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.“