Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Susan Butcher

Christina Taylor Green has reminded me a lot of myself at her age.  I was deeply, idealistically patriotic as a child and imagine would have been just as proud as she was had my birthday been on such a historic day.  Thinking about how excited she must have been to meet Rep. Giffords and the optimism she had in our government's system makes losing her so  heartbreaking.  A lot is being made in the media about her dreams of becoming the first woman to play baseball in the major leagues.  When I was a little older than her I dreamed of becoming the first woman to walk on the moon.  Not so much because I was deeply into space aviation, but more so because I really wanted to be the first woman to do something.  I felt like that was a noble aspiration and it seems like most people think little girls wanting to break into a male field should be strongly encouraged.  But is it actually encouraged?  What real evidence do we have that makes us believe these are goals women should actually work to achieve? 

I started working at Northwestern University right before the big football game against Notre Dame that was held at Wrigley Field.  I didn't watch much but was out at a bar that happened to have it on.  Apparently, football at baseball stadiums was the theme of the evening because two schools were playing at Yankee Stadium that same night.  I was struck by what a cool experience it would be for a college football player to have.  Suiting up in the famous/infamous Yankee clubhouse, running onto the baseball field to play a football game.  Once in a lifetime for sure.  As I imagined how neat that would be, how bright the lights must have felt, and how loud the crowds cheers must have sounded, I was stung by the realization that no matter how much we as women say we are equal and have earned the same types of rights as men, none of us would ever have such an experience.  Sure there were cheerleaders, but that's not the same; the focus wasn't/isn't on them.  

Then the double whammy (remember "Press Your Luck"?)  realization hit when I remembered that not only would I never be allowed to play college level football in general, let alone at Yankee Stadium, I would also never be allowed to be a Yankee baseball player.  Then all of the sports scenarios in which I could never participate started flooding my mind:  the Super Bowl, holding the Stanley Cup*, becoming the Heavyweight Champion.  The waves of realizations will keep hitting you if you let them.  

This personal awakening is 100% delayed.  MANY other women who are more athletically predisposed than myself have struggled with these barriers for some time.  The sports world remains decidedly for men.  Yes, I know we have our own leagues that allow us to participate but that doesn't take away from the fact that the athletic realm is unquestionably, dominantly male.  Christina's recognition of these walls and her dreams to reach beyond them makes me proud to be female.  

Very few female athletes compete against men in equal competition.  Our national athletics leagues are so rigidly established it's hard to know how a woman would go about breaking into the fold.  Dreaming of becoming the first female POTUS is a more rational goal than aspiring to be the first woman to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory as a starting quarterback.  I don't care what Oprah says either, Zenyatta shouldn't count as one of the best female athletes in the world no matter how inspiring her tale.  If she was a jockey, then maybe we could talk about it.  She is a HORSE and there are plenty of male horses that have had incredible successes and you would never find them topping the list of greatest male athletes.  Many women have dedicated their lives to their chosen sport and it's a huge insult to not only be included with, but usurped by an animal.  

As a kid, I played just about every sport there was for at least a season.  I liked basketball a lot and played on a co-ed league with the Boys and Girls club.  I also played T-Ball and soccer with boys in elementary school.  It wasn't that the guys weren't nice to me or didn't want me to be there, but it was understood that no matter what, I was second tier and that was true for all of us girls.  As we got older of course, we were relegated to our respective genders teams.  Co-ed sports are a thing of childhood and aging rec leagues.  

My first SBD year with a 4th place finish!
The Soap Box Derby seemed to me to have no gender bias, at least not one that I could pick up on.  Girls could win, and did win, just as often, if not more so, than the boys.  It was a great competitive thing that I was involved with as a kid.  The actual racing world however, seems to be much much more macho even with Danica Patrick making some kind of name for herself.  She gets a lot of criticism for not really winning that much and overly sexualizing herself but I still think its an accomplishment for her to compete in a mostly male environment.  Racing in this context challenges the physical idea of sports, though.  When you are in a car, you may be competing, but it isn't considered to be that athletic among some circles.

You'd be hard pressed to find a critic of the athleticism behind Susan Butcher's race medium. Butcher is the second woman to have won the Iditarod and one of sled dog racing's most famous athletes.  

My parents moved to Alaska after they were married.  They lived in a  village called Unalakleet where they worked at a Christian boarding school for native Alaskan kids.  Back then, public schools were not common out in the bush so most students attended schools that were set up by private organizations.  My mom and dad, along with my aunt and uncle were teachers and dorm parents.  I came along in '84, born in Anchorage, and lived in Unalakleet for a year until Covenant High was closed due to Alaska's public school expansion.  My childhood was full of many, many Olson family folk tales from my parent's glory days in the tundra.  
Unalakleet, AK
One such story was about Susan Butcher and the night she spent at my parent's house while she was competing in the Iditarod.  Mushers can stay in host houses during the race when they are close to a town or village checkpoint.  Butcher was one of the star competitors so of course my parents were really excited to have her.  Since she was relatively well known, reporters kept harassing her for an interview.  My dad heroically fended off Pat O'Brien and his notoriously obnoxious harassment of Butcher.  We're all still very proud of him. 

She went on to place in that race, bowed out due to a moose attack of her dogs in '85, and eventually won in '86, '87, '88, and '90.  Racing in these elements is an enormous undertaking.  The trail is about 1,200 miles long and runs through the brutality of Alaska's winter.  It is not uncommon to break bones, lose dogs, and drop out early due to various complications.  You must not only be physically and mentally up to the challenge, you must take great care of the dogs you are essentially trusting with your life.  It is also a sport where women and men compete together as equals. 
Butcher with her dogs.

My friend Danny spent the night on Friday (relax, he sleeps on the couch, the floor if someone we like better also needs a place to crash ;).  He likes to pretend that he reads this blog ("Don't worry Jules, I read it, I'm gonna read it.") by asking questions like "What is feminism?" and "How are you unequal?"  I have got to come up with some general answers to these general questions because right now I'm terrible at on the spot questioning.  Anyway, I referenced the sports world and the convo at first veered toward the "insane" idea about women playing in the NFL (which is just a distraction from any type of real discussion).  But I somehow turned it into an explanation that football wouldn't have developed as a game in the same way had it been created in a truly gender neutral society.  Which is a really huge concept to think about.  It's almost too broad of an idea, like suggesting if everything were different, things would be different.  However, I think it's more poignant than that and this is the kind of surprise "first draft" idea that stems from off the cuff conversations with my guy friends about my blog.  Most of them are completely open and more than receptive to talking about feminism and my perspective, which of course I love and appreciate.  

Later on, I was gal chatting with some of my gf's and we were talking about the sports world and how we relate to it.  Since, I'd already begun writing this post, it was a great time to bounce some ideas around and get some perspective about what had come from the Danny conversation.  Sure, I'll have to look into what, if anything has been written on the subject of how our patriarchal society shaped the ways in which our games developed.  There isn't an easy way of imagining an average woman playing today's professional sports with men because yes, we are built differently and the games are all built to suit male-specific physical abilities.  But how does that explain why we don't have any sports where women and men play on the same field, in the same game, in interchangeable positions? Surely an equal society would develop something that could entertain the masses just as much as the NBA or the NHL.  In make believe Harry Potter land, Quidditch is played by both males and females in a way that allows them to hold the same positions depending on the individual's abilities.  This can't be a scenario fit only for fictional literature.

Kelly pointed out that the NFL appears to be really proud of themselves for coming up with, producing, and marketing a line of team-wear geared toward female fans.  How long has the National Football League been around?  81 years?  And you just now realized that it might be extremely profitable to develop products for over half of the American population that has supported your organization from the beginning?  Alyssa Milano is very pretty, but it's all just too annoying to buy into.

A lot of my frustrations are directed at the NFL because I grew up watching football and feel like I have more of a connection to it.  Especially the Super Bowl (which I know does not really mean that I was that into it, but still).  The team Jamestown supports is the Buffalo Bills.  Some of you might remember that they lost 4 SB's in a row in the early 90's.  Those games started a Super Bowl party tradition at my house highlighted by my dad's delightful taco dip, sometimes made with venison from a successful hunting trip.  Every year my fam hosts a nice get together which is a tradition I most treasure from childhood. 

Recently, I learned that Super Bowl weekend is one of sex trafficking's most profitable times of the year.  With the event just a few short weeks away, and the Chicago Bear's hopeful participation, I can't help but think about all of the women and children that will be affected in such a tragic way.  And how much fun I've had  in the past ignorant of their suffering.  One woman's warm childhood memory, is another woman's despair I suppose.  I'm not sure how responsible the NFL should be for finding a solution to this problem, however, it's something that won't hurt us to think about when we are at our various parties eating different types of dips.  Our American pastimes aren't always so pure and carefree.

This post is extremely meandering and all over the place.  The topic is probably too huge.  Honestly, I love athletics and competition.  It's fun to cheer for a team and the comradery that is forged is one of the best offshoots of the industry.  However, denying or pretending that I have an equal place in that world is just something I can no longer do.  Most have probably never heard of Susan Butcher and/or the Iditarod.  She is a personal hero of mine, someone I grew up thinking about in mythical proportions the way that I imagine my guy friends thought of Michael Jordan.  She was an extremely talented person and held her own in a way that is empowering for all people.  

Susan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005.  She died a year later and again became an inspiration for her strength in the face of such adversity.  When asked about the pain of racing compared to the fight of cancer she is noted as saying:
"There was a lot of pain.  I've broken a lot of bones out there, but it was what I loved doing.  I didn't choose to have leukemia.  This is just a battle that was given me." 
The world now has lost both Susan Butcher and Christina Taylor Green.  Our athletes are our modern day warriors and who we look up to and esteem for their strength and courage.  Sometimes they are idealized to a point that no human could ever truly live up to, but there are lots of messages they send us about perseverance and integrity through their chosen sport.  Hopefully kids who know about what happened to Christina will think about what her goals were and how they could also apply to their own lives.  All of us can take away positive messages from the life that Butcher lead.  Thinking about the ways in which we can become better and more progressive are natural subsets of any athletic mentality.  Once we function as a cohesive team, with a level playing field, we can claim a more satisfying victory.  

*Manon Rheaume kind of was allowed to play in the NHL.  Danny let me know this during our discussion by informing me of "some broad" who played professional hockey.  Still no Stanley Cup holding however.   

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Abigail Adams

I LOVE letters.  I once had a dream of living someplace far away for a year and only communicating with family and friends via hand written letters.  There is something so wonderful about receiving a small envelope in the mail, opening it up, and finding a little bit of creativity from a loved one inside.  A majority of my time and resources used to be spent making little gifts and writing notes to mail.  In the past couple of years however, I seem to have lost my motivation.  My friends, Jenny and Jessa, are still excellent at sending out mail.  It always makes me happy to open the box and see something cute inside from them.  Maybe in 2011 I'll get back into the habit because I want to support the postal system so it continues to exist.  It would be heartbreaking to see personal mail become a thing of the past. 

Felicity! Love her!
I also LOVE colonial and revolutionary war history.  I have always been extremely interested in how our nation was created because it seems so beyond extraordinary that one generation could accomplish so much to change the development of the entire world.  Visiting Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's home, depicted on the back of the nickel) remains one of my favorite childhood vacation memories and I still think I should work at Colonial Williamsburg someday. The American Girl doll I had growing up was Felicity and I remember being completely charmed by the adventurous tales in her books.

Knowing these two little tidbits about me should help illustrate my excitement about the book "First Family: Abigail and John Adams".  It is an account of their relationship based on the letters they exchanged throughout their lifetimes.  Joseph J. Ellis, the author, appears to be an expert on the founding fathers and has written extensively about the history of the formation of the United States.  Kelly, the little library page that could, brought it home for me and I immediately began to read.    

When John and Abigail first met, she was only 15 years old and he was already 24.  They meet in her father's house and the incident isn't much appreciated by either one.  Eventually, they meet again and a bond of love develops between them that remains throughout the entirety of their time together.  Ellis describes John's knowing need for a ballast, someone to give him mental, moral, and political steadiness, and Abigail's determination to create that for her husband.  I read this to mean John was aware he could have emotional outbursts (an affliction that may have been caused by a thyroid condition) and was looking for a partner to help him keep his composure.  Abigail was the only person who was able to do this for him and in the times when they were separated his reputation was tarnished by his lack of control.  

Up until this point, I was reading this book as it was meant to be read.  An account of the intimate relationship between two influential people who greatly impacted the history of America.  However, Ellis created the need for a different mindset when he chose to write this passage:
"She presumed that she would run the household, educate the children at least to a level of literacy, and subsume her own ambitions within the life and work of her husband.  These traditional expectations were always unquestioned presumptions for Abigail, and taken together, they constitute the primary reason that she does not fit comfortably into a modern feminist paradigm."

This declaration about Abigail not fitting into the current feminist label occurs on page 13 of the book and sets the tone for Ms. Adams to be viewed as a traditional, albeit highly educated woman.  Of course, while this is a fair depiction, it is a rather elementary one, certainly from the point of view of a person who clearly has no knowledge or understanding of modern day feminist principles.  Feminism has plenty of room for women who devote themselves to their marriages and families.  It is about equal opportunity between the genders and has little to do with how or where a woman spends her working years.  Abigail Adams, if not the founding author and activist of the American women's liberation movement, was certainly a participant.

Being that Ellis is an accredited historian, his book sites his sources.  Which is great in determining where he has misunderstood his subject.  Luckily, his source for this particular passage, is Edith B. Gelles' paper titled "The Abigail Industry" and it is conveniently available on JSTOR.  (You may only be able to access this article if you are on a university network or have an account with JSTOR.)  Reading through this report makes it clear that many people have decided to tell the masses what Abigail was as a woman.  Gelles dissects each category she has been shoved into by historians, scholars, and those who have read her numerous letters.  There is the saintly Abigail, the romantic Abigail, the flirtatious Abigail, the feminist Abigail, the Freudian Abigail, the political Abigail, and of course, the completely unflattering hidden Abigail (best described as a “matriarchal shrew”).  

The common thread that courses through whatever Abigail you choose to prefer is that she is generally regarded as an extension of John and his career.  Every action she takes seems to be condemned to be seen as a reaction to something her husband did.  If you consider other women who have held the title of first lady in this nation, including Mrs. Barack Obama, history has given, or will give, them the same treatment.  Abigail’s accomplishments can be chopped up to fit into whatever mold any particular scholar prefers, but no matter what, she is usually seen as an accessory to the great man she attached herself to.  This model deems her to have had only one true gift, and that was her choice of husband.

Clearly, this is a complete fallacy.  Give me the name of a woman and I will give you 15 different ways to view her as a person.  We are never allowed to be one complete human.  We must be dissected and figured out.  And if any piece tells a story that is anything less than what the world views as being proper for a woman to contain, it gets cut out and illuminated as the defining trait. 

To say that Abigail could not be saintly, romantic, flirty, feminist, political, and a bit deviant all rolled into one, is to say that those things can’t coexist together in one body, least of all a woman’s.  She must be one thing and that is what the problem is with Ellis’ interpretation that she cannot be a modern feminist role model.  He sees her as a homemaker and wife and therefore she can be nothing else.  This idea, being based off of Gelles’ paper.  I don’t know what he was reading but with statements like this I think he did not get the main thesis of her piece:

“Domesticity and intelligence are not polar opposites: to be wife and mother is not mindless activity…In the 18th century a woman’s primary concerns were domestic and Abigail was no exception.  It was her unique character, intelligence, and talent that distinguished her from other women, not her values or attidudes…
Abigail Adams experienced the domestic and the public spheres as a continuity; by acknowledging the interaction of these spheres we begin to understand her complexity.”

Complexity is the very special word here.  Complexity, defined as the state of being complex, defined as being composed of many interconnected parts.  We would all readily agree that John Adams was a complex individual.  How then does Abigail’s complexity differ?  Oh right, she is female.  Abigail should be viewed as a public figure just like John, with talents that Gelles' refers to, existing outside of the domestic sphere.

We know so much about Abigail, or at least more than other women from her time, because of the letters that she wrote.  She and John seemed to have a unique understanding that they were living through events that would be remembered forever and they did their part to preserve their history as best as they could.  During the formation of the United States, John was living away from home and Abigail.  He was working on creating the new country.  Abigail, while home alone giving birth to children and raising them through a horrific war, was contemplating the role women should have.  Much in the way John was a renegade for the rights of man against the oppression of the monarchy of England, Abigail rallied for rights for women.  We know this because she sent a letter to John and other members of the new government telling them to include women.  

Here is a portion of the text from that most famous passage:
"And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, desire you will remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
One of Abigail's Letters to John.
This was not a silly letter between lovers, but an official declaration of the equal rights that should be granted to women in the founding of the nation.  Abigail firmly believed that women should have the same access to education and property rights under the new laws.  As Ellis says, she made a direct illumination of the Pandora's box John and his cohorts had opened in regards to individual freedoms in the new republic.  Taking Abigail seriously would mean not only rights for women, but the abolition of slavery and ending the property ownership qualification in order to vote.  The founding fathers agreed that those issues were better left to be dealt with  after the war was won and white men had secured their freedoms.  So while yes, Abigail was viewed by these men to be correct, taking on this societal reformation was considered to be too risky. 

Eminem's "Without Me" lyrics seem to fit nicely here "A visionary, vision is scary, could start a revolution, pollutin' the airwaves, a rebel." Replace "airwaves" with "press" and you have the reason why her declaration wasn't published for the masses.  Once things were settled in the way the founders felt was most beneficial, future generations could extend the freedoms they enjoyed to the greater population.  

 In the present day, one might take this to mean that the founders felt that the constitution was meant to evolve with the nation, Justice Scalia.  The "One" that I refer to is any one with a rational (rational meaning non-romantic) understanding of the intentions of Adams, Jefferson, and the rest of them.  Certainly, this was to be a document that was meant to be molded to fit modern society, and not to remain a stagnant remnant of days gone by.  

Abigail Adams was not a homemaker and mother by her own deliberate choice.  She was a homemaker and mother because the rules of her time gave her no other choice.  Just as a slave born into slavery was denied the same education and rights that were thrown upon and often taken for granted by white men, Abigail was denied certain rights due to society’s rules against women.  (Society’s rules, society’s rules, I sound like a broken record; can I write a post without referencing the rules? Unfortunately, no.)  Had she wanted to study law like John she would have been laughed at.  It was not an option.  

The simple fact that she was even thinking about the rights of women (she was also adamantly anti-slavery, although, self admittedly not free of prejudice) makes her a visionary.  Take into consideration the fact that she ACTED on those thoughts makes her a revolutionary.  She saw more action during the war than John did.  He was safely kept away from the fighting while Abigail harbored children and neighbors, fought for food, participated in an all-female uprising against war profiteers, and eloquently stated her beliefs on what constituted a truly free, by the people, for the people government.  I hate thinking about all the remarkable ideas our country missed out on by excluding her from the formation conversations simply based on her gender. 

But this of course is not only true of Abigail’s story.  Countless women and other oppressed peoples talents throughout history were lost because they were never given the chance to express or develop them.  Mozart’s sister was just as musically gifted as her brother, however, she was not given the same attention or training because she was a female.  If these are the effects of yesterday’s toxic gender restrictions, what makes us think that today’s inequalities are any less negative?  Yes, yes, we are to believe we have transcended gender bias.  I’m pretty sure that in Abigail’s age they thought they were advanced because they were no longer prosecuting and murdering women for witchcraft.  Which, in that day, sadly was progression.  

The Christian Patriarchy Movement is a modern day example of how young girls are being brainwashed to believe that they are here to exist solely as servants to the male population.  Not to get too into this ridiculously terrifying mindset but daughters are being told that they should stay at home and honor their fathers until they are then given away to a man of his choosing.  This is marketed as the right way for them to live.  Their independent rug is being pulled out from under them before they are allowed to even almost develop an understanding that they have their own minds that can form their own beliefs.  They are experiencing a world where they don't have a choice just like Abigail did only their world is in the present day, not some 200+ years ago.  

Ellis has a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the founding fathers which is yes, very impressive.  However, I've seen "The Wire" so I know how that Pulitzer sausage is made and it's as unappealing to me as factory farmed Jimmy Dean links.  Is that harsh?  Fine.  I did cry at the end of the book if you'd like to know because the story that Abigail and John tell through their letters is beautiful.  They were truly in love and truly partners.  John supported his wife and her empowerment in a way that was beyond his time.  Abigail made out a will even though during her final years Massachusetts law regarded all property to belong to the head of the household, the male.  Throughout her lifetime she had amassed land, money from war bonds, and other items that were solely hers.  He never saw her or her property as belonging to him for she was simply the woman he loved, her own being, walking independently beside him.  He always recognized her autonomy even if he didn't work to write it into the constitution that allowed him his own freedom.  

This is a significant point because conservative groups like the Tea Party and the aforementioned Christian Patriarchy Movement are constantly referencing John and other founders as the basis for their governmental beliefs.  THE FOUNDING FATHERS WERE RADICALS.  They may have not been perfect but they were ahead of their time.  John's behavior towards Abigail, their daughter Nabby, and his daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine, shows that he had a great amount of respect for these women as individuals.  Any idea that lessens women's place in society cannot rightfully be claimed as a result of John Adams and his politics.  

Abigail must be seen as a feminist because, outside of the fact that she was, it is important to understand that the "woman as man's helper" model has never existed.  Yes we have been held back by asinine laws and male chauvinist fears, but we have steadfastly questioned our secondary status throughout history.  Each woman bears responsibility to speak out for our rights and to remain vigilant against any attempt to have those rights taken away.  Abigail is a perfect model of how to do this in an intelligent and deliberate way. 

I don't know where this leaves us.  What's my point?  My own personal feelings are that I would categorize most women who are not working directly against the rights of other women as feminists.  However, it seems that the feminist label is the last one that anyone wants to claim or to have placed on them.  I firmly believe that Abigail wouldn't have felt this way.  She established the first documented call for rights for American women.  Her letters, not only to John, but to many other people in her life show that she was a free thinking individual.  I want to look up to her because I want to believe that I too encompass a complex, multi layered, place in this world.  Every woman deserves that and I hope that if Abigail saw the freedoms that I am privileged to experience today, she would feel a certain amount of pride for having helped create them for us.  
Official Portraits of Abigail and John Adams.