A few recent events give me that hope, including the life of the great French filmmaker, Agnes Varda, whose death was announced Friday. Called the Godmother of the French New Wave—those films that introduced me to the medium’s possibilities—she was securely a feminist who “made the invisible visible” and who lived long enough—until ninety—to enjoy her recognition. Renowned for the transparency of her technique—her camera was her eye—as well as for her immediate embrace of new technology, she presented the awards at the Cannes Film Festival for years, most recently when she told an interviewer she knew she was in the last year of her life. For those who do not know her work, many of her films are available as well as an excellent homage in The New Yorker.
Many women who are icons are known only from one image, often taken in old age, and so it is refreshing to know that the great abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, born in slavery and a powerful force for freedom through her work on the Underground Railroad, now has a portrait taken in her youth on display in Washington D.C. it may come as a surprise to those who only know her grim face in old age that she was once a pretty young woman wearing a fancy dress. Although I always encouraged my writing students to start with a character’s action, not her looks, it remains true that some of our fixed attitudes, especially about women, are only swayed by the appearance of a new image.
Harvard University, which sits on a sixty billion dollar endowment, a small portion made from the endowment for women’s education of my alma mater, Radcliffe College, no longer existing, is finally beginning to emerge from the halo that for too long has blinded too many eyes. Bribes offered and accepted to shoehorn the undeserving elite into its Freshman Class hardly come as a surprise since the old system of nepotism, which works alongside the money, has been in effect for generations. But the insensitivity that allowed the university to make hay out of its photo of the slave Renty and his daughter is being brought up short by his female descendant’s lawsuit to reclaim ownership of her great-great-great-grandfather’s portrait, and the portrait of his daughter.
Again we have an example of the burst of activity that we are seeing and feeling everywhere, especially in Congress, where the newly elected women are refusing to stay politely in the background, waiting to be granted seniority—especially Representative Alexandria Ocaso-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and possibly the most outspoken.
As this Women’s History Month fades rapidly away, I have hope that we will continue to move forward. I am especially grateful to Duke University and The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture where we continue to collect, preserve, restore and exhibit the rich history we women have created over the generations.