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Conversations on feminist awakenings

Friday, August 22nd, 2014 | Posted by
J.J. Wilson at The Sitting Room in Penngrove. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

J.J. Wilson at The Sitting Room in Penngrove. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

By JULIE LEE / Special to Towns

Every heroine needs an origin story, which is why “When I First Realized I Was a Feminist” seems both befitting and belated as the topic of an anthology published by the Sitting Room, the private library in Penngrove that emphasizes women’s issues and achievements.

In August 2013, Sitting Room attendees gathered to determine, over a home-cooked potluck lunch, a theme for their 10th anthology, to publish the following June. After several exchanged ideas, co-founder and editor J.J. Wilson casually proposed one of the many she had been collecting from friends all summer.

“It took like fire in the group,” said Wilson, 78. “People looked around and said, ‘Right! We don’t know that about one another. What are we all doing here? How did we get here?’”

The resulting 46 responses reintroduced Sitting Room attendees, even those who had known each other for years. “These wonderful entries were chapters (of people’s lives) that I had not heard,” she said.

In her essay “A Man’s World,” former Sonoma County poet laureate and SRJC English instructor Terry Ehret, 58, recalls a female schoolteacher who lectured girls about playground use in spring 1965.

“‘When you girls go down the slide,’ she began, ‘the boys can see your underwear. And when you climb up the ladder, the boys below you in line can see right up your skirts,’” Ehret writes.

Rather than reprimanding the boys’ inappropriate behavior, the teacher punished the girls for their so-called provocative attire. As her male classmates subsequently monopolized the playground equipment, a 9-year-old Ehret experienced her feminist awakening.

Writer and former Sonoma State University communications department chair Jonah Raskin, 72, was one of four male contributors to the spring anthology. In “Feminism Made a Man Out of Me,” Raskin asserts that feminism strives to liberate both men and women from patriarchal oppression. “Who is oppressed more is a moot point,” he writes.

Healdsburg’s former literary laureate and landscape contractor Armando Garcia-Davila, 65, echoes Raskin’s sentiments in “The Metamorphosis.”

A woman he dated as a 22-year-old told him that the women’s liberation also liberates men from traditional gender roles, such as being the sole provider.

“I really liked that since my testosterone-filled Pa and brothers had always pushed me around when I was growing up,” he writes. “In fact, it felt more than good; it was liberating.”

The anthology went on to inspire the Sitting Room to archive and preserve the personal experiences of its attendees, many of whom participated in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

Author and retired SSU history professor Clarice Stasz, 73, records her personal experiences with job discrimination in “Mad Men in Academia.”

As a graduate student, she noticed that most advertisements for university positions explicitly specified “men only” and “under 35.” Equipped with a new Wisconsin bill that later became the model for the federal Civil Rights Act, Stasz confronted the secretary of the American Sociological Association, who had previously dismissed her protest.

“Though the secretary never responded, the discriminatory ads ended,” she writes. “Within a few years nepotism rules vanished from colleges and corporations, and the women’s movement led to thousands of individual life-changing protests such as mine.”

Even so, her story does not end happily. When she was hired at SSU with a Ph.D. and three books in print, a male colleague with just one book was still set a full rank higher.

Such recollections, juxtaposed with contributions from SSU students, came to define a feminist lineage even within the Sitting Room.

In her essay “The Passenger Princess,” SSU graduate Cassidy Amber LaFee, 22, humorously attributes her moment of self-realization to mastering the steering wheel, seemingly paled by the accomplishments of her suffragette great-grandmother and Civil War-era great-great-great-great grandmother, who graduated from college.

“I didn’t start out with a bang. I marched (or drove at a safe speed limit) onwards,” she writes. “I realized I was a feminist because I stopped settling for the passenger seat in life.”

Such entries pleased Wilson, who originally was concerned about receiving angry, bitter and repetitive accounts. “At the time I thought feminism was a word that was going out of style,” she said. “I thought it had lost its ability to do anything but divide.”

However, she was heartbroken by the many entries involving family dynamics: “I don’t know whether the family mirrors the society or informs the society, but I guess I thought families were exempt from those (sexist) situations.”

The omission of writers’ biographies is an important tradition for the publication, Wilson said.

“We don’t want to make distinctions between Jonah Raskin with 27 books and someone for whom this is their first publication,” she said. “They should be based on what you respond to as you read.”
Wilson accepts every contribution that meets the few guidelines.

“Urging the unvoiced to speak — isn’t that what feminism is basically about?” she said. “Think of all the women who have been shut up by the lack of respect for what they say. We are delighted to open our doors to everyone and respond to the merits of their piece.”

Wilson hopes the theme engages readers and encourages them to talk openly about feminism. “What the publications are about are these meaningful conversations, which we too often forget in our rushed-through lives.”

The theme for 2015 is “An Overlooked Female Author.” Anyone may submit a page of 400 words about a female author’s body of work or a single book considered overlooked by the academy and general public. Visit sittingroom.org for details.

  • http://dogleadermysteries.com/ Deborah Taylor-French

    Thanks Julie Lee for this wonderful interview with J.J. Wilson. She is warm mentor and force of nature behind The Sitting Room community library.

    I feel so lucky to live close to Penngrove and this one in a million feminist library. The resources go deep for readers and writers due to Wilson and friends 30+ year commitment to a refuge where women can read and write. Plus the inspiring female scholars and novelists hold forth a high standard for those of us who still find publishing a man’s world.

  • Lilith Rogers

    Thanks for this article about one of my favorite places in the world–The Sitting Room and one of my favorite people, JJ Wilson. This issue of the anthology is really excellent, the reading at the Birthday Party was really special, and the cake great as ever. And, as the article states, I gained a deeper insight into people I’ve known for a long time.

    I look forward to the next anthology, too.

    Lilith

  • Bob Plantz

    There is an implicit liberation in this article — everyone’s age is noted. Our culture continues to place a premium on youth, especially for women. Yet everyone I know wants to get older (as opposed to the alternative). I bristle when people refer to my age something like “75 years young.” No, I’m 75 years OLD. I’ve put a lot of effort (coupled with a fair amount of luck) into getting to this age, and I deserve credit for it. Ageism is still very prevalent in our culture.

  • http://www.NickWalden.com Nick Walden

    Bob, the use of age with a person’s name is typical in journalism to help readers identify someone both in context of their experiences and to avoid confusion over which John Smith (for example) is being referred to. Sometimes occupation or residence is also used to help identify a subject to the readers.

  • Stephen

    what happened to the comments?

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