This first appeared in ‘The Heretic’ magazine, Vol.3, (which you can still buy in Kindle version from Amazon!), in 2012. I am pleased to realise that there is more awareness of these issues, 5 years on….
I hadn’t been prepared to be so upset by Renoir. The Sterling and Francine Clark collection was touring and it was with some excitement that I queued up when it came to Montreal, its one Canadian stop. Rousseau, Sisley, Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, a couple of surprisingly alive and delightful Boldinis – they all drew me into their lives and time. That all those landscape paintings – the ‘portraits’ of ancient trees – were part of a successful ecological campaign to save what was left of Europe’s forests thrilled me.
But one after another of Renoir’s doe-eyed women, sewing, reading, looooounging, just about did me in; I could feel my remaining good teeth rotting in my skull as I stood there. My impression of this particular Impressionist was underscored by the quotations, liberally strewn about the walls – Pierre-Auguste apparently felt that to men should be left the boring jobs of law, writing, politics, etc.; women were needed for what only they could do, which was to make life ‘bearable’ (for men, bien sûr). Renoir, père, told his son that he painted ‘with his prick’, and ‘I like women best when they don’t know how to read, and when they wipe their babies’ bottoms themselves’ is among the least offensive of his pronouncements.
The exhibit was entitled Once Upon a Time, which worked in my mind for the other artists represented – it was a historical encapsulation of a particularly vibrant transitional period in Europe. Renoir, however, had a rankling currency about him.
Lise Sewing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1866), Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection
A very active Canadian documentary film-maker recently announced to me in breathless tones that he finally had a story about women and children being trafficked as sex slaves, but with a male hero. ‘No one wants to listen to a woman,’ he intoned into the shocked silence between us, ‘that’s just the way it is.’ Pause. ‘This is great!’ As flabbergasted as I was to hear this, someone was finally stating as an inalterable fact what I’ve been insisting for decades to be true: ‘No-one wants to listen to a woman.’
Over the years this insistence of mine has inevitably met with the same brand of enthusiasm that greets other statements of a similar timbre (such as, ‘Women become invisible after 50’): a shaking of the head, a clucking of the tongue, and either a look of icily amused pity (‘Dear me, it must be terrible to become old and irrelevant’), a look of the-penny-just-dropped horror (‘Omigod! This is going to happen to me!’) or a white-gloved, white-bread look of disapproval (‘It is really so unpleasant of you to speak of these things, my dear’).
We certainly don’t start out not listening to women: even physiologically babies are more able to hear higher-pitched voices in their first month or so. This perhaps explains why so many people seem hard-wired to talk to babies in inane Teletubbies voices. Have you ever wondered why the voices of puppets, cartoons, and even adult humans in children’s television shows, are so unbearably squeaky? Have you ever been irritated enough by them to contemplate horrible acts of violence? Hmmm.
Oriental medicine tells us that a high-pitched voice can warn of weakness in the Soil element organs – the spleen, pancreas and stomach – and of someone who has pulled themselves into their thoughts, out of their bodies and emotions. Think of a tensely smiling face, sparkly eyes, a voice like a high-tension wire, and a sharp knife held behind the back. Scary! Actually, think of coloratura soprano divas and you might get the same sort of frisson – I certainly do.
Then again, the low, husky voice of hypnotherapists and late-night radio hosts – the kind of voice that so many find reassuring and sexy – is a Water element voice, related to the genitourinary tract and fear of an existential sort (Who am I? How will I survive? How can I make people love me so that I will survive?). Hmmm, again.
Clearly, ‘No-one wants to listen to a woman’ is not just about physiology.
The same film-maker involved in the documentary project about women and the sex-slave trade – the one overjoyed to find a male hero for his movie – proposed to hire (at a daily fee that could feed an average household for a year), as ‘spokesperson’ for the project, an ex-Playboy bunny and porn star – ‘because she is well-known’. Presumably people would ‘listen’ to her? A whole room-full of men involved in media and marketing saw nothing ironic or paradoxical (much less ludicrous) in this idea. The one other woman involved and I have since been quite neatly cut out of the decision-making loop on the project – in which I have, shall we say, ‘lost interest’.
So, no one wants to listen to a woman, unless…? This happened in the autumn of 2012, but it feels like a flashback to another era. Rapid rewind to the mid-1970s and to Winnipeg, Manitoba, smack-dab in the middle of Canada: involved in feminist politics (you guessed this, right?), I end up administering a Media Monitoring Committee to provide a forum for those wishing to do something about sexism in the media. A mountain of complaints comes in about obnoxious comments in a Winnipeg Free Press sports column, so I collate and mail them with a polite cover letter to the writer of the offensive material. The response is an article about feminists, in which he surmises that Ms. Dawn Bramadat, Chairperson of the Media Monitoring Committee, is obviously a mousey, repressed spinster who hasn’t been getting any for a while. At the time I nicely fit into a size 7 and many people’s ideas of what ‘attractive’ is, so when I (loudly) announce my presence and purpose in the newspaper office, in front of the wide-open room full of people banging on typewriters, the first reaction is dead silence. The receptionist leads me to a conference room as hoots of laughter accompany the sportswriter’s rising from his desk to follow. I felt better then about my coup than I do now. Rubbing the fellow’s nose in his assumptions was one thing, and setting him up in front of the women in that office was satisfying, to say the least, but I was also buying right into the Beauty is Power paradigm. Damn!
I have this niggling sensation that I can’t, in good faith, ignore. This tells me that there is relevance here to the adage, ‘Men are seduced through their eyes and women are seduced through their ears’, but this leads the mind down a variety of tangled trails typical of any reflection based in duality:
‘Men want to look at women, not listen to them.’
‘Yes, but women don’t listen to other women, either.’
‘Women want to hear sweet nothings whispered into their ears.’
‘Yes, and men need to constantly be praised.’
We get stuck when we attempt to stolidly delineate polarities – trapped in parallel lines that can never meet and are nothing akin to the weaving of realities that are our present, human experience.
The Right to Write – and to be heard
More women now are having their voices heard through the written word – gone are the days of women having to write under male pseudonyms – but between having the right to publish and actually being read – being heard – is an interesting gap. (‘You go ahead and express yourself, dear. It will do you good. You have far too much time on your hands, anyway.’)
Roman bronze statuette of a young girl reading (first century), Caylus Collection, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
For the information of the few of you reading this who have not entertained serious thoughts of becoming writers yourselves, the deal with interview shows and most conferences is that you are not paid to speak, but are expected to earn your revenue through book sales – your presentation therefore becomes a sales pitch. If you are not a published author, it is unlikely you’ll be asked to present at conferences and to do interviews, yet it is notoriously difficult to get published (and becoming even more so) and research shows that the odds are significantly stacked against you if you happen to be a woman (Benedict Page, ‘Research shows male writers still dominate books world’, http://www.guardian.co.uk, 4 February 2011). This means that if you are not a published author, you have much fewer opportunities to share whatever it is that you feel compelled to share and to literally have your voice heard. It is once you are published and become unimaginably rich and influential (I don’t want to discourage any of you out there!) that people will actually pay for the privilege of listening to you.
A few years ago, I was on about this topic (we do harp, don’t we?) with Philip Gardiner, a media personality in the UK who had an interview show called Gardiner’s World, where, typically, people spoke about the fascinating research discoveries they had made in the realm of hidden wisdom, conspiracies, ancient history coming to light, etc., and promoted the books they had written about their work. The topics were interesting and illuminating – it’s just that Gardiner’s World was populated almost exclusively by men. (Excuse me – white men.)
I met Philip through a friend – one of the white male authors being interviewed, actually – and took umbrage at the lack of women’s voices being showcased. A very public verbal duel ensued (on Facebook!), in which Philip ‘good-naturedly’ expressed every rabid stereotype he could come up with about women, our interests and relevance. It was only when I summarised his stance (It’s OK, Philip, it is clear that you are interested in men, not women) that he invited me to be interviewed the next time I was in England. There was a threat involved, however – he was going to give me a really hard time. In the end he sent Filip Coppens (1971 – 2012; may his soul fly free…) to conduct the interviews with the six male authors and myself for the taping I attended. Dear Filip asked me, more or less, to express a woman’s point of view on the unfolding of human history – perhaps to make up, in half an hour, for the lacunae in the rest of the series! (The video of the interview can be seen on YouTube.) To give Philip Gardiner due credit, he did film me later on two occasions, saying he had not heard what I was saying from any other sources and that he felt it ‘should be heard’.
The ultimate irony, though, is undeniably to be found in the circles of the new spiritual movement, where these days it’s all about the Divine Feminine. If you don’t pull these two words out side by side in every second sentence, you’re obviously barking up the wrong Tree of Life – hitched to an inadequate Axis Mundi. The Sacred Feminine is rising on the Earth and within each of us individually – and, thank (a masculine) GOD, there are gazillions of men around to teach us all about it!
I responded last year to an email advertisement for yet another conference on the Future of Humanity, where there were at least a dozen speakers headlining – all the latest ones – and they were all male. I sent them a list of the wonderful women I knew who could teach the same subjects, but got no reply. (‘You go ahead and express yourself, dear. It will do you good. You have far too much time on your hands, anyway. Oh, and sign up for our conference!’)
I don’t mean to intimate that men are the source of this problem. (This is where I add sincerely, ‘Some of my best friends are men – honest!’) At issue is a social agreement that places men in positions of authority, whether they are capable of and equipped for that role or not. I can’t even count the number of times that students who have studied with me in one context or another have expressed exhilaration over a wonderful new concept that they have just read by an amazing new male author – a concept that I have been attempting to get across to them for ages and in every which way. It’s not that I’m a lousy teacher, either; I’ve heard of and witnessed this as a common occurrence with other women teachers as well. The most probable cause of this, it seems to me, is the epidemic ‘absent father’ experience – I’ve watched the most intelligent and self-possessed people totally flip for one male teacher after another.
A couple of years ago I was asked to speak at a conference, because quite a few people in my home town made a stink about my NOT speaking. Conferences must be on a list somewhere as one of the Best Places to Meet a Mate – the games of seduction and the sexual buzz are obvious and palpable, regardless of the topic at hand – so, when the organisers asked what I would speak about, I decided to finally mention the rhinoceros in the room and address the co-evolution of sexuality and spirituality. I thought perhaps we could at least talk about it. Wrong! I was censored in a most polite way: ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to talk about shamanism or something?’
Taboo, what Taboo?
The wonderful indie film, Breaking the Taboo, released on YouTube in December 2012 and out in theatres in 2013, featured interviews with many male experts on the War on Drugs and drug reform. Among the few women interviewed, Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland (1999), shone as a heart-centred woman’s voice, clear and strong: ‘Who are the drug addicts? Our children. People we love and want to bring back to life.’ Under her aegis, laws were passed in Switzerland to decriminalise the use of all drugs, so that their use is seen as a medical rather than a criminal problem.
In India Dr Vandana Shiva (a woman, I feel, of the same almost-mythical, prophetic stature as Gandhiji) leads a brilliant movement called ‘Seed Freedom’ that has gained worldwide momentum: ‘Seed is the source of life and the first link in the food chain. Control over seed means control over our lives, our food and our freedom.’ Already, in the same country’s province of Uttar Pradesh, the pink-saried ‘Gulabi Gang’ mete out justice and carry big sticks. Led by their feisty and über-practical founder, Sampat Pal Devi, they are putting a feminine face to the arbitration of fairness and decency and no-one, not even the local police, is exempt from scrutiny.
In 2010 the President of Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (the first publicly lesbian world leader), whose government actually banned the commercialisation of sex, said,
“Last year we passed a law against the purchase of sex, we recently introduced an action plan on trafficking of women, and now we have shut down the strip clubs. The Nordic countries are leading the way on women’s equality, recognising women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale.” (Julie Bindel, ‘Iceland: the world’s most feminist country’, http://www.guardian.co.uk, 25 March 2010.)
How many of you had heard of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Ruth Dreifuss, Vandana Shiva or the Gulabi Gang?
It’s more likely that you have heard the voice of Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in her 15-minute rant against the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, which went viral in October 2012.
In Canada, on 10 December (Amnesty International’s Human Rights Day) last year, it was announced that the Chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, Theresa Spence, was beginning a hunger strike. She set up camp in a tipi, facing the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, in protest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to meet with her. Timed to coincide with this were nationwide protests organised under the banner of a fledgling movement, Idle No More, that was founded by four women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon – in response to the Harper government’s introduction of the 457-page Omnibus Bill C-45 that contains, buried within it, ‘drastic changes to environmental laws, subverting democracy and weakening protection of air, water, soil and ecosystems.’ Fundamental to the mission of Idle No More is the demand that women be respected, and that ‘There will be NO MORE further harm inflicted on our First Mother, Mother Earth.’ Following on the heels of these protests in Canada, on 16 December 2012 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey was savagely tortured, raped and eviscerated in New Delhi. Poor and rural women are routinely violated and murdered in India, but Jyoti was a middle-class physiotherapy student (accompanied by a male friend). It has been promised that education is a doorway to security for women – if it isn’t, then perhaps no woman is ever safe. Her death on 29 December 2012 set India alight with rage. Protests sprang up in the major cities, with thousands demonstrating and clashing with police. The country now seems riven between the extremes of those who know, absolutely and without a doubt, that respectable women never get raped, and others who demand eye-for-an-eye retribution in order to deter the gender-based violence that is so commonplace that it is regarded as mundane.
The murder of Jyoti Pandey may have been the last catalytic drop – that flutter of the butterfly’s wings – that is now gathering into a worldwide tsunami of transformation.
Protesters in Delhi react to the gang-rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey
‘V-Day’ (founded by Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues to coincide with Valentine’s Day) began 15 years ago as an initiative to raise awareness of the global and systemic nature of violence against women. One of the concrete results of this has been the City of Joy, established in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, to help heal and support women who have survived the epidemic of rape in that country. The uprisings in India have inspired the transformation of V-Day 2013 into ‘1 Billion Rising’- a call for a planet-wide general strike on the part of ‘women and those who love them’ – a call to ‘dance until the violence stops’.
Support for the categorically non-violent Idle No More has since spread internationally as well.
Map showing Idle No More events in 2012
Prime Minister Harper has met with a variety of male aboriginal leaders (who then met with Chief Spence to convince her to stop her fast), but as of today he has still not addressed Chief Spence herself. Reminiscent of the film-maker of whom I first spoke, he still doesn’t want to listen to a woman.
As I finish this text, we celebrate Imbolc; winter turns expectantly to the east and to spring; wild winds swirl the planet ‘round. Heart by heart, belly by belly, we are becoming awake and alert – we sniff the air and feel indefinably out of sorts. Change is rising, the living sap of the Earth – you can feel it in your bones, can’t you? – and, with this quickening, the voice of the Feminine will surely be heard.
Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing outside us to see?
What, if not transformation, is your deepest purpose?
…Sheer abundance of being floods my heart.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Ninth Duino Elegy, 1922. Translator uncertain.)
No, it is not only women who speak for the Feminine – Rilke, Hafiz, mystics, tantrists and artists of varied and unlikely stripes throughout history did not only elevate, sanitise and adore that feminine ideal that hovers in the heady regions between martyr and fable, yet is still anchored in our culture; some of them understood and beautifully expressed the sacred nature of physicality, of Being, Darkness and Presence – of the feminine aspects of Existence. Unknown to most of us, some of them were women.
From the Mothers’ Day Proclamation, written in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe in the post-civil-war USA:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’
From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: ‘Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of council.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take council with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
And, more recently, from Arundhati Roy in her 2003 essay compilation, entitled War Talk (the emphasis is mine):
Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.
The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.
Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
May we all feel inspired and free to allow the highest Wholeness of our Selves to manifest in the world.
Gardiner’s World interview with Filip Coppens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykZ7V4bHuyQ
1 Billion Rising: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y02TqXZ-MSQ