Thursday, September 28, 2006

Edith is Still Sorta Alive

Vicky's latest activism has made me break my current yet sort of accidental silence here. For some reason, whenever I move to a new place, it takes me a while to get back to normal contact with people, and that goes for this blog too.

Yesterday, I went to an on-campus lecture given by the director of the Emma Goldman Papers in Berkeley. I don't really know how a person dedicates herself to researching the life of one individual for thirty years, but that's exactly what this woman has done.

I'm going to say right now that mostly, I approve of such historical research and cataloging and so forth. I know that people do this with even more current folk, such as Nikki Craft's incredibly valuable and worthy collection of writings and speeches of Andrea Dworkin. I have such love for Kate Millett that it's fun to imagine doing my own project where I explore all her writings and art, and it really wasn't so long ago that I was an adolescent would-be punk rocker, except for my incredibly geeky habit of stockpiling information about my favorite bands instead of, like, going to their shows.

The big problem though is that, to me, how in hell do these women separate THEIR identity from the identity of their subject? Quite frankly, I don't feel like this Emma Goldman researcher really has. Every question asked about Emma Goldman that focused on things about her that weren't so favorable and therefore harder to understand (such as the fact that she almost totally ignored the rising tide of the Holocaust [only to mention the sad destruction of Jewish ART] although she critiqued Hitler in other matters, and spent the later years of her life focusing on Spain, which you know, no offense to Spain, but hardly the country to give a shit about during 1938-1940), the director tried to spin it in a way that made Emma look good. She was clearly being protective and I think that stance has invaded her research, her biographies, and the world's knowledge of Emma Goldman.

It was interesting though to find out stuff I never knew about Goldman -- such as that her English writings were all very fluffy and wholesome and lovey-dovey compared to her non-English work, where instead of talking about anarchism as "freedom" she talked about killing all the people in power. And the fact that her arrest for helping with the plot of the presidential assassination here in the US might, actually, have had some merit, considering she helped in the assassination of OTHER political figures and, in fact, much of her speeches about education and family and love are in part just coded messages for "Meet me with your guns at this place, and we'll be sending them to Russia."

This director also found a bunch of letters sent from Goldman to her lover/manager that are very revealing and in stark contrast to the free love message she's known for, because basically, she totally fell for this dude and couldn't abide him being with others and didn't like sleeping with other people because this dude is the only person who could make her orgasm. Like, these letters are way personal and hard to read or, in the case of this lecture, even hear because they're just so heartbreaking and feminine -- she talks about how she hates her lectures and her writings and feels like the biggest hypocrite and if anyone ever found these letters, her reputation would be ruined.

It made me think a lot about activism, how women, how we are under extreme pressure to be strong and courageous and confident. It really doesn't seem like much has changed since Goldman's day in that we are allowed to reveal weakness but only so much, and it should be expressed well and well-written, it should be "deep" or whatever. I mean, there's a big difference between elegant language expressing doubt and fear and something like, "Ohhhhh my gooooooddd, like I am so pissed at myself! :*(" Which is what these Goldman letters are like, the latter. It was funny when the director said, "Yeah, she was a bit of a drama queen," but even that I have to address -- does that make you disappointed? Disappointed to know she was so histrionic and female?

It seems the director was actually more disappointed to discover the extent of Emma's violence, the "masculine." It does seem that, in general, people don't talk about the hypermasculine OR hyperfeminine of Goldman but again, that's probably due in large part that nobody really knows about that stuff. But I guess I would encourage you to ask yourself -- what makes you cringe more, the masculine or the feminine, and what does that say about you and about your expectations of powerful women? Are they expected to play the kickass take-no-prisoners role in the "man's" world or be ideal women giving the alternative to the activist/powerful men? Like, how do you see women in power, honestly, what are your thoughts, and how has society helped form your thoughts? I think depending on your perspective, that's the focus you'll take in thinking about women and power and about specific powerful women.


Blogger Vicky Vengeance said...

Edith, I would like to start by saying you are the most brilliant person ever. Because you are. Brilliant.

One thing I think about when reading this entry is, it's interesting that femininity and masculinity becomes such a major them whenever we're thinking about powerful women. It's hard for me to think of a documentary about a woman that does not take that dimension of her personality into consideration. I don't think it's wrong to do so, on the contrary I think it is usually a wise reflection on that woman's actual experience of her own identity, but it's interesting the way that gets left out of the discussion of a lot of powerful men. There isn't usually that same pause where we think about how comfortable with his masculinity a certain famous figure was or how feminine he was for writing his wife a series of love letters. Because to pose that question in the first place is an affront to his masculinity, isn't it? And if he's not masculine, well, what is he?

As far as your actual question goes, I definitely find myself a lot more comfortable cheering powerful women on when they exhibit masculine traits as opposed to feminine ones. I cringe at Frida Kahlo's embarassing adoration for Diego Rivera, then turn around and beam about her own affairs, her moustache, and how severe she could be. And I definitely have a similar reaction with Goldman. WOOOO arms dealing! Boooo admitting doubt or hypocrisy and falling in love!

And I think that reaction does come from internalized sexism and the sense that the feminine is weak, disgusting, to be villified. I want my female heroes to be impenetrable fortresses of rebellion and, unfortunately, it's difficult to conceptualize that as feminine. We have so few models of not just powerful women, but of a feminine brand of power.

What does feminine power look like? The power of the strong mother? The "power" of a porn star? The power of a goddess? I'm not fully satisfied with any of these models. What are our alternatives?

10:29 AM  
Blogger witchy-woo said...

Excellent post Edith and fab comment Vicky. You said stuff that I was going to say so that has to be fab!

The patriarchally suggested ideas of feminine power you listed don't sit well with me either - they're way too narrow and kind of reactive. I wonder if our alternative to those could simply be the power of women as humans?

I realise that'd take a huge ideological jump but I guess, as feminists, that's part of what we're working towards.

You've got me thinking now. There may be more to come.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Pony said...

Yes, the self-hatred when we recognize those feminine traits in ourselves. I am more and more convinced that we cannot discount biology, but I'm not sure how and where I can find balance and peace with it: In my own life, such dichotomy.

8:32 PM  

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