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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Revolutionary Rebel: A Vindication of Mary Wollstonecraft

The Philosophy Club came together yesterday evening for our second session of wwp's Spring 2012 series, Rebel with a Cause. In keeping with the driving force of this week's rebel, Mary Wollstonecraft - that firebrand 18th Century campaigner for a good education for girls and women and with it, entry into the realm of "rational citizenship" - matters pedagogical created a unifying thread for the evening's discussions and exercises. Amongst our concerns: the various strategies we had employed to get the most out of our first set of assigned readings; those moments of exaltation and frustration accompanying our respective learning processes; what for each of us constituted a "good" educational experience in the context of wine women and philosophy; and what it did to us physically, emotionally, and mentally to "think deeply."

Building upon this thread we compared Wollstonecraft's ideas about education to those of Jean Jacques Rousseau - for indeed, the tract for which Wollstonecraft is best known, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was written in large part to challenge Rousseau's suggestion that girls, because of their possession of "unique traits" that differentiate them from boys and fit them well for their primary future roles of wife and mother, do not require the same education as boys. To add nuance to this debate between Wollstonecraft and Rousseau over whether women and men are innately different, as well as to help us in our ongoing collective task of shaping a working methodology that embraces rather than erases our own differences, we wove in another thread: Audre Lorde's (1984) suggestion that we have to develop tools for using the plurality of human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives, and in so doing work towards dismantling the kind of simplistic binary thinking (good/bad; superior/inferior; man/woman) that both underlies and feeds into those hierarchical power relations that produce, at the bottom of the heap, a "dehumanized" subject. This particular thread - somewhat incongruously! - led us back to Mary Wollstonecraft's central argument: that without a proper education, without the chance to develop their ability to reason, women were being deprived of their basic right to become fully human.

Yes, it was an evening of many threads and of these threads, a dense and sometimes complicated pattern was woven. But in the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft's creed that the "intellect will always govern," we were performing mental gymnastics in order to get to the heart of what made this "daughter of the Enlightenment" tick.

Virginia Woolf's (1929) moving portrayal of Mary Wollstonecraft's 'catching' of the revolutionary bug that swept through Europe, and specifically France, in the latter years of the 18th Century offered an important insight into how our rebel-of-the-week's democratic principles were transformed into decisive action...moving being the operative word here, as Woolf's prose positively gallops along at the same pace that one imagines Wollstonecraft tore through life. Not only did it lend an added visceral dimension to our understanding of Wollstonecraft; it also allowed us to experience vicariously the swirl of revolutionary talk and activity into which Wollstonecraft was drawn as she "dashed" over to Paris and, in the midst of all that turmoil, penned her indignant and no-nonsense Vindication.

Working Woolf's text alongside Wollstonecraft's own words, we were able to see how this early proponent of female education turned her personal experiences into a powerful rhetorical tract; her most heartfelt convictions into real-life experiments. Bringing into the discussion some definitions of 'Revolution' drawn from The Feminist Dictionary, we could see how the tendency of Revolutionary forces to dismiss women and their concerns once the main battle has been won had made a number of woman-centred philosophers and writers feel more than a little cynical about just how 'revolutionary' these man-led revolutions actually are.

If this latter observation echoed a comment made by Sheelah on week one - that perhaps the always-thorn-in-the-side rebel is to female as the soon-to-slide-into-power revolutionary is to male - the actual act of bringing these various texts into dialogue gave us a chance to practice the art of on-the-spot synthesis and analysis. Which was fitting on this particular evening, given that an exuberant interweaving of practice and theory was, in fact, a defining feature of Wollstonecraft's approach. Because for all that she celebrated reason over passion, the rational mind over the unruly body, she did not shy away from her own passions and she was not afraid to revisit and revise her theories when those passions shed new light upon them. Our revolutionary rebel, we realized, was a mass of contradictions and moreover, not afraid to embrace those contradictions. The world, however, was not so ready to embrace them...Which is probably why Wollstonecraft has been variously referred to as a "prim moralist" and an "immoral wanton," as a "hyena in petticoats" and a "pioneer," as a "high-priestess of loose-tongued liberty" and an "uncompromising idealist"...Which is probably why she has flowed in and out of favour over the past 200+ years.

At the end of the day, though - and her day ended abruptly and painfully after giving birth to her second daughter at the age of 37 - Wollstonecraft was an egalitarian feminist in that she felt that women should strive to be equal to men: enjoying the same opportunities; benefiting from the same rights and freedoms. And though she saw femininity as a "man-made" social construct, she was willing to work her ideas within a system that men had created, rather than strive to overthrow that system: challenging not the idea that women should remain in the private sphere fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers, but rather, insisting that they had to change the way they performed said roles. For Wollstonecraft, this meant performing them with the same reasoning mind, rational judgment, and set of virtues that men were expected to possess out there in the public sphere. For Wollstonecraft, it was education and education alone that would prepare women to be better mothers and wives in the private sphere, and expand women's choice and chance of occupation if they opted instead for the public sphere. To Audre Lorde's famous declaration,"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," Mary Wollstonecraft would have probably retorted, "The house is fine. Just give me those master's tools so I can get into it!"

Reflecting on how much a person and their beliefs are a product of their time, we considered whether rebels were necessarily of their time, ahead of their time, or timeless! In light of Mary Wollstonecraft's egalitarian agenda, we also considered just how much of a rebel she actually was. Our tentative conclusion was that the term "revolutionary rebel" probably fit her perfectly, combining as it does that mix of stepping up and standing out for your cause whilst simultaneously, staying within certain boundaries, certain limits - keeping that old revolving door turning, turning. What we all enjoyed about Mary Wollstonecraft was her willingness to treat life as an experiment, the "spontaneous enthusiasms" she expressed for people and ideas, and the "responsive vibrations" her quick mind and active spirit appeared to have provoked in and for others.

As we turn from the rational and reasoning Mary Wollstonecraft whose passions sometimes ran away with her, to the bodily and bawdy Colette who was one of France's most lively and provocative intellects, we will take these reflections forward with us.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Philosophy Club up and running...And Nan Brodie is with us every step of the way

The wwp Philosophy Club came together on Thursday evening for the first session of our Spring 2012 series. Entitled “Rebel with a Cause,” this latest six week philosophy experience revolves around the trope of the female rebel, and the role that having a cause plays in the birth and evolution of her real life incarnation.

First on the evening's agenda was a toast to Rona's grandmother, Nan Brodie, who sadly passed away on March 18th at the age of 102. Nan is very much part of the wwp story, having been a strong supporter of this educational venture for women since its inception. Our studio up at the Nurtury is named after Nan, and a portrait that she commissioned of herself on her 100th birthday presides over the Nurtury dinner table. A woman who lived by her own rules, who had a wonderful sense of humour, who was a staunch defender of the underdog, who was keenly interested in other people, who enjoyed good food, fine clothes and beautiful hats, who loved to travel, who moved house at 98, who taught one granddaughter how to fish and flew in Concorde with the other – Nan's appetite for life was an inspiration to those who had the good luck to know her, as well as to those wwp members who have come to feel that they know Nan through Rona's stories of her indomitable gran. Nan – you live on in the spirit of wine women and philosophy, and you will be greatly missed.

It struck us, as we raised our glasses to Nan Brodie, that Nan's approach to life resonated far more with that of the Rebel than with the Invisible Matron who animated our last Philosophy Club series. It was a fitting observation as we turned to the task of hammering out a suitable methodological approach for this current series: a task that necessitated a brief return to where we had already traveled together as a working group.

To recap: last session we adopted a method of inquiry called “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology.” Sensitive to the needs, history and societal positioning of the Invisible Matron, this was a method that allowed us to privilege and honour each and every woman's own 'lived experience' and locate from within this experience a valid and valued 'standpoint' from which to speak. A generous and encouraging methodology, it lent itself well to our task of luring the Invisible Matron out of the shadows, standing patiently by as she caught her breath in the limen, and then gently prodding her outwards and onwards towards greater visibility and a stronger sense of her own voice.

In terms of this voice, we quickly realized that in moving into the realm of the rebel, we were making a move from voice as “finding it” to Voice as “Shouting It!” Thinking back to the Invisible Matron, we could see just how much of the literature we had looked at during that series spoke from a confessional standpoint and a highly personal place. It was a voice struggling to find itself. It was a voice that spoke for itself, of itself, and to itself – sometimes, though not always, with a thought for those other selves out there who might hear it and recognize it, and in that moment of recognition, feel less isolated, less alone. But that voice's primary purpose was to put itself and its experiences on the map. It was a voice that had to speak this way, for what it was saying had not been voiced before. It was a voice written out of official histories. It was a voice that wasn't seen to matter in the grand scheme of things. By writing themselves into the public sphere, our Invisible Matron diarists and letter-writers and biographers and novelists had carved a place for themselves in people's consciousness and paved the way for those wayward rebels who concern us now.

Or had they? Certainly, there are plenty of rebels out there who would beg to differ on this point – and how! What is clear from the outset is that our rebel isn't content with the confessional mode. Our rebel has done with talking of herself to herself in the vain hope that someone out there will hear her and sympathize, empathize and, god-forbid, mobilize! No, our rebel's chosen voice is the tract, the treatise, the avant-garde novel or performance, the shock-value painting. What concerns our rebel is action. For most of our rebels, voice is action.

In this context, voice comes to incorporate a wide range of expressive forms...literary, artistic, physical, behavioural – in fact, one of our collective tasks as a rebel-centred working group will be to see just how far our definition of “voice” can stretch. Another will be to unpack the very term “rebel” – a term which, given Philosophy's tendency to fancy itself as Christianity's rebellious cousin, is surprisingly under-theorized within the realm of traditional Western philosophy. And while we're at it, we'll be taking a stab at the term “cause” too – attempting to break it out of its philosophical straitjacket of “causality” and find for it a more engaged and engaging raison d'etre...Starting, as we did together on this first evening, with a look at it through the etymological lens of causerie, or "informal discussion."

Our own causerie soon took us into the terrain of those rebel women who will inspire us as we do this philosophical work: “founder” of modern feminism Mary Wollstonecraft, surrealist artist in exile Leanora Carrington, Belle Epoque author and 'bad girl' Colette, American birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and Canadian suffrage fighter Nellie McClung. Each of these five women enjoyed considerable success as a writer, even when their reputations as rebels sprang from other aspects of their lives. Each of them challenged the way women were expected to behave and act and live, and championed greater freedoms for women – albeit in their own very individual ways. And with the exception of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose short if eventful life took place in the latter years of the 18th Century, each of them “came of age” as a rebel in the first half of the 20th Century. Where they differ, however, is in the way they related to their respective cause(s), the way they lived their rebellion, and the way the rest of the world perceives both them and their rebelliousness.

For example, some of these female rebels were motivated by an irrepressible desire to change something they didn't like about their situation or that of others. These rebels didn't necessarily set out to be a rebel, but they did feel compelled to act. You could say that their cause found them, turned them by necessity into women who walked on 'the wild side' of societal norms and conventions.

Then there's that other type of rebel... The one who – even when born with a silver spoon in her mouth (or perhaps, some might venture, because of it) – is hell-bent on spitting that spoon out and turning herself and her world upside down. Unable to settle, creative and impetuous, expelled from schools and fired from jobs, driven sometimes by anger but equally by devilry, obstinacy, desire, adventurousness, passion, or sheer joie-de-vivre, this rebel stumbles over causes and attracts causes to her and will even go out and find herself a cause if needs be. Among those causes, “The Cause” will often feature, for in her very rebel being-ness she defies traditional ways of being a woman and she confounds those who seek to restrict her choice of roles and impose restraints on her rights and freedoms. But she's a rebel-first-cause-second kind of woman. She doesn't necessarily chose to be a rebel. She just can't help it!

A number of individual, paired and group exercises throughout the evening allowed us to start getting to know which of these two types of rebel sat more easily with us, which – if any – we identified with, and what your typical female rebel “looks like” at different stages of her life. We also explored the idea of the rebel as a distinctly female positioning and with it, a form of protest, in a world that has not only marginalized women but imposed limited possibilities and strict codes of behaviour upon them within those marginal spaces. This is a point we will pick up again next Thursday as we look at Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in light of the place and context she wrote it – Paris during the French Revolution.

But to return to our task for this particular evening...Because for all that we had worked the rebel and the cause, we were still a working group in search of a methodology. We knew it had to jive with our trouble-making, rabble-rousing protagonist. But here's the catch...How to create for ourselves and for our group as a whole a comfortable and productive working space within a method that reflects the spirit and nature of our sometimes prickly, sometimes difficult, sometimes dissident, central trope? For indeed, just as our last Philosophy Club session found us stepping into those sensible midlife shoes of the Invisible Matron (if only to prove how little those shoes really said about her), this session is really about pulling on those steel-capped boots, climbing up onto that soapbox, and feeling, speaking and living the rebel within us. This means finding our way into her if she isn't immediately apparent to us; it means finding a way to express her that sits easily and is heard; and it means finding a way to inhabit her that makes us feel like we can change the world, fight for a cause we believe in, find a cause to believe in, know what to do when a cause finds us, or simply see rebels and their causes from a new perspective.

And then we found it...a methodological approach called “'World'-Traveling.” Created and developed by Argentinian-born feminist philosopher Maria Lugones (pictured below), this is an approach which seeks to break down the boundaries, as well as create connections and importantly embrace disconnections, between all of your various 'selves' and all of the other 'selves' out there occupying their respective, if multiple, 'worlds'. This is an important point to Lugones' way of thinking: this idea that each one of us is not a unified 'self' but a cluster of selves, one of which – depending on what situation we are going into or what system we are having to negotiate – will be called upon and sent into that particular 'world' to do our bidding. We do this traveling between 'worlds' quite unconsciously on a daily basis, suggests Lugones, so why not mobilize it and use it as a way to consciously and lovingly travel into unfamiliar 'worlds' and expose ourselves to difference? For indeed, the struggle to reach across our differences and create something fruitful, exciting and revolutionary out of those differences (as opposed to ignoring them, skirting around them, or becoming totally paralyzed by them) lies at the heart of Lugones' project.

Lugones' primary technique for 'world'-traveling is playfulness, and the result of this play – if indeed, your 'world'-traveling is successful – is a concrete change in your own sense of who you are. Through 'world'-traveling, you can develop what Lugones terms a “Mestiza Consciousness” - that is, a consciousness which is actively resistant, which is prepared to challenge oppressive rules and conditions, and which is located not in any one 'world' but rather, in-between 'worlds.'

Next week, we'll be drawing on Audre Lorde's theorizing of difference to help us work towards a “Mestiza Consciousness.” And in addition to delving into the life, writings and Revolutionary times of our first rebel, Mary Wollstonecraft, we'll also be learning more about what it takes to be a successful 'world'-traveler Maria Lugones-style. In the meantime, thanks to our Philosophy Club members for making the first leg of this new journey such an invigorating and pleasurable experience. I don't know about the rest of you, but I am looking forward to 'world'-traveling together!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

WWP Celebrate International Women's Day 2012

Thursday evening's salon in celebration of International Women's Day was a joyous occasion that paid tribute to women who have fought to make our world a better place to live in, whilst tapping each of us into our own “inner activist.” As an event, it epitomized everything we love about wine women and philosophy – women coming together to share their knowledges and spark each others' learning and create, in the process, a rich and vibrant contribution to a story that is still unfolding. For indeed, the story of women fighting to change their circumstances and carve out a place for themselves in an often hostile political and social climate is one that goes way way back, but is far from over – a fact that was brought home to us as we 'surfed' the waves of women's activism and found that for all that we have achieved, well...there is still plenty left to rock the boat about!

Below, you'll find a photographic flavour of the night's celebrations - a night that began with Rona's presentation of the origins of International Women's Day; that then turned to action wwp-style as participants took to their work stations (organized around the three major waves of western feminism) to 'workshop' ideas stimulated by artifacts from each of these waves; that culminated in three lively and insightful poster presentations.

It was one of those evenings where we worked hard and played hard and came away with not only a better sense of our collective history as women, but of our solidarity as wwp members. Thank you to all who took part. We were delighted at how well the evening went and will definitely be making IWD an annual event for wine women and philosophy. Thanks also to Carolyn for her delicious cake and to Sonia for the flowers. Both gifts made our celebration that much more festive...They also segue nicely into our next salon evening on April 12, which will revolve around 'the gift' in all its many guises (and disguises!)