Sabtu, 06 Maret 2021

Eleanor Roosevelt: The Road to Equality

 

 #historicalfiction

By Dhritiman Banerjee and Liza Hadiz

 


 

My grandmother, Helena Hall was an American journalist in the 1960s, at a time when they were only a few women journalists. She had a career that spanned almost twenty years until she retired only to become a biographer. One of the highlights of her career as a journalist was when she interviewed former First Lady and political activist, Eleanor Roosevelt—something that the family is very proud of.

When my mother died she left me, her only child and daughter, a suitcase which was passed on to her by her mom, Helena. When my mother was still alive, I never bothered to ask what was in that old-faded antique looking suitcase that had been in her closet for as long as I can remember. Finally, two months after my mom’s funeral, I decided to uncover the mystery. When I opened the brown, aging leather suitcase, all it had inside were written papers, piles of them, some typed, some handwritten. All were difficult to read because of the fading ink and coloring of the paper. However, a two-page letter caught my attention. It began with the words Dear Helena and ended on the second page, where at the bottom it was signed Eleanor Roosevelt. My god… I couldn’t believe what I saw! My lips shivered as I read the words:

 

New York, April 18th, 1962


Dear Helena,

I was very much honored when President Kennedy asked me to chair the President’s new Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). Today, I had the great opportunity to interview the president. My first question was about his objective in setting up the commission. The president had a clear answer to this question. He said the government wants to ensure that the available talent of trained women in the country is being used effectively. It is the government’s recognition of the special problems women have as mother and housewife, and at the same time their desires to participate usefully in public and private life. In fact, the president feels that these issues are a matter of great national concern.

 

Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt interviews President John F. Kennedy (openvault.wgbh.org)

 

However, in the interview I also reminded him of the fact that the country lacked women in policymaking positions and that his administration should make special efforts to change this situation. In response, President Kennedy tried to assure me that he understands that it is the conscious responsibility of the government to make this change happen.

I personally think it is now time for women to assert their identity in the public sphere and to gain equality in policymaking. I hope that the wise people in Congress would also go forward on the ideal of women’s equality and would draft a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights for women at par with men.

On employment, I asked the president whether he has any objections to helping women to be employed, as people say that we should have more women taken out because there are unemployed men. He does not seem to be worried that more jobs for women mean that men will have to compete with women. Instead he said “I think the way to do it is not to attempt to deprive women of the chance to work and contribute, but to try to expand the opportunity generally in the economy.”

For this purpose, the president requested the PCSW to analyze employment policies affecting women, such as labor laws, the availability and quality of legal representation for women, and the availability and quality of education and counseling for working women, which findings will be presented in a report to the president.

 

 

With her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Associated Press)

What a long journey it has been for women to gain equality in the economy and politics. It would take 72 years after the Seneca Falls meeting where Elizabeth Cady Stanton read from the Declaration of Sentiments that “all men and women are created equal”, echoing the Declaration of Independence, until the time women of the US gained the right to vote in 1920.

Even after the vote, women stood outside the door of all important meetings and waited. I can still remember being told to wait outside while the men deliberated on recommendations for all women's organizations in the country. The Democratic National Committee had asked me to chair its platform committee on women's issues in 1924 and it was then that I saw for the first time where women stood when it came to a national convention. I shortly discovered that they were of little importance.

That is why I believe that although it is necessary for us to clamor for the rights of women, women must also learn to play the games of politics like men. I also believe that the best way for women to gain their rights would be to fight for them at the front of the table rather than settle for a seat at the back corner.

I have realized that for long, women have been treated as the second sex whereby they have been confined to their homes and left to care for their family and do household chores rather than work in the public arena like men. All the nation-states of the west and all ideals of western liberalism, democracy and religion have been built based upon this discrimination. I believe that it is now time for women to stand up for their rights and be no longer counted as the second sex. Only women can solve this apparent dichotomy in western democracy which on the one hand claims for the fundamental rights of their citizens including political, social and economic rights while reserves those same rights for men on the other. This inherent dichotomy has been the hallmark of western government for centuries and has also hampered the reproductive rights of women as the right to abortion has been denied to women through the ideals of religion. 

 

A young Eleanor

 

Western states also function based on the distinction between public and private because of which the state fails to interfere in the private realm of the family. This distinction adversely impacts women as issues like domestic violence fail to come under the purview of the law.

Despite the barriers, an international milestone was finally achieved when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1947, following the founding of the United Nations. Fortunately, I also had the honor to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission and helped write the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. A lot of progress was achieved afterwards with the drafting of important conventions for women’s rights, such as the 1951 Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value and the 1953 Convention on the Political Rights of Women.

Finally women have found a voice in the international arena, a voice which can help address international issues concerning women. I hope that through these UN Conventions, we can help to argue for the cause of women worldwide including women residing in the Third World where the discrimination against them is greater than in the west. However there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that these UN Conventions take proper effect before we can actually rally for the cause of women in the Third World. I also believe that by incorporating women’s rights into the international arena we can actually create a better world that would be free from the ravages of the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, war and the resultant discrimination. I will believe that all human beings will truly be free when women will have equal rights as men.

That is why I welcome the PCSW with so much enthusiasm, finally created 15 years later after the establishment of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I am looking forward to the PCSW’s report on the status of women in the US. I am optimistic that this is the decade that we will move forward and achieve important changes for women. I hope my health permits me to continue to contribute to this very important decade in women’s lives.

Signed, Yours sincerely, Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Eleanor's statue in Riverside Park, N.Y.




 

My mind was so blown away after reading this that I felt I had to know what happened after the interview with Kennedy and the changes achieved.


Epilogue

I learned that sadly, just seven months after her interview with the president, Eleanor Roosevelt passed away in November 7th 1962. Therefore, she never got to read the PSCW report as it would be published in 1963 a year after her death. The findings of the report entitled “American Women" which was presented to the president in 11 October 1963, coinciding with what would have been Eleanor Roosevelt's 79th birthday, demonstrated the extensive discrimination women in the US experienced and presented recommendations and actions to take. However, in line with the dated discourse of gender equality of the era, women’s traditional roles were still considered important, so the PSCW in a way supported women’s double burden of working in and outside the home. Amid this view, the Equal Pay Act was nonetheless successfully passed through the legislature in 1963.

The end of the decade would see the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted in 1967. The next decade would see the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the United Nations in 1979, which took legal effect in 1981. Interestingly, it is a convention that the US would never ratify up to today.

I find that it is also interesting that it would be more than a century and a half after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, almost a century after US women won the right to vote, and more than half a century after the establishment of the PCSW, until Hillary Clinton—who calls Eleanor her heroine—would face the historic day of becoming the first female nominee of a major U.S. political party in 2016. This was of course followed by many more women gaining positions in US government, culminating in Harris’ historic election as the first US female and woman of color vice president.

The changes Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for concerning women’s discrimination in policymaking positions has finally gained momentum decades after her death. I am proud that my grandmother was part of this history. Being a female journalist during a time so unfavorable towards women, like Eleanor Roosevelt, she certainly didn’t settle for a seat at the back corner.

 

Dhritiman Banerjee is a postgraduate student of political science at the department of international relations in Jadavpur University Kolkata his interests include writing fiction, research about politics, drinking alcohol and comic books. His blog is https://literary-political.blogspot.com.

Liza Hadiz lives in Jakarta. Her passion includes writing, feminism, history, and cappuccino. She blogs at https://feministpassion.blogspot.com



Photo sources: Pinterest except where indicated otherwise


Kamis, 31 Desember 2020

REFLECTIONS FROM A PUNK GODDESS, THE BEATNIK AND LEFT BANK LITERARY SCENES

 


 

I’ve been looking back at the posts I’ve written over the years on this blog and I’ve realized that there are quite a few articles on pop culture and literary movements. I mentioned a few female icons—some are my heroes. But then comes a day when I happen to read something they have said or done that doesn’t fit into the grand picture of the hero or icon which I’ve set in my mind, like these things below.

 

(Some) People Have the Power

In my blog article on punk and countercultures, I mentioned American punk goddess and poet Patti Smith. She was one of the first—if not the first— female punk rockers in the beginning of the New York punk scene. I was just a kid then, I first heard her songs from my older brother’s turntable. The music and lyrics blew my mind. It was poetic, inspiring, passionate–it was LOUD. I still remember the picture of an androgynous looking Smith on the cover of her first 1974 LP, Horses. Today, courtesy of Youtube, I still watch the old gigs she played in small clubs and in big stadiums. Anywhere she performed, she had such command on stage. 

 

Patti Smith in Vogue, 2014

 

Around 1988, or perhaps earlier, her husband, Fred Smith (they happened to have the same sir name) who was also a musician, had the idea of writing a protest song to sing in marches. Even if you’re not a fan of Smith but into American politics, you would probably know the song People Have the Power. Before this year’s US election, Smith and old band mate Lenny Kaye  busked around New York City singing the song. This song has also been sung by Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam, and Michael Stipe (REM). It has become that rock anthem about making change; the protest song it was meant to be.

In an interview Smith described how her husband pitched the idea of the song to her one day in the kitchen.  She said,

“I was peeling potatoes, and I remember I was in a bad mood because I had, you know, I was making dinner and washing the clothes and peeling potatoes. And in the middle of it, Fred came in and said, ‘Tricia, people have the power, write it.’ And I was standing there with a potato peeler thinking I’d like to have the power to make him peel these potatoes, that’s what I’d like… but I kept him.” 

 

 

Horses album cover,1974

 

I didn’t really expect to hear something like that from Patti Smith, I always picture a rebel like her in equal terms in her relationships. But I really appreciate Smith’s honesty.

Smith was strongly influenced by the Beat movement. Smith hanged out and read poetry with Beat founders William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. This takes me to another recurring theme on my blog, the Beats and countercultures

Watch People Have the Power Video

 

A Half-hearted Revolution

The influence of the Beat (dubbed the Beatniks by the media) literary movement would affect the next generations to come. However, as revolutionary as the movement may have been when it began in the late 40s, with its openness about homosexuality, it was a half-hearted revolution.

Looking back at the days, writer Joanne Kyger said,

"There was the beat chick ... they stayed in the kitchen all the time, they wore long skirts, they did everything for the boys that they possibly could, and went to bed with them very easily..."

 

 

Joanne Kyger (1934-2017)

 

Hettie Jones referred to the Beat generation, which leading figures were Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, as “Boyland.” Like Jones who was married to writer LeRoi Jones, Beat women who were the partner of their male peer supported their Beat partner’s career. However, they were treated as sidekicks. Women were object of desire and there for the convenience of the men.

So Beat women were visible in the Beat movement but their voices remained at the periphery. Despite this fact, there were prominent Beat women who became writers in their own right, such as Jones and Kyger, others include Diane di Prima, who just passed away this year, and Joyce Johnson.

A famous quote from Jones taken from her book, Love, H is:

"We'd fled the norm for women then, because to live it would have been a kind of death.” 
 

Published 2016

 

But the memoirs and books the Beat women had written to reflect on their Beat years show that they struggled to defy the norms of society even inside the movement, which many of the battles they seem to have lost.

Of course, this is not the first time that a postwar movement left women at the margins.

 

Subculture of women writers

"I hate women writers!" - Djuna Barnes

 In another postwar era article, I’ve mentioned that during the Lost Generation period, post-World War I, women writers were largely ignored in the Modernist camp and that their body of work grew into a subculture. US natives Solita Solano, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner, and Thelma Wood are remembered for being part of the Left Bank women writers and artists who lived the free bohemian Parisian lifestyle.

 

Solita Solano and
Djuna Barnes, 1922

 

Like Beat women’s work, the work of the women of the Left Bank were often put into a collection and category. They were “women writers” or “lesbian writers” and not “writers” on par with male writers. On the other hand, rather than perceiving this as discrimination, we can understand that this category of a separate Left Bank women writers (or Beat women writers) is made because it is a subgenre of its own, due to the different perspective that it brings, its style, and its non-universality (not white heterosexual male, though still dominantly white).

However, much to my surprise and I think to many others too, Djuna Barnes was not at all happy with these categories of women writers or lesbian writers and wanted disassociate her work from both labels. In fact, she once said, "I hate women writers!" On her relationship with Wood and her classic, Nightwood (1936), she had said “I’m not a lesbian, I just loved Thelma.” These quotes I’m sure have disappointed quite a few of her fans.

 

Djuna Barnes (1892–1982)

 

In many cases, the author’s private life is what the public remembers them for rather than their work. So, in part, I can understand Barnes for not wanting her work to be mainly seen in relation to her personal life.

 

A Britpop Romance

I’m going to end this post by referring to my latest post, which is on Britpop, a brief UK pop culture movement in the 90s heavily criticized for being predominantly male. There I’ve discussed a couple of the female figures of the Britpop scene, one of them being Justine Frischmann of Elastica. This brings another example of how the drama of an artist’s personal life tends to outweigh their work and that equality in relationships is often compromised. 

 

Justine Frischmann (in 1990s)
 

 

As Britpop icons Brett Anderson (Suede) and Damon Albarn (Blur) were both Frischmann’s ex-lovers, her music is often associated with these high-profile men. But because that it all happened in the 90s, I was a bit surprised when she spoke about the difficulties in her relationship with Albarn which led to their break up, one being Elastica’s success in the US compared to Blur's. She admitted that,

“It’s funny because we both thought we were too evolved for classic gender roles, but looking back he thought his band more important because he was the guy. And on some level I did, too.

In these literary movements and countercultures that eventually turned pop culture, we see that female icons struggle in their personal relationships because gender equality takes a back seat in these so-called progressive movements. 

Watch Elastica's video 


Here’s to a Better Year

Deep-rooted gender inequality manifests itself into gender violence. Not surprisingly that during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the rate of violence against women rose around the world. Social and cultural movements play a role in advancing gender norms, but the changes are always too slow and superficial. We need to move things faster in 2021!

Here’s to a better year—cheers!

 

Pictures: Pinterest

Sources

Jacket Magazine (2000) Particularizing people's lives (Joanne Kyger in conversation with Linda Russo). Available at http://jacketmagazine.com/11/kyger-iv-by-russo.html [Accessed 28 December 2020].

Taylor, Julie (2017) ‘Djuna Barnes: the ‘lesbian’ writer who rejected lesbianism.’ Available at https://theconversation.com/djuna-barnes-the-lesbian-writer-who-rejected-lesbianism-78310 [Accessed 28 December 2020].

Trendell, Andrew (2017) ‘Elastica’s Justine Frischmann opens up about her split from Damon Albarn.’ NME. Available at https://www.nme.com/news/music/elasticas-justine-frischmann-opens-split-damon-albarn-2019331 [Accessed 28 December 2020].

Wills, David S. (2016) ‘Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones.’ Beatdom. Available at https://www.beatdom.com/love-h-letters-helene-dorn-hettie-jones/ [Accessed 28 December 2020].

WordsInTheBucket (2017) ‘People have the power — Patti Smith’

Medium. Available at https://medium.com/@wordsinthebucket.com/people-have-the-power-patti-smith-140a8bccb713 [Accessed 29 December 2020].