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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week 6 of the Philosophy Club: Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, to the Invisible Matron

Alas, our journey into the ins, outs, and betwixt-and-betweens of the Invisible Matron came to an end on Thursday evening, and what a finale it was! Our standpoint in this closing session of our six week Philosophy Club series was that of autobiographers, which meant that the time had come to turn the spotlight on ourselves. Though this might have caused some distress in the early days of our adventure together, we were all quite comfortable embracing our inner matrons and negotiating the line between feeling seen and unseen out there in the wider world...In part because, through our readings and group discussions, we had come to consider midlife as a pretty exciting place to be at in our lives; in part because we were recognizing the new freedoms and meaningful connections that lay in not being central to other people's lives, but rather to our own.

It was an evening of revisiting some of the highlights of this shared philosophy experience - personal revelations that came of communal writing exercises, insights into how each of us learns and teaches best as explored though our membership salon evening in early May, research projects into female family history that have gained a momentum of their own and will be carrying on far beyond this current series. It was an evening that delved into the history of women and the autobiographical genre - examining how in times gone by, it was the letters and diaries of "great women" that spoke to the pains and sacrifices, the successes and accompanying swagger, that came of their achievements, and not their published autobiographies which were narratively flat, assumed a passive voice, and were all too quick to attribute any hint of accomplishment to Lady Luck or some Higher Force. For the few "great women" of yore whose stories were actually deemed worthy of an autobiography, the hard truth of what it entailed to dodge convention, to be "great", had to be concealed. The only acceptable way to come across in one's autobiography was as an exception to the general rule for women with its emphasis on domestic servitude over public service, with its prioritizing of marriage and child-rearing over education and a career. If this societal agenda meant that this very small band of storied "great women" were denied the opportunity to serve as either models or mentors to girls and women hoping to follow in their path, it goes without saying that women deemed anything less than exceptionally "great" were entirely overlooked when it came to the autobiographical form.

A different voice started to emerge, however, in those personal memoirs that accompanied the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Feminist thinker and literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun speaks of a voice that was no longer speaking from the sole standpoint of "the exception chosen by destiny or chance," but rather, from a plethora of standpoints: "lesser lives, great lives, thwarted lives, lives cut short, lives miraculous in their unapplauded achievement." It was with this opening up of the autobiographical genre in mind that we set about assembling our own stories of Self: releasing our creative juices to the tune of the dizzying spinning of Mary Daly's radical Spinster scribes; taking a page out of Germaine Greer's book as we assumed an "outward gaze" in order to see not the "I" of the male gaze, nor the self-conscious "I" of our own "mind's eye," but an "I" that, in giving in to wonder and feeling the immensity of a world beyond our-selves, could actually become a Self - calm, detached, joyful, integrated, whole. Thus, in a series of quick exercises, we located and experienced that Self in different paintings around the room; in the poetry of Emily Dickinson - "Ourself, behind ourself concealed/ Should startle most;"; in concepts that had stuck to us through the course of this six-week series.

A reading of these "autobiographical" sketches brought the evening to an end, and with it, a great sense of achievement and a heartfelt moment of celebration on the part of the graduating class of the wwp Philosophy Club's 2011 Spring Session. For my part, I am just astonished at what we have created by way of a living and breathing philosophy around the figure of the Invisible Matron. If anything is going to shatter the myth that philosophy is stuffy and inaccessible and dry, this is it!

Though it is sad to see this fantastic group of women disband and this rich experience come to an end, I take heart from poet Elizabeth Jennings' words: "The poem leaves you and it sings." As we take leave of each other, the song begins. As we step a little more boldly, a little less gingerly, into our respective thresholds, we know that this is the place where, as women, we write our own lines.