Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Yesterday was International Women's Day, and this got me thinking about a number of things.
      1. The discussion about gender bias in publishing and the (under)representation of women in the literary arts. You can read about that all over the place, including at the wonderful annual Tournament of Books, which (by coincidence) began yesterday (on International Women's Day).
     2. Then I got an invite from the lovely people at the Books for Walls Project, asking me (and others) to celebrate International Women's Day with them, which I scooted over and did.
     3. Putting two and two together (or would that be two and three or some other number), I got to thinking about women writers. Two in particular came to mind--both gone now.
     First, Grace Paley.
Paley was a poet, essayist, and short story writer as well as a peace activist. I heard her speak once (on a panel in Chicago, called "The Writer in the World"), and it was a pleasure being in the same room with her. Her stories made the "small" moments of women's lives (in the kitchens and nurseries and bedrooms; on the playgrounds with children: in the nursing homes and hospitals beside the aging parents) the subject of literature, made them heroic.
Second, Tillie Olsen.
Olsen, also a political activist, was best known for the stories in her book Tell Me a Riddle. One story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is simply stunning, and I recommend that you read it right now. Here is an excerpt.

She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily's father, who "could no longer endure" (he wrote in his goodbye note) "sharing want with us.
I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.
One reason, some suggest, for the gender bias in literature is that women's writing doesn't have the muscle, or engage the big subjects, that men's literature does. Oh well.

4 comments: said...

My turn to be optimistic.

I believe gender bias is not as prevalent as it was. In the old days (or "in the day", as is the current expression) most women were content being a "housewife". Now women are recognized and respected because we have demanded recognition and respect and we have proven we can handle it as well as men.

All anyone can do is live with dignity and compassion and hope gender will continue to matter less.

Susan Messer said...

Optimism has a role to play in life. I guess we all (even me) accede to it at some points.

Jim Poznak said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about these profound woman, and the gorgeous photos. The excerpt you quoted is, to paraphrase Dave Eggers, a man, staggering and heartbreaking.

Susan Messer said...

Thank, luv. I knew you'd understand.