Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A friend of mine - well, actually, she's one of the bartenders at the neighborhood watering hole - has just launched a quarterly, Whore! Magazine.  On their facebook page, the question was posed: What is feminism?

One basic principle came to mind, something I'd in the past always used as a quick definition of what feminism means to me: Equal pay for equal work.

But this isn't enough, is it?  In many ways, this idea of equal pay for equal work follows from the economic shifts during WW2, when women entered the job force to fill the roles that were held by men, now fighting overseas.  It was somewhat of a novelty, and compensation was not at the level of men's compensation, but it was essential for the war effort.   After the war and after the GIs returned, having tasted financial independence, many women couldn't go back to their previous role as housewives.

But there's more to feminism - where is the suffrage, for example.  What about sexuality?  What about other aspects of gender dynamics I eventually threw this together - it's what I think feminism is, or what I think it should be, today.  It's a little sloppy, but I like it.  Maybe I'll clean it up at some point.

feminism is a clear path to the top rung of the ladder
feminism is
walking down the street in the middle of the night with nary a concern
feminism is being able to make your own decisions about your body
feminism is equal compensation for equal merit
feminism is making sure the doors are open for all
feminism still has a ways to go

Amanda Recupido, who I know through twitter (and we have common friends, it turns out) has a blog This Is What A Feminist Looks Like.  The blog shows pictures of women living their lives.  There is not "feminist" look - these are pictures of women from all walks of life, doing all sorts of different things.  This made me think of one woman in particular: Jenny Hodgers.

I hadn't made this connection previously, but I've always thought of war as chaos, unleashing all sorts of unpredictable energies that can completely transform a society, not least of which, it can shatter it, if you're on the losing side.  And WWII seemed to have improved the lot of American women economically, and as a consequence, socially.  Here's a public radio piece about a woman who fought in the US Civil War, and she was transformed because of it:  In Civil War, Woman Fought For Freedom Like A Man
Albert Cashier, right.

Her name was Jennie Hodgers; her nom de guerre was Albert Cashier.

Here's an excerpt from the piece, but I encourage you to give it a listen.

LINDA PAUL: To get an idea why Jennie Hodgers may have subjected herself to the rigors of war, you need to know a little about the U.S. job market in 1861.

Ms. DEANNE BLANTON (Co-Author, "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War"): Well, a private in the Union Army made $13 a month, which was easily double what a woman would make as a laundress, or a seamstress or even a maid.
Ms. BLANTON: But once they were in the pants and earning more money and spending their money, they seemed to greatly enjoy the freedom that came with being perceived as a man.

PAUL: Women at the time of the Civil War couldn't vote. They mostly depended on men to survive. In return, they were supposed to devote their time and talents entirely to husbands, children and their extended families. That was the Victorian ideal...that was mostly aimed at middle and upper-class women, and they're not the ones who went off to war.

Ms. BLANTON: The women who went to war, who disguised themselves as men and carried a gun, were overwhelmingly working-class women, immigrant women, poor women, urban women and yeoman farm girls.

PAUL: Jennie Hodgers part of this group. She was an immigrant from Clogherhead, Ireland, who couldn't read or write. By the end of the war, she needed to make some tough decisions about her identity. If she stayed Albert Cashier, it was more likely she'd find work, keep the friends she made during the war and be part of a respected community of Civil War veterans.

Ms. BLANTON: She can have a bank account. She can vote in elections - and she did, by the way. Or, if she goes back and puts on a dress and tells everyone that she's Jennie, she has just lost her entire life.

PAUL: Jennie's decision: to continue her life as a man.

The radio piece goes on to describe what happens to Albert/Jennie:

PAUL: It's not Jennie Hodgers' name that's read on Memorial Day because it's Albert the town remembers. And it wasn't Jennie, the doctor sent to an insane asylum at the end of her life, it was Albert's name on the commitment papers.

PAUL: Here's what happened: late in her life, Jennie Hodgers was still living undetected as Albert Cashier in Saunemin, but at age 67, when she was hit by a car, she was sent to live at a soldiers' and sailors' home for disabled war vets. A couple of people there knew her secret, but remarkably, it was a few years before it slipped out and made it into newspapers around the country. That's when the Pension Bureau launched its fraud investigation.

At about the same time, Cashier had become confused and noisy. Her condition was what today we'd probably call dementia. But back then, as was typical, she was deemed insane and dispatched to an asylum. The identity she had chosen was ignored, or as they may have seen it, corrected. She was placed in the women's ward and forced to wear skirts.

Ms. O'DONNELL: It was so devastating to her that she would take pins and pin the skirt together between the legs to make them look like pants. And when she did that, they were very awkward 'cause they were so baggy, and she fell. And the fall resulted in an infection, and she never ever recovered from the infection. That was the cause of the death.

PAUL: In the end, Jennie Hodgers did get rid of that dreaded cumbersome skirt. Albert Cashier's comrades made sure that she was buried in her soldier's uniform.  And that she received a proper military funeral.