Friday, August 30, 2013

The Feast Days of Mary and Molly

Those of you who read my theology blog know that I always have one eye towards feast days, and towards those exemplary humans who should have feast days dedicated to them.  If I was creating a calendar of feast days for English majors, today would be an important one.

Today is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's birthday. And interestingly enough, it's also the birthday of Molly Ivins, who was one of our wittiest writers/commentators/op-ed crafters, well, I would say, wittiest ever. Yes, ever--let the pondering begin. If you can think of any writer, male or female, who is as clever and smart and witty and warm as Molly Ivins, I'd like to discover him/her. When she died of breast cancer, I felt like someone punched me in the gut. She felt like a constant friend throughout the Reagan years, when I knew very few people who thought Reagan had a few screws loose. But she did, and she expressed it all so much better than I could hope to do as an adolescent/young adult.

I discovered Mary Shelley later, in graduate school. My undergraduate training as an English major was fairly traditional: lots of dead, white guys, with a token female here and there, and even fewer token minorities.

I loved Mary Shelley once I discovered her. And my students have loved her too. Frankenstein teaches really well, even for non-majors (not many 19th century works can make this claim). I've had the most resistant readers lose themselves in Frankenstein--it still seems so relevant, whether it be in what it has to say about creativity, motherhood, science, God, or relationships in general.

My dissertation director, Paula Feldman, did important work on Mary Shelley, and she had a portrait of Mary Shelley on her wall. I remember meeting with Dr. Feldman, handing her new pages, and feeling agonizing stress watching her read them. I'd focus on the portrait of Mary Shelley that hung on the wall beyond the desk. I'd imagine Mary Shelley saying soothing words to me. I'd think about Mary Shelley's life and reflect on how much more fortunate I was, even though I had a dissertation to write and an uncertain job future--until recent years, the 1991-1992 hiring year, the one in which I finished my Ph.D., was the worst in history.

I love that we live in a time period where we no longer have as fierce a fight in justifying that women and minorities can write as well as men. We forget that we haven't been living in this time period very long. I could make a solid argument that Mary Shelley wrote novels that were every bit as accomplished as those of Charles Dickens--I could probably make the case that her novels were stronger. I can say what I said about Molly Ivins without fear of sounding silly. Some forty years ago, I'd have had to fight a fiercer battle to prove that women were capable of writing anything of worth at all.

We're not where I want to be just yet. Look at who has the majority of the full-time jobs in English departments--still men, mostly white. I know that if we did some comparisons, we'd find out that the creative writing of men finds publication more readily than that of women.  I'm fairly sure we'd find out that more men win book publication competitions than women--I know, I know, they're judged anonymously, so I can't prove any sort of bias. Well, not with the time constraints in my current life I can't. I'll leave that to intrepid exploring journalists, like the kind I fancied that I was while I was in undergraduate school.

No, we're not living in the world I'd love to see ideally. But we're closer--and the works of writers like Mary Shelley and Molly Ivins have helped move us there.

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