I promised on Monday that today would be WOMANLY WEDNESDAY. I am a man of my word.
(1) STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS: Sophia Loren
“True happiness is impossible without solitude…. I need solitude in my life as I need food and drink and the laughter of little children. Extravagant though it may sound, solitude is the filter of my soul. It nourishes me, and rejuvenates me. Left alone, I discovered that I keep myself good company.”
“Mistakes are the price of an interesting life.”
“If you haven’t cried, your eyes can’t be beautiful.”
“A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view.”
“I have my own peculiar yardstick for measuring a man: Does he have the courage to cry in a moment of grief? Does he have the compassion not to hunt an animal? In his relationship with a woman, is he gentle? Real manliness is nurtured in kindness and gentleness, which I associate with intelligence, comprehension, tolerance, justice, education, and high morality. If only men realized how easy it is to open a woman’s heart with kindness, and how many women close their hearts to the assaults of the Don Juans.”
“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
(2) BEFORE GOOGLE: Jayne Mansfield and her daughter Mariska Hargitay
Mariska talking about Jayne, who died in a car crash on a highway between Biloxi, Mississippi, and New Orleans. Mariska and two of her siblings were in the car with her mother, but miraculously the children survived but her mother and two other adults in the car were killed. “My mother was this amazing, beautiful, glamorous sex symbol — but people didn’t know that she played the violin and had a 160 IQ and had five kids and loved dogs. She was just so ahead of her time. She was an inspiration. She had this appetite for life. And I think I share that with her. She’s with me still … The way I’ve lived with loss is to lean into it. As the saying goes, the only way out is through. In my life, certainly I’ve tried to avoid pain, loss, feeling things. But I’ve learned instead to really lean into it, because sooner or later, you have to pay the piper. I’m not saying it’s easy, and it certainly hasn’t been for me. There’s been a lot of darkness. But on the other side, things can be so bright.”
(3) SOME JOY: Toni Morrison
An excerpt from Rosemarie Robotham’s remembrance of Morrison in Essence magazine:
The first time I saw Toni Morrison, she was sitting on the carpet of her office at Random House, wearing green garden shorts and a huge straw hat, piles of manuscripts on the floor around her. She held a single page in her hands, and she was laughing. She’d called out to me, a rising college junior who’d scored a summer internship working with the editor at Knopf. She was already an author, acclaimed for her tender yet wrenching classics, Sula, The Bluest Eye, and her 1977 breakthrough novel, Song of Solomon,the epic tale of a Black man.
“Compose a letter for me,” she said, as I walked into her spacious, light-filled office, notebook and pen at the ready. “I’d like you to let this young woman know that I’d be happy to discuss editing her book.” I stood there for a beat longer, in case she wanted to dictate the letter. She waved one hand dismissively, her eyes dancing with that fire that lived in them. “You make up the words,” she said. “I assume you’re here because you want to write, so write.”
That day, Toni Morrison became the godmother of my writing life, the woman who told me, “So write.” It was so simple, yet forever after, when the way forward in a piece of writing seemed murky, I heard her words and pressed forward, trusting the muse to find me.
A year later, she was chosen as the commencement speaker at my graduation from Barnard, an all women’s college. We sat rapt as she exhorted our class to never leave each other behind “on the killing floor of professional women’s worlds.” She used Cinderella’s stepsisters as her cautionary tale, expressing the sorrow she felt at this story of two women abusing another woman. “You are moving in the direction of freedom,” she told the young women seated before her, “and the function of freedom is to free somebody else.”
Here is that Barnard commencement address by Morrison from 1979:
Let me begin by taking you back a little. Back before the days at Barnard. Indeed to the days before secondary school and even elementary school. To nursery school, probably, to a once-upon-a-time time you first heard, or read, or, I suspect, even saw Cinderella. Because it is Cinderella that I want to talk about; because it is Cinderella who causes me this feeling of urgency.
Like most fairy tales it is peculiar, but, unlike most of them, it may also be dangerous. Not the “virtue will triumph” part of it (it may very well be that virtue does triumph, but I am not all sure that that is what virtue is for). Not even the nature of the triumph: handsome devoted prince plus castle in perpetuity.
What is unsettling about it is that the story is essentially the story of a household, a world, if you please, of women. Of women gathered to abuse another woman. There is, of course, a vague rather absent father and a nick-of-time prince with a foot fetish. But neither has much personality. The real fireworks don’t concern the men, and do not take place among or between them. The surrogate “mothers” (god- and step-) contribute to Cinderella’s grief and to her release and happiness.
But it is her stepsisters who interest me. How crippling it must have been for those young girls to grow up with a mother, to watch and imitate that mother in the enslaving of another girl. How brutalized the sensibilities must be when you are encouraged, instructed, expected to live off the selfless labor of another woman. How poisonous to be forever in the company of a non-nurturing mother — a mother without milk.
I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women.
I am curious about their fortunes after the story ends. For contrary to recent adaptions, the stepsisters were not ugly, clumsy, stupid girls with outsized feet. The Grimm collection describes them as “beautiful and fair in appearance.” When we are introduced to them, they are beautiful, elegant women of status and clearly women of power. And in the violence of the power they exert, there is no one, not anyone, to stay their hand. All one can hope for is a magical escape from them. Hoping for a way to defuse their misdirected violence is in vain. Having watched and participated in the dominion of another woman, will they be any less cruel when it comes their turn to enslave other children, or even when they are required to take care of their own mother?
It is not a wholly medieval circumstance. It is quite a contemporary one if you think about it. It is not so uncommon to see feminine power used in what has been described as a “masculine” manner. I am speaking now to a group of women who will be (if not already) in a position to do the very same thing. Whatever your background, rich or poor; whatever the history of education in your family, five generations or one, you have taken advantage of what has been available to you at Barnard and you will, therefore, have both the economic and social status of the stepsisters; you will have their power.
It is splendid to see women close ranks and rally behind another woman when that woman is abused emotionally, professionally, economically by men or the system or the law of the land. How exhilarating that is. But how much more exhilarating to see women outraged when they witness the oppression of women by other women. You will soon have that opportunity on the killing floor. In offices and laboratories, in boardrooms, classrooms, living rooms, you will see it there on the killing floor that is waiting for you.
Rather than describe for you what you already know: the immense strides women have taken into positions of real power and policymaking, and to deplore the fact that there is still so much more to be done. I want not to ask you, but to tell you, not to participate in the oppression of your sisters.
Mothers who abuse their children are women, and another woman has to be willing to stay her hand. Mothers who set fire to the buses of children are women and other women have to tell them to stay their hands. Women who stop the promotion of other women in careers are women and other women must come to the victims’ aid. Social welfare workers who humiliate their clients may be women and other women colleagues have to deflect their action. Perhaps there is too much privacy, and individuality among us, so that we do not feel what it seems to me was more common a longer time ago: when women felt responsible for other women — when women did what agencies now do.
In any case, I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women, alarmed by a growing absence of decency of the killing floor of professional women’s worlds.
If education is to have value as well as price; if it is to have meaning as well as substance, then it must be about something other than careers and power. The pursuit of a liberal education and the pursuit of the arts and sciences cannot be simply about husbanding beauty, isolating goods, and making sure enrichment is the privilege of a few. The function of a 20th-century education must be to produce humane human beings. To refuse to continue to produce generation after generation of people trained to make expedient decisions rather than humane ones.
You are the women who will take your place in the world where you can decide who shall flourish and who shall wither; you will make distinctions between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor; where you can yourself determine which life is expendable and which is indispensable. Since you will have the power to do it, you may also be persuaded that you have the right to do it. As educated women, the distinction between the two is first-order business.
I am not suggesting there be some distortion of judgment, some lessening of standards or some emotional altercation of the intellect in order to promote ourselves. Not at all, and let me be very clear on that point. What I am suggesting is that we pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition. You are moving in the direction of freedom and the function of freedom is to free somebody else. You are moving toward self-fulfillment and the consequences of that fulfillment should be to discover that there is something just as important as you are and that just as important thing may be your stepsister. We are women and we are human, and as human beings we are also the only ones we know and as far as I can tell, we are, as human beings, the only moral inhabitants of the globe. There aren’t any others.
In your rainbow journey toward the realization of personal goals don’t make choices based only on your security and your safety. Nothing is safe. In the world of work, nothing is safe. In the world of family, nothing is safe. In the world of human emotions, nothing is safe. That is not to say that anything ever was, or that anything worth achieving ever should be.
In pursuing your highest ambitions, don’t let your personal safety diminish the safety of your stepsister. In wielding the power that is deservedly yours, don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters.
And I want to discourage you from choosing anything or making any decision simply because it is safe. Things of value seldom are. It is not safe to have a child. That is an extremely risky enterprise. It is not safe to want to be the best at what you do. It is not safe to challenge the status quo. It is not safe to choose work that has not been done before. Or to do old work in a new way. There will always be someone there to stop you. None of the things of real value are simply safe. That is the mistake the stepsisters made; they wanted to wield their power, fulfill their needs in order to be safe.
In pursuing your highest ambitions, don’t let your personal safety diminish the safety of your stepsister. In wielding the power that is deservedly yours, don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters. Let your might and your power emanate from that place in you that is nurturing and caring. Don’t measure your wealth by the desperation of a poor stepsister; don’t define personal success by the frequency with which you can identify deficiencies in a less fortunate stepsister. Know the difference between what is just and what is mean-spirited; between what is fastidious and what is disdainful; between womanly pride and feminine petulance. It is dangerous, I know, to put love before one’s own ambitions. But let me read a few lines written by someone who has said it much better than I can:
“… The present is a dangerous place to live. There were dreams once, riding past and future alike; we embraced the dream, drunk past any look at the present in the face. There were dreams once and the illusion led to the present. There were dreams once, gold, or red, green, and black but the present is here like me and you. And is articulate. And knows no peace; neither do you nor me, if we are friends enough to have known the dreams.”
Women’s rights is not only an abstraction, a cause; it is also a personal affair. It is not only about “us;” it is also about me and you. Just the two of us. I leave you my love.