In 1939 Wuthering Heights: Geraldine Fitzgerald played Isabella Linton, but the film-makers did not have the interest, insight, or nerve to present the range of abuse we see in the book
Dear Friends and readers,
Here are panels and papers on women’s issues (abortion, motherhood, careers), recent feminists (Vera Brittain), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ann Wrighten, an 18th century memoir of an actress who moved from London to the US, Angelina Weld Gimke’s radical novel, Mara Lena Dunham’s Girls and Aaron Sorkin’s TV show, West Wing. These discussions include the best and worst papers I heard.
I begin with the women’s issues sessions.
The best and worst were seen as the conference began, Wednesday, 1:15 pm, in session called Motherhood/Fatherhood (1127). Vicki Toscano, a working lawyer, gave a superb paper on the current legal particulars of abortion law and controversy today. Popular anti-abortion propaganda are being transformed into (or regarded) as science and accepted as parts of laws. Anti-abortion laws increasingly exploit the post-modern idea that what is scientific fact is nothing more than culturally driven beliefs. At the core is the idea that a woman upon becoming pregnant, conceiving is a mother. Women are told lies that there is a risk of infertility and must be psychological damage is they have an abortion. The claim of a risk of breast cancer is untrue (and though she didn’t say it the same pattern of turning myth into science is seen in attempts to coerce women into breast-feeding). Explicit moral language is increasingly made part of laws.
Toscano began with Roe v Wade, 1973. The court found a fundamental right to privacy was violated when all abortion was illegal, but that in the case of pregnancy that right was not absolute. the 1st trimester there need be no regulations; during the 2nd trimester to protect women’s health you can regulate the procedure. Once the fetus can survive, is a baby in potentia (there is disagreement when precisely this is) then the state’s interest in saving the child can trump the mother’s desires. Increasingly then a woman has the right to an abortion only if her life is jeopardized: it seems the fetus feels pain at 30 weeks but machines can detect a heart-beat after a few weeks and if you multiply the fetus a thousand-fold you can make a woman feel there’s a baby there.
In Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992), the court turned away from the fundamental right to privacy, and instead said a woman’s right to an abortion is part of he right to liberty; it becomes a 14th amendment issue. The decision did away with the three trimester turning points; now the state has the right to protect the unborn from the moment of conception as long as it’s not am undue burden on the mother. The court has never found any obstacle to be that substantial that it gets in the way. States began to express a preference for childbirth over abortion. The state can insist on teaching women about abortion; the limitation is the information must be truthful, not misleading, and relevant. For no other medical procedure is there this demand for a 24 hour waiting period while the woman is told information about their abortion.
Then in 2007 in Gonzales versus Carhart legislation outlawing partial birth abortion (intact D & E) was upheld. The law now had a constitutional obligation to intervene, with a concern for the fetus or baby’s life and no exception made for the woman’s health. Congress decided that if there is any serious health risk cited by anyone, that must be taken into account. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent said the court deprives women of information and the right to make an autonomous choice. The pro-act reasonings included the idea a woman’s place is in her home.
Most importantly what’s happened lately shows a disregard for the mother’s life and well-being, a preference to save or force a baby on a woman no matter if she risks in the process. Women are increasingly being put into jail as pregnancy is in effect criminalized (especially when a woman is unmarried). We are returning to attitudes that undergirded accusations of maternal infanticide.
Ellyn Lem and Timothy Dunn discussed Anne Marie Slaughter’s “why Women can’t have it all” as if for most women in the US having it all means high professional success and fulfilling family life (husband, children). They went over the Internet controversies, saw Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a reply. They really defended both books as serious discussions of women’s lives and conflicts, typical enough lives with admirable values that may be held up as examples.
No one can fault their ultimate general comment that the workplace must have central institutional change to allow women who want to to be part-time at home mothers or wives. But the relevant perspective was that of the tenured college teacher who is dissatisfied because she is not making a huge sum, or on a crucially powerful committee, or is guilty because she leaves her children with a nanny for long hours at a time. Most women make small salaries and must struggle to make ends meet together with their husbands; they have no hired help. Or they are the hired help. They get part-time wages for full-time work. No benefits. The sad value of this session was to see that in these books taken at face value, feminism has become a movement for the few women who can afford to hire other women to take care of their homes and children. Feminism also takes on board neoliberalism, and in Sandberg women urged to imitate the anti-social anti-caring characteristics of men in the workplace.
I offered the idea both texts are irrelevant to most women’s lives; that supposed re-structures of work-days leads to people becoming part-time employees and a plunge in salaries with no benefits. I did not say (as I do here) the whole discussion was in unacknowledged bad taste.
Liz Podniecks’ paper on Vera Brittain showed that Brittain challenged an attitude that said women must marry and have children to be fulfilled. Brittain was an outspoken pacificist and feminist who argued that women must be employed for money outside the home to be fully adult fulfilled women. In her Testament of Youth she exposed and denounced the barbarity and uselessness of patristic wars. She herself did marry, but kept her name (unusual for the time); Winifred Holtby lived with Brittain and Brittain’s husband and helped a series of hired nannies to take care of Vera’s children. In her writing Brittain continually attacked the “useless” woman, the woman who has nothing serious to do when her children go to school; they vicariously live through their children, are dependent. Once a woman has a good job and home she can stop over-emphasizing the importance of emotional relationships which are not central to the real business of life. They are (in truth) secondary to the way society is structured.
It may be true that some middle class women live pampered lives once their children grow older; and certainly sentiment is not the driving force behind how we order our lives. But this paper, as put, was also elitist at core. It is not a matter of choice for most women. They do not want to be dependent; many cannot get near a good paying job, and thus do find their highest satisfactions in their family’s shared lives. What worried me about this paper was the next inference would be to get rid of women’s right to live on their husband’s social security if he should predecease her when she spent her life as his wife, working at home for him and his and her children and herself mostly without pay. This would force women to work outside the home, many in menial work which given men’s present reluctance to help with housework and take inward responsibility for children would give many women an endless burden. (Pass ERA and the supreme court with its identification with employers would be only too glad to do this; Republicans would be overjoyed to get rid of social security for a good chunk of the population.) For many women it’s asking too much when they are not born to the kind of people that lead to good colleges, degrees, jobs.
To be fair to Brittain, I’ve read her Testament of Youth and know it’s a deeply humane text.
Well, after the above, the only other women’s issues session I went to was an early Saturday afternoon “Gender and Media Studies” (4427, 1:15 pm) which I attended to hear a paper on “Girls” as well as “West Wing,” the first of which I’ve seen and the second never watched but was curious about.
I found Nikita Hamilton’s paper touching. An African-American young woman, she loves Girls and was determined to justify its lack of black and working class people, it upper middle class stance (the girls are supported by parents, don’t worry about losing jobs) to downplay what she admitted was its neo-liberal stances (“they do regret materialism”). she basically argued that this was a slice of life sufficiently realistic and reflective of young women’s problems today. Her valiant try reminded me of how I sometimes justify Downton Abbey as being for community, showing compassion for its characters (“intelligent dialogue”); so many of us find that we love programs in the popular media which are arch-conservative and exclude us. It’s hard to admit to enjoying racist texts which are rightly attacked as suc (e.g., Gone With the Wind is) on the grounds that this is what is on offer, where fine talents are allowed play. To say the more liberal, inclusive, socialist story is just not told. Ms Hamilton discussed the third season where Lena has a black boyfriend who is (natch) a Republican and it doesn’t last past two episodes. She said the use of a “float” magically powerful female black character (as is found in Sex and the City in recent formulations) is not much better.
I would have liked to believe Olivia Kerrigan’s thesis that West Wing is liberal economically and seriously alert to class privileges as well as mildly feminist but from her anaslysis of the three central women characters (all in elite positions, from a Hillary Clinton first lady, to her secretary, to a press agent), it seemed to me this program supported the point of view I heard expressed in session 1127. The program’s male hegemony (comically exposed) irritates & limits the women characters only in small symbolically grating ways. I’ve seen a video which does show the central male (president) as a bully mocking an educated women (naturally with that horrifying thing, the equivalent of a bluestocking sign, the English Ph.D.) but as explained to me we were to admire that man so I came away thinking the program reinforces our elitist hierarchical corporate society with its endorsement of competition as central to social life. Older feminist movies with actively strong career women types like Rosalind Russell (or Jean Arthur) had neither the bullying males nor the anti-intellectualism I’ve glimpsed in this series,and they evinced a genuinely social conscience towards people outside the elite world.
Two other papers briefly: Angelita Faller analyzed a group of commercials for home alarms and showed that they assume women want to be raped, black men are very dangerous, white men good protective heroes, and women living alone are not safe. Jose Feliciano brought out underlying challenges to mainstream conventional heterosexuality in MTV videos, discussing the bisexuality of stars like Lady Gaga. See my super-numinosity.
If nothing else, the papers on imaginative works from a feminist point of view vindicated literary studies. Asked to study finer imaginative works, the presenters did bring out sustainable critiques of the way society is organized, gives women a raw hard deal, victimizes them, complete with examples of a few women who did manage fulfilled lives despite this.
I’ve three sessions, but only four papers to cover, as (shocking) in one of them only one person out of a planned three or four showed; in another the other two papers were written in an abstract jargon impossible to understand, read at top speed and appeared to be about embarrassingly poor texts; and in the third only two papers were about women issues.
I’ll begin with the best (or maybe only) literary paper in the conference I heard: Andrea Brittany Brannon’s paper on domestic violence in Wuthering Heights (Friday, 3305, 11:30 am).
It was a relief and delight to hear Ms Brannon defend and sympathize with Isabella Linton as the novel’s centrally abused woman. Through this character we see how male power is privileged and unquestioned; how easy it is for the male to disvalue and put his wife in the wrong (how dare she disobey him?): Isabella begins as a woman who enacts her society’s version of impeccable behavior to becoming someone who cannot cope with the smallest difficulty. Bullying has reduced to marginalization; she is Heathcliff’s way of getting back. She wanted him for the same glamorous sexed-up reasons Helen wants the upper class Arthur in Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hal, but unlike Anne’s novel where we live the experience of abuse through Helen, here we see it through Nellie’s conventional eyes: Isabella is therefore become a slattern without self-respect, and if weak, deserving the cruel treatment of the easily irritated. Heathcliff tells Nellie how Isabella comes to him shamefully clinging. We may see her struggling to apply the only social behavior she knows and finding it useless to help her, inappropriate in her situation. We see her physically punished and banished with him playing the rightly scolding parent. She cannot leave for she has nowhere to go — in the case of Helen she turns to her brother. Isabella’s brother, Edgar, her one male relative with power to help, is angry at her for marrying Heathcliff and abandons her to Heathcliff. So the patriarchy fails her.
Ms Brannon pointed out we do have Isabella’s letter, the only narrative in the book which comes to us unmediated by Nellie or Lockwood, but most readers don’t pay attention to this counter-move against the romance of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe. The 1992 movie with Ralph Fiennes is a rare Wuthering Heights to dramatize the next generation and second part of the book where Isabella appears. Most reviewers if they mention Isabella at all blame her (the victim). Ms Brannon made a good case for regarding Isabella as a relevant portrait of domestic abuse today. Isabella is a woman with no access to legal protection. Ms Brannon conceded the novel is problematic as clearly Emily Bronte does sympathize with Heathcliff as the underdog and violence in this novel seems more than accepted as a source of power.
This was the session which was supposed to have paper on Little Women and the Civil War, one on Daisy Miller as a feminist hero and no one came. So there was plenty of time for a good discussion. There were about 5 audience members. Some, like me, said, they had never liked Wuthering Heights as much as the other Bronte books. I thought that Emily Bronte truncated the Isabella story too much, did not realize she was onto some powerful material here. Those who had liked the book when they were young did fall in love with the wild romance.
Angelina Weld Grimke (1882-1958) (African-American playwright)
For the papers on an 18th century actress who reinvented herself, Ann Wrighten, a powerful early 20th century black woman writer, Angelina Grimke, and Northanger Abbey and A Christmas Carol as gothics, see comments.