Week Nineteen: An Interview with NPR’s Nina Martyris!

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Nina Martyris

 

The journalist Nina Martyris has written for many publications including The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times of India, Slate, and The Millions.
She is also a regular contributor to NPR, where she writes about food politics, and this week she graciously agreed to be our book club guest!
Two of Nina’s articles serve (pun intended) to shed light on food politics in United States social history.

 

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Frederick Douglas

 

 

In the first article, Frederick Douglass On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon Of Control  (NPR’s “The Salt,” 2/10/17) Martyris tells us;

“Hunger was the young Fred’s faithful boyhood companion. “I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog – ‘Old Nep’ – for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats.”

Her article explores Douglas’s slave narrative within the context of food used by masters as a form of violence and oppression against slaves.

The second piece studied is  How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion (NPR’s “The Salt” 11/5/15).

This piece and one very touching one about women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave, were NPR’s two most-tweeted pieces on the evening of Nov 8 of the most recent presidential election.

 

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members of the women’s suffrage movement planning to march.

 

“In the movie Suffragette,” says Martyris, “ Englishwomen march on the streets, smash shop windows and stage sit-ins to demand the vote. Less well-known is that across the pond, a less cinematic resistance was being staged via that most humble vehicle: the cookbook.”

Both famous authors and everyday women distributing pamphlets on the street contributed recipes which sprinkled a healthy dose of revolution in-between the pickles and gravy.

Cookbooks as revolution? Absolutely, and we’ll have seconds.

 

On Thursday at 12:30 EST Nina joined us for a “live” Facebook chat

Here’s the great conversation we shared. Enjoy!¹

 

Nina Martyris: Hi Celeste! Are we on?

Celeste Helene Schantz:  Welcome, Nina Martyris! Yes, we’re on! Thank you so much for joining The Wonderlings today. It’s much appreciated! As you can see, we have some questions lined up . . .

Nina Martyris:  Thank you for your question and for inviting me to do this chat. Very flattered!

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, what drew you to write about food culture and politics?

Nina Martyris: Well, the answer is a mix of the political and personal. I’ve always been interested in literature, culture and politics, especially the ways in which they crisscross in our daily lives. Food, however, was something I was barely interested in until I got married and more or less had to start cooking (else I’d starve!).

One day, I was looking up an Italian recipe which had oregano in it. The chef providing the recipe added a little history. He said oregano only became popular in the US after WWII. Before that it was used largely by Italian immigrants. It was American soldiers who fought on the Italian front who tasted this fragrant herb and brought a taste for it back home. Then it began to boom. Consumption went up 6000 per cent in the 1950s. I was fascinated by this story — and the window it opened on how food travels and how history affects our palates.

On a whim, I pitched a “how oregano became popular in the US” story to NPR on the anniversary of V-E Day. The editor loved the idea, and that became the first of a series of food-history-politics stories.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Had you written for NPR before?

Nina Martyris: No, that was my first pitch. The editor was testing me, but she gave me a chance, which I’ll always be grateful for. I think she was intrigued by the idea of soldiers and oregano.

Celeste Helene Schantz: David Delaney asks: “Nina, Do you believe most wars are ultimately fought over food? “the Taste of War” notes that WW2 was fought for that reason. Has the author found an instinctual need (that becomes obsessive) for the security more food seems to provide people? And do you see any parallel in food use (control as in American slavery) and any current situations on our planet?”

Nina Martyris: Hello David! I’m so glad you posted in advance. It gave me a chance to do some preparation. I’m going to answer it in three parts.

Nina Martyris: Your question goes to the very heart of historical conflict. On a light note, the first conflict between man and God was fought because of an apple. But more seriously, yes, food has always been a major reason for conquest.

For instance, as I’m typing out this response, I have by my side a delicious cup of tea, two of whose ingredients (tea leaves and sugar) have a history covered in what Jonathan Swift liked to call “blood and treasure.” Britain was so addicted to tea that it fought two opium wars with China to protect the source of this afternoon elixir. And every cup of tea was sweetened by sugar grown by slaves on British-owned Caribbean plantations. Shelley, Southey and other radicals didn’t take sugar in their tea as a form of protest (one more of my NPR pieces!). In India, where I’m from, one of the most landmark mass protests against British rule was Gandhi’s Salt march against the punitive salt tax (which was much like the Boston tea tax). So yes, food features prominently as a source of conquest and war.

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Tea has a long and quite political history

Nina Martyris: To move more specifically to your question about WWII. Thank you for pointing me to Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham, whose book Curry I dip into frequently. Collingham does pursue her thesis doggedly, but there’s no question that Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 for one overwhelming reason: bread. He had his eye on the rich soil of Ukraine, the bread basket of the region. Before Hitler, during the thirties, millions in Ukraine starved thanks to Stalin exporting its wheat to crush peasant rebellion. The Ukrainians even have a word for it: Holodomor (Man-Made Famine). Hunger and war are bedfellows.

Nina Martyris: And, finally, about examples of food wars from today. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is a heartbreaking example — of a non-violent food war (though hunger is a form of violence). This country is the world’s largest producer of cocoa producing 40% of all cocoa in the world. Big companies like Mars, Hershey and Nestle use Ivorian cocoa for their chocolate.

 

Everyone loves chocolate, yes. Why then is poverty on the rise in this otherwise well-off country?

 

The answer is complex but to put it briefly, cocoa is a source of wealth but also a crop that is used as a weapon of control by MNCs and the country’s politicians. Politicians have been known to block exports of cocoa and seize control of cocoa income to fund the buying of arms. MNCs, who want bumper crops, often push for unsustainable farming practices which has long-term effects that poor farmers have to face. We enjoy chocolate so much today, but there’s no doubt that it, too, comes covered in “blood and treasure.”

Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris and now we see consumer boycotts of some foods for political or environmental reasons: eschewing products using palm oil, in order to protect the dwindling orangutan population comes to mind. And veganism.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris , I so appreciate the fact that your writing is not driven by retributive passion or soapbox morality, instead you have a panoramic historical vision. Hats off to you!

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina, what was the readership like when Douglass’s work was first published? When a writer (as custodian of facts) has to be heard in a resistant or hostile environment, the challenges must be immense. To relate this question to your personal experience: do educators, commentators, scholars, artists, and writers have to take on the role of a hermeneutical mafia of sorts when there is a major dislocation in the codes observed in public discourse, and multi-faceted, in-depth exploration of issues is no longer prioritized? In this present time, which I like to call a period of etymological burlesque, how does a journalist who is a curator of history as it is unfolding, remain true to his/her calling?

Nina Martyris:  Shabnam! I’m here today because of you. But more important, you were one of the first people who encouraged me and made be believe that I could become a journalist. You were such a fabulous, imaginative teacher – one of a kind. I can still remember your wonderful lecture on Van Gogh.

Nina Martyris: To answer the first part of your question, it’s comforting to know that Douglass’ autobiography was very well received. It got good reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years, it was reprinted nine times, and translated into French and Dutch. It is still the most widely read slave narrative in American history. Scarcely surprising given Douglass’ eloquence and the powerful theme he tackled — his life as a prism into the misanthropy of slavery.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Thank you, Shabnam! Nina Martyris, she is a treasure 🙂

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris thank you, you were the best and brightest, and I could not be prouder of what you have accompished.

Shabnam Mirchandani Celeste Helene Schantz it is kind of emotional to experience this virtual reunion, so thank YOU!

Nina Martyris: Moving on to our contemporary age of “etymological burlesque” — love the phrase — yes, as a journalist one is acutely conscious of how, in this age of fake news, facts are twisted, language is corrupted, and history misrepresented.

 

Indeed, the spur that got me researching the Frederick Douglass story was Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s glib comment that slaves were well-fed. This from an educated person who writes on history. So I turned to Douglass’ book and began to read about what it was like to grow up as a slave. Of course it was an awful story, but Douglass is such a fine writer and thinker that his writing went beyond the misery to reveal the cynicism underpinning the system, and how food was used as a weapon of control. This piece touched a chord. I think it’s my most-read piece on NPR second only to the suffragist article.

Nina Martyris: Finally, talking about etymology, I did another short piece for the Economist on the word “mogul” at the time when Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. My point was that Trump enjoyed being called a real-estate mogul by the press, probably unaware that the title comes from the most powerful Islamic dynasty in history. My point being that we are all interconnected and influenced by other cultures even without knowing it. So bans are an absurd policy.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris very astute observations, and you have harvested much from these teachable moments. It takes a lot of stamina and courage to wade through the sheer volume of dubious material being fed to us. As Stephen King recently pronounced: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” ( “bigly” comes to mind…)

Anna Schantz:  I’ve recently been involved in a number of enlightening discussions concerning cultural appropriation, particularly regarding music and dress, and particularly in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada (Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as Junet eenth, btw!). I’d like to ask Nina if she considers cooking and food culture an area calling for more sensitivity in appreciation, or whether it is perhaps exempt from rampant dominant culture commodification.

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When are we respecting and educating ourselves about food and when are we appropriating it? (Photo by James Sutton, Unsplash)

 

Also, how would she suggest we all, white and people of colour, might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace? Thank you!

Nina Martyris:  Hi Anna! Thank you for your wishes and for this question. Yes, it’s a tricky one — and it goes to the heart of freedom of expression. Who gets to tell whose stories? I’ve thought about it and I feel quite strongly that anyone should be able to write about anything. The job of a writer is to imagine and empathize and identify with people beyond those from his or her background. So if an Indian writer wants to set a novel in the American Mid-West she should go right away. Likewise, if a White American wants to write about China or India or any culture, he should go right ahead. I’m with Lionel Shriver on this one.

When it comes to food, the same rule should apply, in my view. Anyone should be able to cook anything. If a Vietnamese chef wants to make shrimp and grits, great. If a Southern chef wants to make pho, great.

 

The second half of your question — how we might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace — is in wonderful counterpoint to David’s question above. Food has been a historical source of conflict but it can also be a marvelous and delicious bridge between cultures. Breaking bread with a new group of people makes it slightly harder to hate them.

Nina Martyris: Anna, I’d also be interested in your views on cultural appropriation.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris the recently resigned editor of a Canadian publication felt the same way. I think his refusal of any kind censorship and admittedly too flippant attitude regarding appropriation caused an uproar, partly because it was taken the wrong way. I understand your prioritizing freedom of speech, particularly journalistic freedom.

Nina Martyris:  I think my view is unpopular among liberal circles, but I feel strongly that stories belong to everyone.

Anna Schantz: I believe that it is not a level playing field, however, and that people of privilege owe a debt of respect and greater care when using traditions from marginalized peoples. In a perfect world it would not need to be legislated.

Nina Martyris:  Yes, I agree one should always be sensitive, but the freedom of speech absolutists who bridle even at that kind of demand. I’m not an absolutist, but lean towards that kind of freedom.

Jeri Harbers Thomson: In the suffragette article you say that a Henry James, Sr. was in favor of a woman’s right to vote, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but memory fails!) that one reason. Clinton lost the election is because many women were swayed against voting for her by their husbands, because many men did not want a female president…especially a female Commander-in-Chief. Do you feel there is merit in this suggestion?

Nina Martyris: Hi Jeri! Thanks for this question about the suffragist piece.

Nina Martyris Though I wrote it in 2015 (the peg was the Meryl Streep movie), NPR re-posted it on social media on the evening of the election last year. It became one of if not the most tweeted pieces. This piece and one on women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave in Rochester. It was so touching to see literally thousands and thousands of (mainly) women tweeting and commenting on it. It was a real moment. It’s something I’ll always remember.

Of course the next morning we knew that things had turned out differently!

Nina Martyris: To answer your question. I worked that Henry James Sr. anecdote into my article because I was so taken aback by the sheer condescension of his views. I’m glad his student fought him over it.

 

About the election, I’m quite sure there are women everywhere who vote the way their husbands do. Indeed when women in America were fighting for their Great Cause, many men were bewildered by their demand, saying that women were already represented by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, so what did they want the vote for?

 

Even Frederick Douglass who was a staunch support of the suffragist movement, broke with it a little when it came to giving the black man the right to vote before women were given it. He said white women already had their husbands voting for their interests, whereas Blacks had no suffrage to represent them, and that if the black man voted, then, in an indirect way, the black woman would be represented too.

 

So perhaps some women did vote according to their husbands’ diktats but I would like to believe that they were not the majority. I’ve met many women (especially young women) who said they didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Many of them couldn’t abide Trump either, but they seemed to be thinking independently. One can only hope they were and that Henry James Sr. was wrong.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris so moving!

Rick Williams: Question for Nina Martyris: I read these two articles plus her article on Gandhi being “the most punctual man in India” as well as “Auden’s 1939 Elegy for Yeats.” These articles appear to have required a lot of research and then reduced to a super ef ficient short article. I’m curious about Nina’s research and writing habits. Would Nina share some of her research and writings habits?

 

(side point: Is she like Gandhi checking her watch all the time or more like Auden when he writes “Stop all the clocks.”)

Nina Martyris:  Oh Rick! That question is like balm for my tired eyes. You’re so right. For each article, I have to read (or dip into) at least three or four books, apart from googling away like a worker bee to get all that information for those stories. Apart of course from cross-checking facts all the time. I always have reams of leftover research.

 

The clock is draconian — though unlike Gandhi (and Auden — he was fanatically punctual), I’m less conscientious and am always racing till the very last minute to meet a deadline. As a freelancer, I have to come up with unusual ideas — that’s the challenge. So I try to approach old stories from a fresh angle — for instance, everyone knew of Auden’s Yeats elegy, but the conversation and spinoffs it generated was something I worked out and connected.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Speaking of the clock, we’ve a few moments to go. Any last questions for Nina?

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, can we expect a book from you at some point?

Shabnam Mirchandani: Plan to write a book any time soon?

Nina Martyris: Have to think of a theme — non-fiction if at all.

Nina Martyris: After we finish this chat, I have to go back to researching a piece on — well, I can’t disclose it right now, but please read it if you can. It has to do with the Nazis. Nazis and food!

Shabnam Mirchandani: “Mein Food!” . . .

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina Martyris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The time has gone much too quickly! Friends, feel free to carry on this fascinating conversation, and look for the recap in our Sunday Gazette. Nina, we’ll be looking for more of your wonderful rich prose and excellent articles! Thanks for joining us today.

Anna Schantz: Thank you, Nina!

Shabnam Mirchandani: THANK YOU Nina dearest!

Rick Williams: Unbelievably fantastic!

Nina Martyris: Thanks, Wonderlings! You’ll were great. Such good questions. Made me think, read and argue with myself. Bye for now.

 

Thanks to the wonderful members of The Wonderlings group who took time and consideration to participate in our discussion with Nina.

As usual, you rock!

For further reading:

Here is an excellent blog, Afro-Culinaria, a food blog authored by Michael W. Twitty, (Twitter: @Koshersoul /Instagram:@thecookinggene/Michael W. Twitty on Facebook), a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.

Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas for free, online!

 

¹Very minor edits made in transcribing our interview from Facebook for the purpose of clarity.

Week Eighteen: “When it Changed by Joanna Russ and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

The author Joanna Russ once said “There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.”

Certainly in Russ’s time, pulp books and movies relegated women  as symbols of mere male fantasy: whether as crew members with breasts protruding from their uniforms or scantily-dressed whores from Venus or morally pristine queens, female readers were often discouraged that, for a genre in which any future at all can supposedly be imagined, an intelligent future for women seldom was.

This week’s picks, one from the turn of the 20th century and one from 1972, both depict intelligent women forced to conform to the notions of femininity and accepting a docile role in a cage, established by the male characters.

First up, we’ll meet Janet Evason, an inhabitant in a colony on another planet, called Whileaway . . .

 

“When it Changed” by Joanna Russ

On Whileaway, 30 generations ago, a plague killed off all of the men, and the population now consists only of women, who have learned how to combine eggs to produce offspring.
Today, Whileaway is largely an agricultural society. When a crew of astronauts from earth arrives, they are bemused by the all-female society, find it quaint, and are sure that the women must be missing men.
What will happen now?
The winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1972, nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story 1973, and included in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions . . .

Here is “When It Changed,” a short story by Joanna Russ.

 

 

Study Question:

What does the title of this short story (“When it Changed”) mean? What do you think changed? And exactly when did “it” change? Was it for the better?

 

Note: The story was anthologized in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions.

 

 

In Russ’s story, the male astronauts attempt to assign gender roles to the characters of  Katy and Janet when they interact with the women. They seem to decide that Katy is the “woman” in the relationship because they find her attractive. They suggest that her life will improve when men come to the planet because she will be able to find a satisfactory (male) mate.

While hyperbolic and, in an ironic twist, presenting a “turnabout is fair play” bland stereotype of the male characters, Russ  drives home the point that although the women do not live in a utopia, it is much closer to one than with these males there, whose violence and need for domination are obvious. She forces the reader to imagine a world in which the women are free to do as they want and it’s the men relegated to stock character roles.

 

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 Cardino illustrated this 1975 Pulp Fiction Cover for DELL Books. The illustration is typical of the depiction of women in the genre

Russ, in fact, was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and often examined both how women were depicted as characters in science fiction and also how women authors were discounted because they did not subscribe to the male fantasy-oriented pulp.

 

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The story is certainly not perfect. The character of Janet is not well-explored and in some ways Russ hoists with her own petard by creating a character without substantial dimension.

Additionally, Russ creates a world which imbues some of the issues of prejudice of her time: the fact that the male astronauts are Russian, and “ugly,” for example, is a clear allusion to the political zeitgeist of the later 20th century.

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Queen of Outer Space, Zsa Zsa Gabor 1958

However, fear of “the other” has been explored in Sci Fi since its earliest days, such as in the work of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds until today’s news headlines regarding immigration and terrorism.

Russ’s work is important because it boldly confronts gender stereotypes in a literary genre long dominated by men, presenting territory for women in charge while raising issues of violence, aggression and where those impulses come from.

 

 

 

. . .A bit about Joanna Russ

 

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Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and radical feminist. She is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism such as How to Suppress Women’s Writing, as well as a contemporary novel, On Strike Against God, and one children’s book, Kittatinny. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire, and the story “When It Changed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

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Source: Twitter

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic horror story, often compared to Poe, which has been anthologized in countless collections.

After the birth of her one daughter, Gilman experienced depression. The “rest cure” her doctor prescribed became the basis for this story.
Although “The Yellow Wallpaper” may seem hyperbolic, it speaks to the cavalier cures in existence at the time.


The author herself talks about why she wrote the story:

“For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad.
He never acknowledged it.”

 

Here is “The Yellow Wallpaper” (with great book illustrations!) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Enjoy!

 

 Study Question:
 

What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” suggest about middle-class women’s place and role(s) in this society?

 

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, “domestic ideology” positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such “separate spheres” ideals suggested that a woman’s place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics. By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women’s rights were planted. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of “The New Woman,” for example, began to circulate in the 1890s–1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home-roles that could draw on women’s intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents.

 

Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men. In her famous work of nonfiction Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued that women should strive-and be able-to work outside the home. Gilman also believed that women should be financially independent from men, and she promoted the then-radical idea that men and women even should share domestic work.

 

First appearing in the New England Magazine in January 1892, “The Yellow Wall-paper,” according to many literary critics, is a narrative study of Gilman’s own depression and “nervousness.” Gilman, like the narrator of her story, sought medical help from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell prescribed his famous “rest cure,” which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies. More than just a psychological study of postpartum depression, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” offers a compelling study of Gilman’s own feminism and of roles for women in the 1890s and 1910s.”¹

 

The “Rest Cure” and Theodate Pope

 

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Theodate Pope (left)

“Theodate Pope Riddle (February 2, 1867 – August 30, 1946) was an American architect. She was one of the first American women architects as well as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
Here’s an interesting excerpt about Pope’s subjugation to “The Rest Cure” when she was a young woman:
“The next year, in March 1888, her parents sent her to Philadelphia, to be examined and cared for by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a physician famous for treating patients, mainly women, suffering from neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion. Mitchell’s solution for Theodate was his then-famous “Rest Cure,” a period of forced inactivity lasting up to two months.

“At first, and in some cases for four or five weeks, I do not permit the patient to sit up or to sew or write or read,” Mitchell wrote, in his book Fat and Blood. “The only action allowed is that needed to clean the teeth.” He forbade some patients from rolling over on their own, insisting they do so only with the help of a nurse. “In such cases I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down, and the patient is lifted on to a lounge at bedtime and sponged, and then lifted back again into the newly-made bed.” For stubborn cases, he reserved mild electrical shock, delivered while the patient was in a filled bathtub. His method reflected his own dim view of women. In his book Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked, he wrote that women “would do far better if the brain were very lightly tasked.”

― Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown Publishers 2015)

 

 

 

The publication of Herland

 

Herland

Pantheon Books 1979

Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination. It first appeared as a serial in The Forerunner, a magazine edited and written by Gilman between 1909 and 1916. The book is the middle volume in her utopian trilogy; it was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911), and followed with a sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916). It was not published in book form until 1979.

The story is told from the perspective of Vandyck “Van” Jennings, a student of sociology who, along with two friends (Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave), forms an expedition party to explore an area of uncharted land where it is rumored lives a society consisting entirely of women. The three friends do not entirely believe the rumors because they are unable to think of how human reproduction could occur without males. The men speculate about what a society of women would be like, each guessing differently based on the stereotype of women which he holds most dear: Jeff regarding women as things to be served and protected; Terry viewing them as things to be conquered and won.

 

On feminist utopias

 

Both Gilman’s and Russ’s work explore the idea of a feminist utopia as well as fluid concepts of gender (Gilman’s is an important feminist work, although in her own life she was accused of racism and xenophobia.)

On Whileaway, Russ makes it clear that women too have their faults and that the society they’ve developed, while admirable, is also not perfect. They have their own aggression. As readers we must ask what lies in between our polarizing traditional stereotypes. “Masculine” and “feminine” are perhaps aspects of the same organism as opposed to two clear-cut, distinct creatures; and “Male” and “Female” are not the same as “Man” and “Woman.”

Russ later went on to write her novel The Female Man, which is considered a classic of Sci Fi. It explores gender and challenges the rigid sexist male dominance of Science Fiction until that time, asking readers to consider a fluid of view of gender not strong-armed by body building astronauts saving evil or helpless beautiful pin up Martian models in distress. Both authors set their stories against the fictional backdrops of other worlds, to provide a safe fantasy space for us to consider the “outlandish” notion.

For further reading . . .highly recommended:

The Screwfly Solution” – a 1977 science fiction short story by Raccoona Sheldon, a pen name for psychologist Alice Sheldon, who was better known by her other nom de plume, James Tiptree, Jr. It received the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and has been adapted into a television film.

What happens when a disease causes male sexual impulses to instead become violent impulses?

A disturbing, powerful, and necessary story.

 

Also see this interview by Celeste Schantz with Marge Piercy, author of Woman on the Edge of Time, an iconic work of science fiction, and He, She and It, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

 

A bit about Charlotte Perkins Gilman . . .

 

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Gilman addresses a crowd

Charlotte Perkins Gilman/Charlotte Perkins Stetson (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935), was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist and served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after experiencing postpartum depression.  She would later go on to write Herland,” a classic of feminist science fiction.

Gilman, like so many other feminist authors who succeeded her, would be subjected to ridicule, censor and criticism.

 

Nevertheless, she persisted.

 

 

 

 

For additional study, see Billy Collins’ poem, “Man in Space”

Also see the work of Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, James Tiptree Jr. and others.

¹ The National Endowment for the Humanities “Ed-sitement!” website