Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Vindicating Women

Today is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft, most famous for her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I read about Wollstonecraft before I read her works, in an Eighteenth Century Literature class in undergraduate school. I read about how scandalized her society was by her writing, so I expected all sorts of radical ideas when I picked up her most famous book.

I had a similar experience reading Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto. I expected something radical and found something sensible. I kept waiting for the radical, society-disrupting ideas, and instead, read material that made me shrug.

In the case of Wollstonecraft, her arguments seemed so obvious. Educate women, and they'll be better mothers. Educate women, and they'll be better wives, companions to their husbands rather than mere ornaments. Nothing too shocking there.

Again, I am always conscious of how these arguments, which have become cornerstones of our educational system, are not widely accepted across the planet. I realize that I am lucky, because if I was born a woman elsewhere, I might never have been taught to read at all.

I am also conscious of how this book was accepted at first, and then after William Godwin, the man with whom Mary Wollstonecraft had her most successful love relationship, published a rather sensational biography of her after her death. I want to believe that he did it in a grief-crazed moment of ill-considered decision making.

I give Mary Wollstonecraft credit as an early feminist, a woman who helped begin the changes that have so transformed our world. First she advocated for the common man, and then used the same arguments to advocate for women. We've seen remarkable advances in human rights, and while there's still plenty of work left to be done, we come quite a remarkable way.

It is also August Wilson's birthday. I've long been impressed with his project to write a play that would document the African-American experience during every decade in the twentieth century. When I first heard about his project, I was immediately drawn to the idea. Could a writer do the same for women? Would it have the same kind of import if it wasn't a play, but some other genre?

Writing just one poem per decade doesn't seem enough. Could one write a poem cycle per decade? A chapbook per decade?

I remember a year or two ago, when a group working with the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. gave a series of readings: each play, one per night, simply read by actors seated (I think) on the stage. It wasn't clear that this approach would be a success, even though the admission price was less than they'd pay for a play, with costumed actors and sets: would people really pay to have people read to them, as opposed to having the full theatrical experience?

They did, and I felt cheered by that. Of course, Washington is a theatre town in a way that other cities aren't. Still, I think people are hungry for art, and not necessarily the high end kind.

So, a poem cycle that represents each decade of the twentieth century as U.S. women experienced it. Hmm. Let me think on this one.

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