Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gender Studies

“Well behaved women rarely make history,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Best known as the author of “A Midwife’s Tale,” Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first coined the phrase “Well behaved women rarely make history” in a 1976 scholarly article.  After finding the slogan on t-shirts, greeting cards, and buttons, she published a book by that title ten years ago focusing on a variety of exceptional feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Virginia Woolf.

Being the only man attending Anne Balay’s Summer II Women’s and Gender Studies class, “Women in Culture,” I initially worried that my presence might bother the 15 others, all women, but it seemed not to and Anne, who introduced me as Jimbo, reassured me afterwards that it didn’t.  Anne seemed to know most of the students and put everyone at ease with a relaxed and nonthreatening manner.  She had us introduce ourselves, went around the room repeating people’s names, and then asked a couple students to try it.  I started to put together a cheat sheet in case my turn came.  Introducing the course theme, she solicited opinions as to the definitions of sex and gender.  While the former depends on chromosomes, genitalia, and hormonal balance, the latter pertains more to behavioral and cultural expectations and how individuals perceive themselves.  She explained that the concepts of masculinity and femininity are more like points on a continuum than polar opposites. 

Anne steered the discussion toward sociatal traits associated with masculinity and femininity, and as an aside declared that she has found if students don’t talk on the first day, they’re unlikely to participate thereafter.  So true.  Noting that cultural norms change over time, Anne pointed out that nobody was wearing a skirt or dress whereas a couple generations ago, pants on women would have been a no-no.  Most masculine traits cited had to do with inflated egos and competitiveness, but one woman said, “eats lots of meat.”  Anne then asked about things one would shy away from because it violated gender norms. I said, “attend a Chippendale strip show.”  Women taboos included things like belching, farting, loudly swearing in public or stuffing themselves on a dinner date.  Anne added, “Piss standing up.”  In a previous class, she said, several women competed to see who could grow the most underarm hair.  She then broke the class into pairs and had them do something in a public place that violated a certain gender norm.  Most duos headed toward the library, one of the few places on campus where folks might be found at computers or eating in the Little Redhawk Café.  Beth LaDuke vowed to drop a couple F bombs.  Perhaps the “eats lots of meat” woman ordered a couple hot dogs.  I talked with two headed for the bathroom.  “Are you going to piss standing up?” I asked.
Riva and Anne
During class Anne mentioned her age, the fact that she is a lesbian (“in case you haven’t guessed”), and several interesting biographical anecdotes.  Her mother once called to brag about her brother having changed a baby’s diaper.  Anne never received similar praise because that was simply assumed to be part of a mother’s nurturing role.  She pointed out that Toys R Us items are rigidly separated into girls and boys sections (dolls in one, toy guns in the other, for example) and that there are pink Lego logs marketed for girls. Each generation, she claimed, tends to believe it has more freedom than the previous one, but there still exists a wide gap in terms of power and opportunity.  Whereas 30 years ago women’s wages on average were 69 percent of men’s, now it is a mere 71 percent.  The gap widens for college graduates and professionals.

Dave Mergl, who took thousands of photos while at Bethlehem Steel, wants me to do a pictorial history based on them.  I told him Steve McShane would be a better choice and promised to talk to him.  Perhaps I could interest Mike Olszanski in tackling the project from a point of view of workers.

Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson” mentions that balloon flights were the rage during the 1780s.  Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, quipped: “A high-flying politician is I think not unlike a balloon – he is full of inflammability, he is driven along by every current of wind, and those who will suffer themselves to be carried up by them run a great risk that the bubble may burst and let them fall from the height to which a principle of levity raised them.”  In the election of 1800, deadlocked between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, in an act of statesmanship that ultimately cost him his life, tipped the election to his former rival from Virginia.

While at Toyota for an oil change and replacement license plate bolt, I read a chapter in Michael Kramer’s “The Republic of Rock” about hippie staff members at San Francisco’s legendary FM radio station KMPX striking in 1968 for better pay and working conditions.  One deejay was Howard Hesseman, who later basically played himself on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.  Under station manager Tom Donahue KMPX adopted a freeform, album-oriented progressive rock format.  The strike lasted two months, with most disgruntled employees moving to a different station.  Using a Baron Wolman photo to demonstrate, Kramer wrote: “Symbolically, the station’s staff members presented themselves as a group that brought together individual flair with communal belonging.”  Printing their demands on paisley paper, they playfully proposed that employees be paid overtime when the sun or moon was in eclipse.  Kramer points out the blatant sexism among counterculture males, who referred to women staff members as “chicks” and expected them to embrace Free Love.

As recorded in his memoirs, during the early 1970s Mike and Mary Certa went into the Music Shoppe at 666 Broadway in Gary and decided to buy several albums of classical music.  Near the register was a sign similar to the one in Flick’s Tavern made famous by Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”  Realizing they had almost no money with them, they were about to put the records back when the clerk said, “A check will be fine.”  When Mary pointed out what the sign stated, the clerk told her, “People who buy Mozart don’t bounce checks.”

Anne Balay posted: “Wild raspberries are ripe in my jungle.  Gary.”  Leslie Kay replied, “There’s a joke involving Rita Mae Brown in there.”  Debora Donato added, “Can I come over for pie?”  Jonathyne Briggs, whose three kids have been staying with him this summer, visited campus with Graham, who I met at Anne’s party (he was shooting tiny marshmallows at folks).  He’s teaching two courses for the price of one, having agreed to the arrangement before his online course reached the magic enrollment number of 15 (the administration is getting away with murder).  Later Jon bragged about making them homemade mac and cheese with fresh cooked bacon bits.  Several women expressed approval but Paul Halsall noted, “Needs more cheese on top.” 

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