by Madonna Hamel
International Women’s Day came and went before most of us had time to get out of bed, make breakfast, find a pair of matching socks and get the kids off to school.
So I’m taking a week!
I have no children, but I rarely find a matching sock before sitting down to write for four hours. These words, these stories, these urgings: these are my kids. I know that sounds inflated, even insulting, especially to women who both write and have kids.
To them I say: I bow to your abilities. I really don’t know how you do it, because for me to plumb the depths I need at least three hours of diving to get past the detritus floating atop my noisy and nutty brain; the rants and ego-absorbed litanies on the surface do not need to be recorded.
I am writing, and have been for the past seven years, about a breed of woman who most closely describes what I’ve grown into. I imagine many women resonate with her, and many men can relate to her.
She tries to stay true, to heed the still and silent voice of that beseeches her to be authentic, honest, creative. To be brave enough to step away from the obligations and assumptions of a restricting culture in order to return to that culture ready to contribute whole-heartedly and with feeling.
She is not married. She has no children. Is she unnatural or just plain selfish? We are built for babies, after all; in my case the remark has been made more than once. But I’m here to say that I never had The Dream that little girls are purported to have: One day I’ll meet my prince and he’ll kiss me and I’ll know he’s the one and we’ll marry and have babies and we’ll live happily ever after. I once imagined phoning my mom and blurting ecstatically, “Guess what? I’m getting published!” Not “I’m getting married”.
I can’t say I have an aversion to marriage as much as I simply draw a blank. I do know that I have been to far too many wedding showers where all the attention goes to the wedding and not a word spoken about marriage.
Once I asked Fr. Joe about the marriage preparation classes Catholics are urged to take before they may their final vows:“ I mean, do you get many people at these things. I know I’d feel pretty resentful if I was told to go to them before I made my decision.”
“Well, where else do we talk about spending an entire lifetime? Where else are they using words like ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’? When facing the sacrament of entering the a priesthood I tell young men they’d better realize you will never have sex again and you will be living a life alone so you better like your own company.
And drive- you better like driving all over the place if you’re going to work in places like this!” and he waved his arm to encompass the great, vast, remote Southwest Saskatchewan.
“Marriage is also a calling! If nobody is going to use that kind of language which involves also ‘sacrifice’ and ‘forgiveness’ and ‘fidelity’ then we need to do it here!”
Of course, he’s right. If we just went by the advice of pop culture we should marry the hottest, sexiest, funniest person we meet. Hang on to the one who flatters us with gifts, words and attention.
“And you know,” adds Fr. Joe in a softer voice, “I had a young couple who decided marriage was not for them. So, maybe I’m not doing my part to get more Catholic babies in the world, but I did help them understand the solemnity of the sacrament”.
I made a solemn vow when I was eighteen that I would be a fulltime writer. I fell in love with The Word and all its possibilities: to speak on behalf of others their secrets and pains and isolation.
To articulate for others who felt stymied, scared, and stifled. To offer alternative views to the popular beliefs and constructs of the time. In art school I was nudged from behind by classmates to speak up about: abuse, sexism, and racism.
I rarely got favourable responses immediately, including from some of my fellow students, but I stuck to my instinctual responses and continued to make art and perform monologues.
Now that my sixtieth is right around the corner and I can measure my life in terms of generations and not just years or seasons, I am amazed and astounded by not only how far we’ve come but how far we’ve fallen back. I am speaking of women but
I cannot speak of women alone, because women’s actions are so often predicated by the actions and impulses and attitudes of men. And we have come to a time when men need to speak with conviction on behalf of the women in their lives.
So on this International Women’s Week I am asking us to consider what we actually think about women. If you are a woman ask yourself why you rarely refer to yourself as one. What is the problem with the word “woman”?
Witness the wave of novels and nonfiction books on the market with the word “girl” in the title: All those ‘girls’ with tattoos, ‘girls’ gone or working in a lab or on a train or The Good Girl, The Luckiest Girl Alive or Cemetery Girl. Every one of the protagonists are grown women. (Imagine the word “boy” in their place?
The luckiest boy conjures images of kid with a new dog. Gone boy makes me want to form a search party for a lost child. A good boy cleans his room and eats his vegetables. Why do we infanticize women?
It’s a concession.
Ok, we’ll publish more books about women because, after all, 74% of the reading public is women. But we are not quite ready to give them full agency so we’ll keep them young. And: then there’s: “Hold off aging for as long as we can!”
That’s been the number one, simmering, nagging, depressing, body-denying directive all females are burdened with. From the gate. Our power, we are told rests in our looks. And so we hold off being an elder, sharing the wisdom of age. (Men’s power rests in their wallets.
Vapid versions of equality appear in the form of pressures on men to look ‘hot’ and women to make more money.
This is not equality as much as it is a clever way to sell us more stuff. Men are considering their looks with the sad exacting scrutiny once reserved for women, and women are working, spending, raising kids, making supper and still trying to look gorgeous at all times.)
The concession of ‘girl’ means we are still diminutive, not equal and certainly not liberated from cultural expectations. When I say ‘girl’ I’m not talking about the camaraderie of gals.
A “you go, girl!” is similar to the band rehearsing in the basement saying: “Just the boys making some noise”.
There’s collective support there. I’m talking about how we get behind movements like I Am A Girl, as well we should, yet scoff at the phrase: “I am a Woman”.
I realize the old Helen Reddy anthem is dated in its production values and “I can do anything” optimism, but consider the words, especially if you’ve never bothered before:
“…I know too much to go back an’ pretend/’ Cause I’ve heard it all before/And I’ve been down there on the floor/No one’s ever gonna keep me down again.”
Somewhere along the road to genuine freedom, not ersatz equality, we got back on the floor.
Try and avoid imagery today that doesn’t make our subjugation erotic, that doesn’t say we like being held down by the throat and have our ‘pussies’ grabbed. And I’m not talking about the images men look at in the privacy of their own rooms.
I’m talking about the president of the United States.
What women want is not, according to ‘the most powerful man on earth’, to be respected, heard, treated with compassion, but to be grabbed in their private parts.
Apparently, many of us can go back and pretend. Like deer running away from the glare of the headlights, we have turned back into the path of the deadly machine.
Popular Culture’s tendency toward quick, superficial solutions devoid of discernment, silence, patience, restraint and focus has given us a “populist” Trump who will not ask us to value human dignity over property values.
I came of age before cell phones and Netflicks. A chat was still a conversation over coffee. Friends were people with whom I shared my meals, time, dreams and fears.
To ‘like’ someone took time and consideration. My female heroes did not dress their ‘roar’ in stilhettos and skin-tight lingerie, just 21st century footbinding and corsets built to please the male gaze. Their prevailing message, visual and verbal was: “This is what living looks like, this is who I am.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home