Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Official Susan B. Anthony House

The Official Susan B. Anthony House:

Today is the birthday of foremother Susan B. Anthony, who changed America's perspective on a lot of issues, particularly a woman's right to vote.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Marilyn French, Novelist and Champion of Feminism, Dies at 79

Marilyn French, Novelist and Champion of Feminism, Dies at 79 - Obituary (Obit) -

Marilyn French, a writer and feminist activist whose debut novel, ‘The Women’s Room,’ propelled her into a leading role in the modern feminist movement, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 79 and lived in Manhattan. . . .

With steely views about the treatment of woman and a gift for expressing them on the printed page, Ms. French transformed herself from an academic who quietly bristled at the expectations of married women in the post-World War II era to a leading, if controversial, opinionmaker on gender issues who decried the patriarchal society she saw around her. ‘My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world,’ she once declared.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Writing a Woman's Life

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life (1988)
W.W. Norton & Company, 144 pages, $14.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-393-02601-9

Highly recommended

In the "Introduction," feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun explains the topic of her book:

There are four ways to write a woman's life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman's life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. (p. 12)
Heilbrun says that she will focus on three of these methods, omitting fiction.

Men have always had narrative stories, such as the quest motif and the warrior exemplar, on which to base their lives and within which to tell their life stories. But, Heilbrun argues, such stories of action and accomplishment have been denied to women; the behavior praised by these stories has always been branded "unwomanly":

above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire for power and control over one's life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other lives). (p. 13)
* * * * *

Because this has been declared unwomanly, and because many women would prefer (or think they would prefer) a world without evident power or control, women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives. (p. 17)

* * * * *

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or generosity of others. (p. 24)

* * * * *

The concept of biography itself has changed profoundly in the last two decades, biographies of women especially so. But while biographers of men have been challenged on the "objectivity" of their interpretation, biographers of women have had not only to choose one interpretation over another but, far more difficult, actually to reinvent the lives their subjects led, discovering from what evidence they could find the processes and decisions, the choices and unique pain, that lay beyond the life stories of these women. The choices and pain of the women who did not make a man the center of their lives seemed unique, because there were no models of the lives they wanted to live, no exemplars, no stories. These choices, this pain, those stories, and how they may be more systematically faced…are what I want to examine in this book. (p. 31)

In subsequent chapters Heilbrun offers George Sand, Willa Cather, and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers as examples of women who tried to mold their lives into patterns other than those traditionally allowed to them. However:
Only in the last third of the twentieth century have women broken through to a realization of the narratives that have been controlling their lives. Women poets of one generation—those born between 1923 and 1932—can now be seen to have transformed the autobiographies of women's lives, to have expressed, and suffered for expressing, what women had not earlier been allowed to say. (p. 60)
These poets, all American, are Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.

Finally, Heilbrun argues for what she calls "reinventing marriage," for a new kind of marriage in which husband and wife both recognize and nurture the other's strengths. "Marriage is the most persistent of myths imprisoning women, and misleading those who write of women's lives" (p. 77), she says. As an example of this new kind of marriage she cites the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

One of the more interesting aspects of Writing a Woman's Life is Heilbrun's explanation, in chapter six, of why she chose to use a pseudonym in the 1960s when, as a young college professor, she started publishing detective novels: "I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself" (p. 113). "But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself" (p. 114).

My problem with any type of literary criticism based on a particular ideology is that it often ends up reducing complex issues to dismissively simple statements, such as this declaration by Heilbrun: "Marriage, in short, is a bargain, like buying a house or entering a profession" (p. 92). Nonetheless, in general, Writing a Woman's Life offers a compelling view of cultural and social conventions that are currently undergoing change.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feminism, post-election

Feminism, post-election - Los Angeles Times:
For a second-wave feminist like myself, this election year has been a roller-coaster ride: exciting, and sick-making, and yet again exciting. We have seen an eminently qualified woman contend for a presidential nomination and fail, at least in part because she was demonized as a dragon lady; then we have seen a shamefully unqualified woman handed a vice presidential nomination, at least in part because she was a walking advertisement for Mrs. America. Taken together, such unforeseen events have been remarkable, especially insofar as they remind us of where we are, as a culture, in the centuries-long struggle to normalize equality for women.

In this piece in the Los Angeles Times feminist and writer Vivian Gornick laments that "The second wave of American feminism is now in a period of quietude, even of setback." She looks at the treatment of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the recent election as "evidence that high-level sexism persists in the United States."

Along the way Gornick traces the history of the modern women's movement, which began with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. Gornick says that about every 50 years since that time the women's movement has raised its head, always with the same underlying message: "The conviction that men by nature take their brains seriously, and women by nature do not, is based not on an inborn reality but on a cultural belief that has served our deepest insecurities."

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Between Us Girls: Sarah Palin - The New Face of Feminism?

Between Us Girls: Sarah Palin - The New Face of Feminism?:

The girls over at Between Us Girls give us a summary of the meaning of feminism and reach a conclusion that's important for all women to consider this election year:
Make no mistake, Sarah Palin is not the new face of feminism. She is simply a woman whose ambition surpasses her abilities and whose presence on the national political scene threatens to set the feminist movement back a hundred years. Ladies, we can do better than this - don't doubt it. While we all want to see a woman in the White House, we want the right woman. At first glance, Sarah Palin seemed like the answer to many a woman's dreams, but she is nothing more than a shiny penny. The glimmering, mirror-like surface attracts our attention, but upon closer inspection we find that what lies below the surface is far less valuable than we might have anticipated or hoped.

My daughter recently made a similar point on her blog.

It's important to keep in mind that not all women are feminists and that feminists advocate equal rights for women. Don't let anyone tell you that electing Sarah Palin as Vice-President of the United States, and thus putting her a heartbeat away from the U. S. Presidency, is a step forward for women. With her vindictiveness and arrogance, she could plunge women back into the nineteenth century. Women deserve better. The United States deserves better.

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Quotation of the Day

“Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me--as a woman, but even more than that as a writer. Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms. She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children. It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life--cooking the trimming or a dress or hat, quiet talk--can be just as important a subject as a great whale or a scarlet letter. Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone and voice it is the precursor of the modern memoir--the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet. . . . Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things--I think that’s why it felt ordinary even as she wrote it. She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature. Without even meaning to, Alcott exalted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.” (pp. 191-192)

--Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Girls’ Gains Have Not Cost Boys, Report Says

Girls’ Gains Have Not Cost Boys, Report Says - New York Times


The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has issued a report that corresponds to research by the American Council on Education and other groups detailing that while girls have been graduating from high school and college at higher rate than boys, there is no "boy's crisis," writes Tamar Lewin of the New York Times. The more significant disparities in educational achievement, the report says, are between different races, ethnicities, and income levels. The AAUW's report is a follow-up to their widely discussed 1992 report that described how boys in the classroom were educated at the expense of girls, and is also a response to the notion put out recently by conservative commentators that boys are in turn being shortchanged. "Many people remain uncomfortable with the educational and professional advances of girls and women, especially when they threaten to outdistance their male peers," the report states, but "The most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys' crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace."

Source: Public Education Network Weekly NewsBlast

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

O'Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
New York: Harcourt, 2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8


This novel is about family stories--in this case, the truths that don't get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void--and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris's only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer's disease.

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty's sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution's paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty's sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father's face in Esme's.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:
  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris's life
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme's schizophrenic memories and thoughts
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty's dementia
Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to put together the pieces of the puzzle in a process that amply demonstrates that there's always more than one side to every story.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book's abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris's new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader's investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox deals with many important issues: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Perspectives on Women

The Feminine Critique

"Women can't win," declares Lisa Belkin in an article about women and work. Studies done by Catalyst, an organization that monitors women in the workplace, have found

that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

Victoria Brescoll, a researcher at Yale, has found that, whereas men who express anger gain stature and clout, women who express anger are judged as being out of control and therefore lose stature. Joan Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law and wrote the book Unbending Gender, says, “Women have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked."

In an opinion piece on politics and misogyny columnist Bob Herbert tackles the issue of women and politics. He says, "With Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s win in New Hampshire, gender issues are suddenly in the news. Where has everybody been?" He goes on to point out "the toll that misogyny takes on society in general, and women and girls in particular."

Pornography, he says, is a multibillion-dollar business. Violence against women and girls also pervades society and is glorified by extensive and graphic news coverage, but these stories "seldom, if ever, raise the issue of misogyny." Widespread sexual mistreatment of women in the military and the dehumanization of women and girls by legalized prostitution in Nevada are further examples.

We’ve become so used to the disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous and even violent treatment of women that we hardly notice it. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed against women and girls every day. Fashionable ads in mainstream publications play off of that violence, exploiting themes of death and dismemberment, female submissiveness and child pornography.

When I saw the title of Herbert's piece, I thought he was going to discuss the incident of Hillary Clinton's moist eyes in New Hampshire. That incident is not as representative of misogyny as the examples Herbert gives, but it does once again point up the double standard that strong women face. Hillary, in her characteristic pantsuits, is often criticized for acting too much like a man. Then she tears up, and suddenly she's criticized for acting weak and weepy, just like a woman. So which is it: too much like a man, or too much like a woman?

Sorry, fellas, but you just can't have it both ways.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Feminist Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature - New York Times:
Novelist Doris Lessing, 87, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The writer was born in Persia (now Iran), raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and currently lives in London.

Ms. Lessing's breakthrough novel was The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. The Swedish Academy, which chooses Nobel recipients, cited the novel as "a pioneering work" in the "burgeoning feminist movement." The novel deals with the inner lives of women and suggests that women should not have to abandon their own lives for the sake of marriage and children.

New York Times writers MOTOKO RICH and SARAH LYALL say:

Because she frankly depicted female anger and aggression, she was attacked as “unfeminine.” In response, Ms. Lessing wrote: “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.”

Lessing is the 11th woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Feminist Perspective on History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich - New York Times:
The title of this newly released book is from an observation Ulrich made in a 1976 article for American Quarterly in which she noted all that is known about colonial women comes from the funeral eulogies written about them. Ulrich's comment became a famous quotation often printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers. This slogan presents a critical truth:
Much of what is characterized as female “misbehavior” is a matter of voice — of a woman insisting she be heard, paid not only attention, but also the respect due a being as fully human and necessary as a man.

In this review of Ulrich's book Kathryn Harrison says that Ulrich uses three classic feminist works to examine the theme of "bad" behavior:

  1. "Book of the City of Ladies" written by Christsine de Pizan in 1405
  2. "Eighty Years and More" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, published in 1898
  3. "A Room of One's Own," based on two lectures delivered by Virginia Woolf in 1928

In her examination, Harrison says, Ulrich "brings a female sensibility to what is more typically the linear, cause-and-effect formula of history, a majority of which, Ulrich points out, is written by men."

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Feminist Fairy Tales

I spent last weekend in the Berkshires with friends. We ate lots of good food and attended two concerts at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Friday night concert included Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartok, and the Saturday night performance featured The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. After the Saturday performance one of my (female) friends said, “It was definitely not a good weekend for women.”

In the folk tales that inspired both of these exquisite musical compositions, women appear as nothing more than objects or pawns in the world of men.In the tale of Bluebeard, Judith, who originally hopes to bring light into the darkness and to dry the damp walls of the castle, ends up shut away in the castle with all the other women the duke has brutalized. And in the tale of Faust, when Mephistopheles wants to steal the man’s soul, he uses a beautiful woman, Marguerite, to tempt him. Granted, at the end of the story Marguerite is transported to heaven, but to get there she must be, after all, dead.

It’s time for a new perspective on the role of women in our folk tales and cultural mythology.

My friend and I were not, of course, the first to recognize this need. Rosemary Lake has written some feminist fairy tales and provides lots of information about other sources of similar material, along with suggestions about how this material can be used in the classroom. Nancy Keane provides a list of feminist fairy tales. And look here for an interesting article on the subversive value of feminist fairy tales. There are also a number of books available, such as Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara G. Walker and Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England by Jack David Zipes.

In a related note, I have always found it interesting that mythology and folklore provide us with the archetype of the wicked stepmother, who secretly persecutes and schemes against her husband’s children by another woman, but not the archetype of the wicked stepfather. But of course there can be no wicked stepfather in a patriarchal society, since all women, both a wife and her children, become a man’s property, to treat as he will, at the time of marriage. In such a society a man may treat his own daughters, his wife, and his stepdaughters however badly he wishes without being thought of as wicked.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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