Weekly Miscellany: Women and the countless lies we’re told and some we tell.


This week I happened upon a trail of lies that are told to women and a story about lies told by a woman. Coming upon this theme wasn’t deliberate, but the connections were difficult to ignore. Women have been lied to for the ages, our identities constructed, our lot in life pre-determined by fathers and husbands and up until recent decades we’ve had little choice in forging our own paths. But as we’ve started to create our own identities and speak out, the campaign to keep us quiet and in our place has become more devious over time. Facts and figures are skewed to tap into our natural ability to feel guilt. We are still easily shamed by society and even the word feminist has been diminished by a campaign of subversive ridicule that includes Hollywood starlets denying allegiance.

In the past few weeks, I definitely needed a little feminist fire to get me through yet another debate about the validity of women’s health, abortion and our sexual freedom—the real core of the matter. I decided to go to the source and read through Margaret Sanger’s 1914 newspaper, The Woman Rebel—still a really cool name!  But there is nothing like an energetic rant by my long-time favorite firebrand, Emma Goldman. It amazes me that feminists from over 100 years ago were so brazen and still so modern, proclaiming their radical ideas against adversity. These early feminists were shouting out ideas that are still taboo in many places in this world—now that is revolutionary!

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Love and Marriage

by Emma Goldman, excerpt from The Woman Rebel, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1914.

The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood lest it rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth? Who would make the policeman, the jailer, if women were to refuse the indiscriminate breeding of children? The race, the race! shouts the king, the president, the capitalist, the priest. The race must be preserved, though women be degraded to a mere machine, –and the marriage institution is our only safety valve against the pernicious sex-awakening of women. But in vain these frantic efforts to maintain a state of bondage. In vain, too, the edicts of the Church, the mad attacks of rulers, in vain even the arm of the law. Women no longer want to be a party to the production of a race of sickly, feeble, decrepit, wretched human beings, who would have neither the strength nor moral courage to throw off the yoke of poverty and slavery. Instead she desires fewer and better children, begotten and reared in love and through free choice, not by compulsion as marriage imposes. Our pseudo-moralists have yet to learn the deep sense of responsibility toward the child, that love in freedom has awakened in the breast of women. Rather she forgo forever the glory of motherhood that bring forth life in an atmosphere that breathes only destruction and death. And if she does become a mother, it is to give to the child the deepest and best her being can yield. To grow with the child is her motto; she knows but in that manner alone can she help build true manhood and womanhood.

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The next article really had me upset, because I’ve watched so many women struggle to have babies, some are unable and others worry about the looming ticking clock. Yet it turns out that the facts have been obscured, only to project the notion that it’s best for women to settled down early and pursue family over career. Those women who choose to wait, do it with a mix of bravery and trepidation, because they’ve been told that statistics for childrearing are not on their side! But I implore all women to read this article all the way through, regardless of if you’re a mother, mother-to-be, or not, because it will show you how the narrative of a woman’s body has been continually hijacked by lies.

The following excerpts are from “How long can you wait to have a baby?” from The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2013.

The widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying, for instance, is based on an article published in 2004 in the journal Human Reproduction. Rarely mentioned is the source of the data: French birth records from 1670 to 1830. The chance of remaining childless—30 percent—was also calculated based on historical populations.

In other words, millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment. Most people assume these numbers are based on large, well-conducted studies of modern women, but they are not. When I mention this to friends and associates, by far the most common reaction is: “No … No way. Really?

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A few days later, I was clicking around for a good movie and I came upon “Julia” about two friends beautifully portrayed by Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. I was teary almost all the way through because I couldn’t get past the story of the long lost friendship. The cinematography and the backdrop of France and Germany on the eve of WW2 was sumptuous, a little stark and foreboding. When it ended, I was so struck and I stayed up late researching everything I could about the movie. “Julia” was highly acclaimed, receiving 11 Academy Award nominations and a BAFTA award for best film. But the most interesting thing I learned is that the riveting and emotional plot of two friends separated by tragic circumstances during WW2 was based on a pack of lies, a story that was co-opted by the very controversial writer Lillian Hellman. Even when this film was released in 1977, it was presented as “based on a true story” which means not the whole truth but partly. But, really the whole center plot of the two friends was completely fabricated. I read this on Wikipedia, but also cross-referenced this controversy because I’m so fascinated by this trail of lies.

The Oscar-winning film Julia was based on one chapter of Pentimento. Following the film’s release in 1977, New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed she was the basis for the title character. The story presents “Julia” as a close friend of Hellman’s living in pre-Nazi Austria. Hellman helps her friend to smuggle money for anti-Nazi activity from Russia. In fact Hellman had never met Gardiner. Hellman denied that the character was based on Gardiner, but never identified a real-life alternative.[2] Hellman and Gardiner had the same lawyer (Wolf Schwabacher) who had been privy to Gardiner’s memoirs. The events depicted in the film conformed to those described in Gardiner’s memoirs.[2]

I’m not the only one that is fascinated by Hellman, in 2002 Nora Ephron staged a musical about this controversy of Hellman and Gardiner called “Imaginary Friends.” I feel like I’m about a decade late in this interest in Hellman, I would have loved to have seen Ephron’s musical.

But the fascination into Hellman’s contradictory and fascinating life hasn’t ceased, just a few year’s ago Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan reviewed a 2012 biography of Hellman entitled, “A Difficult Woman”.

“Difficult” is probably the most tactful word one could use in characterizing Lillian Hellman. If ever there were an author safer to meet through her art rather than in real life, she was the one. Born in New Orleans into a Jewish family, Hellman came of age in the Roaring ’20s, liberated by flappers and Freud. Hellman drank like a fish, swore like a sailor and slept around like, well, like most of the men in her literary circle, chief among them Dashiell Hammett, with whom she had an open relationship spanning three decades. She was, recalled one observer, a “tough broad … the kind of girl who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth.”

Although she concedes that “Lillian Hellman is a juicy character [whose] life is filled with sex and scandal,” Kessler-Harris mostly trains her gaze on the larger arguments over Stalinism and Hellman’s art and her truth-telling or lack thereof. Kessler-Harris wants to delve into how Hellman was formed by her time and, perhaps, misremembered by our own.

…but here’s one good reason why young women especially should care about the lessons offered by Hellman’s life: Hellman, Kessler-Harris emphasizes, continued to be a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver.

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