Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part V - Final

Bread and Roses

In her 1950 autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, Anzia describes the ambivalence she felt during the time the Bread Givers was first published: “I felt I had justified myself in the book for having hardened my heart to go through life alone” (216). The memories sparked by the book had left her yearning to make peace with her father, though, and she went to see him. He met her enthusiasm with condescension. “Only in America could it happen – an ignorant thing like you – a writer! What do you know of life? . . . It says in the Torah: He who separates himself from people buries himself in death. A woman alone, not a wife and not a mother [?], has no existence. No joy on earth, no hope of heaven” (Red Ribbon 216-217).

Anzia lived and died under the unrelenting scrutiny and criticism of everyone who knew her. Her resignation to the identity of the eternal, lost “other” made the ache of her belly her only lifelong companion. She was never victorious over her struggles, never uncovered the means to satiate her own hunger or reconcile her conflicts. Yet she refused to succumb until her very last days, pen in hand, ever contesting the paradox women faced by being forced to choose between tradition and freedom. Even after her daughter confined her to a nursing home, Anzia continued to write until her death at about eighty-nine years.

Her death was as ironic as her life. Not understanding that, for Anzia, sustenance was achieved through words of protest, the nurses, annoyed by her frequent calls, removed the telephone from her room. Within a year, although continuing to write in a little notepad she kept hidden in her robe, Anzia gradually stopped eating. One of her last notes reads, “I have learned at last that no individual counts when [her] work is over” (Henriksen 299).

Anzia Yezierska’s literary protests reveal an empowered, pioneering feminist despite her exclusion from the feminist literary canon. If she could hear my words, I would assure her that through unflinching endeavors in pursuit of happiness, she epitomized a life fervently torn between the unrelenting hunger for both the Bread and the Freedom of Life. Ironically, her strife typified a tradition from which later feminists, unhappy with their own legacies, could draw strength. Through and beyond her, we envisage the something more about which James Oppenheim and Anzia Yezierska dreamt as they sung his 1912 labor cry, first heard during a Women’s “Bread and Butter” strike:

As we come marching, marching,
We bring the greater days.
The rising of the Women
Means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler --
Ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories:
Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Works Cited

Blevins, James [Professor]. “Mendelian Genetics” Lecture. Biology 100 Course. Boise: Boise State University, Fall 1998.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Zurich: Hottingen, 1884.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. & Trans. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Gonick, Cy. “Marxism.” The 1998 Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Inc., 1988.

Harris, Alice Kessler. Introduction. Bread Givers. by Anzia Yezierska. New York: Persea Books, 1975. v-xviii.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New York: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Kayton, Bruce. “Lower East Side I Highlights.” Radical Walking Tours of New York. 6 June 1998. Available:

Lerner, Gerda. “Reconceptualizing Differences Among Women.” Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives Since 1877. 2 vols. 6th ed. New York: The Free Press, 1992. 105-115.

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. English ed. London: J. E. Burghard's Printshop, 1888.

Miller, Jean Baker. Toward a New Psychology of Women. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Neidorf, Robin M. “Two Jews, Three Opinions.” Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation. ed. Barbara Findlen. Seattle: Seal Press, 1995. 212-220.

Redmond, Layne. When the Drummers Were Women. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997.

United States. U.S. Supreme Court. Debs v. U S , 249 U.S. 211 (1919). Washington: Supreme Court, 1919. Online. Available:

Van Etten, Ida M. “Russian Jews as Desirable Immigrants?” Forum 15 (1893): 172-182.

“What is Socialism?” Socialist Labor Party of America. (1998). n. pag. Online. Internet. 2 December 1998. Available:

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. The Deathbed ed. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992. 21-69.

Whitman, Walt. “The Untold Want.” Leaves of Grass. The Deathbed ed. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992. 370.

Williamson, Marianne. A Woman’s Worth. New York: Random House, 1993.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 1975.

Yezierska, Anzia. “The Fat of the Land.” The Open Cage: An Anzia Yezierska Collection. New York: Persea Books, 1993.

Yezierska, Anzia. Red Ribbon on a White Horse. New York: Persea Books, 1987.

Zandy, Janet. “The Complexities and Contradictions of Working Class Women’s Writings.”

Contemporary Women’s Issues Database 2 (March 1998): 5-8.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part IV

Yezierska’s Works and Our Times

The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find. (Whitman, “Untold” 370)

German philosopher Friedrich Engels was one of the first to link the emergence of private property systems and hierarchy with the oppression of women in his 1884 work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Under a hierarchization in which women were subordinate to males, and private property was created and inequitably held, the need to control the reproduction of women arose in order to assure that a man’s property would be passed to his biological heirs. He asserts that “observed” physiological differences legitimized the arrangement; by citing women’s “obvious” physical and intellectual inferiorities, “ordered” paternal control of women was only “logical” (737).

Anzia, despite her awareness of Engelian philosophy, was enduringly influenced by her longing to be accepted and loved like her peers. She once lamented, “It was Spring in the air. Other girls were enjoying themselves with their young men. The whole world was alive” (Henriksen 24, emphasis added). Despite her apprehension, Anzia’s life is marked by the crests of voluntary acceptance, then renouncement, of several traditionally feminine roles. After college, she taught school for a while, but as her peers and supervisors became aware of her blatant disinterest in the traditional lady’s subjects, she was gradually marginalized to the lowest-paying jobs.

Anzia married twice and had two affairs; in each, love decayed into loathing. Her struggles to retain her hope in romanticism are most eloquently unveiled by examining the pre-marriage letters she wrote to Arnold Levitas, her soon-to-be second husband. In one: “One of the beautiful things about friendship is the free boundless way in which we give and take from one another. I do not hesitate asking you to help me . . .” (32). In another: “If I could only tell you how I love you! How my spirit follows you all over wherever you go . . . how can I become your real friend, your true comrade! . . . the more intimately I know you, the more deeply I love you” (33). Although the complexities of her life wore her down, she continued to hold fast to her hopes: “I came to school, but I broke down. I couldn’t teach. I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I crave to be alone—just to be alone . . . but step in for a little while on Friday” (44).

Between mid-1911, when she authored the love letters, married Arnold and had her only child, and mid-1912, Anzia’s faith in matrimony evaporated. Between mid-1912 and 1915 she vented her suffering through a personal journal. Its pages increasingly filled with the bitter disillusionment we have all felt. In 1912 she expressed her anger: “How little people can tell from the outside of a man’s life the sort of husband he is at home. Many a man who is considered the blessing of the community . . . a free and generous gentleman in all social circles, may be stingy as a miser at home” (58).

She longed for what she had relinquished: “Women who have known the independence of earning their own living before marriage . . . feel most poignantly the humiliation they have to live through while being ‘supported.’ . . . if there was some way out, they would all rush back . . . but they cannot go back” (58). She resented her husband’s freedom: “A man can always put on his hat and go . . . [but] the massed social pressure of the entire world is against the mother who wants to get away from her place of bondage” (60). And on the subject of motherhood: “By the time [women] realize the full meaning of being ‘supported,’ they have a baby or two to care for. A baby is like the ball and chain of the prisoner that keeps [her or] him bound to [her or] his cell” (58). Her daughter correctly surmises Anzia’s anguish at this point: “she was . . . furious at herself for having deliberately walked into the trap” (59).

Anzia’s fictive prose is marked by the same ambivalence that characterized her life. In her 1919 short story, “The Fat of the Land” (for which she won “Best Short Story of 1919” in 1920) , the principal female is sacrilegious, self-obsessed and emotionally stunted. The plot, revolving around twenty years of dull, starvation-laden characters, is weak at best. Yet this story is enriched with meticulous descriptions and images of the Jewess’ futile attempts to resolve the elemental conflicts between prescribed roles and individual expectations that invariably culminate in disillusionment. Through this story, a style arises which became Anzia’s hallmark: the use of painful detail to describe and decry what she believed was the cancer manifested by the “other” rationality marking American society. Her symbols rely on the ethnic, gendered materialism with which she is intimately familiar: graphic images that describe the physical, emotional and spiritual starvation of Jewish women as compared to the favoritism afforded Jewish men.

In Bread Givers, her 1925 book, Anzia arguably provides her most poignant performance through Sara Smolinsky, her protagonist, and the impoverished family from which she originates. The story follows Sara from the age of ten to her early twenties; through her eyes, we confront intense patriarchal sexism and repression under guise of Jewish tradition. Three dozen paragraphs into the first chapter, Sara reminisces about the family’s immigration to America before which Father made the women leave their cherished possessions to make room for his books. She remembers Mother helplessly begging to bring even one cooking pot and the two feather beds she inherited from her grandmother. This leads Sara to bitterly reflect: “Of course . . . if God had given Mother a son, Father would have permitted a man child to share with him the best room in the house. A boy could say prayers after his father’s death—that kept the father’s soul alive for ever” (9).

During the same scene, Sara reflects on the position of women: “The prayers of his daughters didn’t count because God didn’t listen to women. Heaven and the next world were only for men. Women could get into heaven because they were wives and daughters of men . . . [and then only to] wait on them there” (9-10). True to custom, Sara watches each of her three sisters’ relinquish her “true love,” and her dreams, to obey the irrational and selfish wishes of Father to ensure her place in the hereafter. Exasperated, Sara finds it irreconcilable that doing the “right thing” necessitates such brutal sacrifice.

Mother, representing the traditional Jewess, fares worse. She works nonstop morning till night of each day, almost comedically “fixing” Father’s blunders and smoothing feelings he heedlessly tramples. After years of faithful and productive service, the toll of limitless sacrificing climaxes in her figurative starvation via literal death. One day prior, Father comes to her bedside, affectionately smoothes her hair and speaks tenderly to her. “The touch of his hand was like magic,” Sara observes, “Her whole face softened. A beautiful look came into her eyes as she gazed at Father, undying worship on her face” (248). Mother blossoms under the attention she is literally starving to receive, but he turns from her and beseeches the doctor, “Save me my wife! . . . Since she’s sick my house is in ruin. I have to go for a drop of soup to the neighbor. No one looks after me” (249). In a caustic twist, within one month of Mother’s death Father marries the woman “kind” enough to provide his nourishment while Mother suffered and died.

Sara, our heroine, rebels all the way through the story and fights to free herself from predestined oppression. She refuses to marry, sends herself to school, holds fast to her hopes, graduates from college and secures a satisfactory job as a teacher. Her life, however, is marked with increasing torment and guilt as she realizes the fulfillment of her emancipatory dreams. Her mother’s death, the sight of the starving in the streets, her sisters’ fates, being an outcast among her people, the revocation of her religion, her father’s suffering, her guilt in success— and the helplessness she feels against all of these – all press heavily upon the weakening Sara Smolinsky. She struggles against an ideal she did not intend to internalize, one that bestowed upon her the responsibility for the happiness of every member of the rest of the world at her own expense. She ultimately accepts her sisters’ equivalence of her autonomous endeavors with her personification of Father’s selfishness.

Her loneliness confirms her suspicions of her permanent outcast status until she becomes involved with Hugo Seelig, the principal of the school at which she is employed. In the three months following their first personal conversation, Sara finds her only, albeit brief, happiness. She discovers that Hugo, like herself, is a Jewish immigrant from the “old country.” He seems all Sara might wish in a companion. After their first conversation, she says, “My heart rejoiced! I stood looking at his chair feeling him still in the room for hours after, and my last feeling as I closed my eyes was: I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer alone!” (279).

Alone is certainly not how Sara ends up. In an acidic climax, all for which Sara has dreamed surrenders to her guilt. Sara, in a moment of intense self-reproach, submits to the traditional elements of her ambivalent life; she invites her father to come and live with her. The room “all her own” that she rented, her paradise “rich and fragrant with unutterable beauty” is transformed into a new version of her childhood prison; the cycle begins anew and she exits, arm-in-arm with Hugo, about whom the reader receives an ominous warning in the final scene when he asks Sara’s father to be his teacher (241).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part III

Anzia Yezierska: Ironic Pioneer

I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing with me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something
else. (Whitman, “Song of Myself” 29)

At about ten years old, Anzia Yezierska and her impoverished Jewish family immigrated to America from a Russian-Polish village with what must have been grandiose dreams of a better future for them all. She arrived in about 1890 with six siblings, three sisters and three brothers, and her parents, who were all “instantly Americanized” with new American names, according to her daughter and biographer, Louise Levitas Henriksen (13-14). As Jewish Anzia Yezierska changed into American Hattie Mayer, the newly-Americanized family moved into a decrepit tenement, their first American home. All family members except Anzia, who was too young, and her father, a Hebrew scholar (who, due to tradition, did not work), were immediately forced into the labor market for survival (14).

For Jewish immigrants, first impressions of the New York atmosphere seemed rather unwelcoming if we are to believe one journalist, Ida M. Van Etten, who wrote in an 1893 periodical called Forum: “Most men, if asked what class immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews . . . [they] are dirty, cannot speak the English language, and live . . . in unwholesome, ill- smelling tenement quarters, [and] they therefore form an objectionable part of our population” (172). It must have seemed incredibly unjust to Anzia, and to the several hundred thousand other Jewish immigrants, to be labeled, castigated, and face discrimination from “Americans” who were themselves the recent descendants of immigrants who had arrived, often impoverished, and had made lives for themselves here.

The Yezierskas arrived during what historians now call the “Progressive Period,” an era marked by cultural concern with the decreasing relative position of the individual within industrialized society. The perspective of the members of the massive working class increasingly shifted from the traditional aspirations to individualized success to concerns over the increased domination of the public by large corporations. The growing disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots” was openly compared to the class strife of contemporary European nations. Marxism and Socialism were mainstreamed as pluralistic reform advocates sought to remedy the “people’s oppression” through varying means (Grob and Billias 216-217).

Despite the family’s desperate financial situation, Anzia attended American school for a short while, where she was probably first exposed to ideologies that inspired her to reconceptualize her position within her new society and traditional family; ideas opposing long-accepted conventions of home and homeland. According to her daughter, “that dangerous bit of learning . . . probably gave her the critical, rebellious eye she now cast on the lot of women in her family ” as she “fought with her father and brothers, the tradition-keepers” (14). She learned quickly that America held promise for those who renounced traditional heritage and could find the means to attend school; after reading the inspirational poetry of a factory worker, she plotted and endeavored to achieve personal liberation through college (Henriksen 14-17).

Renunciation of persevering traditions is a complicated expedition that comes at a significant emotional cost, however. Robin M. Neidorf, in an essay entitled, “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” writes, “the process of becoming an argumentative Jewish feminist is a sort of deliberate accident, a combination of family choices and individual choices, circumstances both beyond and within one’s control” (213). She notes that Judaism conflicts sharply with one’s attempts to be both Jewish and a woman; the woman who seeks enlightenment risks the same castigation as archetypal Eve of both the Torah and the Bible after committing the same “crime.” Neidorf notes that, for the Jewess, existence is characterized by fruitless attempts to live out a “paradox, a contradiction” (214). Ultimate resolution comes in one of two ways, she says: “one group tries to reconcile and continues to fall short; one group withdraws and thus misses the rituals of Jewish life that give the comfort” (218).

Although her daughter eschews the topic, Anzia chose to shrug off tradition and shared her emancipatory dreams with groups of similarly resistant social reformers: the American Socialist Labor Movement. Although Anzia undoubtedly found herself torn between newfound intellectual “truth” and the emotional commitments she felt toward her family and traditions, her decisions, her choice of friends, her personal letters and her later prose reflect the greater weight she gave materialistic ideology.

Many of the Labor Movement organizations were centered in New York City; groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Labor Party (who, during this era, worked closely together) held meetings in and sent activists into the impoverished sections of the city, educating and recruiting women and men into their ranks. According to Howard Zinn, Jewish socialists sustained the New York Socialist Labor Party and printed its newspaper, The Forward, in which each issue quoted Karl Marx’s 1884 Communist Manifesto: “workmen of all lands, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win!” (262).

Insinuations concerning Anzia’s increasingly political tendencies surface in Henriksen’s biography but require considerable research to confirm. Henriksen chooses to downplay her mother’s political convictions, often overlooks Anzia’s emotional disharmony and sometimes takes an offensive, even bitter, posture regarding her interpretations of Anzia’s political philosophies and actions. After Anzia became pregnant at age 30, Henriksen notes that Anzia now had “time to pursue her interest in women’s rights, socialism, and other contemporary social causes” (45). In 1911, Anzia, although herself married, furnished a former classmate a copy of the recently translated Swedish book that challenged traditional mores surrounding marriage and sexual morality, Love and Marriage (45).

When commenting on Anzia’s Communist-sympathetic poem, “The Deported,” published in the popular leftist magazine, the Nation, during the first American “red scare” of the 1920s, Henriksen admits Anzia’s sympathy for the “thousands of suspected [American Socialist/Communist] radicals [who were] jailed . . . without trial and deported.” Yet only one paragraph later, she complains that “although Anzia’s sympathies were with the deported, she was politically always a bystander, agreeing with the arguments, but too absorbed in her own fierce struggle to participate in a movement” (139).

Despite Henriksen’s reductionism, concrete evidence of Anzia’s insurgent beliefs lies in her choice of friends. From childhood, she surrounded herself with Marxist- Socialists including her sister, Annie, who had “organized the women of her neighborhood into a mother’s society, which worked to gain social benefits for all of them” and who was acquainted with the “leading activists and philanthropists of the East Side” (Henriksen 21). Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia’s closest friend, was a noted social reformer who is described as an “an activist in the birth control movement, the Socialist Party, the union movement and . . . a co-founder of the Communist Party in the U.S.” (Kayton, par. 16).

Rose, and possibly Anzia, became involved in the Labor Movement, including at least one labor strike that made page two of the 2 December 1909 issue of the New York Times in an article entitled, “Suffragists To Aid Girl Waist Strikers.” In the story, Rose (who by this time was married to a millionaire social activist) is identified as one of several speakers for a women’s suffrage group calling themselves the “Political Equality Association.” They were engaged in what the unnamed author of the article calls “biggest mass meeting ever held in New York in the interest of labor” and in which Rose is quoted as saying, “Starve to win, or you’ll starve anyway” (2).

Rose (and again perhaps Anzia) became involved with Eugene Debs, the nationally acclaimed Social Activist who, in 1893, formed the American Railway Union to unite all railway workers. To his credit, Debs had also been indicted by the local and federal courts, had violated their orders, and had spent time in prison for his political views (Zinn 272-275). In 1919, Debs appealed one of his criminal convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court in which he alleged attempted to “incite . . . insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States” in members of the working class (Debs v. U.S., par. 10). Rose apparently shared Debs’ pacifistic perspective; a section of this federal case reads:

The defendant next mentioned Rose Pastor Stokes, convicted of attempting to cause insubordination and refusal of duty in the military forces of the United States and obstructing the recruiting service. . . . [I]f she was guilty so was he, and . . . he would not be cowardly enough to plead his innocence; but [since] her message that opened the eyes of the people must be suppressed, and so, after a mock trial before a packed jury and a corporation tool on the bench, she was sent to the penitentiary for ten years” (Debs v. U.S., par. 12)

Anzia was undeniably involved with some controversial persons. In August of 1916, she left her second husband in California and returned to New York where she was forced to temporarily relinquish the custody of her daughter to her soon-to-be ex-husband. She had been exposed by a “friend” as an acquaintance of Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, prominent leaders of the International Workers of the World (IWW). These known revolutionaries had recently been arrested and charged with the bombing of a “preparedness” parade in San Francisco, apparently demonstrating their objection to U.S. entry into World War I (Henriksen 69). In a September 1916 letter to Rose Pastor Stokes, Anzia laments, “Do you know I envy Billings his life sentence in prison. In one blow he is freed from the dragging down wear & tear of making a living—and in the solitude of prison, he can think out his thoughts . . . if I did not have [my daughter] to care for, I would be in prison writing” (Henriksen 72).

Anzia’s ambivalence is again illustrated through the examination of her rebelliousness towards the traditional telos of wifery and motherhood prescribed for the Jewish women of her era. As a teen, Anzia attended night school to prepare for college following each ten-hour workday in a New York sweatshop. In stolen moments, she devoured Walt Whitman’s poetry and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliant” prose. Thus inspired, Anzia took Virginia Woolf’s yet unspoken advice and moved out of her home, renting a room of her own in an era when “nice” Jewish girls did not live alone. At seventeen or eighteen, after finally saving enough money, she attended New York City Normal College, then Columbia University, for five very disappointing years. Yet neither the schools nor the room brought her any satisfaction; the colleges forbade women from the philosophy and poetry classes for which she longed and thrust her into a “Home Economics” major instead, and the oppressive atmosphere of the “Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls” left her yet again drowning in despair (Henriksen 17-18).

Driven by loneliness and a courageous desire to resolve the contradictions between her family’s and her own expectations, Anzia married twice, despite her admission that “I knew . . . the standard viewpoint of matrimony” (Henriksen 37). Her first marriage, in 1911, was brief and ended in an abrupt annulment; of it she said, “I have come to think now that I knew not the difference between friendship and love” (Henriksen 37). Her second marriage was moderately more successful: it lasted five years and yielded one child, but it, too, collapsed under the weight of her disillusionment.

Unable to endure the oppressive confines of her traditional marriage, Anzia fled to New York, and later to San Francisco, where she initiated a brief affair with poet Hugo Seelig. After her divorce was finalized, she returned to New York and spent her time writing and visiting Rose Pastor Stokes. Her romantic luck shifted briefly in 1918; from that January she spent nearly three years involved with Professor John Dewey of Columbia University, the one “true love” of her life (Henriksen 114). This relationship’s conclusion manifested two climaxes in her life: the dissolution of Anzia’s dream of the possibility for a matrimonial “happy ending,” and the complete resignation of her self-identity to that of “the outcast . . . the lost” (Henriksen 116). Ironically, this is the time that Anzia, the writer, finally attained professional success.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part II

I: Man and “Other”

More women cry, loudly or silently, every fraction of every moment, in every town of every country, than anyone—man or woman—realizes. We cry for our children, our lovers, our parents, and ourselves. We cry in shame because we feel no right to cry, and we cry in peace because we feel it’s time we did cry. We cry for the world. Yet we think we cry alone. . . . [F]or most women, however, the resistances they encountered as they reached for the sky were so great that their wings have now drooped, and they try no longer. (Williamson 3-4)

Gerda Lerner, a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, describes two elements of a process by which females learn to view themselves as less significant than males: the binary gendered opposition of male and female, so fundamental to many cultures, is ultimately associated with an “expertly” legitimized definition of female as “other,” and therefore subordinate. This claim is disseminated by various mass media and evidenced by the mass exclusion of females from historical rhetoric. By doing this, Lerner says, all omitted groups are signified as less important (105, 108).

According to Lerner and other contemporary feminist historians—Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone, Layne Redmond and others—this hierarchy was “invented” by groups of men in the Ancient Near East about 5000 BCE. The consensus is that during the Agricultural Revolution, small groups of peripheral invaders, all militaristic men, termed “Indo-Europeans” or “Kurgans,” began invading and conquering the matrifocal, peaceful cities of the Near East. The one thing common to these groups of invaders was their model of social domination via force. Their god was a male, and angry, symbol who epitomized an axiology in which male dominance, authoritarianism, hierarchy and brute force was the norm; a striking antithesis of the matrifocal Mother-Goddess and Nature-loving cultures whom they conquered (Eisler 42-45; Lerner 106; Redmond 11-13).

This new power structure could not have persisted to become a systemic tool used to repress other groups, however, without the legitimized propagation of certain ideological and institutional manipulators. When status and power inequalities exist interpersonally and interculturally, factors must be identified that justify and legitimize the perpetuating system. Lerner asserts that this was first accomplished by turning “difference into dominance” (106). As the small groups of men continued to control the resources, they demanded compliance with their norms in exchange for survival. To rationalize the domination, and justify women’s exploitation and subsequent commodification to women and other unaffected men, a rationale developed that equated sexual difference, e.g., male versus female, with superiority and inferiority, respectively. When these assertions were forcefully imposed and coercively applied, through time they eventually eroded and undermined the fundamental epistemological beliefs of pre-Patriarchal cultures (106-107); consequently, women learned to internalize these ideologies, legitimized them as “truth” and conducted their lives based on these beliefs.

Hellenic philosophy, from which Occidental philosophy originates, continued this tradition by incorporating systemic “women as ‘other’” conceptualizations into its axiological assertions and legitimized it with biological declarations. The Sophist School demanded that men “prove they are right by their armed might” (Eisler 112-118). Judaism, and later, Christianity, developed and flourished in the Near East during this era. These, too, embraced the systems of androcentrism and characterized females as inferior, partly by abolishing all female deities from their religions. The writings contained in the Torah’s and Biblical book of Leviticus clearly outline the biological, social and spiritual position of women.

As we leap into early twentieth century American society, we are confronted with the effects of five millennia of social “programming” and hierarchization of humanity. Jean Baker Miller, a contemporary psychologist and author, explains that under this hierarchical, primarily didactic, system she terms “permanent inequality,” dominant groups (i.e., white, male business-owners) tend to define “other” groups as inferior, then label certain ascribed characteristics of each groups’ members as “substandard” and “defective” (6).

According to Miller, every subordinated groups’ members are declared biologically “unable” to perform preferred tasks and are encouraged to internalize superordinate groups’ legitimizing ideologies, fundamentally embodying adoption of prescribed roles that include pleasing behaviors and psychological characteristics (i.e., submissiveness, timidity, docility, unselfishness, weakness and helplessness) (7-9). Through generations of socialization practices that, for each individual, begin and birth and continue throughout the life cycle, the members of the subordinated group tend to increasingly internalize the majority of these beliefs and characterize themselves according to the definitions imposed by the dominate group. Further, the “inferiors” generally do not question the superordinates’ authority on matters of “right” and legitimacy and hold each other, and themselves, responsible for upholding the axiology dictating the norms of their roles.

Emotional commitments become attached to these internalized “truths”; behaving in accordance with culturally-accepted norms yields positive social reinforcement, while “deviance,” intentional or not, from commonly-accepted role definitions precedes what French philosopher Michel Foucault describes as the “three modes of objectification” (7). Summarily, this includes three stages, the first of which is “dividing practices” in which the subject is “objectified by a process of division either within [her- or] himself or from others” (8, emphasis added). Second, the subject is “scientifically classified,” a process by which she or he is negatively and narrowly characterized by one or more “experts” whose postulates tend to be widely accepted in the society at large (8-9). She or he is then identified with an increasingly populous group whose existence has been exposed by these “experts.” Finally, the individual undergoes what Foucault terms, “subjectification,” which concerns the “way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject,” ultimately culminating in self-domination through the creation and maintenance of a newly created identity (11, emphasis added).

It is from this perspective that we must conduct our analysis of Anzia Yezierska, Jewish-American, immigrant, working class, socialist, feminist woman of the early twentieth century.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Anzia Yezierska, Part I

I wrote a paper about an American writer, Anzia Yezierska, for a college class over a decade ago. I came across it today, and since it's actually pretty good, and says some things that need to be said, I'm going to publish pieces of it in pieces. 

In Pursuit of Happiness, Part I
Imagine yourself, a college student, sitting one mid-semester morning in your Introductory Biology class. The lecture concerns genetics: You are taking notes, listening intently and trying to reconcile newly-acquired facts with the oblivious acceptance that characterized you for as long as you can remember. You shake your head and laugh softly at yourself; this is not a new, or even unexpected, experience. With the sharpened critical questioning and thinking skills acquired during your term at college, you are increasingly able to challenge the many “common sense” ideas you now call “dogma.” You withdraw from your thoughts as the lecture topic turns to incest; to your surprise, the professor goes into extravagant detail deconstructing the “myth” of the Incest Taboo (Blevins). You look up from your notebook, too captivated to write.
But in the middle of one later night you wake, cold, sweaty and breathless. You tug the covers over your damp flannel gown and stare through foggy glass into the sky, dingy and rumbling from a storm yet unbroken. You slow your breathing, lie still and close your eyes, awaiting the downpour. Splashing through drowsy puddles, you lay bare the footprints of your sleepy apparition. The dam of psyche heaves as images spill into your mind: You were sitting under an umbrella . . . on a blue and white blanket, you think. You were wiping the sand from the edges and . . . laughing. Laughing at a clever joke; (oh god) you and your father, apparently romantically involved, were about to share a lover’s first kiss. You try to ignore the acidic churning of your stomach as you yank the covers to your neck, wrench your body onto its side and draw up your knees to ward off the room’s bitter chill.
The reconciliation of intellectual insight with a lifetime of conditioned affect is an extraordinarily difficult, always ongoing process. Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish immigrant writer, faced this same enigma and struggled throughout her life to resolve this paradox as continuously manifested in her ambivalence toward the intellectual pursuit of happiness and the emotional implications of her choices.
In this essay, I will discuss some of the ways by which a patriarchal society ensures that women internalize particular axiologies and how these systemic values are designed to frustrate women’s emancipatory endeavors. The second section will focus on the life and culture of Anzia Yezierska, an early 20th Century Jewish-American writer who simultaneously struggled against oppression and agonized in her realization of liberation. In the third section, I will examine several of Yezierska’s works, published and not, and attempt to expose the ambivalence she, as many feminists have, felt.
As we undertake this examination, however, we must bear several points in mind. Yezierska was undeniably a pioneering Jewish working class feminist, despite attempts by some to reduce her to a one-dimensional representative of “Jewish immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side” in the 1920s (Harris v) . As feminists and as literary critics, we must uncover and admit the fact that we often devalue and diminish certain literature because we fail to see to working class, the “others,’’” writings as particularly reflective of other groups’ experiences and thereby exclude it from the canon.
Janet Zandy, in her journal article, “The Complexities and Contradictions of Working Class Women’s Writings,” points out that “the epistemology of working class lived experiences is not part of the institutionalized construction of knowledge” (5). As she asserts, mainstream American literature, whether traditional or feminist, consists almost entirely of middle and upper class contributions. I concur, and further suggest that this practice encourages the popular presumption that mainstream prose is universally valid and reflective, which is certainly not the case; it merely mirrors the mainstream’s life while it serves to negate other groups’ experiences.
When examining working class women’s literature, we must become and remain aware of the assumptions we utilize concerning identity formation, feminism, normalcy, essentialism, universalism, politics, et cetera, and refrain from the temptation to make hasty judgments concerning working class women, including Yezierska, based on our expectations as literary critics, or from whatever posture we read her prose. As we will find, she does share certain similarities with the several groups identified by their respective labels of working class, Jew, immigrant, woman, writer, feminist, socialist, mother, daughter and others. Yet she is also quite individualistic and unique in many ways: she transcends the definitions presented by any, or all, of these categories; it is precisely because she struggled so vehemently against such forms of reductionism during her search for a liberated identity that I believe she would feel quite at ease with our ambiguity.

Part two soon to come . . . 

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Best Medicine

Today someone offered me a sliver of an old tome that I am sure they thought I needed to hear. 

"You need to lighten up."

And so, because they did, I feel I must straighten the record a bit.

It is true that I am intense, passionate (to the point of inferno at times), and - er - generally the opposite of shy. I am completely committed to making positive changes in the world, and to leaving this ball of clay a little better tended than how I found it.

However, I am also - for lack of a better word here - "light."

I love laughter.

But my sense of humor, I freely admit, is a bit naughty, and runs to the violent. (I'm no fan of Tom and Jerry though. We'll just say it's a bit complicated and leave it at that.) That's why I don't often share it.

It's all those years in law enforcement. I've told people many times that being a cop ruined me for polite company, and the truth is, well, that that's the truth in many ways.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that you, said worryer, need to stop said worrying. The force of all that passion swirling around is not going to implode me. Promise.

And stop advising me, too, or I'll rip your @*#!@%^ arm off. 

Hardy har har.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whose Tweets Pitter Your Patter?

If you're anything like me, you have a secret (nonpublic) list of your very favorite tweeps: one composed of the people whose company you really enjoy, or whose words never fail to tickle you, or make you think, or whose cries to battle resound in your heart. 

And maybe, just maybe, there's one or two to which you might admit (to your closest friend, and then only after pinkie swearing them to secrecy) that you have a crush on. 'Nuff said.

Well, if your list is on the superslim side (and who besides starving models, the profoundly guilty, and brain-eating zombies love "superslim"?), and if you're a fan of Star Trek, True Blood, Star Wars, NCIS, and Criminal Minds (and who besides starving models, the profoundly guilty, and brain-dead zombies don't love these shows!), here are a few tweeps I offer as suggested thickeners/fatteners/corn starch to your gravy list:

  • LordPalpatine Emperor Palpatine. Last tweet: Remember remember the fifth of November. Lightsaber, Jedi and plot. I see no reason why lightsaber, treason, should ever be forgot. 
  • PauleyP Pauley Perrette. Earlier tweet: It was Christmas on the #NCIS set today with @BrianDietzen & McGee! 
  • DeathStarPR Death Star PR. Earlier tweet: Remember, Friday's fun day! Set fire to something. Preferably an Ewok. 
  • Vangsness Kirsten Vangsness. Last tweet: the last day for the wonderful cause that is @LALovesAlexs you can donate & get tix at you totally know you want to
  • levarburton LeVar Burton. Earlier tweet: Welcome, November! Anyone else feel like getting through October required survival skills?
  • BauervanStraten Kristin Bauer. Last tweet: Urgent Action Needed Now 4 Bill 2 Save horses! Wisconsonites call (202) 224-5653 & say NO 2 Horse Slaughter. via@AAHS
  • BrianDietzen Brian Dietzen. Earlier tweet: Here's a fun pic from set today. I apologize for making you all jealous, but alas, I cannot share the sweater vest.
  • Gibsonthomas Thomas Gibson. Last tweet: Photo:
  • RockyCOfficial Rocky Carroll. Earlier tweet: I will definitely be a part of the NCIS social network takeover on Tues. from 2-4pm (pacific) please check it out.
  • BorowitzReport Andy Borowitz. Last tweet: If these are the best presidential candidates our current system produces maybe we should try a random lottery.
  • FearDept US Dept. of Fear. Earlier tweet: Our system of government is one of "checks and balances": we cash taxpayers' checks and use the money to increase corporate balances. #ows
  • io9 io9. Last tweet: Insane 1977 movie sent Bruce Lee to Hell to meet Popeye (and other crap films that exploited the actor's death)
  • BrentSpiner Brent Spiner. Last tweet: RIP Andy Rooney. Don't you just hate when people die?
  • ggreenwald Glenn Greenwald. Earlier tweet: I just don't feel the need to cite a politician as authority every time I make an argument

Oh yes - - there are others. But this should get you started. And don't forget to follow me - laurijowen. I follow back. ;-p