From Our Files: Gender Always On The Agenda

From Our Files: Gender Always On The Agenda

By The Editors

The question of gender has been an ongoing theme in On the Issues Magazine – Gender roles, gender identity and self-identity, societal and personal gender expectations.

In an article published 11 years ago, The Tyranny of the Esthetic: Surgery’s Most Intimate Violation (Summer 1998), Martha Coventry describes her devastating personal experience in having her clitoris cut as a child so she would look “normal.” Interviewing others also forced at the point of a knife to conform to so-called societal standards of what “boys” and “girls” must look like, Coventry discusses the deep psychological problems often accompanying such surgery and concludes: “It is not the bodies of these children that are wrong, it is the way people see them.” Thea Hillman reviews Coventry’s material in this edition of On The Issues Magazine and finds it surprisingly relevant, even as new issues about language and Intersex identity are causing waves.

In her editorial Is Being Female a Birth Defect? (Summer 1991), Merle Hoffman grapples with the complex reality of sex selection abortion in various countries, as well as her own experiences at Choices Women’s Medical Center in New York City, where the preference for male children hovers over some pre-natal fetal testing for birth defects. She writes about her discussion with one woman who said she wanted another boy because “girls are liabilities.” Hoffman concludes: “Her choice, so much determined by her cultural conditioning, replanted within an American system allied with a technology that allowed it to flourish, gave her an ambiguous power. Her choice was to be free to make the decision to abort her fetus merely because it was female…It is for this woman and for all others that I dedicated my life. It is to support her choices that I make mine. It is for the fundamental civil right of reproductive freedom that I have put my life on the line many times. And it for a visionary feminism that I struggle to create a society, a ‘newer’ world order, where being female will not be considered a birth defect.” Hoffman reexamines some of these same topics in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

The Chilling of Reproductive Choice by Janice Raymond (Spring 1990) analyses how new reproductive technologies that supposedly give new reproductive choices to women actually, according to Raymond, “focus medical, legal and media attention on the status and rights of fetuses and men while rendering the status and rights of women of women at best incidental and at worst invisible.” Raymond states: “As fetal rights begin to dominate the reproductive agenda of the 21st Century, we must examine the ways in which men’s rights are articulated under the heading of fetal rights and women’s rights to gender equality diminished under this same banner.”

A number of past articles discuss gender as reflected culturally in the popular culture – the arts, sports, on the stage and in books. Not surprisingly, Joan of Arc features prominently.

Transforming History, a review by Sally Owen of Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul, (Fall 1996) summarizes the book’s historical and multi-cultural sweep as well as Feinberg’s personal history. In researching the book, Owen says, “Feinberg was fascinated with Joan of Arc. It was Joan’s cross-gender expression, Feinberg contends, not just her cross-dressing, that was so threatening to the Grand Inquisitors.” In this edition, writers Victoria Neilson (Asylum Pitfalls May Await the Transgender Applicant), Helen Boyd (How A Feminist Found Her Sexism), and others, along with several artists, look at the continuing development of transgender rights in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

The Second Coming of Joan of Arc (Spring 1995) also breaks with history by presenting Joan as “the cross dressing butch with the smart mouth.” Adapted from her play of the same name, award-winning playwright Carolyn Gage describes Joan as “a far cry from the eroticized and idealized Joan of Anouih or Shaw. After her trial, Gage’s Joan rages: “…There is no mercy for women, because our crime is our gender. We have to fight.” Gage recently won a Lambda Literary Award in Drama.

The fictional account of another Joan focuses on transgressive crossdressing. Donna Woolfolk Cross interviewed author Margaret R. Saraco about her book, Pope Joan (Fall 1997). Saraco’s meticulously-researched historical novel tells the story of a ninth-century woman who cross-dressed for survival. Based on the folkloric figure of a female Pope who may or may not have actually lived, Saraco notes that after surviving a brutal massacre by Norsemen, the pre-Pope Joan adopts the identity of her brother who had been killed. “Joan’s path diverges in a radically different way than that of traditional women in her time. Cross-dressing opens up an entirely new aspect of existence for her, and she refuses to return to her woman’s role even after she falls in love with an intelligent and honorable knight, Gerold. Joan realizes that her life’s work, which she would never be able to complete were she to reveal herself as a woman, is what matters most,” writes Saraco.

On the Trail of Jane the Fool, Female Jester in the Court of Mary I by Denise Selleck (Spring 1990), takes a look at the evidence, somewhat scant, of a “female fool” hinted at in a painting of Henry VIII’s family. The “fool” combined elements of male and female expression. While Jane dressed elegantly as a “court lady,” Selleck wrote: “She had her head shaved as often as twice a month. While this was normal practice for male fools, it would certainly have set her apart from the other women at court.”

Luisa Vidal was undeniably flesh-and-blood, but her life and work in late 19th and early 20th century Spain “fell – or were nudged – into near oblivion by the writers of art history, as is the case with so many women artists.” Painted like a Man, Disappeared Like a Woman: Luisa Vidal, the Daughter of Modernism by Marcy Rudo (Summer 1998) rescues Vidal from obscurity and features reproductions of some of her paintings. In Rudo’s words, “Everywhere she [Vidal] exhibited bold, dynamic portraits rather than the insipid still lifes expected of ‘ladies.’ Critics, all of whom were male, were awed as well as stumped, using words such as ‘virile’ to describe her talent. In surprised admiration, they would write: ‘she paints so well…she paints like a man!'” Contemporary artists face similarly perplexing problems, writes Art Editor Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Marilyn Stasio discusses women’s experiences playing male roles in To Be Male or To Be Female, That Is the Question: Gender, Sex and Politics in Shakespeare (Summer1998). Spanning theatrical seasons from Sarah Bernhardt, who became famous for playing Hamlet and other male roles and drew scathing reviews on the basis of her appearance, to Kathleen Chalfant, who acted in both female and male roles on the Broadway stage to glowing reviews, Stasio reviews the historical record and the profound impact on the female actors themselves. As Chalfant tells Stasio, “‘What men have is natural authority in the world, and you don’t realize that until you play a man…Playing a man made me feel entitled, so that I didn’t have to insist on my authority.'” Actor Joel Vig (Crossing The Gender Rack) shares special moments in ladies’ dressing room when he first crosses the gender rack in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Sports is another arena where traditional gender roles have been and continue to be challenged. Angell Delaney describes the breakthroughs in women’s basketball in A Whole New Ball Game (Winter 1998). Playing like a girl is no longer an insult, she says; it’s a hoop dream millions aspire to. Talking to professional WNBA players as well as surveying the changes in women’s sports in schools and colleges, Delaney notes the difficulties, as well as positive impact of professional women athletes for breaking stereotypes and raising possibilities. An interview in this edition of On The Issues Magazine with former New York Liberty player Kym Hampton, who still works for the franchise, reveals that players still face similar delights and barriers today.