For months I’ve been keeping an eye on (and meaning to write about) various campaigns that address or try to rectify gender stereotyping in children’s clothing.  I was cheering on Michele Yulo of Princess Free Zone  and her campaign to create a new line of suits specifically for girls, (Suit Her), which looks like it will need another round of funding.  Yet more independent online shops seem to be popping up to offer lines of slogan-free, neutral clothing for (mostly) girls and tracking how these shops re-envision engendering their wares could be the basis for a great study.  Asking the owners if they’re yet making any kind of significant profit or gaining traction using clothing to enact social change could well be another.

Not too long ago I saw a great think piece which asked why refashioning girls’ clothing always means refusing skirts and dresses (i.e. rejecting the trope of femininity) and not offering boys a range of skirts, dresses, or pink garments and mixing all of this up.  It’s a point well taken and the lack of variety in boys clothing, nevermind fewer choices overall, hits close to home as I continue to try to dress my three-year-old in ways that eschew slogans and stereotypes.

While independent visionaries will keep pushing boundaries (so I hope) when a mainstream clothier makes a move it’s significant.  I was deeply intrigued (and initially suspicious) by the new line Ellen Degeneres launched with The Gap about two months ago, but am slowly coming around.  The videos shot for the line (and the “unstaged” behind the scenes ones) are deliberately black and white, with no pink anywhere.  The girls are making faces, getting muddy, catching frogs, creating with robotics, and pounding the drums — what girls do — or, the opposite of what girls are supposed to do?

The blue/gray/black palette of the actual clothes reminds me of how frustrated I often feel not being able to buy lighter colors for my son — again, is this just a simple inversion so that the GAP can catch the wave of easy empowerment that so many corporations want to claim, all under the guise of generously helping girls?

I was intrigued to learn that some of the nonprofessional models are part of the Pink Helmet Posse — skateboarders who all started young and are frank with Degeneres about the prejudice they have experienced.

I was also cheered to learn that $250,000 from sales “will be donated to Girls Inc.”  Even if that’s a tiny fraction of their profit and a simple PR move, it’s something for a nonprofit I respect.  Glancing at the #heyworld Twitter hashtag they’ve coined, (meant to foster discussion about supporting girls), didn’t yield much and seems an easy vehicle through which the GAP can keep promoting its campaign — i.e.  both sales and a message of social change.  But it is a step in a different direction for a major retailer whose children’s departments are fundamentally bifurcated. I assume that this line “GapKids x ED Collection” will be solidly planted on the girls’ side, at least breaking up the color scheme a little, and changing through less static models, (literally, with the girls in their advertising), the message beyond the ad.

In parallel with measuring change within the kids’ clothing world, I was curious how Halloween would fare this year.  The yearly lament about the oversexualization of costumes for both girls and women has been well underway, and this recent article comments on how often “man” v. “girl” is used to describe parallel costumes. With Target’s recent desegregation of the toy aisle, I wondered what they would do with Halloween. Visiting two local stores revealed costumes identified by ages v. gender, although the costumes themselves (not unlike the toys) definitely skew towards gender stereotypes.

More cheering, in parallel with the work independent retailers are doing, there has been an amazing wealth of feminist Halloween ideas out on the Internet.  A quick roundup shows real pushback against sexualized, reductive costumes that define what girls can be through the limitation of their offerings, although these are all “home made” v. mass marketed costumes. Some play on a facile definition of feminism, some gleefully use the holiday to publicly make a social statement with pointed humor.  Some good ideas from Girls Leadership here. Thanks to Bitch Media for this great collection. And some good ideas are also listed here.  
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The recent article in the New York Times, “Where Have All the Tomboys Gone?” (which highlights Degeneres’s new GAP line) refers to the term “tomboy” as “retro” and outdated, unnecessary when (of the people interviewed) there’s casual acceptance of girls who don’t want to dress in stereotypically feminine ways and surprise that it would be otherwise (at least in their families). The trend of women adapting “men’s wear” is traced with emphasis that this is a one-way street in the mainstream, i.e. there is never a public trend of men wearing styles designated for women.

“Tomboy” as a phrase might be leaving the American lexicon, but keeping an eye on Halloween costume options is one way to watch levels of crossing and acceptance.  With the awareness that girls adapting into male-designated clothing is always far less objectionable than the reverse, glad as I was to see lists of feminist costume ideas proliferate on the web, I regret that there wasn’t a list for boys or men. While one girl at my son’s preschool chose a male superhero costume (complete with rippling plastic chest), the winks at how “cute” this was, I’m certain, wouldn’t have gone to a boy dressing up as Elsa. Moving beyond just gender, this article, “What Color is Your Princess?” astutely highlights the assumption of whiteness within the princess universe, which is of greater concern to the author than that her son wants to dress up as one at all.

I didn’t know the Onion ventured into video and stumbled on this one from a few years back.  Entitled, “How To Find A Masculine Halloween Costume for Your Effeminate Son” it’s a parody that’s painful to watch as boys who don’t want masculinized costumes are “rehabilitated” into stereotypically “boy costumes” to disguise their features or habits labeled as feminine.  It’s stunning in its spot-on precision about anxiety about boys breaking with male code.

As a yearly barometer, Halloween can offer a quick read of current trends, pop culture, and what gender stereotypes are readily available and which are still transgressive to cross. Yet, studying what commercial retailers and independent outlets do the rest of the year is a far more steady signifier of what change has occurred, and what trend is edging over into expectation.   In a year’s time it will be interesting to see what is (still) considered humorous, provocative, or casually acceptable.  Happy feminist Halloween!

 

 

* This post originally ran in the Ms. Magazine blog.  And I can’t help but post a link to father-of-two-girls President Barack Obama who made news recently for sorting toys outside of the expected gender box — literally!

If you’re still thinking about last-minute shopping, it’s not too late to stop and consider the No Gender December campaign from Australian organization Play Unlimited. While their tagline, “Stereotypes Have No Place Under My Christmas Tree,” presumes everyone is celebrating Christmas, their message is one that’s gone global as a quick look at their pledge page reveals, with more signatures still pouring in.

It’s heartening to see wider messaging about the limitations of gender stereotyping in children’s toys, as a flurry of recent articles reveals. More heartening would be harder evidence that toy companies are listening and are open to broader understandings of marketing to kids, not driven by a bifurcated blue-or-pink bottom dollar. Some stores, notably Harrod’s in London have stopped divvying up their aisles, and there is reason to hope that other retailers will followSociologist Elizabeth Sweet’s Atlantic article, “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago,” does a great job of revealing the history of marketing by toy companies and how entrenched gender stereotypes have become. Her comment about the subversive repackaging of toys geared to girls which “emphasizes freedom and choice,” is a great one. She comments, “The reformulated story does not fundamentally challenge gender stereotypes; it merely repackages them to make them more palatable in a ‘post-feminist’ era. Girls can be anything—as long as it’s passive and beauty-focused.”

This juncture is one that has been a sticking point for many who deeply desire change in toys marketed to girls but are left stymied by how to do it. Some of the brouhaha around GoldieBlox’s campaign turned on the point that serving up “sparkle science-type” projects to girls in a gateway-like attempt to lure them past masculine associations with STEM fields does nothing but backfire, nevermind is ultimately undermining. This seems to be the pivot point for those who support diversifying the colors, (and stereotypes that accompany them), in the toy aisles, with supporters of change often facing different directions in terms of approach, even as they stand on common ground.

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More recently, a new set of princesses came onto the scene who are also stealthily undermining stereotypes. The Guardian Princesses, who made a splash with their debut last year, are back with newly released titles just this past week. The series is the brainchild of UC Riverside Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Setsu Shigematsu, who found herself at a loss when her daughter began to succumb to the ever-present influence of princess culture and denying access to it only seemed to make things worse. Not unlike Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and her suggestion to “Fight Fun with Fun” through alternatives to princess culture, Shigematsu wrote a different princess story and, after reading it to her daughter’s friends, a new legacy was born.

The Guardian Princesses are presented in a range of body styles and are of diverse ethnicities and there’s no fighting the long dresses, necklaces and flowing hair that’s considered part of the princess look. The approach of the Guardian Princess Alliance is firmly in the “ease in and then make a change” camp, something they are likely to be critiqued for by those who see capitulation in any form as not radical enough and even pandering. But, as their peppy video (below) reveals, despite their poufy dresses, the princesses are unhindered in their mobility and the rhetoric used about their mission is hardly passive.

The newest series released features Princess Ten Ten, who is the most gender-fluid in appearance of the lot (or “gender independent” as they term it) and who is bullied and faces rejection within her family.  In a wise move, all of the Guardian Princess books are compliant with Common Core standards, meaning they can be adopted for classroom use, and there is a distinctive environmental focus to their stories. One risk with this new series might be making the stories too didactic or pitting the princesses against the evils of corporate greed every time, but, overall, the shift in what these princesses do and what is valued is an exhilarating breath of fresh air. How well they sell, and how long the Guardian Princess Alliance can keep up with demand and generate new work, are perhaps the issues at hand. The desire by visionary small business ownersto put what are still alternative toys, books and gender messaging out to the public seems an uphill battle, one mitigated by energy, perseverance and available funds when up against so many cultural barriers, which is all the more reason to celebrate those that do.

Here’s hoping that the messages espoused by the No Gender December campaign extend beyond the shopping frenzy and, optimistically, become part of retailers, parents, teachers and even kids’ expectations of toys in the new year.

A few years ago, before I had even begun to contemplate having a child, I regularly read Ayelet Waldman’s blog, Bad Mother, now repurposed in book form.  What most appealed was the sense that someone was pulling back the curtain on what was always made to seem (with a ring of beatific sacrifice) easy, naturalized, and rewarding. Waldman’s commitment to honesty about the work, boredom, and at times ugliness (in all senses) of mothering her four children felt transgressive and, with its escape-valve honesty, like a relief.Bad-Mother-220 Soon enough, it seemed like the label “bad mother” began to proliferate — as angsty confessionals began to turn up everywhere.  What has remained fixed, however, is the polarized use of the terms “good” and “bad” although their definitions almost interchange as Elissa Strauss astutely writes: “In the beginning, bad mommy was gritty and sometimes off-putting, but overall she offered a more realistic parenting model than the good mommy, and so she took off on mommy blogs and in the hearts of conflicted mothers across the nation.”

As Strauss recapitulates, then “bad mothers” started getting “a little judgey themselves” as terms such as “mom-policing” and “sanctimommy” proliferated in a culture of “reverse bullying,” as she puts it, that still bifurcates how mothering is classified, often enough with political implications.  The recent brouhaha that emerged when New York City first lady Chirlane McCray dared to admit her ambivalence about about giving up work was quickly translated into a meant-to-be-shocking “I Was a Bad Mom” headline. Jennifer Senior’s astute retort blames the media-generated need to distort ambivalence into mom-shaming. A video produced for American Greetings’ online greeting-card shop went viral this spring, playing upon the impossible-hardship-of-motherhood theme, with its problematic categorization, once more, of motherhood as a job which is endlessly demanding but eternally worthy.  a_3x-verticalBetween the tropes of “good mother” and “bad mother” rests the realities of most women.

Thankfully, a body of literature has sprung up by writers committed to investigating the nuances of an experience that is perpetually shifting, even moment to moment.  Speaking out honestly about mothering can still be fraught, but as feminist blogger Andie Fox writes: “By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood — it ultimately frees us all…. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable — that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers.”

The wealth of essays found within The Good Mother Myth, edited by Avital Norman Nathman is a treasure. With chapters by Girl w/Pen’s own Deborah Siegel and Heather Hewett the thread that weaves throughout is exploration of what “good” and “bad” even means when it comes to parenting. If being “bad” means eschewing cultural constrictions, these writers are glad to take on that mantle, often while still feeling the need to explain how this deviation is for the best. The tropes often found within literature about parenting are all here: “I’m too young,” “I’m not ready,” “But my partner’s left the picture,” “I’m not sure about the sacrifice,” and “I haven’t overcome my own childhood enough,” alongside heavier issues such as mental illness, postpartum depression, and anxiety.

More unusual are contributions from parents positioned outside the mainstream of what is often represented. Erika Lust, an independent filmmaker who currently lives in Spain, writes straightforwardly about prioritizing time without children for the sake of her career and for her partnership as she hopes that motherhood, rather than challenging sexuality, can be a source of its inspiration. In the essay, “Confessions of a Born-Bad Mother,” author Joy Ladin writes astutely about transitioning from male to female: “I might be recognized by mothers (the ultimate judges) as a ‘great dad,’ but the top of the fatherhood scale fell well short of the lowest rung of true motherhood.” Ladin’s perspective, after inhabiting both gender roles, is intriguing as the “namelessness” she experiences as a transgender parent opens up a new space for negotiation, albeit, as she writes, one often filled with tears and confusion. 21-200x300

Food is a common theme. In “The Macaroni and Cheese Dilemma” Liz Henry comments on her guilt in reaching for the ubiquitous boxed product in the context of writing about parenting and poverty alongside decisions around abortion. “It may not be a roasted chicken with asparagus and couscous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not Good Mothering,” says Carla Naumburg in “Mama Don’t Cook.” Naumburg takes on the onus of “nourishing souls” at the family kitchen table, with “good family meals,” an obligation she refuses. In Heather Hewett’s touching essay, “Parenting Without a Rope,” she navigates caution and overprotection in regards to her daughter’s life-threatening allergies, and the delicate positioning the child-with-allergies and the parent-of-a-child-with-allergies must take within the classroom and social situations.  Competition, self-perception, and the spiraling thoughts that ensue, are hilariously captured by Amber Dusick as she writes about a trip to Target in which she spots another Mom who looks perfectly put together and whose kids look “calm and clean and happy.” After which, she writes, “my heart sank — pretty much all the way down to my vagina, and then easily fell out on to the seat of the car.” The new pressures of selective exhibitionism, mediated through social media, is Sarah Emily Tuttle-Singer‘s theme in “No More Fakebook.”

What’s clear is that mothers are caught between more than just the polarizations of “good” and “bad.” There’s joy and hardship, fury and sweetness, days of spiraling despair and moments of unbridled amazement. Judgment lurks behind every corner, and some days it’s the self in the mirror who seems to be casting the sharpest glance. As the phrase “good mother” is turned over and over, its meaning becomes more porous and latticed by nuance. Kristin Oganowski writes, “I challenged the idea that the ‘good’ pregnant woman keeps quiet when she loses a pregnancy, and that the Good Mother hides the loss from her other children and carries on with work and family obligations as if nothing happened.”  In “The Impossibility of the Good Black Mother” T.F. Charlton takes on issues of race when she writes, “Still, the images projected on me as I walk my neighborhood streets are not of the Good Mother. No, they are of the Black welfare queen, the baby mama, of women maligned and demonized as everything a mother should not be, foil and shadow to the Good (White) Mother.” MothersDay

Blogger Andie Fox, while on an annual holiday with female friends and their kids, sans husbands, is frank about the joy they feel when unleashed from the imposition of societal expectation. Hearkening back to a line by foremother Adrienne Rich, Fox writes, “Her discovery back in the seventies that being a ‘bad mother’ could actually make you a ‘happy mother,’ and that happy mothers are good for their children, should not have been news to me when I started my own journey into motherhood in 2005.”  Commenting that Rich’s thoughts are “as revolutionary today as they were then, more than forty years ago,” so the cycle spins.

As a poet, I have to give a shoutout to two other books that have joined The Good Mother Myth on my night table’s stack.  Rachel Zucker, whose work I have reviewed previously, teaches literature and creative writing and also works as a doula.  Motherhood has always been central within her work, but never as explicitly. In Mothers, Zucker writes primarily about her relationship with her own, Diane Wolkstein, a professional storyteller. Zucker’s prose rotates around an axis of trying to understand their relationship, foremost as a daughter, but also as a mother of three sons, as a writer in search of literary foremothers, and as an adult woman who still craves mothering from other maternal figures.

I appreciate Zucker’s celebration of the literary mothers she has had, particularly Alice Notley, whom she quotes and corresponds with throughout the writing of this book. Yet, much reads like a series of journal entries about coming to terms — literally — about what motherhood means as Zucker gathers fragments from her past and holds them up against her present moment.  I can’t help but wish she offered more synthesis of what she’s connecting, or, at the least, more nuance and less worry.  Instead, the lines feel collaged onto the page with the reader left to associatively connect the gaps.  While her diary-like entries intrigue, there seems a deliberate turn from the satisfaction of a narrative arc. I suspect this is, conscious or not, part of Zucker’s refusal to participate in her mother’s art, storytelling, and to break her writing in parallel to her subject(s) — how mothering shatters continuous time and divides the mind. MothersFrontCover-240x300

The book’s epilogue is its most surprising part — and the most powerful. The inclusion of a letter Zucker’s mother writes to her, eschewing this very book’s publication and urging Zucker not to tell these stories — takes on a poignant resonance by the time the reader gets to it.   Clearly, her own urge to write is both heritage and embattlement.  She ends with the central tone of ambiguity mothering represents for Zucker: “There are mothers. I found and lost them and was born to one and she is hardly mine. What I make of her. Neither real nor wrong nor ever really mine.”

 bring-down-the-little-birdsAfter meeting Carmen Gimenez Smith at the 2014 AWP conference, and then hearing her speak at this truly innovative colloquium on feminist poetics, I was eager to read her contribution, published at the vanguard of these other two.  Like Zucker, Gimenez Smith has to untangle her mother’s story in order to understand her own. In Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else she catalogues parts of her life as a mother of a toddler, as a professor, as a poet, as a spouse, as a daughter, as someone who is preparing to have a second child.  Written in single lines or short bursts of prose, her writing is lyrical, thoughtful, and shot through with honest anger and frustration as well as the amazement that comes in sudden, saving bursts.  The narrative of more fully inhabiting motherhood, as she goes from having one child to two, is freighted with the simultaneous worry about the demise of her mother’s memory and the complicated recognition of Gimenez Smith’s need, as a mother, to be mothered, while recognizing she may well soon be in the role of parent to her own mom.

Bring Down the Little Birds bristles with honest emotion as Gimenez Smith explores the conundrums mothering presents. She writes about the presence of her belly “like a bullet” in the room when she discusses intellectual matters at a student’s defense and the hiring of a housecleaner “to serve as a mediator between the house and me.” Her writing manages to be sharp even as she hones in on the liminal: how hard enduring a moment can be, how much anger is buried inside a dose of joy, the amazement glittering inside still dangerously sharp fragments.

“I want so much” she says frankly, and then later, “A long day at home, no work. Full of resentment.” All of which is tempered with lovely recognitions of other ways in which time can now pass, as she says of her firstborn child, “I’m telling him the world and he is telling it back.” Married to another writer, both know they must guard their time, yet, “My personal time comes at a larger price” Gimenez Smith writes, “I want to find a number value for it, but I don’t have the time. It seems like two and a half to my husband’s one.”

Hovering between poetry and prose, a strength is Giminez Smith’s ability to telescope forwards and backwards, as she remembers her life, pre-child, and looks into the future. Her meditations into her maternal legacy are rich, and allow Gimenez Smith to frame her own entry into motherhood: “I grow into my mother, I grow old with her.”  She is skilled at writing about the underweave, the backing that holds a garment together, and there we find this book’s lyrical gift, keen observations weighted down by reality, flying into unseen spaces.

“The good enough mother. The real mother. Other mothers,” Zucker meditates in the middle of her book.  These shifting variations are pertinent to all these writers.  Zucker simply continues: “I too seem to have gotten older. Am the mother.”

“I am like a car that does not go faster than second gear, so I can have moments of incredible frustration” explains Caren McCaleb, one of the four women featured in director Mary Trunk’s astounding documentary Lost in Living.  As she says this, she is sitting in the front seat of her car, constricted, as she works on an art project while her toddler daughter naps in the back.

The necessity of making art in the margins — of the car, within the day, in the liminal edges of one’s mind — is portrayed in high contrast with the powerful ambitions of the four subjects profiled within this film.  The title phrase comes from Merrill Joan Gerber, one of the featured artists, as she takes the viewer on a tour of her overflowing study and speaks about reconciling the desire to make art, in her case, writing, with the other roles she inhabits as mother, spouse, and homemaker.  This could serve as the most simple distillation of this film’s premise, but its brilliance is that it keeps revealing, through unexpected intimacy and crystalline honesty, the dimensions of a paradigm almost never acknowledged, if even explored.

Watching this film reminded me of the childhood trick of using a microscope to burn a hole through a leaf.  The invisible power of light is suddenly revealed to have a concentrated, incendiary force.  So it is for these artists who recognize they are living within a culture that doesn’t reward either mothering or creativity and makes their pairing a particularly difficult embrace.  Large themes are illuminated within deeply telling moments, literally, as Trunk tracks these four women over seven years.  Trunk frames the blurry moments when each subject tries to reconcile opposing pressures — the need to maintain a sense of identity as a working artist paired with the keen sense of loss — of time, energy, and focus — that having a family also brings. Taboo-tinged discontent rises to the surface alongside other usually disallowed themes — resentment of interruption, fury at being discounted, despair to feel the prioritization of the self erode away. The need to be witnessed, (in all of these contexts), to have a true self be known, is another theme that most women, artist or not, are often not allowed to voice. This is remarkably explored, alongside the desire to be valued. Often portrayed in high contrast to the many mundane tasks each woman performs even as she questions what conveys value — broadly and personally — one of the film’s most gratifying aspects is the presentation of this as a hunger alongside any other basic human need.

The two younger subjects, Kristina Robbins, a filmmaker, and McCaleb, a visual artist, film editor, and vlogger, are friends from college who have their first children within months of each other.  Another often unexplored theme is the vital necessity and sustenance of female friendship.  Their conversation about how critical their connection has been to each other’s development is breathtakingly real.  Later, when a distance opens up between them, their reconciliation is shared on film as they hash out the largeness of that loss.  Each calls the other a “soulmate,” breaking with conventional definition of the term, as the nourishment of their bond is frankly juxtaposed against the demands of mothering. Their narratives begin while each is pregnant and ruminating on the changes to come. In one scene, McCaleb practices drawing in short, timed bursts as a way to train herself for what she envisions can be productive, post-baby sessions. When Robbins leaves her son for the first time to work on a film, her anguish and sense of sacrifice is openly measured against her desire to not lose a worthwhile professional opportunity.

The two other subjects in the film, Gerber, and visual artist Marjorie Schlossman, interviewed in midlife when their children are mostly grown, reflect on the secretiveness artmaking required within their generation, and particular to their class structure, when one was foremost a mother, and other commitments were often considered extraneous. They speak eloquently, and poignantly, about the frustration of having their art unsupported and unrecognized, although both are extremely accomplished.  The gutting force of loneliness is mentioned, alongside its never distant shadow — depression.

The film’s Facebook page is a fount of useful resources, and generous clips can be found on Ma and Pa Film’s YouTube channel.  Trunk offers a “house party” kit with a discussion guide which seems apropos since while the film focuses on individuals, their dilemmas reflect larger, systemic issues worthy of discussion (nevermind change) around honoring ambition, the value assigned to making art, universal childcare, compensation, and more. 

The screening I attended had all four artists present and there was a lively Q & A post-film. One theme discussed was how, despite generational progress, many things (dishes, laundry, assumed responsibilities that are gendered) have stayed the same. Applause broke out when Gerber recollected how her husband offered to quit his job and take care of their new baby full time when she was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Yet, after moving across the country to Palo Alto, they discover they are homeless since graduate housing is only assigned to men. Gerber is astute about the other forms of systemic sexism she encounters as a prolific writer in a time in which being “exceptional” was both lauded and cumbersome. Parallel to this is her keen understanding of the ways in which her fiction — largely about the domestic sphere — has been misunderstood or maligned within a canon that doesn’t necessarily value work centered around women’s lives.

Watching the arc of each woman’s career within the film’s span reveals the challenges of trying to achieve success within fields with no guarantee of remuneration, recognition, or even concrete gain at the end of a very productive day. “Making it” is another nuanced concept explored as the sacrifices of growing a career in the arts is measured against the collective affect on each’s family, knowing that, conversely, there is a deep, personal cost in not honoring this need.  

Interviews with the adult children of Gerber and Schlossman add more perspective, not always positively, on what it was like growing up with a mother who was preoccupied with more than just her family. In a poignant scene, Trunk asks Olive, McCaleb’s daughter, if her mother is an artist. “She used to be” is her straightforward, but wounding, perception. The subjects of this film ruminate on why making art is so necessary as they wash dishes, contemplate what is needed to sustain them as they fold laundry, and talk about the work they long to get back to as they make dinner. Their love for their children is clear. But each is equally ardent about keeping a burning passion within lit, however oppositional to conventional notions about mothering this may be, and how equally central this is for each, if not more so.

 

 

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For the past few years I’ve been tracking organizations that genuinely support girls — as opposed to those who purport to support girls — while actually leveraging cultural concern about girlhood to advance other values.  Only recently I learned the term “astroturfing” to describe a faux grassroots organization that covers its tracks, and I can see, often enough, where it applies.  So nothing could have thrilled me more than learning about the newly formed alliance Brave Girls Want, which harnesses the energy of multiple organizations and individuals all working to change the expectations girls are both subject to and sold on material and deeper levels.

Brave Girls Want came together quickly as Executive Directors Melissa Wardy and Ines Almeida rounded up a coalition of allies (including our own Deborah Siegel) who are all passionate about refusing gender stereotypes and reframing childhood.  Recent triumphs include tapping into consumer outrage over a t-shirt marketed to girls and sold at The Children’s Place which left “math” unchecked among a list of “My Best Subjects” (with “shopping,” somehow, part of the intended curriculum).  Through the power of their numbers, the campaign went viral and the shirt was pulled from back-to-school shelves.  Many of the members included were active in the pushback against LEGO’s Friends line, released to “appeal to girls” but in ways that were shockingly unprogressive.  Through the power of petition, (over 60,000 signatures), social media, and persistence, a team of SPARK girls and their allies met with LEGO representatives and they have closely been tracking their progress ever since.

United, the power behind the Brave Girls Want alliance feels electric, fueled by collective passion and commitment.  Their current undertaking is to go straight into the media heartland and rent a billboard in New York City’s Times Square which will flash messages counter to the current gender expectations now set, and advance ideas that impel real progress. Importantly, girls will be actively involved in the campaign. Their goal is to raise $25,000 in time to have the billboard light up on October 11th, the second International Day of The Girl.

There is so much work still ahead to advocate for gender equity and steer change from deeply embedded stereotypes, but I’m excited to share their passion and hope for what yet can be.  “The hashtag that makes your heart smile” is part of their slogan; advocating for real revolution within media feels to me more like a full-body jolt that hopefully will wake up the world.
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Among the many things I had planned to do before the birth of my first child, one was post a review of Lisa Catherine Harper’s first book, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood.  Now over the initial shock of transitioning into motherhood, I realize all the more how valuable this book was and still is to me, as Harper precisely chronicles a life divided by “before” and “after”— in this case, having a child.

Harper presents the idea that the deep divisions that women experience — specifically around pregnancy, gestation, childbirth, and then the encounter of a child —sunder women physically and emotionally in ways they are left to existentially and practically reconcile.  Her book is categorized into three states of being: “Inside,” which begins with the conception of her daughter and follows her pregnancy; “Inside/Out” which chronicles her labor and birth; and “Outside” which tracks her entry into motherhood as closely as it does her daughter’s new experiences in the world.

Harper holds a PhD in English with an emphasis in feminist theory and research and her book includes meticulous research as she alternates exploring the science behind what is happening to her (with information about how pregnancy alters virtually every system in a woman’s body) and the emotional resonances she feels on a deeply internal level. She also chronicles her reactions to others’ responses to her physically changing state.  At times the tacking back and forth between the more didactic writing to the lyrical can seem abrupt, but the model reflects her commitment to knit understanding of the logical and mysterious, of fact and emotion, the science and the poetry of her experiences. Although I enjoyed Harper’s sensitivity to the physical processes of pregnancy and childbirth so much I gave a copy of her book to my Ob/Gyn, what I later appreciated more was Harper’s willingness to connoiter her new role as part-time professor with fulltime mother.  In this current moment of Lean In rhetoric and new iterations of the perennial “have it all” debates, Harper is disarmingly clear about her own situation, asking, after her daughter is born: “Why didn’t motherhood matter?  Why was the home still a separate, unequal sphere? Why were mothers and children still so isolated from those things that really mattered to the childless, to the world outside the home?  Why did we talk endlessly about stupid things like Cheerios and diapers?”  And to the crux of her book: “Why did I feel so fractured?”

Searching to locate meaning in the time she spends caring for her daughter, beyond a circle of other mothers, is the axis on which identity, cultural value, and priority all spin for Harper.  Scholar that she is, she turns to the volume The American Woman’s Home, written by Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet) who called for “a revolution in domestic arrangements” and Harper says is the “precursor to all the contemporary lifestyle magazines, TV talk shows, blogs and Websites that have reinvented the domestic arts for the post-millennial home…” Harper recognizes that for Beecher “the created home is a political act” and she wants it to be for her as well, not by redecorating it, literally or otherwise, but by having it hold broad, and real, cultural value, something I think is happening.

Harper writes, “the life of the home had to be remade… it had to matter in real and consequential ways.”  She is critical of the “modern feminist movement,” as she broadly labels it, as one that has decided to “map power where it already existed” i.e. outside the domestic sphere, while neglecting to elevate the work women (largely) do inside the home and keeping this devalued.  In order to support women’s work outside the home, Harper argues, the domestic and childrearing work so many women do needs to be legitimized and legalized, in part to help support women working outside the home.

It’s an argument whose point I see, but I think oversimplifies. While it’s clear Harper’s goal isn’t to go into detail or depth, the idea that the feminist movement, broadly painted, has roundly devalued domestic work to the elevation of work outside the home seems too one-note to me. While not necessarily her point, Harper doesn’t raise the issue of shifting the expectations of gender roles or equal parenting.

Her daughter teaches her how much “to work inside the home is a worthwhile occupation,” Harper writes, although this realization leaves her at odds with her education and expectations of the professional working world. She writes, “I belonged in neither world: much of my energy was invested in raising Ella so I couldn’t fully claim my professional identity, but neither could I identify what seemed to me the petty concerns of motherhood. I loved my daughter and I loved my home.  I did not love the stay-at-home culture of mothering.” Harper concludes that there has to be a future shift where the bifurcation into being a “work outside the home” mother doesn’t square off with “work inside the home” woman either — a “mommy war” reduction that I question as still legitimate.

Fundamentally, Harper wants the halves of her life to join, primarily by feeling each sphere is validated — the life-changing experience of motherhood co-existing with the intellectual and professional ambition she realizes, for her, has been more valorized. She concludes that insisting on motherhood and the home as generative space is an almost radical throwback to Beecher’s nineteenth-century insistence on the importance of these activities and demand for their recognition. It’s an interesting argument, in some ways provocative for its potential to twine conservative strands of thought with progressive ideals. Figuring out how child-rearing and the domestic life matters to her personally, and how to reinvent its meanings within a larger context, politically, is another parsing that Harper negotiates well in the last chapter of her book.

While driving through Los Angeles a few months ago (what else does one do here?) I listened to a new release of a song by a band called The Head and the Heart.  The tune was catchy, but what lingered in my mind was the band’s name — calling out the division of the body and the symbolic resonances each part holds.  The central tenet of Harper’s explorations remains joining what has been sundered into separate spheres: mother/scholar, domestic/public, former self/present self and the million ways identity is fractured, constantly, daily, even moment-to-moment, and the intentional work it takes to keep rearranging these pieces to make a whole.

It’s an interesting political moment for women and girls as we enter the countdown to the election.  Outrage around the shooting of 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai is still going strong and I want to be hopeful the outpouring of reaction will serve as an impetus for change. The story of the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot is still unfolding and just a week ago was the International Day of the Girl.  It was deeply heartening to see how widely this was celebrated although each rallying cry highlighted the gross injustices and discrepancies girls still suffer.

Awhile ago I had the chance to interview Sara Marcus whose book Girls to the Front chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement.  It was a different sort of revolution, but one whose effects are still rippling forward.  Here is my review and conversation with her.

Sara Marcus’s history of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial. Since then, the book has been widely praised, and Marcus’s nerve in taking on the famously controversial 1990s punk-feminist movement has been noted as well.  A Los Angeles Times critic prefaced an admiring review by stating, “I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract.” As reviewers note, Marcus does go into this cauldron – with meticulous research, engaging narrative retellings of what it was like to participate directly in the Riot Grrrl movement, and reflections on her own experience of stepping into the fire as a teenager and realizing she had found her people.

Her portrayal of the tumult, excitement, breakdowns, and revolutionary zeal that rollercoastered through the movement in the early to mid-90s also includes, as she writes in the epilogue, “the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story — the parts I didn’t expect to find, the parts I would have preferred never to write.”  But, she concludes, “I had to tell the truth as I saw it.”  The result is that Marcus wraps her head (and arms) around the complicated, messy, yet passion-filled highs and lows of a span of years that left a lasting mark on the history of feminism.  Girls to the Front offers an admirably complex, nuanced view of a movement both from inside a writer’s lived experience of it, and from outside, through a researcher’s honest view.

As more writing comes forward about the Riot Grrrl years, it’s exciting to think back on a movement that is both recent and still revealing its legacy.  New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections now houses a Riot Grrrl Collection, and Kathleen Hanna has endorsed Girls to the Front on her blog, writing that since she was on tour through much of the movement, she learned a lot from reading the book. At the book’s New York release party, Hanna also gave a first-person tribute back to Marcus, (which can be viewed on YouTube), in which she mentions the way Marcus captured the split responses to the movement. In an eloquent review published last fall in Bookforum, Hanna’s Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman offered her own acknowledgment that Marcus addressed the thornier sides of Riot Grrrl’s legacy: “Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” Fateman wrote. Riot Grrrl’s distrust of mainstream media’s representation of the movement, along with the splinters that unsmoothed its potent rage for change, make writing about any of it a tricky feat.  In a phone interview Marcus addressed some of these challenges, discussing her process and Riot Grrrl’s legacy.

Here is my conversation with her:

EL: What was the most radical thing about this movement?  What do you think is its legacy?

SM: One of the most radical things was that it was really fully youth-led, and not created along the model of services or programs designed by adults.  It was not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, but we were crafting a movement that exactly conformed to our needs, our passions, and our strengths.

The legacy [it left] is partly a recognition of the need for communication and critique as activist activities.  New feminists place blogging at the foundation of their activism and move outward from there, creating communities with each other.

EL: How is this different from creating zines?

SM: There are ways it’s better and ways in which it’s worse. The loss of the handmade thing and that intimacy is different.

Blogging is not a detriment to political organization, but when it comes to personal relationships, it pales in comparison with zines — it’s not as intense.  Within the Riot Grrrl movement there was an utter entwinement of politics with really intimate community building.  There’s this aspect that you see running through Riot Grrrl literature, of people needing to take care of each other, and these things can’t be disentwined: political action, self-actualization, and taking care of each other.

EL: In your introduction, you mention the parts you wish you hadn’t had to write. What were these difficulties?

SM: Not everybody had the blissful experience with Riot Grrrl that I had. The mainstream media attention really wrecked it for some people, even as it drew new people in, and so some new people felt judged—“What, I’m not cool enough for you?” This dynamic played into some people’s preexisting insecurities about fitting in, even as for other people the movement absolutely allayed these anxieties and was tremendously healing and empowering and led to lifelong friendships. Later on, some girls used radical politics as a pretext to treat each other pretty terribly. Radical one-ups(wo)manship is not unique to Riot Grrrl; any time you have people assiduously staking their identities on elaborating a political philosophy, there are going to be competitions about having the correct line, or about occupying the optimum subject position from which to claim authority on an issue. Even the nastiest behavior here, though, came out of a truly sincere desire to move feminist thinking forward, to incorporate thinking about multiple differences (race, class, ability, sexuality, and so forth, in addition to gender)—which as any student of feminist history and theory knows is no easy job. We were very young women with little to no training in political organizing, some of whom were recovering from significant childhood trauma, all of us just making everything up as we went along: It’s no wonder that we didn’t get everything right. I still think it’s to everybody’s great credit that we tried so hard to change our lives and change the world and build communities that would support us in these endeavors.

EL:  How do you see the Riot Grrrl movement tying in to issues that were raised around girls in the 1990s, such as the prevalence of the Reviving Ophelia “girls in crisis” story?  Did Riot Grrrl serve to counter this or to work with it?

SM: What was going on in the mid-’90s [when Reviving Ophelia was published] was the result of a renewed attention to adolescent girls’ lives, an attention that had already borne fruit in terms of media hunger about Riot Grrrl. But we were living these things — they were our lives. We were putting things into our zines about it, but it wasn’t as if the books and articles were waking us up to this crisis.

EL: Why do you think Riot Grrrl arose when it did?

SM: Riot Grrrl emerged in tandem with—and, I suggest in the book, rather as a cultural vanguard to—a renewed passion for feminism in the US that was coming about in response to some serious attacks on women, attacks that are looking pretty familiar right about now. When Riot Grrrl was getting started, Susan Faludi was just finishing up work on Backlash; that book was published in October 1991, two months after the first Riot Grrrl meeting, and it became a massive best seller. The Anita Hill hearings took place that same month, sparking a new wave of feminist rage. By the following spring the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the feminist movement as a whole was bracing for the end of Roe v. Wade. Although of course Roe was spared, restrictions on reproductive freedom for girls under 18 were widespread. Then in the summer of 1992, you had three conventions: the Democratic National Convention, nominating Bill Clinton and gearing everybody up for the so-called Year of the Woman in Congress; the Republican National Convention, declaring a culture war and labeling Bill and Hillary’s politics “radical feminism”; and the first Riot Grrrl convention. It was an intense time.

And in the midst of all of this, you had the aggravating fact that girls of my generation were growing up with the promises of the women’s liberation movement—promises that we could do anything we wanted, be anything we dreamed of—while sexist stereotypes and double standards, objectification of women in the media, and rigid gender roles were all still as powerful as ever.

EL: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Riot Grrrl during the process of researching and writing this book?

SM: The most surprising thing to me was, as I mentioned, how young we all were.  When you’re 17 and tapped into this revolutionary movement psyching people up so that you can change the world, you don’t feel young, but we were. It’s amazing how much we did with so little. We just gathered up whatever we could within reach and we made something beautiful of it. It had its flaws and shortcomings, but it also had its accomplishments.

EL: What do you think was responsible for the end of the Riot Grrrl movement?

SM: People just grew up. It was pegged to a certain point in development and the creation of the self.  We took what we had gotten and we moved forward.

 

National Poetry Month, or April, as it’s also known, prompted me to immerse myself in the newest work of renowned poet and feminist figure, Eavan Boland.  Cast over my reading was the shadow of the recent and sad news of Adrienne Rich’s passing. Rich’s work was an inspiration to so many within the field of poetry and beyond.  I was cheered to see her obituary prominently displayed on the front page of the New York Times. The wonderful series up at the VIDA site, “21 Love Poems to Adrienne Rich” riffs on her series of the same title and shows how deeply her influence was, how keenly her loss will be felt.



Years ago, when I was an MFA student in New York City, I had the chance to hear Eavan Boland read with Adrienne Rich.  I remember well the reverence in Boland’s introductory comments as she said that she would remember the honor of being paired with Rich, foremother to so many feminist poets, for the rest of her life.  I sat in the audience, amazed by her awe, as I thought of Boland as no less a radical figure, and realized how clearly each was offering a baton to the next generation to pick up and carry on.

Boland, who holds several prestigious titles as a professor at Stanford University, has single-handedly changed the conversation about women’s position within the canon of Irish poetry (and outside of it) through her dedicated work over the past thirty years. Her latest contribution, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, picks up where her first nonfiction book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time leaves off.  In Journey, Boland traces the genesis of her identity as a poet while growing up in and outside of Ireland, always aware of the heavy weight of canonical history which has relegated women to a far corner of the conversation and how its press informed her education and first attempts at writing. Her intelligence is diamond-sharp, her arguments are both original and complex, and her prose reflects her true sensibility as a lyrical writer.  Her characteristic gift for taut, clear statements, rendered with rhetorical force, is evident throughout the book as she makes her case for how women poets need to reapproach history and reappropriate tradition.

The title’s inclusion of the word “maps” is both metaphorical and literal — Boland explores the known territory of literary history she has been taught (and is still taught) to create a palimpsest which includes a feminist viewpoint that can permanently broaden what subjects enter into a poem, nevermind which writers enter the canon.

Divided into three parts, the first, “Journeys,” traces Boland’s personal path into her career.  She writes movingly of the masters — all men — offered to her throughout her education in England, America, and her home country of Ireland, and how she recognized there wasn’t room within these poems for a female presence who wasn’t decorative or objectified, and the effect this had on her emerging poems.

Gradually, as she outlines in the book’s next section, “Maps,” she finds a matrilineal legacy that connects with the subject matters central within her own life and that she no longer wants to deny.  This section leads with her tribute to Adrienne Rich, followed by Elizabeth Bishop, then Charlotte Mew, and then Sylvia Plath.  She also explores the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  Most interestingly, Boland offers a chapter on the Irish poet Paula Meehan, and Boland’s attempt to translate an anonymous “dream-vision lyric” written in Latin, Foebus Abierat, presumably written by a woman, which has haunted her for years. Boland also signals her commitment to recovery of women’s voices within “Translating the Underworld,” a chapter that describes her intensely moving project translating the work of post-war female German poets, anthologized in her volume After Every War: Twentieth Century Woman Poets.

The book ends with the section “Destinations” which consists of just one chapter, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet” — a riff on the Rilke title of similar name, but is an address to the aspiring female writer. In this chapter Boland proposes that the young woman poet learn to change the past —”Not by intellectualizing it.  But by eroticizing it.” By this Boland means that women should claim a past that has traditionally excluded them.  Boland states:

After all, stored in that past is a template of poetic identity which still affects us as women.  When we are young poets it has the power to make us feel subtly less official, less welcome in the tradition than our male contemporaries.  If we are not careful, it is that template we will aspire to, alter ourselves for, warp our self-esteem as poets to fit.

Of the past she writes, “It is, after all, the place where authorship of the poem eluded us.  Where poetry itself was defined by and in our absence.  There has been a debate since I was a young poet, about whether women poets should engage with that past at all.” She recognizes this challenge, but continues, “We need to go to that past: not to learn from it, but to change it.  If we do not change that past, it will change us. And I, for one, do not want to become a grateful daughter in a darkened house.”

Her edict to rewrite, remap, and remake is constant throughout the book, as seen in variants of her exhortation:

Can a single writer challenge a collective past?  My answer is simple.  Not only can, but should.  Poetry should be scrubbed, abraded, cleared, and re-stated with the old wash stones of argument and resistance.  It should happen every generation.  Every half-generation.  In every working poet’s life and practice.”

Challenging tradition and refusing inequality underpins all of her work, as A Journey offers examples, models, and urgency to not believe this work has yet been fulfilled.

Correspondingly, Boland’s other touchstone throughout the book is how to admit more into the sphere of the poetry world — specifically themes, images, and ideas that allow women to write more fully about their lives.  Boland vividly describes living in a suburb, with two young children in a young marriage, and recognizing rituals within her life that were ordinarily excluded from celebrated poems.  She writes of inheriting the mantle of poetic tradition, yet:

The difference was that as a young woman I did so in circumstances which were relatively new … in a house with small children. With a washing machine in the background.  With a child’s antibiotic on a shelf with a spoon beside it.

After long struggle, Boland came to realize, “… the fact is the words of poets and canon-makers — but more canon-makers than poets — had determined the status of my machines and my medicine bottles. … They had made the authority of the poet conditional upon a view of reality, which then became a prescription about subject matter.  They had debated and subtracted and reduced that relation of the ordinary to the poem so that it was harder than I thought proper to record the life I lived in the poems I wrote.”  Boland writes, movingly, of wanting there to be an ownership within the poem so that “whatever I lived as a woman I could write as a poet,” to hold within her writing “a way to have the child’s medicine and … darkening room in the suburb” sanctioned within the canonical poetry world.

Through this fusion, Boland finds a way to join her voice as a woman and as a poet; through her activism and commitment she has fostered change within the academy and rewritten a relationship to history.  In her insistence, she holds the door open wide for other women to pass through.

Boland closes the book by thanking the women poets in the generation before her whose strength bolstered her when she started out.  She writes, “But I believe words such as canon and tradition and inheritance will change even more.  And with all that, women poets, from generation to generation, will be able to befriend one another.  And that, in the end, is the best reason for writing this letter.”

It is deeply pleasurable, nevermind galvinizing, to feel the weight of Boland’s strong intelligence and deep conviction. Her contributions have been invaluable. In the early summer of 2011 I again had the chance to hear Boland read, and again, her insistence on feminist activism within the literary world and insistence on a new legacy for women writers radiated just as strongly as when I heard her years ago.  She concluded by reading her beautiful poem, “Anna Liffey” which ends with the speaker’s simple phrase “I was a voice.”  The reverberations of this phrase for Boland’s poetry and her feminist commitment will be far-reaching for generations to come, and have made an essential and inspiring difference.

 

It’s been a long while since a book kept me up at night — both because I compulsively had to finish reading it, and also because it invaded my dreams. Home/Birth, recently published by 1913 Press did both.

Co-written by two poets I much admire, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, the book’s subtitle, A Poemic offers a first cue to the passion and conviction the authors infuse into this original, collage-like work. Interweaving their personal narratives about their home (and initial hospital) birth experiences, they also include the voices of home birth providers (midwives, doulas, supporters), as well as layer in statistics about the safety of home birth and the dangers of the hospital experience — both physical and emotional.  Quoting largely from Jennifer Block’s book Pushed, there is no attempt to portray a spectrum of opinions about birthing.  Their position is focused, their zeal is clear — staying at home is the best option for a woman to have an experience that is empowering to her, causes her to trust in her body, and to holistically bring her child into the world.

For Zucker, a trained doula, and Greenberg, (soon to leave her tenure-track job for a move to Maine and a possible transition to birth education work) clearly, this is a topic around which they feel a deep sense of mission, both in terms of changing the received notions about the safety of home birth, as well as doing political advocacy to overturn restrictions which have limited the scope of midwifery and “normalized” medical intervention.  Greenberg is explicit about how her first home birth (in Illinois) was actually illegal and the limitations this placed upon her care, as well as the demands caused by her sudden second home birth — fleeing the state to temporarily move to Maine so she could be attended legally by a midwife practice.

The medicalization of what is a natural process, (once left entirely in the hands of women, both literally and spiritually) has long been a topic of hot debate, as Block outlines here. Recent movements have (controversially) named “birth rape” as a phenomenon some women experience after acts of obstetric violence have been inflicted upon their bodies during childbirth.  Suffering PTSD after birth has also more recently been acknowledged as an aftereffect of a traumatic birth experience. Then there’s the recent news about how Disney has been barging into the delivery room, another way in which birth has been co-opted for corporate gain.

It’s impossible to not be moved by the testimonies offered in the book — women robbed of a sense of their body’s power, nevermind a profound moment with a new child.  Yet, I am certain many will approach this book with deeply entrenched resistance and even feel enraged by the staunchness of the authors’ position.  A refrain the two insert throughout the text is “What if something goes wrong?” no doubt a line each has been asked continuously.  I found myself wanting to hear this more directly answered, rather than just offered as a rhetorical question.  The stories relayed about home birth don’t all end happily, and the book concludes on a deeply poignant note that offers through example an answer to this question — yes, things can go wrong, but “holding the space” for a woman to meet her child within a sense of connected power is still worthwhile.

It is most difficult to critique Home/Birth as a poem. Collaborative writing doesn’t have a strong tradition within the U.S. and there were moments I wished for more clarity and shape around the narrative(s).  Attention to the line is found most strongly in the interstices between chapters — where the two take phrases previously included and collage them into more precise lines, as in this excerpt:

Never thought this would —

dreamed of —

be my story.

Every child. Changes. You

feel sane, like a witch with her silky moonlight or goddess.

Feel grateful like a feminist, like an activist, like a friend and

the truth is when you saw what you could do —

women watching over —

it changed everything and was safer and feminist

all the drawers and doors and windows

at once and the low noise we make

opening, opening.

I almost longed for Zucker and Greenberg to write a nonfiction book about their experiences rather than knitting the threads of so many others voices together.  Their use of the word “witch” is intriguing, but unclear — is this a straightforward reclamation or modern reconstitution of the word?  Likewise, this is clearly a political topic for both, one that affects a range of women’s health issues, yet I wished their desire to tie this to the feminist movement had been more explicit.  They intersperse T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans about home birth throughout to show both the popular embrace of this movement and counter attitudes to its resistance.  While the phrases are clever and sound lighthearted, (“Childbirth is a natural procedure, not a medical event” “Yes, I gave birth at home.  Now ask your silly questions” and “Peace on earth begins with birth”) they reveal the flame this movement ignites (the countervailing, “Home deliveries are for pizza”).  They serve as poetic tropes of sorts, but I would have liked more rendering of these messages in the poets’ own voices.

Greenberg and Zucker offer a unique pastiche, a chorus of female voices, sometimes speaking simultaneously, sometimes in fugue, as they layer facts, scraps, nuances, and feelings about this topic.  The result is profoundly affecting, and their invention of word “poemic” is the right refraction of polemic, serving as an invented form that allows them to bring their poetic talents to bear about this deeply felt topic.  The book’s opening epigraph by Muriel Rukeyser, “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget,” can also serve as its parting invocation as both authors advocate for remembering what has always been known.

Girl w/Pen friends — it’s been too long!  In keeping with today’s theme so wonderfully explored by Debbie Siegel, here’s my review of my shero Peggy Orenstein’s latest.  This review originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine blog and is re-posted with permission.  For more of Orenstein’s thoughts read my interview with her on SheWrites.

If you’ve been within 50 feet of a 4-year-old girl in the past decade, you can’t have escaped the fact that princess is a booming industry. From T-shirts emblazoned with “princess” to the fad for “makeover” parties to “princess potty seats”, there is no shortage of products with a tiara theme offered to girls. In her excellent new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes as a journalist, a mother of an elementary school-age girl and a former girl herself to investigate the explosion of pink “girlie-girl culture.”

Common wisdom would have it that the demand for pink is simply hardwired into girls. Orenstein evaluates this by consulting with neuroscientist and Pink Brain, Blue Brain author Lise Eliot, a proponent of neuroplasticity–the idea that “[inborn traits], gender-based or otherwise, are shaped by our experience.” Eliot’s research shows that, in fact, when kids are tiny, “[they] do not know from pink and blue.” She argues that children don’t begin to label behavior or toys as meant for girls or for boys until between ages 2 and 3, as kids come to understand there are gender differences. It’s also the exact time when they’re handed toys that are gender-specific. In other words, Orenstein writes, “nurture becomes nature.” Boys are blued; girls are pinked.

So if not nature, what’s the force behind all the pinking? The easy answer is money. As one example, the ever-more-present Disney Princesses line grossed $4 billion dollars in 2009. The “father” of that line, Andy Mooney, tells Orenstein, “I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy.” A sales rep at the annual Toy Fair has a more direct answer when Orenstein asks if all this pink is necessary: “Only if you want to make money.”

But even if cash-hungry marketers are pushing pink to rake in profits, there’s another piece to the puzzle: parents who buy the toys for their kids. Orenstein has a deep empathy for the competing pressures they face. She herself doesn’t want to restrict her daughter from choosing her own mode of self-expression–even if that’s a poufy princess dress–but worries that all the marketing itself constricts her daughter’s choices. Instead of the entire rainbow, girls only get to see the pink slice.

Orenstein’s sympathy extends to parents participating in the most extreme “girl-ification”–the pageant parents portrayed on the TV show Toddlers and Tiaras. Visiting a pageant held deep in the hill country of Texas, Orenstein leaves the tiara-fest more ambivalent. She’s not ready to dismiss the parents’ oft-repeated credo that pageants boost their girls’ self-esteem and that it’s okay to tell your daughter that she’s special. She also sees how much much participating in pageants can mean to a family. But it’s clear from her observations that Toddlers and Tiaras is doing its share of harm.

Orenstein mentions how exposés of the show have featured “psychologists who (with good reason) link self-objectification and sexualization to [a] host of ills previously mentioned—eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, impaired academic performance,” often rebutted by the pageant moms, who then defend their actions. And within the book’s first pages Orenstein references the well-respected American Psychological Association’s Report of The Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls which offered hard evidence that an overemphasis on beauty and sexiness made girls vulnerable to problematic behaviors linked to self-objectification.

So how can parents balance these pressures in order to stem the tide of pink? Orenstein leaves the question open, which might frustrate some readers. She muses as she researches, reflects as she consults, and ends the book optimistic but uncertain about how root-level change can be achieved. On her website she’s just launched a “resources” section which offers suggestions of books for kids and parents, recommended shows and films, even a clothing line. Lisa Belkin of “Motherlode” in The New York Times has also responded with a solid list of suggested reading in her column “The Princess Wears Plaid.” Additionally, the Ms. blog offers a list of contemporary retellings of fairy tales and myths from a feminist perspective. All ask readers to chime in with further contributions.

Orenstein has a final, crucial piece of advice: Just say NO to the overpinking. That might seem pat to a frustrated parent–saying no reaches beyond appeasing a demanding child to refusing cultural edicts that seem to whisper and shout from every side. Awareness is your best line of defense, Orenstein insisted in dialogue with Lori Gottlieb at a recent L.A. talk, as she repeated, “You just say NO.”