Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poetry Podcast: Selections from "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing" by Alice Walker

"Her poems are medicine for the soul ." --  Artist Shiloh McCloud from the introduction to "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing"

Listen to the poems here:

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Alice Walker's name is almost synonymous with her best-known, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple."  Yet, to define her solely as a novelist would be like defining light as simply white.  When viewed through a prism, many colors are revealed.   To view Walker through a prism is to see not only a novelist, but a "poet, short story writer ... essayist, anthologist, teacher and womanist activist,"  according to her official biography.
Alice Walker

Walker has directed the focus to the poetry band of her spectrum with her latest collection of poems titled "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing," published in October 2010. The poems were written over the course of one year and are an array of responses to joy and sorrow from a personal to a global level.

It is an example of how the act of writing poetry can be both cathartic and therapeutic and has been used by women as a vehicle for expression of their unique voices for centuries.

Walker describes herself as a "womanist."  It's a term she created that shakes up the definition of feminism and opens up a new, broader perspective.

In her paper titled, "Defining Black Feminist Thought," Patricia Hill Collins says, "Alice Walker's preference for the term womanist  -- a term she describes as 'womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender" -- addresses this notion of the solidarity of humanity.  To Walker, one is womanist when one is 'committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.'"

Many women of color felt marginalized by the mainstream liberal feminist movement that benefited mostly middle class, white women.  And their feelings were valid. The early feminist movement, whether blindly or intentionally, assumed the sameness of all women overlooking the issues of race and class. 

Feminist writer bell hooks underscores Walker's womanist/feminist simile by giving her own definition of feminism, as quoted by Hill, "To me, feminism is not simply a struggle to end male chauvinism or a movement to ensure that women will have equal rights with men; it is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels -- sex, race, and class to name a few -- and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires."

The poems that make up "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing," are a poetic manifesto in support of human solidarity, a tenet of womanism.

Therefore, the old feminist credo of "the personal is political" could perhaps be revised to "the individual is universal."

Related Links:  Alice Walker's website, Palm of Her Hand Foundation.

Bonus:  Alice Walker's interview on NPR's "Tell Me More."  Hear "Loving Humans" in her own voice:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The old battle axe: A forgotten symbol of women's power

The late Mary Daly
There is an expression that isn't used much today.  In fact, I forgot about it until I saw this picture of one of my radical feminist SHEroes, Mary Daly, holding a labrys -- otherwise known as a battle axe -- in Ms. magazine.

The expression is "the old battle axe," and its meaning is somewhat derogatory.  It refers to a hard-headed, domineering woman.

For example, a man might make a reference to his wife by saying, "I'd better be getting home to the old battle axe."

And yet, the battle axe has a long history as a symbol of women's power.  According to, the double-headed axe was used for harvesting as well as a weapon.  It was a favorite of early Amazons that populated what is now Kazakstan in Central Asia.  It was also used in the ancient town of Catal Huyuk, now Turkey, where the Earth goddess-worshiping people used it to clear land and "prospered without conflict for 1,500 years."

The labrys figured prominently in the motifs of the ancient Minoan society on the island of Crete. According to, the Minoan society was "predominantly matriarchal" and its religion featured a bare-breasted snake goddess, believed to be a protector of women as well as a symbol of fertility and agriculture.

Dr. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, a professor of art history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia confirms, "There is plenty of archaeological evidence to indicate that women occupied an important if not dominant position within the practice of Minoan religion ... the predominance of goddesses ... is attested to by the dominant role played by priestesses  in religious ceremonies and the presence of women in ritual context ... Moreover, men are rarely seen in commanding positions, despite attempts to identify them in such positions ..."

The labrys was used for centuries throughout Europe until it was replaced by the sword as a weapon, and the plow as an agricultural tool.

Although not as prominent today, the lore of the battle axe made it a popular symbol of feminist and lesbian power in the 1970s.  This tiger's eye and silver necklace from my jewelry box could now be considered "retro" as well as historic and symbolic.

Never underestimate the power of language for feminism

Language is powerful. That's one of the tenets of postmodern feminism. Every time we speak, we have the opportunity to perpetuate stereotypes and patriarchy, or to reinforce them.

The case Dr. Lazar Greenfield, although extreme, illustrates the need for a careful choice of words, as language is also a sensitive issue and can easily be taken out of context.  Choosing the wrong words can have disastrous consequences that can haunt the speaker indefinitely.

Columnnist/Author Gail Collins
In her book, "When Everything Changed:  The amazing journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present," Gail Collins, a New York Times op-ed columnist, shares significant, postmodern feminist language victories from the 1970s.  Here is the excerpt from her book (emphasis mine:)

Thank you, Ben Bradlee
"Words mattered.  It was an enormous victory in 1970 when Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, told his reporters to stop using such words as 'blond' or 'divorcee' or 'grandmother' to describe women in news stories (The juror, a blond schoolteacher ....) 

"At the New York Times, Barbara Crossette spent her years on the news desk running a rearguard battle against those same unnecessary descriptions:  'Like a short, trim woman ...'where you knew there would never be a 'tall, slightly overweight man.''

"McGraw-Hill outlined an eleven-page policy in 1974 that warned editors about everything from use of the term 'the weaker sex' to cliches about nagging mother-in-laws.  But the longest, hardest battle involved the term 'Ms.'  There were few things that more vividly reflected the philosophy that women were important only in their relationship to men than the fact that they had to be identified as either 'Miss' or 'Mrs."

"If a reporter didn't know whether a woman was married, it was necessary to ask -- even if the person in question was lying dead of a gunshot wound or being awarded the Nobel Prize.

"'Ms.' had been employed in some business correspondence when a marital status wasn't known, and women lobbied to make it the one-size-fits-all equivalent of 'Mr.'  but the New York Times, which many people saw as a particularly critical standard for language style, held out.

"'To our ear, it still sounds to contrived for newswriting,' said the paper's language guru, William Safire, in 1984.

"In the same year, the Times ran a story about Gloria Steinem's fiftieth birthday party that reported proceeds from the dinner "will go to the Ms. Foundation  ... which publishes Ms. magazine, where Miss Steinem works as an editor.

"In 1986, Paula Kassell, a veteran journalist, brought ten shares of Times stock and went to the annual stockholders' meeting to plead the 'Ms.' issue with the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger ... Shortly after, Sulzberger wrote back, thanking her for raising the question and informing Kassell she need not press further; the women had won."

Today's Associated Press Stylebook, favored by many publications and news organizations, goes one step further:

Under "courtesy titles," AP style dictates, "Refer to both men and women by first and last name.  Use courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or in other situations."

Those situations are "when  it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name as in married couples or brothers and sisters ..." or "When a woman specifically requests it."

Fair enough.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

IMHO: The case of Dr. Lazar Greenfield: Language is important, but so is good taste and context

The Detroit Free Press reports that  Dr. Lazar Greenfield has resigned as president elect of the American College of Surgeons under pressure from "outside organizations contacted by women" stemming from a Valentine's Day editorial he wrote for the Surgery News, the organization's newsletter.

Dr. Lazar, 78, is a prominent surgeon, now retired, and a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Michigan. He is the inventor of the Greenfield Filter, a device that "prevents pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis." 
Dr. Lazar Greenfield (courtesy of John Flesher, Assoc. Press)

In a Valentine's Day editorial column Lazar says was "intended to amuse readers," Lazar suggested that "semen trumps chocolates as a Valentine's gift because of its mood enhancing benefits for women," said the Freep.

Greenfield was talking about recent research about the sexual "chemistry" between men and women and the role the specific presence of semen plays in it.

In part, the column reads:

"Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

"So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates."

Greenfield says he is unjustly being labeled as "part of an old-guard generation that repressed women in surgery."  He says this could not be further from the truth.

He defends himself on three counts:
  1. The verbiage has nothing to do with a public health implication or any kind of recommendation.
  2. His comments were based on information that appeared in "peer reviewed journals" and was "well corroborated by others."
  3. The group's former female president told him she didn't find the comments objectionable.
The column appeared in what Greenfield described as a "throwaway newspaper, not a scientific journal" that reaches a "supposedly mature readers interested in new discoveries."

The ACS has pulled Greenfield's column from its website, but here's a link to the full text, courtesy of

Also available is the transcript from the Freep's exclusive interview with Dr. Greenfield.

There is no doubt that language is the strongest tool in perpetuating or eliminating sexist stereotypes and negative perceptions about women.  That's why postmodern feminists emphasize the importance of deconstructing language with the goal of eliminating such stereotypes and references.

However, it is also important to consider context and good taste in the equation.

Perhaps Dr. Greenfield's commentary was an attempt at trying to be creative or cute.  He seemed to be trying to link the romance of Valentine's Day to the research of human chemistry.

It was an attempt at humor directed to a very specific audience in a niche publication.  Unfortunately, not everybody saw it that way.

There is also the factor of taste.  This is subjective.  But, I believe it is at the crux of this controversy.

The "outside organizations contacted by women" were not identified, but I'm sure there are those who will say that their response to Greenfield's writing was extreme.

And, given the context and taste factors, maybe it is. I do not believe it was necessary for Dr. Greenfield to resign from his position as ACS president elect.

Greenfield claims to be an advocate for women in medicine and told the Freep that "half of the surgeons at U of M are women now, in part because he hired them out of residency programs at the university."

Of course that statement is the good doctor's opinion.

If nothing else, this incident proves that not everybody is a clever writer, not all are sensitive to how language can be construed,  and not everybody -- even high professionals -- demonstrates good taste.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Get your green on! Here comes Earth Day

Attention all ecofeminists and earth advocates:

 Earth Day is this Friday, April 22.

Although we don't need a designated day to perform an "act of green," here are some simple things we can do and encourage others to follow our example:

  • Pick up a piece of garbage and put it in a proper receptacle.
  • Recycle a soda can or plastic bottle.
  • Bring a reusable bag to the grocery or drug store.  Throw an extra one in your car.

    (See related event below.)
  • Go meatless for one day -- one of the best things you can do for the planet.
  • Switch to one nontoxic cleaning product.
We can't do it perfectly, but every little bit helps.

Also, check your local newspaper or website for local Earth Day events in your area.

Here in Troy, Mich., Whole Foods Market at 2880 W. Maple Road is sponsoring a plastic bag recycling event on Friday, April 22.  Bring 10 or more bags and receive a free recycled tote while supplies last.  No purchase necessary.

Cherie joins forces with NOW

It's official, I'm a member of the Oakland County Chapter of the National Organization for Women, NOW.

Although NOW is considered a liberal feminist organization, and I don't consider myself a liberal feminist, I believe NOW provides a good network for insights into women's issues such as reproductive rights and violence against women.

I look forward to working with Oakland County NOW and attending its important events.

Oakland NOW is co-sponsoring a pay equity event with The Wayne and Macomb Chapters, along with Michigan NOW.  Learn why women make less than men, what laws are related to pay equity and how to negotiate equitable pay.

Date:  Thursday, May 19
Time:  6:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m
Location:  AJ's Music Cafe, 240 W. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, Mich.
Admission:  FREE

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Contrasts in bipolar perception: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vivien Leigh

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones  recently checked herself into a mental health facility for treatment of her bipolar II disorder, otherwise known as manic depression. 

And we all know about it.

Whether it's due to her openness in an effort to dispel the long-persistent stigma attached to "mental illness," or a preemptive strike against the tabloid press, is not known, and really doesn't matter.

Her story illustrates at least a perceived acceptance of mental illness for what it is -- a legitimate, medical condition.

It wasn't always that way.  In the not-so-distant past, when publicity could bring personal shame and professional disaster, it was considerably harder for those who lived in the public eye to seek treatment or cope with their conditions.

A case in point is actress Vivien Leigh.

She is remembered for the role that made her an icon -- Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 production of "Gone With the Wind."  The film -- and her performance in it -- plays as fresh as it did over 70 years ago.

While Leigh's greatness and immortality via the stage and screen is secure, she truly suffered with bipolar disorder, and it took a toll on her personal and professional life during the 1940s and 50s.

Leigh biographer, Anne Edwards, describes the strain on Leigh's marriage to fellow actor Sir Lawrence Olivier this way:

"Coping with the acceleration of her hysteria and the manic-depressive periods was weighing Olivier down.... He was becoming more and more aware that they were losing what they once had and that nothing would ever quite be the same.  He felt -- as did Vivien -- that because theirs was a superior, sublime love it could survive most difficulties.  Yet he was growing increasingly alarmed that her extremes of manic behavior could change that, and that the direction of their relationship was moving out of his control...."

Edwards continues:

" ... During her well periods she (Leigh) was the same grand and gracious hostess, the same thoughtful friend, the same sensitive and caring companion.  For Larry (Olivier) and Gertrude (her mother) it was like living with two different women."

Zeta-Jones -- along with six million other bipolars -- can be thankful for advances in treatment.  They don't have to endure, as Leigh did, shock treatments that left her burnt.  Other treatments included sedation.

And, while  today's medication and therapy, if followed, can make bipolar disorder manageable, this was not so in the 1940s and 50s.  Edwards describes the mindset of the day:

"She (Leigh) had -- at least until medicines became more advanced in the area -- an incurable disease, and she new it."

Further, Edwards quotes Leigh as saying, "Why can't I have a decent, clean illness?"

Edwards continues:

"She hated illness of any sort, had absolutely no sympathy with it ... If you we're ill, you just got over it and you ignored it or you got it fixed quietly and with dignity.  Having something mentally wrong was shameful."

Her companion, actor Jack Merivale, tried to encourage Leigh by saying, "Why should you feel ashamed?  What an example you are to so many people who suffer from this, and to think you can lead this successful life, battling against this.  It's a most morvelous example to any and all, and you should be a figure of hope and encouragement to thousands of people."

Leigh didn't buy Merivale's reasoning, which was, in retrospect, openminded and ahead of its time.  Perhaps now, that time has arrived.

A view-worthy video from ABC's Good Morning America:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yo -- Jay-Z : Nobody says "chicks" anymore

Q: You are the coolest man on Earth, how the f did you get like that?


I'm around great women, starting with my mom. Women keep men cool. The hotter the chick the cooler the guy ... that sounds like a really bad rap line!

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and rapper Jay-Z -- aka Shawn Corey Carter --  exchanging questions on their respective websites.

Sounds like Jay-Z's heart is in the right place -- if only he'd stopped after the first sentence.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Would Elizabeth Cady Stanton be proud? New Bible translation eliminates patriarchal language and reflects modern usage

Courtesy of the Detroit Free Press

The best-selling book of all time is getting an update to keep pace with modern language usage while eliminating some patriarchal references.

Zondervan, an evangelical Christian publisher based in Grand Rapids, Mich., has released a new translation of the New International Version -- its first since 1984.  The goal is to make the the text more readable for the general public in view of connotative changes in the English language.

The graphic on the right, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press, depicts one such revision at Romans 3:28 where the word "man" is replaced with "person."

A similar -- albeit grammatically incorrect -- change takes place at Revelation 3:20, where Jesus said,  “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”   The new NIV translation,  reads  " with that person, and they with me.” 

Is this a victory for post modern feminists, whose perpetual goal has been to deconstruct language in order to root out gender and sexist stereotypes?  Maybe.

Such revisions of have always been controversial, especially when it comes to issues of gender.

The Committee on Bible Translation was criticized by conservative Christians in 2005 who felt that a its Bible translation titled "Today's New International Version, " or TNIV, went too far in its use of gender neutral language.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a conservative Christian group based in Kentucky that favors traditional male-female roles, said there were more than 3,600 problems related to use of gender in the TNIV.

But, the gender controversy reaches farther back to the days of first wave feminism when Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- one of the original suffragettes -- didn't like what she read in a revised translation by the Church of England in 1888 --  a revision 277 years in the making.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Stanton was upset that, among other things, the church did not consult biblical scholar Julia Smith in the revision process.

So, in 1895, Stanton set up her own "revising committee" to evaluate what calls, "the Judeo-Christian legacy and its impact on women through history."  Her goal was to not only to "correct Biblical interpretation which they (the committee) believed was biased unfairly against women," according to

The end result was "The Woman's Bible," a version that includes feminist commentary by Stanton throughout. says "While many of her views are still controversial, time and advances in womens' rights have lessened some of the shock value of this book."

The Woman's Bible is considered a classic feminist text and is still in print today.

Stanton did not go so far as to proclaim God was a woman -- and neither does the new NIV translation.

The NIV translation committee says, “Nowhere in the updated NIV… is there even the remotest hint of any inclusive language for God." 

Yet, with this new translation, Stanton -- as well as today's postmodern feminists -- can claim a significant victory with the inclusion of gender-neutral language in a sacred text without changing the essential meaning.

And it only took 116 years.