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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nellie McClung: Likable Rebel Brings our Series to a Challenging Close

It was with a sense of celebration and a tinge of sadness that the Philosophy Club brought our "Rebel with a Cause" series to a conclusion this past Thursday. Hats were the order of the day as we doffed our cap, so to speak, to charismatic campaigner for Canadian women's suffrage, Nellie McClung (1873-1951). Never without a stylish hat as she hit the campaign trail and took her message of a better lot for women from one public venue to the next, her apparent lack of anything even remotely resembling a 'bad girl' persona found us questioning whether 'Our Nell' actually belonged in our rebel hall of fame. If a split opinion on this matter precipitated a discussion of what, in fact, constitutes 'bad' behaviour when you are operating in a world that treats you badly, it was clear that the Nellie we had come to know through Charlotte Gray's (2008) look at her life and achievements (Nellie McClung) and Janet Fiamengo's (2008) examination of her use of rhetoric ("Nellie McClung and the Rhetoric of the Fair Deal") was our most obviously 'likable' rebel. Moreover, we could not help but be impressed by her extraordinary oratorical skills, by her unfaltering commitment to a cause in which she believed, and by the integrity she showed in the face of both heady accolades and vicious attacks.

Never too big for her boots but leaving behind a mightily formidable pair of boots to fill, there was something solid about Nellie McClung, something good. And no, this solidity, this goodness, had little to do with her allying of female suffrage to the Christian Women's Temperance Union - a tactic, this, that probably spoke as much to her conviction that alcohol abuse on the part of men was having a detrimental effect on women's and children's lives, as to her determination not to alienate the majority of women from a cause - attaining the vote - that, at that point in time, was seen by many as hot-headed and radical: a threat to home and family. Rather, it sprung from the way Nellie moved in and through the world: buoyant, fiesty, generous, hard-working, kind, compassionate, conscientious...wholesome.

And yet, for all that she was wholesome, she sidestepped the slippery slope into sticky sweet as a result of the sharpness of her wit. That, and because she was clever and charming. Using these assets to her advantage, she became popular. Though she spoke about prohibition and women's emancipation, her speeches were considered to be great entertainment. People - all sorts of people - flocked to hear her speak. If Nellie McClung was a rebel, she was a mainstream rebel. She was to early 20th Century women's rights what Ellen de Generis is to early 21st Century gay rights: personable, accessible, nonthreatening; using girl-next-door ease and a home-spun sense of humour to break the proverbial centuries-old ice.  First, with pushing through the vote for women, and second, with the constitutional bestowing upon women of "personhood" as a member of The Famous Five, Nellie McClung revolutionized Canadian society whilst sporting a fine-feathered hat.

All to say that Nellie McClung raises important questions about the trope of the female rebel - questions that we explored through exercises that probed how Nellie differed from the other 18th, 19th and 20th Century rebels in our six week survey, and where the similarities lay. In terms of the latter, here's a word of caution to any future female rebels out there: expect to be demonized for being a negligent mother or daughter or wife or partner as a result of being faithful to your cause; and brace yourself for a barage of comments about how you look and what you wear irregardless of whether you comply with feminine conventions of the time or not. Sorry, gals...Plus ca change and all that...

From Nellie up close, we proceeded on to Nellie in context. Working from insights I had gained into the trope of the female rebel through specific points raised by participants during the course of our six sessions together, we created eight thematic headings. Using these themes as our jumping off point, we crafted a collective treatise about the female rebel.
The treatise itself reflected each one of our rebels...

From Mary Wollstonecraft, we borrowed the form. Entitled "A Vindication of the Female Rebel," our own version of this tract-style argument famously used by Wollstonecraft and designed to justify and defend a certain cause or course of action, began with Wollstonecraft's famous line, "It is time to effect a revolution in..." and concluded with a comment she had made in a letter to her sister just before she wrote her landmark Vindication, "...And I am going to be the first of a new genus...I tremble at the attempt."

From Leonora Carrington, we borrowed the method. Returning once again to the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse with its celebration of "the mystique of accident," we built a separate "collective collage" around each of the eight themes that comprised our 'Vindication.' Asking ourselves whether the end result of this game-like approach to serious tract-drafting would, as Max Ernst insisted, be a case of "mental contagion" revealing the "unconscious reality in the personality of the group," we were equally interested to see whether this exercise in cross-pollination would reveal an understanding of the female rebel that bespoke common sense, nonsense or a whole new sense.

From Colette, we borrowed style. This seemed fitting, given that Colette has been called France's greatest literary stylist. It also presented a significant challenge, having to "make sparks fly" between each of the words we used. For this, according to post-structuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze, is what style is. In the case of Colette, sparks flew between words because of her glorious juxtapositions. Just as her attitude to life was to dwell in the "marvelous commonplace," so too did her prose: these kinds of unexpected word twinnings setting off within the reader little ripples of pleasure, little tingles of suspense. This, of course, was the root (and route!) to Colette's reputation as a sensualist: her words, the way they jostled for a place and slipped into a certain position in any given sentence, creating a richly sensual experience for the reader. Roland Barthes has suggested that whereas literary form is cultural, literary style is personal: style being our own special signature - the individual twist - with which and through which we embellish the literary conventions of our society and era. Which meant that we didn't all have to produce sensual writing a la Colette...But that in working towards making those sparks fly, we did have make our writing sizzle towards some end or other, as well as stamp our own individual mark upon the 'Vindication .'

From Margaret Sanger, we borrowed tone: a strong and forceful tone at that. This was, after all, a 'Vindication' of society's defiant and challengers, its subversives and fighters...Not much to make light of there. And as Margaret Sanger had been quick to point out when fielding accusations that she had no sense of humour, she wasn't in the business of making light. In her unflagging support of the poor and the voiceless, she was, in her own words, the spokesperson for those people "who have nothing to laugh about." Leave that to the Nellie McClungs of this world, she might have thought to herself - to those rebels who have the tact of a diplomat and the gift of the gab, and can elicit from even the solemnest of subjects a heartfelt belly laugh as she works the crowd. No, in being the one to set the tone of our 'Vindiction' it was evident that our "magnet for controversy" Margaret Sanger was sticking to her guns. Which meant, somewhat ironically, no guns...Calling not for "frothy tin horns screeching - a popgun here, a popgun there" but rather, for "the deeper sounds of an outraged, angry, serious people," what Sanger's instructions regarding tone were telling us is that those Colette-ish sparks were going to fly in the name of an outraged and angry and serious end product.

Finally, from Nellie McClung, we borrowed the orator's gift of craft and delivery. This was, after all, Nellie's week, and fired up as we were on her prodigious rhetorical skills as exemplified in the script of her 'mock parliament' stage triumph in Winnipeg in 1914, as brought directly into our living room courtesy of an old 1938 CBC radio clip of her address to a Parliament Hill audience as a plaque was unveiled in honour of The Famous Five, she was bound to play a starring role in our 'Vindication.' In terms of craft, we followed Nellie's standard speech formula when assembling our collective collages: a few lines to "disarm" the doubters, a development of our key arguments in order to "engage and convince," and, to end, a spirited "call to action" which put the walk back into the talk. In terms of delivery, we wore hats, of course; but also, tried to inject a little of Nellie's impeccable timing and eloquent flare as we each, in turn, delivered a segment of the finished 'Vindication.'

As for the themes that kept emerging as we worked the trope of the female rebel over our six weeks together, that we spun an exciting line of philosophical questioning in and through and around during this time, and that we attempted to evoke in our final 'Vindication,' these were: The rebel as a set of contradictions; The rebel as a distinctly female trope; The rebel as a site of on-going struggle; The rebel as a case of 'complicated kindness'; The rebel as necessarily 'bad'?; The rebel as 'to ego or not to ego...'; The rebel as a troubling heroine; The rebel as a troubler of Time.

We brought the series to a close by turning the focus on ourselves: reflecting on which of the five rebels we most resembled, least resembled, liked best, liked least, would most like to borrow something from; contemplating those aspects of our own characters that most lent themselves to being a rebel, and those aspects that found us scurrying for cover at the very mention of the 'r' word. The results of this exercise in self-reflection were revealing. If we were refreshingly divided when it came to selecting our rebel of choice and our rebel alter-egos, we were almost unanimous in our admiration of the rebel's ability to put her convictions and/or cause well ahead of the comfort that comes of being liked and esteemed by others. Similarly, we were generally humbled and awed by the courage that each of our rebels seemed to possess, and by the single-minded determination that kept them 'on task' for a sustained period of time, and often in the face of relentless opposition.

As we handed out 'Certificates of Achievement' that not only marked Club participants' 'graduation' from this latest wwp learning experience, but also spoke to their respective rebel acts during the course of it, we raised a glass to both the Class of Spring 2012 and to welcoming more radicalism - more appetite for life and living fully! - into our lives. We are looking forward to a shared celebratory meal with our fantastic Philosophy Club members at the Nurtury in early June. And we are already planning the next Philosophy Club series, which will take place when we return from our wwp roadshow across Canada.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Margaret Sanger: Rebel with a Singular Vision

This past Thursday's salon evening – our last before we break for the summer and head out West with the wine women and philosophy roadshow -  was entitled "Stepping Up, Speaking Out, Standing Apart." Drawing on insights gleaned from our current Philosophy Club series, "Rebel with a Cause,"    participants explored what it takes and what it breaks to put one's vision for a better world ahead of all else. To help us with this work we focused in on a woman who certainly did just this: American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Our chosen 'conversational' format for the evening was soapbox oratory - a 'step up, speak out, stand apart' form of address that Margaret Sanger enthusiastically embraced in the name of her cause – legal and easily accessible birth control for all women – and employed, albeit with butterflies in her gut, in a variety of ways throughout her life.

Because Club members had already spent four weeks exploring the trope of the female rebel, they were counted on to act as co-hosts for the evening. At an informal level, this meant helping anyone who hadn't been part of the session to understand more about how we had worked this trope: through the lens of 'The Master's Tools' as elaborated by Audre Lorde; through the notion of 'world-traveling' as suggested by Maria Lugones; and through the lives and works of three other rebel women – 18th Century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, French woman of letters Colette, and surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

On a slightly more formal note, and in preparation for the evening, Philosophy Club members had  been asked to read excerpts from Ellen Chesler's 1992 biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman of Valor; a chapter from Margaret Sanger's An Autobiography, (1938) in which she reflects back on the period of her life – 1914 – when she produced her radical magazine promoting birth control, The Woman Rebel; and a selection of editorials that appeared in this magazine, along with details of Sanger's indictment for 'Misuse of Mails' that followed the publication and distribution of it, as discussed by Esther Katz.

Out of this rich body of material, Club members were expected to pick up on a concept or to select a passage that spoke to Margaret Sanger's cause-related brand of rebelliousness, and that equally spoke to them. Then, they were to craft a short oratory piece out of it. In delivering the resulting piece, they were encouraged to experiment with the soapbox that sat in the middle of the room – to stand on it, sit on it, refuse it, do a handstand on it, whatever!...Just so long as they experienced what it felt like to negotiate a place for themselves in relation to that soapbox and to the assembled crowd, and to take note of the feelings that accompanied that negotiation. But that is to slightly jump ahead. First, before we starting using that soapbox, we had  to familiarize ourselves with the history of this egalitarian and generally improvised form of communication.

Also known as street-corner oratory, the two or three decades preceding World War I are considered to have been the heyday of soapbox oratory in both the UK and North America. In England, the consolidating of the North-East corner of London's Hyde Park as 'Speaker's Corner' in 1872 paved the way for a lively soapboxing culture that continues to this day: this former site of the gallows, where public hangings had been sure to draw a sizable crowd, giving way to the educating and entertaining perogatives of free speech. Though largely a platform for political and religious proselytizers, basically anybody with some bone to pick and some semblance of an elevated platform from which to do that picking (wooden crates in which soap was delivered just happening to be cheap and readily available, hence the adaption of the term 'soapbox') was welcome to participate. And because crowd heckling was an equally important part of the formula, this was a form of entertainment that everybody could get involved in.

In a previous salon evening devoted to the art of conversation and the value of asking good questions (see blog entry on February 11, 2012), we had looked at how the Golden Age of Salon Culture in France, and to a greater extent the growth of Coffee House Culture in England, had loosened the hold of the ruling classes over freedom of expression, and had acted as both training ground and semi-public forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions. If these institutions marked the beginnings of the democratization of talk, the evolution of soapbox oratory marked its pinnacle. To soapbox or to listen to someone soapboxing required no official venue, no entrance fee, no formal credentials. Here was an art form that was aimed at the masses and that, moreover, represented the concerns of the masses. For accompanying the burgeoning of street corner oratory both in the UK and in North America was the burgeoning of trade unionism, of anti-religious sentiment, of calls for universal suffrage, of radical politics, of educational reform, of activism aimed at improving the lot of the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged...In short, it was an out with the old and an in with the new era. In the UK, this meant breaking free of the straight-laced yoke of Victorianism. In the USA, this meant an insistence that the First Amendment, as constitutional rhetoric, translated into the right to free speech, as practiced on the factory floor and the busy street corner. In Canada, this meant severing the umbilical cord with England and the emergence of national identity, national health, and national heroines like Nellie McClung...But more on her next week!  

In effect, the soapbox was where you honed your skills as an effective speaker and where you cut your teeth if you wanted to become a leader. In the days before the radio became a feature in every home, it afforded you and your cause a certain degree of visibility and a grass roots kind of following. In a sense, yesterday's soapboxers are today's bloggers...Which brought us back to the present, and that soapbox sitting in the middle of our salon, and our Philosophy Club members taking courage in hand and one by one stepping up, speaking out, standing apart. 

Appropriately - given that we were using this forum to learn all we could about Margaret Sanger - we had a club member who miraculously found herself channelling the dogged and tenacious proponent of 'family limitation' as she struggled to reconcile herself to having little time for her own family given the extraordinary demands of her vocational cause. Moved by the plight of poor working class women whose health and that of their existing children was severely jeopardized by their inability to limit additional pregnancies, Sanger drew on her experience as a young working nurse in the slums of New York to make a convincing case for both legal and affordable contraception and her own self-sacrifice.

Fast-forward to Margaret Sanger at 78, and two club members who had remodeled the soapbox into a Punch and Judy style stage in order to re-enact, with puppets, her famous 1957 TV interview with a chain-smoking Mike Wallace. Wallace's hounding of an ailing Margaret Sanger was relentless and her answers to his leading and pointed questions were tentative at best, incriminating at worst. If that interview has gone down in history as one of this pioneering woman's lesser moments, our club members' brilliant re-enactment of the interview constituted one of wwp's finer moments. So too did a beautifully delivered rendition of one of Sanger's spirited editorials in her inaugural issue of The Woman Rebel, in which she urged women to revolt against repressive laws denying them freedom over their own bodies. In between these stand out moments we were equally awed by a call to celebrate rather than repudiate the contradictions inherent in Sanger's personality and political choices; by an ode to Sanger as an inspirational working class heroine; by an impassioned critique of the kind of slandering and scapegoating that Sanger has been subjected to in recent years by pro-lifers, among others, who have twisted her words and robbed them of their original context in order to denounce her; by a clever analysis of Sanger's ability to ride between camps and rally a wide range of supporters to her cause; by a consideration of the message of hope that Sanger brings to women who are being personally demonized today for believing in, and fighting for, a cause that will be seen as part of 'natural' and 'common-sense' thinking tomorrow; and by a rousing tribute to the Sangers of the world who give women the courage and means to empower themselves and others.

Taking this message of empowerment to heart, those attending the salon who had not participated in the Philosophy Club were invited to try out the soapbox and give voice to their own concerns. A stirring soliloquy to package-less broccoli – yes, broccoli! - will live on forever in the memories of those of us lucky to witness it. On this verdant note, a few final words from Margaret Sanger which speak to her contentiousness as a public figure and the wide range of emotions she evoked:

            “I have been called in turn a vile person, a person with a barnyard philosophy, a God-send, the greatest woman of the century, the counterpart of Abraham Lincoln and a horrible creature...Rather conflicting epithets, but I go on doing what I believe to be right, carrying a message of help, as I believe it to be.”

In the spirit of Margaret Sanger we'll be carrying our 'Rebel with a Cause' series to its rightful conclusion this coming Thursday, when we turn our attention to Canadian suffrage campaigner Nellie McClung.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Leonora Carrington: Rebel-in-Exile

Coming together for the fourth session of our current Philosophy Club series last Thursday, we found ourselves considering the female rebel through the lens of surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Born into a well-to-do family in Lancashire, England, in 1917, Carrington’s childhood and adolescence reads as a litany of expulsion. Refusing to cooperate in both the classroom and the games hall, she was expelled from two successive catholic boarding schools. Resisting the feminizing agendas of finishing schools in first Florence, then Paris, she failed to make it to the finishing line of either. If she found refuge from familial and societal expectations in art, what fueled her creativity was the alienation she felt from the high society world into which she had been born, and the anger she felt over the role within that world for which she was being groomed. She hated being a debutante, and turned her official ‘coming out’ party at the Ritz in London into a shocking short story that made a mockery of the ‘marriage market’ mentality informing this archaic upper class ritual. After running away to Paris with Max Ernst at the age of 20, she quickly rejected the ‘muse’ moniker assigned to her by the surrealist fraternity and became a serious painter in her own right. Finding herself on the run yet again – first from the Nazis in Occupied France in 1940, soon after from her childhood nanny ‘minder’ following a stint in a mental asylum in Spain – she responded to being disinherited by her father by entering into a marriage of convenience, escaping war-torn Europe, and making her way via New York to a life of personal and artistic freedom in Mexico.

It was here, at last – a refugee exiled in a foreign country – that Leonora Carrington stopped pounding rebellious fists against a world into which was supposed to fit (and didn’t) and started creating a world into which she did fit – a world that revolved around making art, cultivating friendships with other artists-in-exile, raising children, fighting for causes (amongst these, women’s rights), learning all she could about her adopted home, living by her own personal ethos: “To yourself be true, then you will not be false to anyone.” It was here, too - with these biographical details under our belts - that we began to 'work' Carrington’s story in the context of what we have learned about the female rebel thus far, and to coax from her story new insights into this complex and, at times, paradoxical trope.

A quick survey of Paris-based 1930s Surrealism got the ball rolling: not only did this revolutionary anti-bourgeois art movement form the backdrop of Carrington's artistic and literary practice; the movement's over-riding exhortation to use any means necessary to "lay waste to the ideas of family, country, religion" clearly resonated with how Carrington had led her life from the outset. Small wonder that Andre Breton, who penned the manifesto from which this exhortation is drawn, called Leonora Carrington Surrealism's "authentic heroine"...Seeing, in this young, beautiful and "transgressively independent" woman who subverted social conventions and enjoyed a wildly bohemian lifestyle, the very embodiment of his movement. If the philosophical tenets underlying the Surrealism within which Carrington was initiated and then put on a pedestal were brought home to us when we played "Exquisite Corpse" - a party game created by Breton et al to highlight "the mystique of accident" which was, for the Surrealists, a metaphor for life itself - it was through doing a feminist reading of Carrington's 1938 "self-portrait" that we began to see how "wild child" Carrington had subverted, in turn, the relatively passive role of "femme-enfant" assigned to her by the male Surrealists, and started to carve out a richly intuitive surrealist tradition that was independent of them.

Fast-forward about 70 years to some wonderful film footage of Leonora Carrington being interviewed in her Mexico City kitchen by British journalist Joanna Moorhead - a cousin of Carrington's who, on discovering the existence of this long-lost artist relative, went off to Mexico to 'find' the black sheep of the family. A better 'portrait' of the female rebel at age 90 one could not find...Carrington is sharp, funny, insightful, tough, her own person. She insists that to intellectualize art, to try to explain what one of her paintings means, is to totally miss the point...For a woman whose life has been defined by exs - expelled, expulsed, exiled, expatriated -  there is one 'ex' that Carrington will not abide, and that is explication. In spite of what Carrington might have to say about our inevitable fall into analysis, we work this idea: seeing in Carrington's youthful flights from anything that might have tied her into a role, pinned her to convention, the possibility that to rebel is to be active, to be in movement - ever resisting the narrowing down, the cinching in, the packaging up, that accompanies ex-plication (from the Latin plicare - to fold away).

This idea was carried forth into our viewing of Ally Acker's video rendition of Carrington's short story, "The Reluctant Debutante." In addition to providing us with the perfect forum for exploring how "active" resistance and "passive" complicity can, at times, walk hand-in-hand in the persona of the rebel, this surreal tale of a 'masked' hyena who almost succeeds at 'passing' for a young woman at her 'coming-out' ball provoked an important discussion of the impact that social class and economic privilege can have on becoming a rebel in the first place.

Leonora Carrington died just last May, at the age of 94. She never courted publicity, which means that you won't find much about her, or by her, in the library or bookstores - not in Canada, anyway. That said, she is famous in Mexico. And luckily, there has been a renewal of interest in her life and art in the UK over the past few years, due in large part to Joanna Moorhead's efforts in organizing a retrospective of her work, along with that of other women surrealist artists, in 2010. We can be grateful, too, that Carrington lived well into the era of mediated hyper-visibility, which means that you can catch her in a number of candid interviews on You-tube, and in so doing get a marvelous sense of what she was like as a person. In terms of getting a glimpse into what becomes of the much-mythologized 'wild child' rebel when she grows up and grows old, this on-line resource proved invaluable to the Philosophy Club: allowing us to bring our evening to a close with a discussion of age as it relates to the female rebel; linking us, interestingly enough, back to our Invisible Matron series, and the question of whether women grow more or less radical as they age.

Next week, the Philosophy Club draws on what we have learnt thus far about the female rebel and leads our monthly members' salon evening. The rebel at the centre of this salon event is birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, and the conversational form that we will be using to explore Sanger's life and work is soapbox rhetoric. Looking forward to seeing you there!