Monday, June 13, 2005

Dear Esther: Sexism & Poetry

I recently attended a poetry reading to support a friend and to read during open mike. I had attended this venue before though not for several months .... My main reason for staying home is that I have read as a featured writer for this particular venue but always left feeling “outside” the regular group of (white) men who all know and support each other, while tolerating women with the courage to read. Theirs is a style of writing that is clever, witty, and fast paced, with a kind of heartless verbal flippancy (I am being generous here) that does not speak to me. I have chosen to avoid it.

By organizing groups for women only, you have tapped into a deep vein of longing within me to be heard and appreciated BECAUSE I am a woman with experiences unique to women and where I don't have to adopt the verbal phyrotechnics and testoserone-laced punchiness of the male writer's clique. I remember reading a bio of Sylvia Plath and the behaviors that endeared her to her male colleagues, drinking, smoking, running in their circles. Still, she got away with writing about mothering, female sexuality and subjects men were not writing about.

The other night, one man walked around the room growling his poetry, singling out a pretty young woman for some choice lines. It bordered on offensive behavior, but the men loved it. Clever word play, allusions to jazz, mean streets, made-up characters etc. I hope you know what I mean. I would no sooner read a poem about birth or "womanly" things to these men than I would read naked. Women who grab their attention often speak in the same voice and I hear the same stridency. I hope you will post this on your blog. I would like to hear what others have to say on this subject.


Frustrated in Seattle


Esther Altshul Helfgott said...

Women in classrooms: Can you hear me now?
by Cristal Azul Otero

In February the President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, stated
that men have an “innate ability” in math and science. Outrage over this
comment led to creation of two committees designed to expand opportunities
for women in science and engineering. But the incident showed that one of
the most prestigious colleges in the U.S. retains a living breathing sexism.

I'm a sophomore at Evergreen State College in Washington. I can tell you
it's no different here.

Although 53 percent of Evergreen undergraduates are women, we feel like
a minority, especially in fields that men traditionally pursue.

My first quarter was tough. I was the only woman of color in my program.
I struggled to learn the material and to speak in class. I began to wonder
if college was the place for me. By my second quarter, I was used to sitting
in the back and listening.

While I knew that the sexist environment was contributing to my silence,
I wasn't sure how to speak about it with class members.

This subject can be difficult to raise with men; they're shocked to be accused
of sexism. They're sure that the women just aren't asserting themselves and
that it's only “natural” for men to speak more loudly and confidently. Sexism
and racism are dirty little words that no one wants to hear applied to them.

In the second quarter, other women of color joined my program. One spoke
up but had a hard time being heard in discussions. Some students would
keep talking as if no one had said anything. Others would tear her ideas apart.

I realized that if I didn't help her to speak I would have no chance myself.
I organized a women's study group and she and I were the first members.
We talked about the sexism and racism in our class and at the college.

The women who joined worked as a team during class, helping each other
to speak and backing each other up. By organizing this group I created a
place to discuss the hostile climate and empowered us to confront the situation.

On campus, most people would like to think that sexism is a thing of the past
that our generation is far beyond. It's not. It is here, and as with racism, sexism
occurs sneakily.

Women constantly struggle to be heard in class and some interpret this
to mean their ideas aren't important or their logic is wrong. The result is
classrooms filled with women afraid to speak their minds. It is uncommon
for a male student to suggest that a woman's ideas are wrong because
she is a woman; rather she has a harder time getting her ideas listened
to or accepted.

The academic world can be very competitive, with ideas flying around the
room and people making connections between them. New ideas will guide
the careers and research of the future. When women's ideas are discounted
— or stolen — their contribution to the future is blocked.

Most women know that something isn't right, but they lack the awareness
and group solidarity to face sexism effectively.

There are few venues on campus that help women assert themselves.
This is in stark contrast to the numerous places women can go about body
issues. It's widely accepted that women must have a positive body image,
free sexual expression, and knowledge of their bodies.

Personally, I am sick of hearing about my body. I'm glad to know how it works
and how to take care of it, but I refuse to put any more time into how it looks.

I want to talk about why I make 25 percent less than my male peers or
how to create an even playing field in academia. What's missing is a means
to identify sexism and take aggressive, even rowdy, action against it.

Let's revise an old idea. In the 1970s, consciousness-raising groups helped
women to identify sexism and its irrationality. Although mostly talk shops,
these groups helped a national feminist movement develop, and some evolved
into effective activist organizations.

It's not enough to just talk about inequality — we need feminist education,
solidarity across racial and other divides, and effective organizing to challenge
sexist institutions.

Women must unite to do this, just as the women in my class helped each
other to speak and get our ideas heard! All feminists, women and men,
should be on the lookout in this new era of sexism because, just like any
disease, it mutates and becomes stronger the longer it persists.

Cristal Azul Otero, a Latina and member of Portland Radical Women in
Oregon, is in the Democracy and Free Speech program at Evergreen
State College. She can be reached at

From the Freedom Socialist • Vol. 26, No. 3 • June-July 2005
posted by Esther's Writing Works

Miryam Gordon said...

I'm glad that Cristal has gone through a process to value herself and her speech. I think that, in my family of origin, talk was so loud and strident, anyway, that I had to develop that in order to survive. And talking in class was probably to garner praise for myself in a way that my parents couldn't take away. So, perhaps I was oblivious in some ways to the sexism present in school. BUT having said that, since I am a "mouthy" woman, I notice how many times men get to talk -- at length -- and not be labeled pushy or talkative or other not so nice words and women are supposed to learn to shorten (and sweeten) everything they say for fear of losing whatever approval they have gained.