Monday, December 22, 2014

The last flower of 2014


The last flower of 2014

THE last flower in my garden this year is an early Fall blooming camellia that decided to put forth just one more bloom. Sometimes the last flower is a rose and I did have a few roses in early December. But a flower in late December is special.

I try really hard to have something blooming all year but that period between the last chrysanthemums in late November and the first snow drops in early January is a challenge.

Anybody out there whose garden has been graced by one last flower?



Sunday, December 14, 2014

Thank you Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren!





Thank you Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren for fighting the good fight and for alerting us to the poison pills in the $1.1 trillion spending bill dubbed the cromnibus bill.

Maybe it is the best bill possible, and as many Democrats claim, anything passed by the new Republican Congress would be far worse.

Yes, it contains funding for the Affordable Care Act in what will be a critical year for the future of Obamacare. This could be the year when ACA becomes an integral part of the safety net with a growing constituency who will fight to expand it. If it unravels now, it could be a long time before we have another shot at universal health care. Yes, the Affordable Care Act falls short of universal coverage but it is working much better than expected and if we get a Democratic President and Congress in 2016, there is the opportunity strengthen and expand ACA.

The bill also contains some good news on immigration. Although the Department of Homeland Security, the agency administering most immigration policy, is funded only until February 27, the bill contains new funding for immigration programs at other agencies. For more details, see break down of bill here.

But the price we’re paying is weakening of financial regulation and campaign finance laws. I suppose one could argue that there’s so much money in the political system now, how could it get worse? We’re about to find out.

And one could argue that it will be easier to reinstitute laws regulating derivatives and restricting contributions to political parties than it would be to resuscitate a defunded Obamacare.

We can undo this mess if we can ever convince those Americans–woefully under represented in the 2014 midterms elections-- to vote in 2016 and in 2018!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I finally saw Fruitvale Station



I finally saw Fruitvale Station, a documentary about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in Oakland early on New Year’s Day, 2009.

The film came out around the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin and I felt I just could not take it. Since then we’ve had the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley.

I don’t think I would have watched Fruitvale Station if my son, who doesn’t have a Netflix subscription, hadn’t asked me to order it for him. There it was lying on the dining room table waiting for him to pick it up, so I decided to give it a try.

The film’s director, Ryan Coogler told the New York Times: “I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something." Coogler succeeded. If we ever get beyond racial hatred and fears, we will owe a great deal to artists who help us get outside of ourselves and see the world from another’s perspective.

Coogler worked closely with Grant’s family to create an accurate portrait of Oscar's life, and with the exception of a little poetic license here and there, apparently did so. Grant was struggling to get his life back on track; the tragedy of his death and its impact of his mother, girlfriend, and young daughter is powerfully conveyed.

I think in some ways I was blocking my emotional response to the killings and Fruitvale Station broke through my defenses. If I were still teaching, this is a film I would definitely use in the classroom. For over three decades, I was always looking at books, articles, and films with an eye to their classroom potential. Old habits die hard. Although I have no intention of returning to teaching, I find myself still thinking about how a book or film would work in the classroom.

Just as we owe a great deal to artists like Coogler in helping us understand the costs of racism, we also owe a great deal to what we call the millennial generation, the most diverse generation in American history and more liberal on racial and social issues than previous generations. Barack Obama would not be president without them. Now they are in the forefront of the demonstrations against the recent killings.

Police involvement in racially motivated killing is nothing new in American history. But the killings have never before generated such broad-based outrage. Many Americans—-particularly young Americans--are in agreement with President Obama; "When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem..It's incumbent on all of us as Americans ...that we recognize that this is an American problem and not just a black problem. It is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law."

If I were to use Fruitvale Station in the classroom, I would pair it with footage of the recent multi-racial demonstrations and with a film clip of President Obama’s response. Just can’t get out of the habit of making lesson plans!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My bulbs are still not in the ground!

My garden on November 30, 2014.

My bulbs are still not in the ground! Wednesday’s snowfall really set me back. While the snow has disappeared in most of the city, it is still hanging on in my Mt. Airy garden. An insurance adjuster once told us that we were over 400 feet above sea level. In the heat of summer, this has its advantages--when I get off the train at Mt. Airy station, it feels at least ten degrees cooler than in the lowlands of center city. But the downside is that the snow melts much more slowly up here.

I sure hope the snow is gone tomorrow so I can finish the job. I used to have no problem getting hundreds, sometimes thousands of bulbs in the ground in the period between late-October and late November, prime bulb planting season. But I have to face the fact that I no longer have the stamina for this and stop ordering far more bulbs than I can easily plant. One more adjustment to old-age gardening.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

November is the cruelest month




What a difference a week makes! All my beautiful leaves are on the ground and my trees are "bare ruined choirs.”

The poet was wrong—November is the cruelest month. Winter is getting harder for me with each passing year. I still love seasonal change-—and a little bit of winter can be fun--but it’s not even December, and I’m already so tired of cold weather.

Winter is supposed to be a time for curling up with seed catalogues and fantasizing about gardens to come. During my working years that was enough—-now I’m not so sure. As soon as I finish the book I’m working on, I plan to reward myself with a little greenhouse, but that reward will probably not come this winter.

I plan to set up a Facebook page for other gardeners who are having trouble facing the winding down of their gardens and wondering how they are going to get through until April. Maybe that will help.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Glorious Fall of 2014





This has been a glorious Fall. And although it’s kind of wild and unkempt, my Fall garden has never been more beautiful. For some reason, the reds seem more intense than usual and the golds more luminous.



Usually by mid-November most of the leaves have fallen, but this year they’re hanging on. It can’t last much longer, but I want to savor every remaining minute.

Because we were away for almost 3 weeks in October, I’ve had less of a Delaware Valley Fall than usual—-less time for leaf watching, less time for bulb planting and Fall clean-up. The Fall is a great time to travel, but it’s also a great time to work in the garden.

Every year I vow not to order so many bulbs, but every year I succumb to temptation and order far more than I can easily get in the ground before a hard frost. Once again I’m in a race against time and thanks to our vacation am even further behind than usual.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why were Democratic candidates running away from the President and his record??



During the past few months, I was increasingly upset by the way Democratic candidates were running away from the President and his record. President Obama has a record to be proud of—-principally passage of the Affordable Car Act. See Paul Krugman’s assessment of the Obama presidency here

I was stunned that Alison Lundergran Grimes(Democratic candidate for the senate in Kentucky) refused to say whether or not she had voted for Obama. When talking to my husband about this, I said,”What kind of Democrat is she?” His response:'What kind of person is she?”

The political pundits are all giving their reasons for the Democratic defeat, but the cowardice of Democratic candidates, their refusal to stand by the President has got to be way up there among them.

For me, the big lesson of 2014 is that we’ve got to make voting easier if we are to get more people to participate. When I was teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia in 2008, a group of women in my Women’s Studies class who worked at the same hospital had an elaborate scheme to cover each other at work so they could vote for President Obama. They lived in one neighborhood, worked in another neighborhood and took CCP classes in a third neighborhood. So getting to work, school, picking up their children from school and finding time to vote was a real challenge. They were willing to do this to vote for President Obama, but I doubt if they would make these heroic efforts in the mid-terms.

We must make voting easier to enable working people to participate and to elect officials committed to addressing widening income inequality, the major issue affecting working families.

Monday, October 27, 2014

10th Anniversary of the Women’s Advocacy and Outreach Center at Community College of Philadelphia


I was very happy to be invited to give the keynote address at the 10th anniversary of the Women’s Advocacy and Outreach Center at Community College of Philadelphia. I was one of the faculty involved in the establishment of the Center, served on the Advisory Board until I retired, and over the years participated in many collaborative programs with Claudia Curry, the Director of the Women’s Center. The highpoint of my professional life was the development of the Introduction to Women’s Studies Course and then the Women’s Studies/Gender Studies degree and certificate programs.

CCP is to be congratulated for continuing to support the Women’s Center; many community colleges facing hard times closed their Women’s Centers. Unfortunately, the college no longer has a Women’s Studies degree or certificate program. I’m so glad the termination of those programs happened several years after I retired. It would have been too painful if it happened on my watch.

My keynote speech gave me an opportunity to argue for bringing back the certificate program. I can understand terminating the degree program due to low enrollment, but the Women’s Studies /Gender Studies certificate program is potentially very valuable for students. It can be combined with a degree program as an add-on credential and could be especially valuable for students in degree programs such as Justice, Behavioral Health/Social Services, Education. One example: many social service agencies and educational institutions are beginning to take seriously the needs of transgendered persons; students in human services would benefit from gaining an understanding of LGBT issues. I hope at some point, the College brings back the certificate program. This was not the subject Claudia Curry asked me to address, but I couldn’t resist.

Claudia asked me to talk about how women’s issues have changed in the past 10 years. Ten years isn’t a long time and if I were dealing with the ten-year period from 1994-2004 I would have had a hard time. But something did happen in the period 2004-2014 which had a real impact on women and families and caused many of us to rethink how we understand women’s issues.

Of course, I’m taking about what we call the “great recession.” Our economy has supposedly recovered but we all know that many people have been left out of that recovery and we are dealing with growing income inequality. Of course inequality is not just a women’s issue, but women are much more likely to be single parents. Stagnant wages and limited job opportunities are a real problem for many women and families.

The extraordinary successes of the feminist movement have not been shared equally. Women with economic/educational advantages have made enormous progress. Of course, there is still a glass ceiling, but as Hillary Clinton famously said, “there are now 18,000,000 cracks in the glass ceiling.” Despite the backlash against feminism in the Reagan/Bush years, the feminist gains that have benefited middle class and affluent women—-protections against discrimination in the workplace, affirmative action--have remained largely intact. The cultural change has been so pervasive that many affluent white men have been willing to make room for their daughters (think Dick and Liz Cheney), often the same men who have fought against economic policies which would provide opportunities and a robust safety net for the majority of women.

Anyone who has taken a Women’s Studies course knows that the buzzword of the last 20+ years has been intersectionality—that is exploration of the interconnections between race, gender, class, sexuality. Up until recently, class has gotten less attention than race/gender /sexuality. Economic realities have forced us to pay much greater attention to economic inequality.

Many of the issues we have been struggling with for years are still with us, but the burden falls most heavily on low-income women:
Low-income women are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than professional women. A recent NYT article reported that 90% (!) of female waitstaff experienced sexual harassment.
Violence against women affects women from all social classes, but affluent women at least have the economic resources to leave an abusive partner and are far more likely to be treated with respect by the police than low-income women if they decide to press charges against their abusers.
Women still have a constitutional right to safe legal abortion, but in many states low-income women cannot choose to exercise that right. PA is a state that does not provide for Medicaid funding for abortion. What good is a right to control your own body if you don’t have financial means to exercise that right?
In the 1970’s the pro-choice movement did address the issue of equal access, but in the Reagan/Bush years began to retreat from the commitment to reproductive justice for all women. The pro-choice movement is finally once again seriously addressing the access issue. There is an organization, All Above All, formed by young women, many of whom are young women of color, to ensure that all woman have access to the full range of reproductive health care services. The group organized a national bus tour with a stop in Philadelphia on September 9. It was a truly inspirational event.

Yes, Medicaid funding for abortion in PA is not politically possible right now. However, we have seen rapid changes in public attitudes regarding issues also thought politically impossible—-e.g., marriage equality, decriminalization of marijuana. When feminists draw up a women’s health agenda, “women” must include all women, and "health care" must include the full range of women’s health care, including access to abortion.

Clearly, the major change in women’s issues the in the past ten years is the extent which income inequality limits women’s choices. Also, feminism is now a global movement. Global feminism of course preceded 2004, but has become increasingly powerful in the past decade. The global feminist movement is the real story of the 21st century. Feminists the world over are dealing with rising income inequality--a problem with global dimensions.

So what do we do about it? This is a huge problem, a long time in the making, and there's no one solution, but a revitalized labor movement and increased participation in electoral politics are critically important if we are to seriously tackle this income inequality.

A revitalized feminist-led labor movement is essential to addressing the needs of women trapped in low-wage jobs, the women who have not been the major beneficiaries of the feminist movement. In the United States feminism is gaining strength in the labor movement. Women are moving into union leadership positions and, in a sure sign they are approaching critical mass, are competing with each other for leadership positions. In 2010, two women, Mary Kay Henry and Anna Burger, were the contenders for the presidency of one of the country’s largest labor unions, Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This is not your father’s labor movement. SEIU represents the fastest growing sector of the labor movement, and its members are increasingly women, particularly women of color. The rise of women in the labor movement may have as much--possibly far more--significance for the lives of most American women than the gains women have made in business, politics, and the professions.

And finally if we want a more equal distribution of income more people have to vote. Pollsters consider single women an important demographic; unfortunately, single women (particularly young single women) tend to vote only in presidential years. The mid-term elections—-such as the one we’re having on Nov. 4—-determine who controls governorships and state legislatures as well as control of Congress. Decisions made at the state level have a dramatic impact on lives of women and families, particularly low-income women. To take one example, State legislatures decide whether to expand Medicaid and whether Medicaid in their state covers abortion.

Also, state legislatures regulate elections in their state and Pennsylvania is one of the most difficult states in the country to cast a vote, with voter registration closing 30 days prior to the election, no early voting,and a cumbersome procedure for casting an absentee ballot. Fortunately, we got rid of voter ID.

We need to make voting easier if we are to get more people to participate. When I was teaching at the College in 2008, a group of women in my Women’s Studies class who worked at the same hospital had an elaborate scheme to cover each other at work so they could vote for President Obama. They lived in one neighborhood, worked in another neighborhood and took CCP classes in a third neighborhood. So getting to work, school, picking up their children from school and finding time to vote was a real challenge. They were willing to do this to vote for President Obama, but I doubt if they would make these heroic efforts in the mid-terms.

We must make voting easier to enable working people to participate and to elect officials committed to addressing widening income inequality, the major issue affecting women and families at this point in our history.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels


At the request of a friend, I've consolidated my reviews of Ferrante's 3 Neapolitan novels into one more easily shared post:
Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. To date three novels have been published in the series often referred to as the Neapolitan novels. The novels work on many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives, the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This is the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo within the context of a fully realized social world, with language that is nuanced, powerful, that makes you want to linger over her sentences.

Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and speculation about her identity is rampant. In Italy she is widely thought to be the male writer Domenico Starnone. It is difficult to believe that someone who writes so powerfully about the female experience is male–-a reaction shared by all the women I know who have read her books.

The first book in the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, traces the complex, emotionally charged friendship between two young women growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Lina Cerullo (whom Elena calls Lila) was the rebel—-intellectually gifted, mercurial, unpredictable. Elena Greco was the “good girl,” intelligent, hard-working, eager to please. As Lila tells Elena, “you are good at making yourself liked…people are afraid of me.” Their friendship is marked by intense emotional attachment, as well as growing jealousy and competition as their paths begin to diverge. Lila’s father refuses to pay her school fees, thus ending her education at elementary school. Elena’s parents, torn between pride in their daughter's achievement and fear that she will become estranged from then, reluctantly agree to let her continue her education.

No one does the transition from childhood to young womanhood as powerfully as Ferrante. Elena and Lila experience this transition in an impoverished, deeply sexist southern Italian world in which violence against women and girls is just part of the air they breathe. What we now call sexual harassment was something women simply accepted as their lot in life— except for Lila:
On the street the men looked at all of us, pretty, less pretty, ugly, and not so much the youths as the grown men…and [we] had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities directed at us, and keep going. Lila no. To go out with her …became a point of permanent tension. If someone looked at her, she returned the look. If someone said something to her she stopped, bewildered as if she couldn’t believe was he talking to her…
My Brilliant Friend ends with Elena determined to continue her education and Lila married at age sixteen to a prosperous grocer, someone she hoped would rescue her family from poverty and protect her from the scion of the organized crime family her family had pressured her to marry. The wedding scene is brilliantly done both in terms of the complex interplay of emotions as both Lila and Elena realize how much their friendship and their world is changing and also because of the wealth of vividly drawn social detail. Ferrante excels at the cliffhanger ending. The novel concludes with Lila’s realization on her wedding day that she has made a horrible mistake. Ferrante’s devoted readers had to wait to wait a year before volume two appeared to find out how Lila managed to extricate herself from a disastrous marriage.


The second novel, The Story of a New Name, begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of the neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother: “Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence:
They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.
The women accepted abuse as normal. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for a long time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”

Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:
With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on purpose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…
The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, a trap Elena is determined to escape.

Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorated further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. Lila leaves her husband, a dangerous act in a culture in which men see themselves as justified in murdering an adulterous wife. She is soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class. However, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent.

Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back:
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…
Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost:. Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood? Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.
And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.
Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.
Consumed with jealously of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno River. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence. The novel ends with Elena, a successful author at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book.



The third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay begins begins with Elena, a university graduate and successful writer, and Lila, denied those opportunities, a worker in a sausage factory. Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family. She sees him as means of escape from her working class background, yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface. She wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to the Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?

Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena cannot shake the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”

As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of the neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”

Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she soon perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison: “I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable…I hadn’t slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother.”

Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.

Although Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Lila’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."

The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.

Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lila had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.

Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The novel opens with a disturbing image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.

The feminist movement of 1970’s had a powerful impact on Elena. She was not interested in consciousness raising: “...it seemed to me I knew well enough what it meant to be born female. I wasn’t interested in the work of consciousness-raising. And I had no intention of speaking in public about my relationship with Pietro.” But her imagination was stirred by her research into representations of women in literature and she again found her voice as a writer:
And so I pushed on in my speculations form the first and second biblical creations to Defoe-Flanders, Flaubert-Bovary, Tolstoy-Karenina…I discovered everywhere female automatons created by men. There was nothing of ourselves…
She repudiates her former attempts “to make [her] own head masculine so that it would be accepted in the culture of men,”and seeks to “investigate [her] nature as a woman.” Could this be Ferrante’s answer to those readers who think that her pseudonym conceals the identity of a male author? There are times in the novel when we can see distance between Elena Ferrante, the author, and her character Elena Greco. The explicitly feminist passages are not among them.

Both Elena and Lila (and perhaps their creator Elena Ferrante), are what we might call difference feminists. Having grown up in society where gender boundaries were clearly marked and where transgressing those boundaries was fraught with danger, both Elena and Lila see women’s experiences as radically different from men’s. Lila responds to her old childhood friend Alfonso who confesses to her his desire to be a woman:
…get out of your mind that you can be a woman like me. All you’ll succeed in being is what a woman is according to you men. You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will always be yours.
The novel is infused with this sense of female experience as fundamentally different from male experience.

Again we have a cliffhanger ending. Elena leaves her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part three,Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Elena Ferrante’s novels get better and better. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third volume in what will apparently be a four volume series, continues the story of the complicated friendship between two young women, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo who grew up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood in the 1950’s. Thanks to her families (albeit reluctant) agreement to pay school fees, Elena is now a college graduate and Lina, denied those opportunities, is working in a sausage factory.

For Elena Greco, “the essential thing was to get out of Naples; she advises Lila who remains trapped in Naples to “Settle in well-organized lands, where everything is possible.” Elena is engaged to Pietro Airota, the scion of a prestigious family and sees him as means of escape from her working class background. Yet her own class insecurities are never far from the surface, and she wonders if she is fully accepted by her fiance’s family: “What am I to Airotas—a jewel in the crown of their broad mindedness”?

Ferrante has written the best account I’ve ever read of the struggle to climb the class ladder--in Elena Greco’s case, making several leaps from deep poverty to the intellectual elite of Italian society. Elena is haunted by the fear that she is an impostor. At a book signing for her first well-received, autobiographical novel, she is easily intimidated by a critical comment from a man in the audience: “I had become again the poor little girl from the poor neighborhood of Naples, the daughter of the porter with the dialect cadence of the South, amazed at having ended up in that place, playing the part of the cultured young writer.”

As hard as she tries, Elena cannot get rid of the imprint of her background. When she and her husband visit her relatives in the old neighborhood, Elena finds herself reverting to Neapolitan dialect: “I realized that my voice was taking on the tones of the dialect, out of nervousness, that words were coming to me in the Neapolitan of he neighborhood, that the neighborhood …was imposing its language on me, its mode of acting and reacting.”

Marriage to Pietro Airota provides Elena with upper middle class advantages, and helps her to increase her distance from the world of her childhood, but emotionally and sexually her marriage is a deep disappointment. Elena soon realizes she is not in love with her husband, but with the life he could give her. She describes her marriage to Pietro Airota as entering a “protective family, a sort of well-fortified castle.” After having children, she perceived her marriage not as a protected space but as a prison:"I found the isolation I ended up in unbearable...I hadn't slaved since childhood just to be imprisoned in the roles of wife and mother."

Ferrante has written a deeply moving account of the dissolution of a marriage. Reconnecting with her old love, Nino Serratore, made the marriage to Airota more unbearable and Elena experiences a maelstrom of conflicting emotions–-intense love for Nino, guilt about hurting a man who had been in his own way a good husband, deep anxiety about the impact of divorce on her young children---all this along with her doubts as go whether the relationship with Nino would be a lasting one.

Although the novel focuses primarily on Elena, her complicated relationship with Lila forms the emotional heart of the novel. This is a relationship which will endure, as the men in their lives come and go. The trajectory of their lives often moves in opposite directions. When Elena’s life is on a downswing—increasingly unhappy with her marriage, unable to advance her career--Liaa’s life is on an upswing, achieving success in the nascent computer technology industry. Elena has ambivalent feelings about Lila, deeply emotionally attached but envious of Lila’s talent—even at one point wishing that Lila would die. But when Lila is ill, Elena does everything she can to get Lila good medical care and devotes herself to "reorganizing Lila's life."

The personal struggles of these two women take place against the backdrop of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960’s and 70’s. Elena was not all that interested in politics but attracted by the drama of political activism; yet she was also threatened and saw the 1960’s left as posing a challenge to the upper middle class life she was trying to build. Elena was the observer of social movements; Lila, with a deeper understanding of economic injustice was drawn into the political struggle and became a union activist. Lila was deeply critical of the student left’s attempts to build a student/worker alliance—-the arrogance of the students, their ignorance of the factory workers they hoped to organize, their unawareness of the futility of “distributing a densely written leaflet to people who could barely read.” Ferrante, whoever she is, clearly had some experience of the student left of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. Her description is pitch perfect.

Like many women who had some involvement in the 1960’s left, both Elena and Lila experienced a feminist awakening. Elena observes that there were few women involved and they “were mostly silent, flirting with male activists.” Both Elena and Lina had a developing feminist consciousness before the emergence of an organized feminist movement, and Elena had explored feminist themes in her first novel. What many of her female readers found most compelling was the exploration of male sexual selfishness. Elena described “male annoyance, the boredom of one who has already had his orgasm and now would like to go to sleep,” a sexual honesty which resonated with her female readers.

Violence against women, the powerful feminist theme which dominated the first two novels of the series, runs throughout Those Who Leave and Those who Stay. The novel opens with a powerful image of a dead woman, a childhood friend of Lila’s and Elena’s. Elena wonders “how many of those who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Even Elena’s marriage to a mild-mannered, educated man is at one point marred by violence.

The novel ends with Elena leaving her husband and daughters for Nino Serratore, the man she has loved since childhood, leaving the reader to wonder if Elena is making a disastrous mistake. Ferrante has certainly left hints that this will not end well. We’ll have to wait until September 2015 when volume four of the Neapolitan novels is released to find out.

Ferrante’s novels work on so many levels: an exploration of the social and economic divisions in Italy; the extent to which class and gender constrain women’s lives; the difficulty of ever erasing the imprint of one’s background, the complexities of women’s’ friendships over time. This the best book about female friendship I have read since Toni Morrison’s Sula. Ferrante has placed her story of the friendship of Elena and Lila within the context of fully realized social world with language that is nuanced, powerful, language that makes you want to linger over her sentences. How much of the magical language is Ferrante’s or her translator’s? I hope to develop enough of a reading knowledge of Italian to find out.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part two,The Story of a New Name


The Story of a New Name,the second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels begins with Lila Cerullo trapped in a loveless marriage and Elena Greco grimly determined to use education as her route out of her impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood. Elena is haunted by the fear of becoming her mother:
“Would my mother truly emerge from me, with her limping gait, as my destiny?” The women of the neighborhood bore the scars of multiple pregnancies, back-breaking labor and domestic violence. They were silent with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin with hollow eyes and cheeks or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And good god, they were ten at most twenty years older than me.
What I found most depressing in Ferrante’s account of these women’s lives was the extent to which the women themselves accepted abuse. When Lila’s husband, Stefano, tries to beat her into submission, “there was no one in the neighborhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think she need a good thrashing for along time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.”

Ferrante’s sympathies extend to the young men who are trapped in the sexist script written for them from time immemorial; Elena recounts her conversation with Stefano, both driven by and disturbed by the role he has been conditioned to play:

With tears in his eyes, he admitted that on their wedding night he had had to beat her, that he had been forced to do it, that every morning, every evening she drew slaps from his hands on propose to humiliate him, forcing him to act in a way that he never, ever ever would have wanted. Here he assumed an almost frightened tone…
The culture of violence is a trap for both men and women, and for Elena leaving the neighborhood is the only hope for escape.

Elena and Lila’s lives continued to diverge; their relationship deteriorates further when Lila began an affair with the love of Elena’s life, her old school friend Nino Serratore. The relationship led to Lila’s finally leaving her husband, a dangerous act in culture in which men consider themselves justified in murdering an adulterous wife. Lila was soon abandoned by Nino and once again living in poverty while Elena continues her upward climb.

Howver, despite her success in school, Elena is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one and that she is an unworthy impostor. She sees her success as something achieved through “sheer persistence” rather than through talent. Elena wins a scholarship to the University of Pisa and continues her improbable climb from extreme poverty to the educated upper-middle class.

Her success leads to further tension with her family. Her mother is both proud of her and resentful of her success: "I had outdistanced her and she felt it, she resented me for it.” Elena’s engagement to Florentine academic Pietro Airota only deepened the sense of estrangement.

Elena then accomplished what to her family and to herself was the unthinkable—-she published a successful, critically acclaimed novel. As a consequence, she finally achieves a measure of self-confidence. Once she had passively accepted the non-stop sexual harassment that was part of life in the neighborhood. Now she has the strength to fight back
I felt a power that no longer knew how to adjust to the pretend not to notice with which in general, it was possible to survive in the neighborhood and outside it. Whenever in the throng of passengers I felt male hands on my body, I gave myself the sacrosanct right to fury and reacted with cries of contempt…

Although Elena’s self-confidence increased dramatically, the hidden injuries of class were never far from the surface. She realizes that she can never achieve the self-assurance of those who were born into privilege.
Suddenly I was aware of the almost: Had I made it? Almost. Had I torn myself away from Naples, the neighborhood. Almost…Behind the almost I seemed to see how things stood. …I was scared of anyone who had that culture without the almost, with casual confidence.

And the old fear of being overshadowed by Lila never disappeared. Lila had entrusted Elena with a box filled with her notebooks, which she feared her husband would destroy. Elena immediately starts reading the notebooks even though she had sworn to Lila that she would not.

Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentence written when she was still a child seemed to empty out mine…every past effort of mine seemed without meaning.

Consumed with jealousy of Lila’s talent and tormented by self-doubt, Elena throws the box with Lila’s notebooks into the Arno river. Elena, the “good girl” is capable of real malevolence.

The novel ends with Elena, a successful author, at a book signing in Milan. As she did in My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante concludes the novel with a dramatic plot twist: the man Elena has loved since childhood turns up to praise her book. The novel ends with the implicit question: Will Nino destabilize Elena’s life and threaten her marriage as he did with Lila?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In love with Elena Ferrante: Part one, My Brilliant Friend



I stumbled on Elena Ferrante a few years ago and have since devoured everything she has written. She writes under a pseudonym and speculation about her identity is rampant. In Italy she is widely thought to be the male writer Domenico Starnone. I cannot believe that someone who writes so powerfully about the female experience is male–-a reaction shared by all the women I know who have read Ferrante. I don’t expect to be proven wrong, but we’ll see.

My starting point was My Brilliant Friend, the first book of what is known as the Neapolitan novels, which trace the complex, emotionally charged friendship between two young women growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Naples in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Lina Cerrullo (whom Elena calls Lila) was the rebel—intellectually gifted, mercurial, unpredictable. Elena Greco was the “good girl,” intelligent, hard-working, eager to please. As Lila tells Elena, “you are good at making yourself liked…people are afraid of me.”

Their friendship is marked by intense emotional attachment, as well as growing jealousy and competition as their paths begin to diverge. Lila’s father refuses to pay her school fees, thus ending her education at elementary school. Elena’s parents, torn between pride in their daughter's achievement and fear that she will become estranged from then, reluctantly agree to let her continue her education.

No one does the transition from childhood to young womanhood as powerfully as Ferrante. There are certainly cross-cultural dimensions to this transition as well as culturally specific aspects. A young girl’s bewilderment at her changing body and the responses it elicits from males is a cross-cultural experience and Ferrante brought back memories I had long forgotten.

Bur Elena and Lila experience this transition in an impoverished, deeply sexist southern Italian world in which violence against women and girls is just part of the air they breathe. What we now call sexual harassment was something women simply accepted as their lot in life— except for Lila:

On the street the men looked at all of us, pretty, less pretty, ugly, and not so much the youths as the grown men…and [we] had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities directed at us, and keep going. Lila no. To go out with her …became a point of permanent tension. If someone looked at her, she returned the look. If someone said something to her she stopped, bewildered as if she couldn’t believe was he talking to her…

Lila also searched for a deeper understanding of their world: why the poverty? Why the all-pervasive violence? Elena’s energies were focused on acquiring the education she needed to escape—“to detach herself from the sum of misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried in our blood.”

My Brilliant Friend ends with Elena determined to continue her education and Lila married at age sixteen to a prosperous grocer, someone she hoped would rescue her family from poverty and protect her from the scion of the organized crime family her family pressured her to marry.

The wedding scene is brilliantly done both in terms of the complex interplay of emotions as both Lila and Elena realize how much their friendship and their world is changing and also because of the wealth of vividly drawn social detail.

The novel ends with Lila’s realization on her wedding day that she has made a horrible mistake. Ferrante excels at the cliffhanger ending. It wasn’t easy to wait a year before volume two appeared to find out how Lila manages to extricate herself from a disastrous marriage.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Growth of the Pennsylvania Democratic Progressive Caucus


For the last four years I served as delegate to the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. Thanks to a bad ballot position and lack of Party endorsement, I did not win re-election. No surprise that I did not get the Party endorsement, and in these very low profile races it is very difficult to win without it. I did very well in my ward, which strongly supported me, and nowhere else.

I decided to stay involved in the PA Democratic Progressive Caucus as an associate member. The caucus is open to all progressive Democrats, but only delegates to state committee have voting rights.

The Progressive Caucus has grown dramatically under the inspired leadership of former Chair Bruce Slater and former Vice Chair, currently Chair, Lani Frank. Unfortunately the Progressive Caucus has been viewed as a threat by some of the more backward elements in the Democratic Party. There was a concerted effort to defeat both Bruce and Lani. In Bruce’s case, the county Chair was so threatened she actually spent a lot of money to wage a campaign against him. Unfortunately, Bruce lost his election and is no longer Chair although he intends to stay involved. Fortunately, Lani did win and currently serves as chair.

The September Progressive Caucus meeting was the largest Progressive Caucus meeting I’ve attended. There was tremendous energy in the room with people eagerly signing up for a range of new committees. It seems as if the progressive caucus is becoming a much larger force within state committee.

The attendance at the state committee meeting was disappointingly low, apparently as result of the dispute between gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and Party Chair Jim Burn. Historically, the Party tradition has been to allow the gubernatorial nominee to choose the Party Chair. This time there was resistance from grassroots delegates to what they saw as a top-down approach to decision making. I can certainly understand their feeling this way.

However, I was disappointed that Wolf‘s choice, Katie McGinty, did not become chair. Given that PA is a state with very few women elected officials, I had hoped that she would inspire women, particularly young women, to run for political office. For me, this was real conflict between my commitment to grassroots democracy and my commitment to electing more women political leaders.

But whoever is Party Chair, the Progressive Caucus is well-positioned to play a major role. The great strength of the caucus is its focus both on progressive issues and on transparent, democratic processes. Lani Frank signaled her commitment to continue this dual focus. She mentioned the caucus efforts to get consistent bylaws in all 67 PA counties to ensure that there is due process for committeepersons through out the state.

The caucus came very close to getting a bylaws amendment passed which would ensure fair, uniform procedures throughout the state, but failed to get the 2/3 majority necessary for passage. The caucus is planning to reintroduce this amendment and although we lost some progressives in the last election, we gained many new progressive members on state committee and thus may be closer to the numbers needed for passage of the bylaws amendment.

There is also a need for a fair process for choosing members to the Democratic National Committee, which in the past has been done through back-room deals rather than through an open, democratic process. The PA Democratic State Committee is somewhat election-averse. My first experience at State Committee was the meeting at which Jim Burn was elected as Party chair.

What we thought would be a contest for party chair and vice-chair was in Congressman Bob Brady’s memorable words “taken care of.” Before the members could vote, several candidates dropped out and a consensus team emerged.

I would like to have heard their competing visions for future of the Democratic Party and their strategies for November, but it looks like that kind of debate doesn’t take place in open meetings.
The Democratic National Committee delegate was chosen through the same kind of back room maneuvering. Although Burn had committed to developing an open process, he hadn’t yet established it, and when an unexpected vacancy occurred, he reverted to type. There was another candidate interested in running for the open slot, according to Lani Frank, but she/he was convinced to drop out of the race so that Nancy Mills could be elected by acclamation. Although Mills characterized herself as “very progressive”, her vote against the moratorium on fracking raised questions in my mind. If I were still a delegate and had a vote, I would have liked to have the opportunity to consider another candidate.

There is now a Progressive Caucus subcommittee on internal party processes, which I joined. The PA Democratic Party sure needs some help in ensuring fair, transparent, democratic processes!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Rally for Reproductive Justice for all Women

On September 9, the Philadelphia feminist community held a truly inspirational event—a rally for the All Above All bus tour, organized by the Women’s Medical Fund. According to the statement on its website, All Above All was formed to “unite organizations and individuals to build support for lifting bans that deny abortion coverage… so that every woman, however much she makes, can get affordable, safe abortion care when she needs it.”

There were powerful speeches by Women’s Medical Fund Director Susan Schewel, Philadelphia NOW President Nina Ahmad, City Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown, among others. Nina Ahmad’s well-reasoned, inspirational speech is posted here.

For more information about the event and the issues see posts by Tara Murphy and by Jasmine Burnett

In recent years the feminist movement has backed away from the struggle to insure that all women regardless of their economic resources have access to the full range of reproductive health services. In Pennsylvania, the coalition supporting the PA Women’s Health Agenda --which if enacted would be major step forward for women--has not included Medicaid funding for abortion, ostensibly fearing it might jeopardize passage of other measures that would greatly benefit women.

The only reference to abortion in the PA Women's Health Agenda is the proposed legislation: “Ensuring access to health care facilities: H.B. 1891, sponsored by Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery; and S.B. 1208, sponsored by Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Phila. This legislation would create 15-foot buffer zones around health care facilities where picketing, patrolling or demonstrating that blocks patients’ access to the facilities would be banned.”

Protecting women’s right to access health care facilities is critically important but if a woman lacks the resources to pay for an abortion, protection from harassment doesn’t do much for her.

If the Women’s Health Agenda were an omnibus bill and we were asking legislators to vote the entire agenda up or down, I could understand the argument that including Medicaid funding for abortion would jeopardize the other provisions. But the approach is not all or nothing, but rather to focus on particular issues in stages.

Yes, Medicaid funding for abortion in PA is not politically possible right now. However, we have seen rapid changes in public attitudes regarding issues also thought politically impossible—e.g., marriage equality, decriminalization of marijuana.

When feminists draw up a women’s health agenda, “women” must include all women, and "health care" must include the full range of women’s health care including access to abortion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Retired for 5 years: Taking stock




Over Labor Day weekend Rick and I had dinner with a few of our our retired CCP colleagues. We are all happily retired. I have yet to meet a retired teacher who wishes she was back in the classroom. It’s not easy to stay engaged for decades and although I enjoyed teaching very much when I was young, I was dangerously close to burn-out territory in my final years. As my friend Alison McFall said, “Teaching is a young person’s game.”

It seems as if I have been retired forever, while at the same time I feel as if these 5 years have passed very quickly. When I retired, I had specific goals I wanted very much to accomplish. Now I’m so much less goal driven.

The early retirement years can be very good years if you have health and energy to enjoy life, to read, to write, participate in civic life. I've managed to accomplish some of what I had hope to do but what I have enjoyed the most these past 5 years is just hanging out with my family and friends, what the the Italians call dolce far niente—roughly translated as "how sweet it is to do nothing."

I also discovered how much I enjoy writing. A retirement tip: if you want to write in retirement, don’t wait too long. I have all these ideas for books that I will probably never bring to fruition because I’m just too old.

I did manage to finish Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982. Although it has limited appeal—-mainly to women who participated in the second wave feminist movement in Philadelphia—-it is a contribution to the historical record and I’m proud to have written it. I‘ve had a lot of invitations to speak about the book-—books stores, libraries, schools, retirement homes, community arts centers—-and have found that there are more people who want to hear my talk about second wave feminism in the Philly than there are folks who want to read the book.

I’m now working on a book about local grassroots politics and am gratified by the number of activists who have been willing to be interviewed. I sure hope this book doesn’t take me as long as it did to finish Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982. I have several other book ideas, if it turns out I have the eyesight and brain cells left. We’ll see.

One of the most gratifying aspects of retirement is that I have had time for political activism. During my working years I was always falling asleep at meetings or missing meetings because I was just too tired. I no longer had the energy to work full-time and also have a second career as a political activist. I’m so happy that we finally have dynamic new leadership for an organization dear to my heart, Philadelphia NOW and also that the Philadelphia Democratic Progressive Caucus also has a committed, energized new leadership team. I was one of the founding members of the Caucus, but after some significant victories the founding members--in their 60’s and 70’s--were running out of steam. The new leadership is connected to a network of young Democratic Party activists and is well-positioned to make the Caucus a real force in Philadelphia political life.

One goal I did not accomplish was learning conversational Spanish. Thanks to a slight hearing loss, learning a foreign language has become increasingly difficult. My goal now is to acquire a reading knowledge of Italian, so they I can read Elena Ferrante in the original Italian. That just may be achievable but conversational competence in Italian, Spanish or any language other than English is just not going to happen. The window of opportunity has passed.

And although I spend a lot of time working in my garden and I enjoy it immensely, I’m not sure the garden looks any better than it did during my working years.

I’ve accepted the fact that my garden will never be weed-free, that there are some things, I will never do, some places I will never see, and that’s okay. Although I still enjoy travel and we are planning another trip to Italy, I ‘m finding that I don’t want to travel as much as I had expected in retirement. I’ve become a real homebody and whenever we return from a trip, I always feel like I never want to leave Mt. Airy for a long, long time.

I think I’m finally beginning to internalize the advice of my Buddhist friends and learning (at least a little bit) “to live in the now.“