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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A pay-it-forward salon evening celebrating 'The Invisible Matron'

"Women have no history," wrote Virginia Woolf in 1929. She was commenting, here, on women's invisibility within the histories passed down through the male line, on women's absence from the histories recounted through art and literature and philosophy and science, on women's erasure from the histories that chronicle important events and notable people, on women's voicelessness when it comes to speaking out and being heard above the din of those histories which, for centuries, have droned on and drowned out all other histories. In the words of Virginia Woolf, "The corridors of history are, for women, unlit." In the words of Brenda, who participated in last Thursday's salon evening, "What can we do to ensure that 100 years from now, women of our generation have not been similarly rendered invisible in and by society?"

Such was the tone of our fifth session of the Philosophy Club's Invisible Matron series - a session that was extended to all of our membership so that those who hadn't been part of our six-week Philosophy Club experience could get a taste of what we had explored and how we had done the exploring, and those who had participated in it could share their insights and observations about the trope of the Invisible Matron from the standpoint of presenters and teachers. To this end, the evening was divided into three parts - the first an experiment in "pay-it-forward" learning; the second an exercise in collaborative writing; and the third a performative intervention designed to fill those unlit corridors of history with a cacophony of ours and our foremother's voices.

Our "pay-it-forward" learning exercise drew on three inspirational ideas: first, the idea put forth by critical theorist bell hooks at a time when women's studies courses first started making their way into universities, that those who were lucky enough to be students in these classes should go down to their local YWCA or community centre after school and pass on what they had learned to any women who were interested; second, the idea put into action by chef Jamie Oliver, that if you teach a person who has never cooked before how to make a tasty meal, and then get that person to teach another person how to make that same meal, you now have two people who can teach two more people how to do it, and then four people teaching four more, and so forth, until some time later, everybody can make that tasty meal; and third, the idea of speed-dating, which takes an assembly line approach to meeting people and establishing compatibility through getting a room of people to engage in quick one-on-one conversations, before they are moved on to the next person for another conversation.

Our wwp version of this kind of "pay-it-forward" thinking found each Philosophy Club participant taking responsibility for one key word or term that had particularly caught their imagination over the course of the Invisible Matron series, and setting themselves up with a chair opposite them. Members who had not taken the class were directed to the vacant chairs, and when the bell rang, Philosophy Club participants had two minutes to teach the wwp member facing them all they could about their chosen word or term. When the bell rang, members moved on to another chair and gained access to a new word or term. By the end of the exercise, everybody present had been let into the world of "feminist standpoint epistemology" and "liminality", "fragments" and "structures of feeling", finding a "voice" and dealing with "ageism", negotiating "the male gaze" and grappling with "The Invisible Matron" herself! If those on the learning end of this experiment felt like they'd been treated to a crash course in feminist philosophy, those doing the teaching were given a great insight into how the act of sharing knowledges helps to consolidate what you do know and illuminate your epistemological potholes!

Then it was onto our second exercise of the evening - scripting a collective dialogue around a painting by New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins - with Philosophy Club participants who had earned their stripes with this kind of activity over the preceding 6 weeks acting as coaches to those new to the game. Dividing into groups, we set to work...If the object was to "read" what was transpiring between the two women in the painting, the "spin" that each group put on the scene demonstrated both the places where our cultural understandings about women and their ways of relating collude, and the gaps that allow for imaginative lines of flight out of those expected patterns. A particular pleasure was taken in the knowledge that in "spinning" four new scripts out of this early 20th century painting, we were also paying tribute to those "spinster" aunts and cousins who take their title from the ancient female art of spinning threads into a glorious range of multifarious shapes and motifs.

Finally, to our communal reading, in which Philosophy Club participants created a symphony of voices celebrating the lives of those 'lost' female relatives - among them, a number of unsung "spinsters" - whom they had researched on an individual basis. As participants simultaneously read the pieces they had written out of fragments that remained of these women's lives - photographs, recipes, a vanity set, a painting, a hastily scribbled last will and testament, snips of conversation, to name just some of the recuperated scraps we drew upon - those listening to the impromptu performance were able to focus in on individual threads or just let the whole piece wash over them. Like with history, like in the stories we tell about our lives and the lives of others, we can chose to see the trees or we can lose ourselves in the forest. The important thing is that our histories, our stories, get told and passed on so that 100 years from now, at a salon evening somewhere in Montreal, there will be no need to ask where the women are, or why they are missing.

Thank you to all who participated for making this such a memorable event. We will be holding a summer barbeque for members - date to be announced. In the meantime, how about brushing up on your female poets and favourite poems in preparation for the next salon evening on September 8th. A lawn chair, a glass of wine and a book of poetry...what a lovely way to spend a summer's evening!