A week ago, I had the distinct honor and privilege of speaking to 300 students and faculty at Morehead State University in the far eastern corner of Kentucky. The experience will stay with me for a long while.
Due to the devoted efforts of my new friend, Professor Michael Harford, the students had created 30 posters to announce the event; I’m including one here, which made the most of my career.
The day was designed to honor and commemorate the work of the eighty-eight year old wife of a former president of Morehead, Wilma Grote, who had established the first symposium for the advancement of women in 1991.
After Mrs. Grote was pushed onto the stage in her wheelchair, her husband, following in his, reminisced about their long life together. He remembered fondly when they were first married and Wilma, at 22, “with her big brown eyes and lashes so long she couldn’t wear colored glasses,” had protested when her husband was hired to teach at the college and she was consigned to teach elementary school. She was better prepared than he, she announced to their interviewer, having two certificates in education versus his one.
No one mentioned the outcome, which, given the era, was probably that—brown eyes, lashes, and all—Wilma Grote was sent to teach elementary school.
Given the devotion and perseverance this couple displayed on the stage, the title of my talk took on an unintended ironic tone.
Stealing the phrase, “The Rogue Factor,” from a review of Moira Weigel’s new book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, I used Jonathan Swift’s outrageous A Modest Proposal (1729) to suggest an equally radical idea: that romantic love is The Rogue Factor in all our lives, disrupting education, career and dreams, perhaps especially for the very young, fresh-faced audience in front of me.
I knew better than to mention birth control and legal abortion during my talk, but of course they were on my mind, and I am quite sure some of the young women listening to me were sharing these anxieties.
Indeed, after my talk, a tall young man approached me to say—almost in a whisper—that his cousin had gotten a girl pregnant and was marrying her—they were both eighteen—in spite of this student’s heartfelt advice that they should follow their heads, not their hearts.
Of course it was a little too late for that.Being called a “trailblazer” is an honor I share, in a different way, with the nameless pioneer women who braved the wilderness to found what became the state of Kentucky.
Although the marker at Harrodsburg, the recreation of an 18th century wilderness fort Michael and I visited on the way to Morehead, would more appropriately commemorate the Shawnee whose moccasins, indeed, printed that soil, the enduring pioneer women deserve remembering, as well—especially at a time when so many endured the early deaths of their children, as another marker and a gravestone at Fort Harrod reminded me.
The site of that marker brought back a poignant memory. When I first saw it, at six or seven, on one of the family drives out into the state my father so much enjoyed, I was mystified by the description, “The first white child.”At that time, it seemed to me all children were white. The black men and women who served us had no children, as far as I knew, since they were never seen or mentioned, although there were five or six of them, being raised by relatives. And in that long period of segregated schools, I never saw black children in my classroom or even glimpsed them on their way to the black schools in the west end of town.
As far as I knew, at that early age—I had never heard of Native Americans—the world was filled only with white children, and so the marker seemed odd and out of place.
Later in school, I was taught that there had never been any Indian settlements in Kentucky, and that the name meant “Dark and Bloody Hunting Ground” because various tribes, unnamed, crossed it hunting.
These untruths are still being repeated in text books.
In fact, some of the bloodiest encounters of the Indian Wars occurred within sight of Fort Harrod, which of course was why the settlers built it. The Shawnee, who had camped and hunted there for decades, were exterminated or driven to reservations in Oklahoma as the relentless tide of white settlers and soldiers pushed into the Ohio Valley.
One of those settlers was my six-times grandmother, Margaret Erskine, who was taken by the Shawnee as she and a band from what would become West Virginia pushed through the Cumberland Gap, two years after the Revolution.
Her four years with the Shawnee will be the topic of my next book—once I finish the final editing of my biography of Doris Duke.
The full text of my speech, delivered on April 18, 2016 at the Wilma Grote Symposium for the Advancement of Women at Morehead State University.
Moving to the Front
In honor of Wilma Grote and the Symposium for the Advancement of Women
A Radical Idea
According to the seventeenth-century definition of the word “radical,” it means “going to the origins, essential.”
I’m going to use as my example the writer Jonathan Swift, who in 1729 wrote and published “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country…”
His solution: fatten up undernourished children and sell them as food to the rich Irish landowners who would be responsible for the great Irish potato famine of 1845. The famine killed eighty thousand people through disease and starvation and forced the emigration of 2.1 million Irish, almost entirely to the U.S.
Swift’s proposal was written to shock an audience in England that seemed to ignore what was going on in Ireland—a situation similar to what is going on in this country today.
Of course he was being ironic. Sometimes it takes a combination of irony and outrageousness to wake up comfortable people who are oblivious to what is going on around them.
I hope to shock you by proposing that the advancement of women, in spite of 166 years of strenuous effort, (Women’s Rights Convention, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1840) is slowed by our notion of the nature of love and its link to marriage or partnership.
I don’t mean the love of God, or of your neighbors, or of your fellow human beings, or of this beleaguered planet. I mean personal, sexual love, which will overwhelm and confuse all of us at some point in our lives.
As Moira Weigel writes in her new book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, love is a “rogue element” that inevitably disrupts both individuals and society.
And while, as she argues, the labor of dating may refer mainly to upper-class white Americans, the labor of marriage or partnership is a life-long goal, acknowledged or not, for many of us.
For all the changes we are, fortunately, witnessing in gender definitions, the search for love remains unchanged, no matter the nature of its object.
How does this “rogue element” influence the slowing of the advancement of women we have witnessed in the last decade?
Since we humans usually seek harmony, dependability and safety, the rogue element—love—scares us, as it should, challenging our values and throwing our priorities out the window in a whirlwind of excitement. For women, those priorities include education and advancement in a career. How many women do you know who have abandoned their education or their career in the pursuit of love?
The distraction of love is inevitably short-lived: the energy of the original attraction dies after a while.
Since that is so hard to accept, many of us, women particularly, try to convert love into a basis for marriage—marriage or partnership viewed as the ultimate enforcer of peace and stability.
But paradoxically, as Weigel argues, marriage or partnership exists not to support and nurture love but to support and nurture capitalism, by creating an economic block: two working people (now often working four or six jobs between them), who pay their taxes, who buy, buy, buy, undertaking high-interest loans, mortgages and student debt and thereby keeping the machinery of capitalism humming smoothly along.
That humming depends on self-discipline, self-sacrifice and a lifetime of often low-paid labor for women, especially single mothers. None of which has anything to do with love.
In that scenario, the woman has no time or energy to reflect on the personal or social consequences of her choice, to vote, demonstrate, write letters to her political representatives—or even to plant a garden. She doesn’t have time or energy to wonder what happened to that ideal, equality, in the terrible struggle just to survive.
So I am arguing that the search for partnership—mistaking it for love—has drained our social movements, particularly the women’s movement, of leaders, followers, money and new ideas.
How does this effect you personally?
For us women, it means accepting that for our life-long labor, we will never make the same amount of money as our male colleagues. Women have been stuck for decades at earning, at all levels and in all professions, 79 cents to the dollar earned by men.
21 cents may not sound like much, but over the thirty-five years of working, it mounts up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to the 2015 report by the American Association of University Women, full-time, year-round women workers in Kentucky make an average of $33,704 dollars a year, while their male coworkers make $42,203.
Write that figure down and remember it the next time someone says that gender equality is no longer an issue.
As Eric Fromm wrote in 1956, “under capitalism, all activities are subordinated to economic goals.” Since women do most of the unpaid labor at home, we are also contributing our time and energy to supporting this inherently unfair system.
Now, in case the men in the audience are getting restless, I want to spend a few minutes describing the way the slowing of the advancement of women adversely impacts you.
Many men who grew up in families where the mother worked both at home and outside accept this as a fact of nature, although certainly some of those sons noticed their mothers’ fatigue and discouragement. Perhaps they even noticed how little power they wielded when faced with abuse.
A love of hierarchy seems inborn in many of us, women as well as men, but when in this unequal society men are often working part-time jobs at low wages—and the colleges and universities are some of the worse offenders—partnering with someone who is making even less means, inevitably, that the higher earner must work more.
And for all the men who secretly subscribe to the “barefoot and pregnant” formula for women, there are many more who welcome the challenge and excitement of sharing life with an equal.
It’s hard to foster equality with an overworked and underpaid person, perhaps less educated, perhaps less ambitious, less hopeful, who spends a lot of time washing clothes and dishes and diapering babies, who is working for minimum wages at Walmarts and who may gradually read less, explore less, and find little time or attention for new ideas.
With the enormous changes in gender identity, the same forces that subject women—economic and historical—bear down on those who are still perceived by many because of their gender identity as being barely human.
So what can we do, rather than sinking into despair?
First of all, each of us has to consider to what degree we chose to be a part of this system. It may seem that there is no choice. But every day there are many choices: to buy, or not to buy, to patronize the big box stores because of their low prices and ignore their abominable labor practices and their support for sweatshops in China.
To undertake more debt.
To buy houses or apartments which are not, and will never be affordable.
Or to pay exorbitant rents.
To undertake disabling student loans rather than searching for colleges with adequate scholarship programs.
And even to question to what degree our search for love, partnership, and marriage—these fundamentally incompatible states—stops our forward movement as individuals and as a society.
The inequality that affects women impoverishes all of us.
I hope that some of you here today are artists—writers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, actors—who are at the start of your apprenticeship in the arts.
Your works as artists are enormously important in moving all women forward.
First, you define yourself and are defined (at least by some) in terms of your work, not your relationships. The first thing you must do is begin to call yourself an artist—naming yourself has power.
Then, you are able, through your art, to reach under and over stereotypes, to communicate, often without words, but with images that can be more powerful than words, that can convince, move, and even change the attitudes of your audience.
Because I believe in the power of art—not decoration!—to influence attitudes toward women, I founded and endowed a not-for-profit foundation in Louisville called “The Kentucky Foundation for Women.”
Check out its website. Through a twice-yearly submission period, a jury of peers selects women in the state who are artists and who are also feminist, using their art, whatever form it takes, to change perceptions about women.
The Foundation also runs a beautiful retreat house, called Hopscotch House, outside of Louisville where women who are artists stay for free in order to work on their projects.
The Foundation is committed to geographical diversity within the state, and since there are never very many submissions from this area, your chance of success, if you apply, is high.
So look up the website and take the challenge.