By Sheana Ochoa
Recently, I picked up a book on the subject of biography. I’ve been writing a biography on Stella Adler, the first lady of modern day acting, for over a decade and was reminded how men have by and large been the writer’s of history (history). As far back as Xenophon writing about Socrates, men write about the lives of great men, although more recently women have also begun writing about the lives of great men. With too few exceptions, if a woman is the subject of a biography, she is usually the great man’s wife or love interest, not an achiever in her own right. The woman I’m writing about was a pioneer in her industry. Her story is about a woman’s insatiable search for knowledge at the cost of raising a child and building a home. Up to her death, she felt she was a failure because of her inability to create a “home.” She, just as much as I, was limited by the patriarchic structure of her era, the one that judges a woman with power outside of housewifery as threatening, unwomanly.
I am a feminist. Exactly what that means in 2013 is ambiguous. I was born in the 70s, which is when the women’s movement occurred, and as a young woman out in the work force in the early 90s I don’t recall any discrimination directed toward me personally, but then again I wasn’t working in areas dominated by men such as Film Direction, Piloting, or Engineering. However, today with women’s earning power lower than men’s (77 cents to the dollar), no one can argue life is equal between the sexes in 21st century America.
When I observe my nieces, who grew up in the new millennium, I see some progress. They seem to be color blind, which correlates with the historic presidential turn out for Obama by our youth. My nieces are not as progressive in the field of women’s equality as they are in racial equality, though interestingly, they are up to speed with gay rights. This leads me to believe that women’s rights are being undermined by an insidious, unrelenting patriarchy perpetuated by the media. A woman president? I don’t see that happening any time soon.
When I had my son, it was the moment when the doctor told me “it’s a boy” that the child growing inside of me became a human being as opposed to a nonentity. It would have been the same if he had announced it was a girl. It had a gender and therefore an identity.
I had actually wanted a girl, and thought I would have a girl, so I had to readjust my expectations the way one might be counting on eating a juicy steak for dinner, but ends up having sushi instead. It isn’t a matter of better than, just a readjustment. Crucially, when I thought I was having a girl, I did not research rearing my child. Once I learned I was having a boy, I went directly to the bookstore to find books on how to raise a boy, revealing the level of brainwashing of which I’ve unknowingly been the product. Also, I have to admit; it made me happy that this boy would have my last name as I was not married at the time, and that he would carry on the Ochoa lineage. In retrospect, my satisfaction with him having my name was another example of how I’ve been brainwashed to believe my father’s name is more important that my mother’s.
Here I must excerpt from Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s pamphlet, written in 1854, “Married Women and the Law”:
“A man and wife are one person in the law; the wife loses all her rights as a single woman . . . A woman’s body belongs to her husband; she is in his custody, and he can enforce his right by writ of habeas corpus. What was her personal property before marriage, such as money in hand, money in the bank, jewels, household goods, clothes, etc., becomes absolutely her husband’s, and he may assign or dispose of them at his pleasure whether he and his wife live together or not. The legal custody of the children belongs to the father. During the life-time of a sane father, the mother has no rights over her children, except a limited power over infants, and the father may take them from her and dispose of them as he thinks fit.”
Though these laws no longer apply, the rights of women today could be looked upon as having transformed immensely, but on closer examination, societal views of women are far from revolutionary. A woman with power, as I mentioned above, is viewed as a threat, and yet a man with power is viewed as commonplace. How far have we really come, and do women in heterosexual relationships realize the history of that institution which asks them to change their name to that of their husbands, obliterating their identity?
When I did marry, I hyphenated my name, which was a concession. I didn’t want to change my name, or the identity I had had for almost 40 years of living. I didn’t change my name, but I did alter it. At the time, I was thinking something along the lines of “I waited until I was almost 40 to marry. It’s a big commitment and I should at least take on his name to some degree as a symbol of my commitment.” What boloney. As if a name is going to save a marriage. News flash: If two people turn out to be unhappily married, a last name ain’t going to save it.
Now that I’m entering my 40s, I know what kind of a feminist I am: I believe in human rights. And for that I must take a stand. I have spent my life thinking I’m not a feminist of the bra-burning variety, but I didn’t have a model for an alternative. I didn’t want to be labeled angry or strident (whereas a man with convictions is seen as “strong” and “assertive”). But taking a stand does require a certain amount of motivation. Anger can be a good motivator, but so can compassion and tolerance of our differences.
We women have a long way to go. We can begin by writing more narratives, new “histories” of others and ourselves where women hold a position of power. When we are called bitchy or shrill or dykes, we know we’re getting somewhere.
Visit Sheana’s blog on Stella Adler’s Biography Here.