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Having A Say, redux (the “missing” post) November 13, 2022

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This is the “missing” post for Sunday, November 11th. Some passages were previously posted. You can request an audio recording of the practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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“If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question ‘what is a woman’?

To state the question is, to me, to suggest, at once, a preliminary answer. The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defence [sic] is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity.”

– quoted from “Introduction: Woman as Other” in The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Almost every January, I ask the question “What is a woman?” Then, at various times throughtout the year, I offer different lives and perspectives that could be considered as answers. But, whenever I address the issue, I recognize that the “controversial” question Simone de Beauvoir posed in 1949, is no less controversial today. In fact, it can seem more controversial today, because it is often used as a “gotcha” question asked by people who have vastly different intentions than Simone de Beauvoir. Remember, she was asking and addressing the question for philosophical insight. And, here I am doing the same.

I know, I know, I’m just asking for trouble here, but please consider a couple of things before moving forward. First, as I just mentioned, this is not the first time – in class or on the blog – that I’ve referenced what it means to be a woman. Second, I’m referencing it here in relation to Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras. Specifically, I’m referencing the meaning of the word “woman” – or “women,” “wimmin,” “womyn,” “womban,” “womon,” and “womxn” – in relation to Yoga Sūtra 3.17, which indicates that “By making samyama on the sound of a word, one’s perception of its meaning, and one’s reaction to it – three things which are ordinarily confused – one obtains understanding of all sounds uttered by living beings.” [NOTE: “one’s reaction to it” is sometimes translated as “knowledge of it.”]

I absolutely could use a less “controversial” word – as other teachers do. I’ve heard a teacher reference a pencil and another teacher (Vyasa, perhaps) used a cow. In class, I actually cited Swami J, of the Himalayan tradition, who used the example of a table in his commentary on the sūtras. Those are all great examples, simple examples; because, if you know English (assuming you are reading this text in it’s original language), the sight/sound of each of those words is associated with specific objects, which immediately come to mind. If you don’t know a word, it is meaningless to you. Nothing comes to mind or you think of something that feels off, not quite right. But, you don’t know the word, so you need more information.

On the flip side, you can know the word and still need more information, because your perception of what I mean may not be the same as mine. We may not have the same object(s) in mind. However, by using our supernormal power of words, we can come to an agreement about the qualities that make up the concept that exists in the world (i.e., the pencil-ness, cow-ness, and/or table-ness of the thing). In other words, we can go deeper into our understanding of what makes something what we perceive/understand it to be.

While it seems like people have been going deeper into our understanding of what it means to be a woman since the dawn of time (or, at the very least, since recorded history), there’s always the possibility — not to mention the fear — that someone will completely miss the point.

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow in our souls. Every truth we see is ours to give the world, not to keep to oursleves along, for in so doing we cheat humanity out of their rights and check our own development.

quoted from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention (and birthday celebration for Susan B. Anthony), February 18, 1890

If we just stick with modern (Western) history, the question of what it means to be a woman is a question that contains multitudes. For instance, when we talk about Miss Maria Mitchell and Rabbi Regina Jonas, the question becomes about their vocations. In a conversation about Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Oliver, the question becomes about upbringing and sex(uality). For Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zitkála-Šá, as well as for Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Erdrich, Nikki Giovanni, and so many others, the question becomes about culture, race, and behavior (including sex and sexuality). Then the conversation turns to health and well-being, especially mental health, when we focus on Bertha Pappenheim (“Anna O”). We can easily pickup all of those threads if we are discussion Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, or Ntozake Shange, because their lives prove that the question of what it means to be a woman is always about all of those things – and also about rights and responsibilities. We can start our conversation about what the word means, to us and to others, at any one of those intersecting points. However, since Saturday was the anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, let’s start with the issue of rights and responsibilities.

Born November 12, 1815, in Johnstown, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a social activist, abolitionist, and suffragist. While she was one of the most influential leaders of the women’s rights movement, she does not fit the stereotypical image of a “women’s liber” or a “man-hating feminist.” She was, for example, no Susan B. Anthony. However, one could argue that there would have been no Susan B. Anthony — as she is remembered today — without Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While their backgrounds and life choices were different, they were united in their quest for equal rights.

“If I were to draw up a set of rules for the guidance of reformers, such as Franklin and other celebrities tell us they did for their own use, I should put at the head of the list: Do all you can, no matter what, to get people to think on your reform, and then, if your reform is good, it will come about in due season.”

– quoted from a diary entry dated “Cleveland, August 20 [1888]” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (as published in Elizabeth Cady Stanton As Revealed in Her Letterz, Diary and Reminiscences, Edited by Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, Volume Two])

Elizabeth Cady grew up in a wealthy family with a conservative lawyer for a father (Daniel Cady) and and a very progressive abolitionist mother (Margaret Livingston Cady). Some biographers say that the Cady family had servants, at least three of whom were African American. At least one of those “servants” (Peter Teabout) was actually enslaved and it was in his company that she and her sisters sometimes attended church. 

It seems that it was just her and her sisters that sat in the back pews of the church. While she was the seventh of eleven children, six of her siblings, including all of her brothers, died before reaching adulthood. Her last brother died when she was around ten and she responded to her parents’ grief by stating that she would live the lives her brothers would not get a chance to live. Her father’s response, that he wished she were a boy, was the first time she felt there was a difference between her sisters and her brothers. 

Despite the perceived difference between the siblings, Elizabeth Cady was well-educated — for a girl of her time — and received high marks and recognition in her advanced classes. She even convinced her father to send her to Troy Female Seminary, where she became actively interested in the abolitionist movement. It was through the seminary and the abolitionis movement that she and befriended Frederick Douglass. It was also the way she met her greatest collaborators in life: Henry Brewster Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

“This can already be seen in the different reception given a new citizen of the world. If the father or someone else asked what ‘it’ was after a successful birth, the answer might be either the satisfied report of a boy, or—with pronounced sympathy for the disappointment— ‘Nothing, a girl,’ or ‘Only a girl.’”

– Bertha Pappenheim (b. 02/27/1859) as quoted in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Koultun

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

– quoted from “Part IV – The Formative Years: Chapter XII. Childhood” in The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (b. 01/09/1908)

Elizabeth Cady and Henrey Brewster Stanton met at the home of her  first cousin, Gerrit Smith (son of her maternal aunt), who was a member of the United States House of Representatives and one of the “Secret Six,” who funded John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, which initiated the revolt that was a prelude to the Civil War. At the time that they met, Henry Brewster Stanton was an attorny, abolitionist, and social reformer, who would go on to become a journalist and politician. Some say his support of the suffragist movement was tangential, but no one can argue that it was instrumental. It was instrumental on many levels, including the fact that he unconditionally supported his wife.

When they married in 1840, the couple omitted the word “obey” from their vows — which was a common Quaker tradition, although neither of them were Quakers. Elizabeth Cady took her husband’s surname, but she was never known simply as “Mrs. Henry B. Stanton;” she was always, in some way, recognized as “Cady Stanton.” But the exclusion or inclusion of a single word, did not diminish the couples union. Nor did it diminish her role in the household.

“First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are power.”

– quoted from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters, and Journals by Maria Mitchell (b. 08/01/1818)

Mrs. Cady Stanton was a proud wife and mother of seven. Contrary to the social norms of the time, she recognized that healthy women had similar desires as healthy men; believed women should control a couple’s sexual relationships; and proclaimed a man’s “drunkeness” as grounds for divorce (or, at the very least, abstinance). She also belived that a woman should absolutely have dominion over her body when it came to childbearing. She was equally as bold about declaring her motherhood (when others were more demure silent) and would raise a red or white flag in front of her house depending on the sex of her newborn child. 

Of course, her “voluntary motherhood” required a compromise when it came to social reform and that compromise required her to be at home when her husband was away. While Henry Brewster Stanton traveled ten months out of the year in the 1850’s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt she was “a caged lioness.” However, her partnership with Ms. Anthony made the compromise less restrictive. Whenever the family moved, they set up a room for Susan B. Anthony and the women figured out the best way to work towards their goals: 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote; Susan B. Anthony organized and spoke.

“Eventually Anthony supplanted Henry in Elizabeth’s affections. Both Henry and Susan moved in and out of her life and her household, but overall, Stanton probably spent more hours and days with Anthony than any other adult.”

– quoted from the “Methodological Note: Stanton in Psychological Perspective” section of In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Elisabeth Griffith

The collaboration between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not restricted to speeches. They co-founded the New York Women’s State Temperance Society – after Anthony was prevented from speaking at a temperance conference because she was female – and the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863. The league, which used different iterations of the name, was specifically formed to lobby for the abolition of slavery. At one time they collected almost 40,000 signatures in support of abolition, which was the largest petition drive in United States history at that time. They also initiated the American Equal Rights Association (1866) and founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (1869).

On January 8, 1868, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton started publishing the weekly paper The Revolution. The paper’s motto was “Men, their rights and nothing more; Women, their rights and nothing less.” In addition to women’s rights and the suffrage movement, the paper covered general politics, the labor movement, and finance. Ms. Anthony ran the business end of things. Mrs. Cady Stanton co-edited the newspaper with the abolitionist minister Parker Pillsbury. The initially received funding from the transportation entrepreneur George Francis Train – who shared their views on women’s rights, but not on abolition – but eventually transferred control of the paper to the wealthy writer and activist Laura Curtis Bullard, who toned “the revolution” down a bit.

The ladies that started it, however, did not tone down at all.

“He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies, which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.”

 

quoted from the The Declaration of Sentiments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with Mary Ann M’Clintock

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was actively engaged in the fight for civil rights long before meeting Susan B. Anthony. Along with Lucretia Coffin Mott and Martha Coffin Wright, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first women’s rights convention organized by women and was the primary author of the Declaration of Sentiments. One hundred of the approximately 300 attendees to the conference signed the declaration, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with assistance from Mary Ann M’Clintock, had modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Mrs. Cady Stanton (and her sister, Harriet Cady Eaton), Mrs. M’Clintock (plus her daughters Elizabeth W. and Mary M’Clintock and her half-sister, Margaret Pryor), Mrs. Mott, and and Mrs. Wright were among the 68 female signers; Frederick Douglass, Thomas M’Clintock, and James Mott were among the the 32 male signers.

Frederick Douglass’s name on the Declaration of Sentiments was not an accident or random happenstance. He and Mrs. Cady Stanton met early in her crusade for universal suffrage and he was one of her staunch supporters during the Seneca Falls Convention. In fact, some historians note that it was his very vocal support that led to the acceptance of the Declaration. While his support for women’s suffrage did not wane, he, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony (with whom he would also eventually befriend) did temporarily break away from each other when the issue of suffrage was divided over race and gender. He also called out E. Cady Stanton for using racist terms about Black and Asian men, when it looked like they might get the vote before (white) women. 

That divide between the three friends is a great way to highlight the fact that the fight for voting rights has always marginalized already marginalized people. It has asked people to define themselves as one thing over the other. This, as many scholars have pointed out, is not something straight, white, Christian males in America have historically had to do. They can just be “men” and everything else is understood as a foregone conclusion.

Marginalized people, however, have had to “pick one” all the time. This was especially true in the 19th century, when the presence of Black women was desired by both sides of the suffrage movement. Yet, to deny one side of themselves meant that they could be excluded from voting; either because they were Black… or because they were a woman.

Susan B. Anthony forced this issue into the courts when she and fourteen other women attempted to vote in Rochester, New York, in 1872. She was arrested, indicted, “tried,” and convicted during the very public and very publicized 1873 criminal trial (United States v. Susan B. Anthony). The case hinged on the definition of a citizen (as it related to the 14th Amendment) and the definition of a woman. After establishing that “the defendant was, on the 5th of November, 1872, a woman,” the judge instructed the all male jury – all male because women were prohibited from serving on juries – to find the defendant guilty without discussion or deliberation, which they did. Ms. Anthony was instructed to pay a fine, of $100 plus court cases, which she did not.

It’s unclear how, exactly, they determined that she was a woman on the date in question.

“U. S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN): Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: Can I provide a definition? [Senator Blackburn confirms.] No. I can’t.

U. S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN): You can’t?

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: Not in this context. I’m not a biologist.

U. S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN): So, you believe the word ‘woman’ is so unclear and controversial that you can’t give me a definition?

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson: Senator, in my work as a judge, what I do is, I address disputes. If there is a dispute about a definition, people make arguments and I look at the law and I decide….”

– quoted from the confirmation hearing of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ketanji Brown Jackson (Tuesday, March 22, 2022)

Fast forward to the 21st century, where Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Janelle Monet sing lyrics that seem to be lifted directly from the Declaration of Sentiments or Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s diary – and to that moment when then-Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was being interviewed to be the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court. Fast forward to that moment, when two very different women faced the question about the definition (the meaning) of the word woman.

When I heard Senator Marsha Blackburn’s question, I heard it as so many people heard it: as that “gotcha” question some people like to ask these days. I also heard it, as so many others have heard it throughout history, as a pick-a-side question. The sides might be defined in different ways now, versus in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it still marginalizes people who are already marginalized. What I did not hear was a question asked with a sincere interest in the inquiry. What I did not hear was a question posed with an interest in how any of us decides on our answers.

Many people, Senator Blackburn included, have said that Supreme Court Justice Brown Jackson did not answer the question. Others have pointed out that she absolutely answered the question – she just didn’t answer the question with either/any of the answers they wanted to hear. It doesn’t help that many media outlets only reported a portion of her answer. In fact, most major outlets only quoted her as saying, “I’m not a biologist.” 

Which, I think we can all agree is true.

I also think, though, that the issue isn’t whether or not Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is a biologist. And, despite the way the exchange was reported, the issue isn’t even whether or not being a biologist is relevant. The relevant part,in that case, was how a judge, or justice, defines things (i.e., words) as it relates to the law and specific contexts related to the law. As then-Judge Brown Jackson pointed out, the role of judges, or justices, is to look at the differing definitions (when there is a dispute),the arguments behind the definitions, and the law. In other words, they focus-concentrate-meditate on the word, people’s understandings of the word, and the related (or relevant) qualities (as they apply to the law).

Take a moment, to think apply the tool of samyama to the word “woman” (or any of the other aforementioned variations of the theme)*:

  • What, or who, comes to mind? 

  • What’s your “standard” for a woman? 

  • How many women do you know that don’t fit your exact standard? 

  • What are the overlapping qualities that apply to your “standard” and also to those outside of your standard?

  • How do you know you know if someone has those overlapping qualities?

*NOTE: This is a deliberately simple rubric, so that you can decide on attributes. If your only attribute is “sex/female,” you could skip the first two questions or you could layout a biological definition of female.

Yoga Sūtra 3.35: hṛdaye cittasaṃvit

– “By making samyama on the heart, one gains knowledge of the contents of the mind.”

Saturday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

NOTE: YouTube features several extra videos that are not available on Spotify. Some are speeches worth hearing. Some are music videos worth seeing. To make up the difference, the Spotify playlist has its own Easter egg.

ERRATA: The original post linked to the wrong YouTube playlist. My apologies for the inconvenience.

“If I am to confess what drove me, as a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of my fellow man. God has bestowed on each one of us special skills and vocations without stopping to ask about our gender. This means each one of us, whether man or woman, has a duty to create and work in accordance with those God-given skills.”

– quoted from the doctoral thesis entitled “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” by Rabbi Regina Jonas (b. 08/03/1902)

### LET’S GET LOUD ~JL ###