Of late, if you have noticed, a lot has been said about feminism. Or rather, a lot has been misinterpreted about feminism. Feminism has been depicted as a war for power, for dominance, when that is far from the truth. Women who opt to, or dare to raise their voices are labeled as “femi-nazis” and depicted as women wielding a metaphorical hammer to crush men. It is sad that while some men appreciate these movements and believe in the equality of the sexes, most of these labels have been assigned by weaker men who seem to think that women in power are a threat to them. Why are they so weak that a movement that is roughly a couple of decades old seems to threaten the patriarchal system that has been laid out carefully brick by brick since millennia? What are they afraid of in their heart of hearts? Are they afraid they would have to let go of the proverbial throne?
Well, here is the thing, women do not want the throne. Women want to either share the throne, or demolish it forever. But all this “femi-nazi” brainwashing that has been going on has split even the feminist amongst themselves. Some have been misled to believe they are fighting for dominance, that they are supposed to hate men; whereas the other portion is just looking for a peaceful, happy, coexistence with no discrimination.
It is sad though that even in this day and age, we require feminism, that we need to fight for our rights, as though we are in some way, inferior.
I was lucky enough to have a chat with Dr. Judy Schavrien. She is a poet, a painter, and a woman who has been a part of women’s rights and LGBT rights’ movements since the past few decades. Below are her insightful thoughts and answers to my questions:
SD: Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
JS: My mother was an East European Jew and my father a Dutch Jew. Mother had a tendency to take fright, though she was a force of nature in other ways. The joke is that being Jewish means diving under the bed shouting “The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming!” That translates to “another pogrom is happening [they tended to happen every 15 years in one or another European or Slavic country, for centuries] and we will be wiped out.” My father, was blond-haired, blue-eyed, resembling other Dutchmen, and was rational and practical. If she was moody Night, he seemed to be Daylight. The oddity is that I discovered quite late in life that it was his side of the family, back in the Old World though he was American, that were decimated in Auschwitz and Sobibor. All this contributes to my alertness where suffering is concerned, my own or that of others. It likewise contributes to a sense of humor with a macabre edge. Finally I have the wandering Jew in my blood—I love to explore—individuals different from me, other cultures as well.
SD: How do you define “Feminism”?
JS: The way Feminism was defined in the U.S. during the second wave of Feminism—from the late 60’s onward—kept evolving. At first we wore big t-shirts saying “A woman’s place is in the House—and in the Senate.” Feminism had a slant against the traditional roles of housewife and mother. It was also a movement in which spokeswomen were often white and heterosexual. Many leaders wanted to hide the enormous contribution at the time made by lesbians, for fear of giving men an excuse to define Feminists as homosexual, frigid, etc. As to race, the question was soon posed: Alright, you want to leave the house to go corporate, but are you liberating the maid who cleans while you work? Changes in the definition kept happening. Feminists realized they had to, for the sake of justice and a strong movement, embrace the strong and clear-minded lesbians who were often leading, though unwelcomed in public versions of who Feminists were. Black and Latina Feminists were forming their own movements—Womanism, or the Mujerista movement—and/or were working from inside to open up the thinking and doing of their supposedly revolutionary white sisters. Next came the Feminists realizing that we wanted Feminism, which was for all women, to open up choices and opportunities, not shut them down. Not only were “wife” or “mother” valid choices, but so were the many past activities of women—quilting, baking, gardening, healing with herbs (translate “witchery”). These were soon recognized in what became the Women’s Spirituality (next) phase of the second wave of Feminism.
In fact, with a small team of faculty colleagues, I founded what we believe to have been the first two graduate degrees—Masters and Doctoral—in Women’s Spirituality. This happened at California Institute of Integral Studies, an East/West school in San Francisco. The school was founded when Sri Aurobindo sent over Haridas Chaudari and his wife Bina to join Western counterparts.
SD: A lot has been said about feminism in recent times, and feminists have received a lot of backlash, with derogatory terms like “feminazis” being assigned to them. The whole concept of feminism has been twisted to give it a very negative image and even independent, educated women are reluctant to associate themselves with feminist movements. What do you have to say about that?
JS: Feminism, even without violence attached to it, is as revolutionary a movement as can be. There will always be both backlash and reversion. Women remain desperate to keep the good opinion of men and forget that, in many countries, they would neither be voting nor having good jobs nor participating in public life in any powerful way, if Feminist protests and sacrifices—considerable sacrifices—had not preceded them. Perhaps in those countries that had (and still have?) aristocracies, certain elite women have been able, occasionally, to gain power. But not in most. Nevertheless, on a worldwide scale, the Feminist movement has made an enormous difference in recent decades. This recognition—and women’s history of suppression and contribution—must be built into the way girls and boys are educated or there will be predictable reversion.
One thing that is too frequently omitted from histories is the fact that there have been previous Feminist movements; not just the so-called first wave, of women pushing for the vote (at least in Europe—I am no expert in the progress for India). In fact, Greek women in the 5th century BCE were rebelling against the men who had declared war every other year for thirty years and caused the destruction of the Athenian Empire, as much from within as without. Roman women too had 1st century BCE voting and property rights—followed by widespread divorce because the women could now support themselves and escape their oppressive husbands—then had those rights taken away again in 1st century CE. And so on.
SD: How different do you think are the feminist and/or women empowerment movements as compared to a few decades ago, when you first became a part of these movements?
JS: I said a fair amount on this in the answer to #3. I will add that young women of the 80s, who feared the “Feminazi” label, differed from present-day young Feminists. I guess more recent generations—at least in the U.S.— see that if you don’t keep pushing, you lose ground badly. Some may have Feminist grandmothers instead of mothers—easier to absorb as examples. Furthermore, pop artists like Lady Gaga, with her debt to Madonna, offer their own versions of the audacious woman—that kind of thing helps their young followers.
SD: Do you travel a lot?
JS: I have travelled a good deal. Spent several months in south central India and then touring –although that was the tiniest introduction to your mind-boggling culture(s), climate(s), geography(s). I have lived also in Australia, Ireland, England; spent a month in Japan, time in China, Tibet, Israel, South Africa; travelled several times through Europe. My partner of almost 15 years was a Dutch woman and we resided there and would repeatedly visit friends.
SD: Traveling teaches one a whole lot of things, that sometimes cannot even be put into words. But please tell us a little bit about your travels. How have your travels helped you grow as a person? What all have you learned from your travels?
JS: I have learned that Americans are, in comparison with many cultures in the world, mere teenagers. We came over to escape persecutions, and or to cut a swath through wild territory. It’s a teenage male mentality. Then again, so many of us have older roots beneath that surface. We emphasize the surface so that we won’t be terrifyingly different from each other. But most Americans (including, of course, the native ones) have older roots; they might be older (European) or much older (Asian, African, Slavic). I’m afraid, beyond my brief mention of India above, I would drown were I to try to say all that deepened my perception of life from living among older cultures. First I got to know Europe, but then got, at least, to visit with cultures with longer memories. As to the role of women: I know enough to know how little I understand. In countries where women look—to an American eye—oppressed, I know that we should not underestimate strengths nor pretend to fully understand the dynamics.
SD: Who are your favorite poets?
JS: Although, as a young woman desperately in need of liberation, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton helped me name the chains that bound me, still, I have a passion for Shakespeare and for Sophocles. I have published on both of them (and on their view of gender, since both were not just married but also bisexual). Those articles are at jesart.net Gerard Manley Hopkins is also quite dear to me and I’m impressed by Dylan Thomas. The last two are poets who make English into a new language—whether crossed by medieval Anglo-Saxon (Hopkins) or Welsh. They are both, also, so very musical: “Margaret are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?/…It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.”
SD: What inspires you to write poetry? Is your work autobiographical or semi-autobiographical?
JS: My generation was full of confessional poets. We spoke the deeply personal. At the same time we were often attempting to make a revolution. If women (or African Americans or…) would speak the naked truth about their pain and joy, the political would prove to be personal and the personal political. Our poetry was overturning “objective” truth, which is to say the white male middle-and-upper-class truth, along with the scientific truth (women were naturally altruistic, destined for all-consuming vocations as mothers, etc.) that passed for reality. What concretely inspires poems or, more often, a poetry cycle, is my long involvement with a particular woman; it’s a combination of serenading and self-help therapy; I try to work out and express what has been going on between us. I also have the audacity to attempt a portrait of that woman. Isn’t it good to have such portraits from a woman’s perspective—not just a man’s?
SD: Of all the poems you have written, do you have a personal favorite?
JS: An artist tends to prefer their most recent work. So I like Eclipse, a poem for a Dutch friend who was dying. Otherwise, I’d recommend in the book How the Memories Open Out, for a nostalgia that overcomes the senses, and Intolerance for sheer prowess in its crafting. These last two can be found at http://www.jesart.net, as samples when you click on Everything Voluptuous, and the first can be found by googling “Schavrien Eclipse”.
SD: You have published two books – Everything Voluptuous and Alice At The Rabbithole Cafe. The former is a collection of poetry. What is the latter about?
JS: The latter distills into cartoons and portraits various café scenes. They are from a Babyboomer’s perspective. These are two of my favorites. One portrays the generations. I like the look on the young woman’s face, far from receptive. The other is just about a bunch of women enjoying.
SD: Everything Voluptuous narrates stories of women with women. Do you think other readers can relate to it too?
JS: First of all, when I wrote the Marriage cycle in the book, I wrote sometimes using “he” and “she” and was drawing on the life I’d had up to that time involved with men. It was about myself and a woman, but the times were such, and I was such, as not to have fully transitioned. My last section I wrote decades later; it has more to do with spiritual life than anything gender-based. I’d studied for years with the Tibetan Buddhists and could mix the erotic with the spiritual quite comfortably. The painting insert likewise is not about women together, but often about a woman, in her body, being fully herself. As to women with women, I don’t think that is really so foreign; it’s all about intimate exchange and understanding, yes, fights too. But don’t we have most of that with girlfriends?
SD: One piece of advice you would like to give to women’s rights activists and/or LGBT rights activists.
JS: It is crucial to have a long breath. Even if your movement seems to triumph immediately, there may well be regressions and reversions. It is likewise crucial never to think the job is completely done. Stop when you need to: because you are one of the women needing your freedom. But know that if the movement stops altogether, it will certainly lose ground.
If you wish to know more about Dr. Judy Schavrien, please visit www.jesart.net.