Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The most dangerous woman in the world.

[photo: Mary Harris Jones leading a children's march]
Only the objects of disdain really notice it. The people who single someone out for special scapegoat status - and it is very often a group of people, a clique - are often just having a good time, expressing their own egos, bonding through contempt.

Well, I am here to notice and take personally a phenomenon I want to call age-sexism. It's quite specific: it's about old women.

I was on the receiving end of this -ism a while back, when an internet flame-thrower attacked me because she believed a comment I made was racist. The delicious irony was that her judgement led her to stereotype me. "The little old lady in tennis shoes," she wrote, "is the most dangerous person in the world." (Have you noticed how well you remember an insult?) I considered the source. Also, I don't wear tennis shoes.

But this -ism keeps popping up. Here it was again this morning, in a food column for God's sake. Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times about the redecoration of a retaurant called Daniel, which used to be "a tritely romantic setting . . . Pastel, frilly and feminine, the decor at Daniel brought to mind the lining of a prim octogenarian's underwear drawer." You'll be glad to know Daniel has redone itself in the "swaggering" colors of guns, gray and brown.

I read the passage out loud to Tom. He always has an interesting take on things. This time it was, "First of all, a woman like that would never let anyone see her underwear drawer." I disagree, but will pass to focus on the larger point, ageism perfectly bonded with anti-feminine-ism, and tossed off casually. Note, anti-feminine is not the same thing as antifeminist. It is not about beliefs, rights, opportunity, but about the underlying layer of contempt for the female, the Yin, what is quiet, soft, feminine, even organized. Imagine that, having your underwear folded and in a drawer (as opposed to what? the bedroom floor?) is somehow "prim." Order and beauty are anti-life. And here I thought it was guns that were dangerous.

It is true enough that we women are often civilizing agents. I remember frowning, reading the end of Huckleberry Finn, considered the essential American novel then, as defined by Leslie Fiedler: two men on a raft. Huck doesn't want to go back home to the woman who raised him - she'll just try to civilize him. He is going to do what men do, light out for the territories. He, in fact, epitomizes the reign of frontier greed we hope yesterday's inauguration finally wrote Finish to. When I read this in 1960 I had no way to think about the anti-female that was implied there. I didn't even think, He's going to need a gun.

Maybe it is natural for men who are not properly civilized to hate and fear women - they seem to need us so much. The mother and wife are the heart of the universe, the bearers of life, the creators of home. And we are seldom at the forefront of the great masculine endeavor called war. Those are our children who get killed. Because we love children and grandchildren, and are so scared for them, we try to teach them how to get along with others, how to stay alive and live well - we try to civilize them.

The photo at the head of this blog is of a little old lady whom an American president called "the most dangerous woman in the world:" Mary Harris Jones. Having lost husband and children to an epidemic, she became fearlessly involved in the bloody and long struggle for worker's rights. She had nothing left to lose. And she brought to this her skills in rhetoric, something young ladies trained in at the time, which included a canny understanding of the value of persona. As you see in the photograph, she deliberately dressed in vintage clothes, black dresses and lace, hats. She brought to it something you can call "Grandmother's heart," and the men and women she served knew it.

"I'm not a lady," she once said. "I'm a hell-raiser." The feminine on wheels, you could say. Mother Jones.

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