain point his voice began to be expressed through women as he got inside their being. Up till then, he had just written “about” them. She sees the change when he recognized that the only way out of the cycle of violence in his histories and other plays was to follow what the women were doing. Simply stated, the clue to the guide can be found in the creative spirit of women. The play that marks the shift is Romeo and Juliet, because our two protagonists have parity in it. With this parity and when the main players are in love, enormous energy is released. And only with this energy can the violence end.
In contrast, Packer goes on to say that in another period of Shakespeare’s writing, which she entitles “When Chaos Has Come Again,” he has gone into a deep despair over the condition of women as well as men. In her eyes, it’s a bad omen when women want exactly what men want, when they are grabbing onto power, when they want the top jobs and the money and demand to be where the action is. When this happens, it is a sign they have abandoned their strongest attributes which are deeply feminine, attributes of relationships, intuition, and feeling. They are the ones capable of thinking of the big picture all the time, of considering what everyone else is thinking, and of aligning all the parts with one another. With these qualities missing, the center cannot hold.
In modern society, according to Packer, if the women just become paler versions of men, we’re all lost. A movement toward a different perception comes in the form of Ariel in The Tempest, Rosalind in As You Like It, or Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, an optimistic time where we can find the creative spirits, the perceptive and exploratory females, the honest and brave heroines, the articulate ones necessary to show the rest of us the way out of the violence and destructiveness surrounding them. They are unlike the submissive Kate at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, who has lost her voice, a woman who “has had language taken away from her,” which for a Shakespearean character may well be the ultimate tragedy. For them, it is their sense of self, their emotional, spiritual, and generous responsiveness, that gives them their conquering spirit.
And so we see the animation of these kinds of women embodied in the likes of Margaret Fuller. It is in her power of language, in her voice, that she projects a role model for all enlightened people to follow. She saw the challenge of the work ahead in her writing and in her efforts for social equality for women, Native Americans and enslaved Blacks.
Now, nearly 170 years later in these fractious times when people in politics, religion, and the corporate world can still be so misguided and often seek to impose their ill-conceived, dogmatic and regressive ways on all of us, but especially on women, we are reminded,
“And, if men are deaf, the angels hear. But men cannot be deaf. It is inevitable that an external freedom, an independence of the encroachments of other men, such as has been achieved for the nation, should be so also for every member of it. That which has once been clearly conceived in the intelligence cannot fail, sooner or later, to be acted out.” Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1845.