Sunday, July 29, 2012

Living my Life, by Emma Goldman

"Living my Life by Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is a work begging for a review by someone knowledgeable in the history of the workers' uprisings of the late 19th and early 20th century and the anarchist and socialist movements in the United States," writes Jo Ellen Hirsch. Hirsch is not such an historian, but she is an avid reader, and she has made her comments available to this blog:

Although I was not familiar with the many persons and events Goldman described, I was struck by her feminist perspective. Here are some of my observations - based on the first volume of this two volume work.

1) EG was Russian - and Russian culture just wasn't as sexually uptight as that of the US (my favorite Russian ruler being Catherine the Great)
2) She had a uterine ailment which she was told would keep her from getting pregnant so she chose not to have it fixed
3) She really was torn as she got a little older between domestic life and her career
4) Having gone abroad to train as a nurse and working as a midwife she had a good grasp of what too many childbirths can do and advocated for birth control (and would have liked to advocate for abortion)
5) She resented the way women were treated in the anarchist movement in the US

Regarding the history of the period, it's easier to understand EG's anarchism knowing how much she was inspired by indignation over the Haymarket affair (7 anarchists were sentenced to death over a bombing that none of them had been responsible for - the 3 that weren't actually killed were subsequently pardoned). Also the government went to rather ridiculous lengths in preventing anarchists from meeting and speaking. She remarked how much more free speech there was under various monarchies.

"Red Emma" was demonized and persecuted, at one point even denied lawful entry back into the United States. It is refreshing to hear her story in her own voice.

Living My Life (in two volumes) was reissued in 2011 by Penguin Classics.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Descent of Religion: Its evolution from nurturing to bullying...and back!

Cultural Motherhood: Nurturing Human Maturation as a Way of Life

A talk presented by Frieda Werden, at Women's Worlds, Ottawa, July 7, 2011, on a panel titled Shifting the Paradigm to a Maternal Gift Economy

Liz Carr-Harris, was a woman I knew slightly. She spent a lot of time homesteading in the wilderness in northern BC, and she spent most of her time up there reading. She had a master’s degree in experimental psychology, but her strongest interests became archaeology and evolutionary science. Around 2002 she started writing a book based on all she had read and absorbed, and that book just came out. It’s called The Descent of Religion: Its evolution from nurturing to bullying...and back!

Unfortunately, Liz died a few months ago and never got to see her book in print. My partner volunteered me to Liz’s partner, as a proofreader for the book, so I had to read every word. I thought it would be a chore, but it was gripping!

She writes a story that started hundreds of millions of years ago with unicellular life - some of which evolved into something more complicated. And the more complicated a life form got, the more problems it had to try to solve. And the more it solved problems, the more complicated the organism got and then the more new problems it needed to solve, in order to survive, and to reproduce and to continue.

One of the first really major complications was the division into two sexes; and the next wrinkle on that was an unequal division of labour between the sexes. By the time some life forms developed gestation in a maternal womb , the females were starting to need some help just to eat and be safe during a vulnerable time, so social grouping became really important.

Well, having so much family around to coordinate meant there had to be some communication between members of the group, and furthermore some ways of keeping behaviours on the useful side. And the more learning these organisms needed to continue to live, the more brain development they needed.

Well, once the brains reached a certain size, it became impossible for a female to give birth to a fully-developed organism; and thus, infancy and childhood started to be a solution, and to also cause their own problems.

I won’t spoil the story by telling you how patriarchy came to be invented and take over the gifts from highly developed matrifocal and child-oriented societies. But I will tell you that Liz-Carr-Harris was convinced, based on humans’ whole evolutionary experience, that patriarchy is an aberration that’s against our nature, and so it really cannot last. I found that very refreshing!

But, back to the problem of the increasingly slow maturation of the life form that we now call homo sapiens - or, the new preferred term, homo donans. [smile] We don’t just pop out of the womb like kittens, ready in a few months to begin assuming adult roles. We have really big brains that require a lot of software development - and I mean, really soft - maybe we should call it “squishy ware.”

What do we do with all that squishy ware? We learn. And as we learn, we create structures and understandings, we lay down pathways for future activities and future thoughts. As the great playwright Carolyn Gage says in one of her Lesbian Tent Revival sermons, when our human synapses get activated, then “What fires together, wires together.” We have experiences, both physical and virtual, and we learn.

Anyone who has ever spent time with an infant learns pretty quickly that learning is the most powerful human drive.

There’s a fabulous short novel by the American author Tillie Olsen, it’s called Yonnondio: From the Thirties. It’s a record of life under crushing poverty - but on the last page, the baby stands up at the table and triumphantly demonstrates its learning: “I can do!”

This isn’t memorized learning. It’s learning about how to interact with the environment, how to use oneself, how to understand action and reaction, and how to make things happen. There are so many places you can go with a will to learn like that.

My mother is a music teacher. She is 85 years old, and still teaching music, because she loves the process of teaching people how to use themselves - their voices, their breath, their fingers, their energy and their minds - in a process that both allows them to be expressive and embeds them in a culture of cooperation, precision, persistence, listening, pleasure-giving, and respect. She doesn’t think it’s any less rewarding to teach an elderly woman with Parkinson’s how to sing without quavering than to teach musical theatre techniques to a budding young star. What she loves most is not their perfection, but their growth. It makes her very happy to see the successful experience of music carry over into other parts of their lives.

I visited my mother for a long time at the end of May. She is newly widowed, but she does have many friendships and many projects in the community, mostly around music. She still marvels that she never succeeded in interesting me in studying music; but what I did learn from her is the recognition, and some of the skill, of doing cultural mothering.

Cultural Mothering is done in all kinds of settings. I get to do it at the campus and community radio station where I show people how to use radio to explore their communities and the world, and how to deal lovingly with others and share their enthusiasms with others. My partner and other women do it as frontline workers at the rape relief and women’s shelter. They listen intelligently and compassionately; they offer knowledge about options and often material help; sometimes they say, “All right; but let this be the worst day of your life; I know you will find the strength in yourself not to be crushed by this, and to move on.”

Often cultural mothering is something done just in passing. You throw a toonie in a busker’s violin case and you make the OK sign with your fingers and smile. You share valuable informative links with your friends on Facebook . [pause for laughter]. You strike up a respectful conversation with someone on a bus whom other people are ignoring or looking askance at, and get them to enjoying experiencing themselves again as an interesting and knowledgeable person, while the people around change their idea of what they see.

You do this stuff all the time; you wouldn’t be here at this session if you didn’t, I think.

This is the daily stuff of the gift economy: consciously and unconsciously, we are teaching each other. And, making use of what we’ve been taught - by learning, growing, and maturing. We apply ourselves to the good of our community and environment, through Cultural Motherhood.

Is this enough?

It is possible to teach, or let us say to inculcate, ideas and experiences that are harmful. The pride and joy of a young soldier learning to kill people can be badly misplaced. The pseudo-learning of a lot of mass entertainment will do little or nothing for the survival of community. Bad attitudes of the uncomfortable, selfish and unfulfilled do proliferate and reproduce themselves.

But Cultural Mothering is offering genuine gifts. As Genevieve Vaughan says, it’s only a gift if the receiver can use it. When you get a gift that you can receive with your body, your spirit, and your way of life, that is a gift that will keep on giving. Cultural Mothering is constructive love. It’s in our DNA. It’s what we evolved for. It’s the basis of our survival and our joy. What we’re up against is not as strong as that!

This book is available only through or

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

"Women Were In It From the Beginning"
Guest review by Jo Freeman (full review with additional links at

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC
by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young and Dorothy M. Zellner,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 616 pp.

Of all the Sixties civil rights organizations, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee was the one which most inspired young people all over the country. SNCC – pronounced snick – grew out of the sit-ins that started in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, and rapidly spread throughout the South to protest race discrimination.

Women were in it from the beginning. Ella Baker, an experienced activist in her fifties, had had a heavy taste of male chauvinism in her three years with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When she invited the student protestors to come together at her alma mater, Shaw University, in April, to co-ordinate their actions, she did not want them to follow the same path.

During the next few years SNCC expanded from protesting segregation to organizing communities. Staff went farm to farm and door to door persuading some of the most oppressed people in the U.S. that the time had come to throw off their shackles. For this they were beaten, jailed, and sometimes killed. The risks they took created a camaraderie which has remained to this day.

In this book 52 women who worked in SNCC in the 1960s tell their stories. They come from many walks of life: black and white, North and South, farm and city. They organized in the field and worked in the office. They demonstrated in the streets and went to jail. Some came and went, some stayed for years. Their stories flesh out a civil rights history which has emphasized the heroics of men.

Those who contributed to this book chose what to write about. The editors organized their recollections into ten sections, each with a preface. Geography and chronology roughly structure the book, but only roughly.

While the common theme is that all the authors are women, this is not a book about women. We don’t learn much about women as a group and only a little about them compared to men – not even the ratio of males to females, or the gender dimensions of work. There is no discussion of "the role of women in SNCC" or any attempt at feminist analysis. It is, as the subtitle says, accounts by women in SNCC.
Nonetheless, there are enough paragraphs on women to fill about six of the 616 pages.

Women were a major presence in the local communities in which SNCC worked. One of them, Victoria Gray Adams of Hattiesburg,* Mississippi, wrote that "Women were out front as a survival tactic. Men could not function in high-visibility, high-profile roles where we come from, because they would be plucked off.... The white folks didn’t see the women as that much of a threat.... They didn’t know the power of women, especially black women."

Annie Pearl Avery of Birmingham,** Alabama, writes: "In the South, black women were more able to exercise their rightful privileges than black men. On SNCC projects there was sexism toward women, because this was a way of life for all women. Sometimes I felt limited because we weren’t allowed to drive the cars.... The male chauvinism was there, but I don’t think it was intentional. It wasn’t as dominant in SNCC as it was in SCLC, which Miss Baker told us about."
Historians see SNCC as a seedbed of the women’s liberation movement, but the women in this book remember SNCC as a nurturing family which taught them skills and gave them a breadth of experience that they had not found elsewhere. "[W]orking with SNCC was an empowering and egalitarian experience." No one has memories of being demeaned and only a few of being restricted in any way because of their sex. One wishes they could compare their experiences to those of SNCC men to see if there was any difference.

For example, Dottie Zellner writes that when she first met Jim Forman, executive director of SNCC, he asked her "Can you type?" Not in this book is the question Forman first asked of Julian Bond, which was "What can you do?" (I heard Bond tell that story at Forman’s memorial service). At the time, the different assumptions about male and female capabilities captured in these different questions was so embedded in the culture that no one questioned them, and, years later, apparently they still don’t. Instead Dottie recounts that Forman’s "greatest gift was the ability to immediately match each person’s skills to the organization’s needs."

Forman put Bond in charge of SNCC communications. After Dottie (not yet married to Zellner) earned her stripes as a typist, Forman realized that she could also write and let her assist Bond. Indeed Forman assigned several women to the communications office, with the result that this book has excellent descriptions of how SNCC got the word out to the press about what the movement was doing.

The belief that the women’s liberation movement was rooted in SNCC dates from a paper on "Women in the movement" presented at a SNCC conference in the fall of 1964. One of 30 to 40 papers submitted for discussion, it was authored anonymously. Two of the authors – Mary King and Casey Hayden – later became known when they published a somewhat different version. Two more – Elaine DeLott Baker and Emmie Schrader Adams – acknowledge their authorship in this book. According to the editors, the women who submitted this paper were all white, though we don’t know how many there were.

The paper began with a list of "gender inequalities ... all concerning black women," derived from observation and informal discussions among women after several "demonstrated in the office, protesting the expectation that women would always perform certain secretarial tasks." Hayden and Adams insist that the paper really wasn’t about women in SNCC but about the larger culture. "The openness of SNCC, ... the invitation to critique the organization ... provided the arena."

The abundance of first-person stories make this a very valuable book from which future historians of the civil rights movement will learn much. But someone still needs to explain what was it about SNCC that fostered a feminist perspective.
* The current Mayor of Hattiesburg is Johnny Dupree, an African-American who was also the Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Mississippi in 2011. He received 39 percent of the vote. A prior poll showed that there was a 3 percent gender gap, with women favoring Dupree. Blacks favored Dupree by a ratio of four to one.
** Birmingham has only had black mayors since 1979. All were male except for Carole
Smitherman who was Acting Mayor for two months in 2009.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields (Random House first Canadian edition, 1997, 339 pp.)

Carol Shields (1935-2003) is a prominent member of the canon of Canadian writers. Although she is originally from the US and once won a Pulitzer prize (for The Stone Diaries), I had never heard of her until I moved to Canada. After finding out about her, I happened to read something of hers that I didn't care for, and so a second book of hers, The Box Garden, languished on my dresser unread for several years until I finally got around to giving it a try. I thought it was fairly original and nicely written, so I looked for something else by Shields in the public library, and the only thing they had on the shelf that day was Larry's Party.

A good book is always better, I'd say, if you expect nothing much of it in advance, so I don't want to overpraise it. Not much that is exciting happens, really, in Larry's Party. It covers twenty years of a man's life, from his twenties to his forties, 1977 to 1997; and during that time Larry learns a pretty interesting profession, marries twice, has one child, gets sick and recovers, lives in two countries, and slowly goes through a process of maturing.

What makes the book especially exciting to me, really, is its apparently unique structure. It's not chronological internally, and yet its overall motion is a chronology. At one point, Larry has a body scan for medical reasons, and the way the scan slices the body into segments seems to be related to the way Shields slices Larry into different views that can be put together to make a whole picture of the man.

Each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of Larry, and similar events are repeated in different chapters, through the lens of this different focus. The fifteen chapters include Larry's Love, 1978; Larry's folks, 1980; Larry's Work, 1981; Larry's Words, 1983; Larry's Penis, 1986; Larry's Search for the Wonderful and Good, 1992; Larry's Threads, 1993-4; Larry's Living Tissues, 1996.... By the end of the book, we know Larry quite intimately, as a person, similarly complex to ourselves.

There's a story about Shaw, that he was asked how he wrote such interesting women characters. He is said to have replied: "I imagine that a woman is a person like myself, and that is how the trick is done." In Larry's Party, Shields has reversed that gaze. In the last scene, the women in Larry's life have quite a discussion about gender and the role of men, which at this point we can consider from inside the persona of a pretty decent man, who is able to hear it without discomfort.

In my experience it is fairly rare for a novel to have an original structure that is both very evident and very functional. The great exemplar that comes to mind is Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Larry's Party is nothing so monumental, but it stands out as being constructed with mastery of the craft. The research Shields did into garden mazes is also very gratifying.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ms. Magazine Library!/media/set/?set=a.10150312289568540.360163.15914543539&type=1

Ms. Magazine is re-organizing its library. The pictures show quite a few covers of books a lot of us must have read.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Cow by Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex 2011), 166 pages, trade paperback

Susan sent me a copy of Cow and I find it fascinating but difficult to explain. There are all these different cows with different names of goddesses and mythical and historical figures, references I vaguely recognize in many cases, but they also have viewpoints and voices that are credible as those of cows in some ways, and as tale-tellers in others. There are a few marginal notes, which are great, but if there were as many marginal notes as I really needed, they would be longer than the poems. That said, the stories and scenes in the poems seemed to just whisk me along through the book even though I didn't know how I got there exactly or where we were going. It has an airy quality, like being out in a meadow or riding on a magic carpet or something. I recommend the trip.

Here's a review Susan linked to from her FaceBook page, written by someone who has gotten a bit more handle on the structure than I:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Letters from Egypt

This is a guest review of Letters from Egypt by Lucy Duff Gordon. This book has gone through many editions since it was first printed in 1865. The most recent edition is a paperback released by Virago Press in 2007. Virago is a publisher specifically for books written by women. There is also an online version for e-readers. Here, by permission from the blog Isis Unveiled, is Leona Graham's review. - FW

Isis Unveiled: Letters from Egypt, The Freedom March & The Shared Pain of Revolution

by Leona Graham on 28 February, 2011 (in Anthropocene Diary)

Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt (1st edition, 1865) reveal a woman in love with her adopted country, an Egypt that has changed in many ways since the 1860′s when she was writing to her husband Alick (Sir Alexander Duff Gordon) and her mother, Sarah Austin. In many others, it is the same, ancient land where injustice has reigned for centuries. The impact of Lucie’s letters, even after 146 years, is still profound. The first batch were reprinted three times in the first year of their publication (1865). Two more editions were published in 1875 and 1902, and a centenary edition in 1969. My (appropriately) well-worn ‘Virago Travellers’ copy is a 1986 reprint of the 1983 publication. The Letters‘ long-lasting, continuing popularity is justified, for despite my initial skepticism (having been put off by Frank’s biography and a fictional account of Lucie’s English lady’s maid Sally, Mistress of Nothing) because of her ‘upper class point of view’, I quite soon put aside my judgments of Lucie’s class and privilege as I drank in her absolute love of Egypt and its suffering people. The Egypt of Tuesday, November 11, 1862 (the date of the first letter in the 1983 edition) is one under the Pashas’ malign power. Egypt was a semi-autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. The first ‘modern’ viceroy of Egypt was Muhammad Ali, followed by Said and then, Ali’s nephew Ismail (from 1863). British rule was yet to come; in fact, Lucie avers that many Egyptians (of several classes) were asking for British intervention, to help them out of their desperate plight.

Lucie’s picture of the brutal misery of the people, over taxed and forced into labor (the corvee--building the Suez Canal and other projects at the whim of the Pasha) is painful, even now, or especially now, in light of recent events and the peoples’ suffering under the Mubarak dictatorship. Then the French were hated as they were the financiers and builders of the canal. In her ‘new’ 1983 Introduction to the Letters, (the original introduction that of the famous English doyen of letters and family friend, George Meredith), Sarah Searight refers to the ‘unveiling of modern Egypt’ (to ‘the west’) as stemming from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798; the accompanying French artist Dominique Vivant Denon provided extraordinary images; access to Egypt was largely unavailable till then due to the ‘prevailing anarchy’ of the Ottoman Empire.

I leave you to discover the fascinating details of Lucie’s journeys up and down the Nile, her stays in Luxor where she endeared the people to her by becoming their healer, her trials and tribulations, and her special devotion to her servant, Omar, the paramour of Sally (by whom she became pregnant), whose dismissal and disappearance is not remarked on; one supposes the daughter (Janet Ross) edited out any (?) references to the ‘scandal’.

Lucie’s Egyptian adventures all came about because she was forced to travel abroad to a warm country (in truth, a very hot one) to relieve the symptoms of TB, made worse by wet and cold British weather. It now seems an accident of sweet fate that she found herself and gained literary fame through her love of Egypt and its people. In today’s Egypt, she would may have had to evacuate, like my resident pal finally had to–but today she returns on the first flight back to Luxor, to the land she too has fallen in love with, that she has adopted and it, her. During the time of her brief exile we have seen events unfold, the powerful virus of revolution spread–The Freedom March across North Africa and into the Gulf states–and beyond, strangely reflected by the battle in Wisconsin USA to hold onto western democratic rights (“Our turn will come”, my husband says, ominously), to gather as a body to demand workers’ rights over capitalistic chicanery by big, brutal moneyed forces. We call these gatherings ‘unions’. The Misguided Right, funded by predatory corporations and bad governments, has attempted to turn the word ‘union’ into a bad word.

Words are such powerful tools; we have to constantly be on our guard to protect them, and those who dare to speak them. Free speech has been won at great cost by our ancestors; it is our duty to protect what they lived and in many cases, died for.

Each day, as The Freedom March has proceeded across North Africa and our TV and computer screens, I have been viscerally impacted. When they were battling for their rights in Tahrir Square in Cairo, I felt as if I were there with them, as a woman, beside the other women. In Libya, where I have never visited, it was at first harder to envision myself (unlike Tunisia and Egypt where I have spent time) and thus the despair, rage and pain I felt seemed at first not to be able to find a place to concretely ‘link to’. And then suddenly it happened: I was inside the houses with the women (there have been few images of women seen outside in the crowds, but some have been); I was one of them too, as they bravely opened their doors to let in and look after wounded strangers, the ‘pro-democracy protesters’, boys and men who could be their fathers, brothers, sons. And sometimes I went out with them, carefully. Many householders had (according to some reports) been gathering supplies, as they foresaw some of what was to come with the Egyptian uprising and revolution. They were somewhat prepared. Their sacrifice, both men and women, adults and children, is great. The fear is palpable; the determination even greater. They speak of a revolution that is about honour, the honour of the individual’s role in the state, of remaking the state with the blood and bodies and minds of the protesters. As their mangled bodies pile up in hospitals and morgues, are buried in hasty graves, some dug by Gaddafi forces to hide massacres, our common sense of Power to the People takes on a new note of urgency. And finally in the last few days and hours, ‘the international community’ through the United Nations has started to make its voice heard–our unified planetary human voice in fact as represented by the UN, an institution that many retrograde people (especially in the USA) have been trying to diminish and even destroy. Individual states have also raised their voices and imposed sanctions that hopefully will curtail the remains of the Gaddafi regime (and not the Libyan people at large). We can only hope that these diehards finally will see the writing on the wall and disperse, leaving Gaddafi and his ever declining circle of thugs isolated and ultimately available for the international justice for war crimes. That China and Russia (and Iran, as it was unanimous) also agreed to the UN statement is hypocritical but rather useful for future finger-pointing when their own peoples demand change.

The shared pain so many of us feel with regard to the uprisings and revolutions for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt (still very much ‘a work in process’ as we’ve seen in the last few days) and now Libya, as well as Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and most recently Oman, is salutary. For many of us in the ‘democratic west’, our heroic ancestors won the rights of democracy long ago; we are watching the future heroic ancestors for those in North Africa and the Gulf States (and beyond). We don’t honour our ancestors sufficiently for the deeds of bringing us freedom from despotic rulers and regimes. By honouring the present democracy freedom fighters (and they all avow that aim for a civil society, one with democratic institutions) we help to rectify our remissness as it it brings the shock of recognition: it brings the world closer, and in particular it brings those of differing cultures and religions, especially Christians and Muslims, closer. Those on the far right (and far left although the latter doesn’t really exist any more in the west) who try to undermine democratic human rights, who for the sake of personal and corporate greed try to wrest those rights from ‘we the people’ (selling off public utilities and woodlands to the highest bidder for example) or want to have the advantage of crimepetitive capitalism (as my cousin Gary calls it) need to think again, look back in respect and renew their commitment to what makes life ‘in the west’ free–relatively speaking that is. There’s a level at which such a selfish citizen or entity is a little Ben Ali, Mubarak or Gaddafi: that member ‘of the public’ who wants the advantages that democratic taxation gives without paying for them or lazy types who want it all without putting in honest labour to deserve them; they end up being the same crazy selfish entity. The ‘democratic body politic’ will survive despite a certain number of aberrants, but when the boat tips with too many on board, we could drown in the open seas of crass materialism, gross, untrammeled uncontrolled capitalism and selfishness, so we’d best rethink nasty prejudices, all sides, as we watch the Freedom March across North Africa.

May the March proceed as the Ides of March approach….

Caesar, then Anthony after him will fall, when and who and what will replace them? Another tyrant like Augustus? Or a new body politic informed with wisdom born of the pain of revolution?