Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 8, 2015

Behind a Woman’s Face

Inspired by the cover of Vanity Fair and Elinor Burkett‘s thoughtful New York Times article, yesterday my grown daughter and I talked about what it may mean to be a woman. Who wouldn’t agree it’s more than corsets and nail polish, but as Elinor Burkett points out, many of us who support trans rights seemed to slide over that in a rush to applaud Caitlyn Jenner’s courage. I’d only seen the well-publicized cover, but my daughter had read the Vanity Fair article and reported that Bruce didn’t seem like a particularly good person. I think Emily said he’d had three wives he dumped and was a father and stepfather to many kids he never saw much, playing golf rather than attend even markers like high school graduations. These kids now seem expected to cheer on Caitlyn’s transition, but what is she doing for them? Does some favoriting of men lurk within the cheers for Bruce/Caitlyn on the cover of a magazine from those who’d walk past a cover picture of his former wife? Whatever we may think of those who make a living from reality shows, if we’re going to applaud the courage of one family member, shouldn’t we acknowledge that a former wife and mother of his/her children must be struggling, too?

Both women and men must be changed from living so long in front of cameras. As I return to writing this morning, again about a woman who was pretty much erased from history, I see that shifting sense of being known and unknown as an experience women often recognize. Writing about inspirational women who’ve fallen out of public sight often takes me to biographies of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. There I’ve found the woman now a subject of my poems named sometimes in a single sentence of praise, though she’s in the shadow of many chapters. Yesterday I read of her stellar accomplishments hidden behind sentences written in passive voice. The author wrote of things happening, as if no one had made them happen. I read with quiet outrage, unsurprised. I see it as my work to supply the pronouns, put the woman back at the beginning of sentences, supply the credits.

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My field is history, full of ghosts, but all of us must make peace with some kind of disappearing, which happens sometimes against our will, but is at other times essential. We all should learn the difference between being ignored or run over and finding ways to flourish in privacy. Many writers grow used to putting others forward, and stepping back behind our own words. Good parents often put the unglamorous needs of others ahead of their own desires. Flowers burst into bloom then fade into foliage until another season. Everyone has a right to be seen for who they believe they are, but who are we when no one is looking? Who are we in the night?

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Responses

  1. Wow.
    You are a hero…love!
    x

    • Demur to the hero, but thanks for the wow, Amy!

  2. Oh my, Jeannine, how do you always get into my head and express my thoughts so eloquently. Every reaction I have thought of writing sounds like I am against transgender. That’s not it at all. I am against exploitation. I am against making ordinary women seem less. Thanks for expressing bravely.

    • I understand your feeling, but I think as usual you expressed your views very well, Margaret. I could wear a t-shirt with your line: I am against making ordinary women seem less. My daughter and I were talking about this, how lines are drawn, for or against, when as is often the case the reality is complex.

  3. What I hated was the glamour puss attitude. She’s 65. Act it. Look it. Now to find out she’s also a creep, I won’t use a stronger word, is pretty sad. I knew a trans woman who kept right on acting like a very rude entitled man, interrupting, bossing, etc. There is more to being a woman than glamour and tight clothing.

    • Hopefully more attention to the pain and courage of trans people is a good thing for all. Being on a magazine cover is not signing up to be a role model, but it can feel awkward to cheer for the courage of someone who’s made other choices, perhaps related, perhaps not, that we don’t necessarily admire. Thanks for writing!


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