To look in the "Blues" section of most record stores, you'd think it was only men who had troubles worth singing about. This week it is my pleasure to prove this assumption SPECTACULARLY WRONG, with a glimpse at some of the women who have howled, growled, whimpered and moaned their way through the Blues.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is perhaps most famous for her 1892 short story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper," about a woman who's confined to her bed for a "nervous condition" after she fails to experience what her husband and doctor insist is the universal bliss of motherhood. During her bed rest imprisonment, she begins to see a woman trapped behind the wallpaper in her room. The story is famous for good reason: it can be interpreted as a critique of the male-dominated medical world of the time, an early exploration of postpartum depression, a feminist allegory that makes the case for women's freedom, or all of the above. But Gilman's body of work stretches far beyond this story, and her life as an early radical feminist is worth reading about!
So this week's Adventure in Feministory takes us to Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955. While we're there, we're going to be spending some time with a 42-year-old department store seamstress named Rosa Parks. Perhaps you've heard of her? Were she alive, the first lady of American Civil Rights would turn 98 this Friday. It's not every day Congress passes an act bestowing a gold medal on a lady for "her contributions to the nation," but they did for Parks, in 1999. Because the Happy Birthday song is trademarked, let's take a look back at Parks's extraordinary life and celebrate her, Feministory-style.
Okay, full disclosure, right up front: I'm a babysitter. Like, professionally. So maybe my fascination with the history of this job comes from a place of pure self absorption. Then again, there's a good chance many of you readers have been babysitters at some point (BSC-inspired flyers around the neighborhood advertising your services? A totally undesirable but obligatory gig watching a younger family member?), and besides, the history of the babysitter brings up some issues much larger than diapers and bedtime, like our culture's anxiety with the financial and sexual independence of girls.
Here is the semi-embarrassing circumstance that resulted in the more-than-semi-embarrassing-realization that I haven't yet written about Maya Angelou for this blog: I was watching the first day of OWN's (Oprah Winfrey Network, duh) new programming with my mom, (...nope. Can't even come up with a sarcastic parenthetical. I just was.) and saw that Dr. Angelou would be featured on an upcoming series called "Master Class." Actually, I saw that a new show on OWN would feature Maya Ang—, which is all I saw before I bolted off the couch to my computer and yelled back to my mom that we needed to figure out DVR recording before Sunday night at 10. She was surprised by my new enthusiasm for the Winfrey gospel, needless to say. And I'm surprised I haven't yet waxed adoring on this writer, this poet, this actress, director, dancer, professor, activist, this woman who more than any other artist makes me glad to be American, to be female, to be human at the same time as her.
In the public library I recently came across a really interesting book called Women in Pacific Northwest History. It's a collection of articles about specific women and groups of women who made an impact on the culture and politics of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. I paged through articles about some really amazing people like Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon settler and suffragist, and Bertha Knight Landes, who was mayor of Seattle in the 1920s and the first woman mayor of a major US city. The Northwest has a rich history of women who worked for positive change, and the book, edited by Karen J. Blair, is worth checking out, especially for all of you famously proud Northwesterners.
One section that particularly stood out to me was an article by Gail M. Nomura about a Japanese-American woman named Teiko Tomita. Tomita was born in Japan in 1896 and worked as an elementary school teacher until her early twenties, when her parents matched her with a man who was working as a farmer on the Yakama Indian Reservation in central Washington state. After a two-year epistolary courtship, the two were married in Japan. Soon after their wedding, they traveled to Washington to farm for a few years, thinking they would earn some money and return to Japan. But the climate in central Washington was harsh, and the Tomitas faced prejudice and isolation. The weren't able to earn enough money to go home. Teiko Tomita stayed in the US until her death in 1990.
Djuna Barnes was a poet, novelist, journalist, and artist whose work was known for its unique prose rhythms, its sexual openness, and its fascination with the bawdy and grotesque. She lived in Greenwich Village in the bohemian 1910s, frequented the artists' salons in 1920s Paris, and late in life became a cult icon and famous recluse.