Women and Mothers

This is our first Mother’s Day with a female Vice President.  After four years of a female-groping administration, it feels like we’ve made a turn in the right direction.  Ironically, it’s often religions that keep women oppressed, even while women are often more faithful to them.  Religions like to claim to have the answers, and for the monotheistic traditions an origin myth with Eve—the first mother—as the first picker of forbidden fruit, has suggested one answer that has held women down for centuries.  Taking origin stories too literally can cause so much suffering in the world that we’re confronted with the question of their morality.  Religions are for people.  If they exclude half the human race we need to pause to ask if we got something wrong.  It’s Mother’s Day, always on a Sunday.  It’s a chance to think about such things.

Many churches will have sermons honoring mothers today.  Will they work for the wellbeing of women for the remaining 364 days of the year?  Our society, purely on the basis of biology, routinely puts women at risk and underplays the need to help them when that happens.  I’ve seen this firsthand.  We’re finally starting to get some female representation in Congress, yet less than a quarter of the seats are held by women.  Isn’t government supposed to represent its constituents?  Why has half of humanity had to struggle for so long to be treated as equal?  Mother’s Day cannot be a salve to ease our consciences about mistreating women for the rest of the year.  Equity should not be a goal, it should be reality.

We’ll be thinking about our mothers today.  Still under a pandemic, we’ll be Zooming them or calling them.  Those fortunate enough to live close may even get to see them in person.  These mothers sacrificed a lot to take on that role.  Our society could not continue without them.  We’re starting to come to the realization, I hope, that it is male-devised forms of government and business that are the problem.  They protect the wealth and power of a few.  They jealously guard against letting men offer the true justice of equity.  Some religions have begun to address the obvious injustice they have largely originated.  The story of the Garden of Eden was meant to teach a lesson.  That lesson has been abused for centuries as a way of making women seem somehow less than men.  It’s Mother’s Day.  Let’s see if we can’t learn to read more deeply and apply what we have learned.


Lessons from Mars

It’s a parable.  This week, on a planet weeks away, earthlings achieved heavier than air flight.  Considering that we flew for the first time on our own planet only 118 years ago (within feasible limits of a very successful human lifetime), the achievement is remarkable.  What I found most fascinating about the live stream provided by NASA, however, was the human element in the control room.  Not only did all the engineers look young enough to have been my children, I was cheered almost to tears to see several women among them.  We’ve come a long way.  And I don’t mean just to get to Mars.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done on the planet on which we evolved, but it does me good to see scientists recognizing the contributions women make to progress.

While many cultures worldwide still consider women the property of men, that scene showed that with women in leadership roles we can achieve remarkable things.  Only with the priorities of diversifying the workplace could we realize a dream that began long before Kitty Hawk.  People of all genders and all ethnicities have much to offer our growing sense of accomplishment.  Mars is millions of miles away.  Perseverance and Ingenuity are being controlled across this godlike distance by a group of humans that consists not just of angry white men who want to rule this world.  Although the palpable  excitement in the room was for what was happening far away, my spirits were buoyed by what was happening here.

Our biology defines us, but it becomes a sin when it confines us.  We are capable of more.  We’ve flown on another planet, and yet we still need to learn that on this planet all people deserve fair and equitable treatment.  It boggles my mind that on that reddish speck I can see on a clear night, a speck so small that my pinkie held at arm’s length can obliterate it, we have landed a car-sized rover and a helicopter.  The math involved staggers this old mind, but the imagination inspires it.  We come to moments like these when women and men of various backgrounds come together and dream.  Double-masked and socially distant, young people have shown us a world far beyond what angry white men could even imagine.  Watching the video of a helicopter taking off, hovering, and landing on another planet, looking at the people in the room, I realize there is a parable here.


Women’s History

March is Women’s History Month.  My reading of actual history as of late has focused on the ancient Celts, so I confess to falling behind on modern women’s history.  Nevertheless, I came across an often forgotten piece in an unexpected way.  For quite some time I’ve wanted to read some work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is known as a gothic classic.  Since a short story isn’t enough to make up an entire book, publishers have arranged different combinations of her tales into thin books that can be sold as a unit.  I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions’ version of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.  It was there that I learned Gilman was an early feminist who seems to have become unsung in more recent times.  Her fiction, at least as reflected in this particular edition, demonstrates the truth of the assertion.

Most of the tales in this little book require only a few minutes to read.  Although written around the turn of the nineteenth century, her stories anticipated many modern developments for women.  Her protagonists see the inequalities between the genders and work to overcome them.  They prove themselves successful at business and setting up their own houses.  There’s a gentleness to these stories that suggests quiet confidence may eventually wear down the often inflated male ego.  I found myself captivated even after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.  Gilman isn’t judgmental, but she does note how unfairly the system operates.  She also offers solutions.

In this month of women’s history, it seems appropriate to rediscover one of the female writers who personally worked for women’s rights and expressed herself so fluently in fiction.  Her “If I Were a Man,” although clearly a period piece, takes a woman into her husband’s body.  She walks in his shoes, literally, and sees what “the world of men” is like.  This leads to both understanding and, above all, learning.  This would seem to be the very heart of history.  We read to learn both from what we did correctly to what we did wrong.  We have done so terribly much wrong.  The historical oppression of women is one of the greatest examples of our inability to catch up with our own ideals of justice and fairness.  There were historical reasons for this, yes, but we have moved beyond those times.  If only we’d act like it.  Although my reading doesn’t always keep in sync with the seasons, discovering Charlotte Perkins Gilman at this point in time was somehow more appropriate than anticipated.


Half of Us

Today is International Women’s Day.  We need to pause a moment and think.  We can’t change the past, but we can improve on it.  I think it’s fair to say that historically—before the Enlightenment anyway—domestic arrangements were the product of evolution rather than intention.  Like religion, however, domestic arrangements have a difficult time keeping up with change in real time.  By the time healthcare improved and women’s chances of surviving childbearing grew, men had become set in their ways.  Even now we still have trouble getting a female on a presidential ballot in “the most advanced” country in the world.  The week before International Women’s Day Elizabeth Warren stepped out of the race.  The rational world is so desperate to get the anomaly out of the White House that it hasn’t really dawned what a lost opportunity this was.

Although for most of history their roles have been hidden, half the advances of the human race belong fairly to women.  Males often have difficulty admitting that they require help, or had any assistance getting to where they are.  In fact, though, we know they had mothers and those mothers helped make them who they were.  Many of them had spouses who kept the situation stable enough that they could go on and follow their preoccupations.  History, unfortunately, would record only the names of the men.  In the western world this was often reflected in the changing of names during marriage.  Domesticity comes with a price, but it can be balanced out.

Capitalism, it seems to me, rewards the greedy.  Instead of evening things out so that those who don’t have the same opportunities can be cared for, our economic system rewards selfishness.  I often wonder if women would’ve been so suppressed had a more humane measure of human worth been adopted.  When I think of billionaires whose names I’ve never heard of before, I always mentally add, “they wouldn’t be billionaires if the rest of us refused to play the game.”  It’s only because we agree to an arbitrary and artificial valuing system that we allow the obscure to “own” far more than the rest of us.  Women, it seems to me, would know the realities of this way better than most men do.  What if the value system we shared measured worth in having had a mother?  It’s something we all share.  Yet in this nation we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment.  The time has come to ask ourselves what’s really important.  Today should be the answer.


Protest Day

Today should be known as Protest Day.  Three years ago with over a million others I marched in Washington.  The media still routinely underreports the numbers there, despite the metrics used on the ground.  “They’re only women,” it seems to say.  I marched the last two years in New York City.  The protest can never stop.  Once a democracy has opened the door to evil, it can never rest again.  It’s cold outside.  There’s a winter storm in the forecast.  Women everywhere are out marching.  This mansplained world must come to an end.  We must hear all voices.  Despite having control of all branches of government, the Trump message isn’t being heard.  Perhaps there is justice in nature.  I like to believe it, even when it’s hard.

Patriarchalism wears many disguises, such as biblicism.  If all you take from the Good Book is the idea that men are more important, then you’ve missed the point.  The Bible is a book with a context and those who can quote it without knowing what it originally meant are left wondering why so many other Christians disagree.  The message must be heard.  Liberation theologians long ago realized that Jesus’ gospel had been drowned in the voices of legalism.  They did what we all should be doing today; they protested.

Signs of national and international weariness are everywhere evident.  Trump-supporting senators strike out with ad hominem attacks for all reason has failed them.  Used to be if you aided and abetted a criminal you’d get in trouble.  Now you just get bumped to a more influential committee.  So we protest.  History hasn’t forgotten Watergate.  It will never forget the disaster of 2016 when a political party sold its soul.  

A restaurant not far from here is owned and operated by a young woman.  A sign on the register says “The Future Is Female.”  I hope it’s so.  Our hunter-gatherer sensibilities have been suborned by the possibilities of agricultural surplus.  Where there’s surplus there’s mammon to be made.  In the Middle Ages mammon became the name of a demon.  Today it’s inscribed on the hearts of those who follow cash, no matter where it may lead.  Once upon a time a man from Galilee said the wealthy wouldn’t inherit the kingdom.  Like Caesar they dedicate the temple to themselves.  We may not all be able to get out to march today, but we can make our consciences heard.  Women deserve every right men have.  It’s time to learn to share.  Until that happens, we must protest. 


First Christmas Parable

The Christmas story is full of surprises.  This year near Bethlehem, a parable occurred to me.  Like many parables, it raises questions.  A question for all you men out there: when’s the last time you were pregnant?  Was it because some woman—who can’t be responsible for her urges—didn’t take proper precautions?  Isn’t this the way God punishes people for having the sexual intercourse he created?  Since God gave you an anatomy just like his, you certainly have priority in the cosmic scheme of things, but this pregnancy of yours—what are you going to do with it?  Oh, and don’t look to Onan for answers to your own urges; God stuck him dead for that kind of thing.  But that troubling “what if”… What if Mary had had a choice?  According to the Good Book she did.  “Be it unto me,” Mary said.  She could’ve said “No.”  Many men in your *ahem* delicate condition did not.  The problem with virginal conceptions is that people will talk.

Many people don’t remember at this time of year that Mary and Joseph were immigrants to Egypt.  Had the Nativity occurred today in these States that follow God’s word, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus would’ve ended up in separate cages.  Wasn’t he born in a cage?  Oh, cave!  That’s definitely an improvement.  One wonders how the Gospel might’ve gone from there.  And what of those annoying buzzing creatures overhead calling for peace on earth?  Shoo!  Trade wars!  Tariffs!  Nuclear threats!  These were the gifts of the three wise men, were they not?  Or perhaps we should get biblical and follow Herod’s mandate.  Killing two-year-old boys isn’t abortion, after all.  After giving birth they’re your problem, not God’s.  You’ve got to get them born—that’s the most important thing.  And since women can’t possibly know what it’s like to be pregnant what are you going to say when they walk out and tell you, “It’s not my problem”?  “Be it unto me,” said Mary.

Shepherds, it should be noted, were the poor.  Ironically that first Christmas the good news was first revealed to them.  Herod, half-insane, kept shifting members of his government around.  He had put away his previous wives—perhaps because they made him pregnant—and assassinated all his rivals.  Unless that’s fake news—the old fox was known for that.  So the immigrant family thought it was safe to return after Herod was removed from office.  Jesus grew to espouse the message of love and acceptance—extending it even to foreigners.  The state, believing itself established by divine right, had him put to death.  It’s Christmas, and we’ve seen all this before.  If only those with eyes would see.  But parables, it seems, have gone out of style.


Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.


Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.


Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.


Paying Troll

There was a time, should the media of my youth be believed, when a man insulted another man’s wife at his peril.  A barroom fight, or perhaps a sober brawl, would ensue.  Such chivalrous days are likely over and the internet makes nasty comments so easy to disseminate (how terribly masculine!) for all the world to see.  Hiding behind assumed names, avatars, or delusional fictions, you can feel like a big man by saying unkind things to a person you’ll never meet.  Such is the world of Trump’s America.  Although he may think himself divine, Trump didn’t invent Twitter or the internet.  Neither did Al Gore.  Still, the distasteful political rancor leading up to the midterm elections led to a man (I presume) trolling my wife behind a mask of Facebook anonymity.

It’s hard to tell how to react.  Feminism doesn’t always want a man to step in and defend, but we’re all raised with tales of princesses and those who honor them.  Having been raised by a woman with an absentee husband, I have nothing but admiration for strong women.  Although categorized as a “white man,” I can’t see my own brand as better than any other.  We are all human beings, and with some rare exceptions, we deserve respect.  Like all evolved creatures, however, I sometimes reach deeply back into my primate roots and the tropes of my childhood begin to simmer.  Who trolls another man’s wife over politics?  Who doesn’t stop to consider that every woman is a daughter and many are mothers and sisters?  If you want to pick on someone, well, you know how the saying goes.

The midterm elections brought some much-needed balance to a government way off kilter.  There are still trolls under the bridges, however.  The storybooks tell how knights vanquish trolls and even the liberated male can’t help but imagine himself on that proud steed.  What kind of man takes a keyboarded cheap-shot at another man’s wife?  The quality of his discourse speaks volumes.  Those on the left believe in equality and can’t respond in kind.  It is, ironically, a far more biblical response than trolling on the right.

I’ve lost readers of this blog due to politics.  Some of my former readers have even told me so.  I appreciate their candor.  We can’t all agree, I know.  What we can do, however, is be civil.  Those who put themselves in elected office know that they are opening themselves to criticism.  It is very hard to slander a United States president, in the words of the Good Book, “how the mighty are fallen.”  Those with thin skin should think twice (or even once) before running for the most criticized office in the world.  Most, until now, knew that what they said would set the tone for the nation.  We’re all entitled to an opinion, and, for the time being, are free to express it.  Still, I’d think twice before insulting another man’s wife.  But then, I’ve always been a hopeless idealist.


For Mothers’ Sake

We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.

New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.

I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.


Good Book Gone Bad

The Bible is a book of horror. This isn’t the main point in Holy Horror, but the fact is terror is never far from the surface in the Good Book. My days as a young scholar of the Bible were defined by the works of feminist scholars. One of the influential books of that generation was Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. Not hiding behind a masculine orthodoxy, she looked at how various biblical stories appeared from the eyes of female readers. There is indeed terror everywhere. The evils of slavery condemn that hideous loss of agency when one human being becomes considered the property of another. Women, before the feminist movement began, were taught that the Good Book demands this perverted social structure. They are indeed, in the eyes of its patriarchal world, property.

Important as this realization is, the terrors of Scripture go deeper. Even overlooking the genocides—the numbers make it difficult to take in the horrors of the individuals classed as faceless victims—there are multiple accounts of gruesome murders and violence in the Bible. Wars were an annual expectation. Diplomacy was often considered religious compromise. “Us verses them” mentality led to constant conflict. When it came to executing one another, the denizens of the Good Book could be quite inventive. No doubt women and foreigners were poorly treated on a daily basis, but when left to their own devices with divine voices in their heads, the men of Holy Writ knew how to terrorize one another quite effectively.

Even after the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which included love and care and compassion, the Bible goes on to close with the violent visions of Revelation. Perhaps it’s not appreciated so much in the present day, but the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the Good Book. Unfortunately the reasons weren’t that it was a book of horror, but the very fact that its status was debated should give us pause when hiding behind the rhetoric of a canon with its door slammed shut. The Bible contains some high, soaring words of noble thoughts and divine consolation. God can be an empathetic lover. With its status, in toto, as a book of divine revelation we have to pay serious attention to the fact of its participation in the genre of horror. Much of this is in the backstory of the films I discuss in Holy Horror. Others may have already explored this dynamic of Scripture, but it’s often a Good Book gone bad.


March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.


Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?


Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.