The feminist blueberries of the Western Cape

Blueberry farm

Rosie, Year 10, explores how a blueberry farm run by her great-aunt empowers women from the local township in Hermanus, South Africa.

Feminist blueberries – a surprising concept! One I found to be very real during half-term, while visiting my great-aunt Alison. Here, I discovered the opportunities which blueberries provide, helping and empowering the lives of women in the area.

Customarily, in the South African agriculture, the women are the workers, while the men make decisions and look after the cattle. As Alison explained to me, there is a common danger for married women in this, that being that their husbands take away their financial freedom. Whilst this is not always the case, it does however restrain many women from choosing to marry in the first place. As a result of this, my aunt Alison tries to employ as many women so that the money could be sure to go straight towards the household – keeping a family fed and looked after.

On the farm there are six permanent jobs held by women, including driving tractors attending the pump house and ensuring that the irrigation systems are clean. However, come high season Alison will employ around 150 women for picking, packing and checking. Normally, these women are from the local area and take the bus to and from the farm; their day typically starting at around 6am and finishing at 2:30pm, allowing them to greet their children when they come home from school.

The women from these local communities – picking up fruit such as grapes and apples – have very little work as it is seasonal. Typically, the picking of fruit lasts from February through to March or April, and this is then followed by a long period of unemployment. By working on the blueberry farm, 150 of these women have an extra four months of employment. In addition to this they are also provided with casual labour, such as weeding or planting new plants, thus making a hugely positive impact on their income.

In South Africa, Monday has a reputation for being a very slow-moving day. Many men either work slowly and without efficiency or don’t turn up, due to hangovers from the weekend. However, Alison does not find this to be the case for her ladies at all. She complimented their fast learning and ability to fill buckets speedily to reach the bonus, while still staying careful and particular when sorting each individual berry.

A huge part of the female empowerment at work here is Alison herself. It is her drive and passion in running the farm that benefits and gives a purpose to so many other women in the area, and makes her a very inspirational woman. There is no doubt that Alison and her ladies grow some pretty special blueberries.  Having been named the best blueberry suppliers in South Africa last year after only their first year of growing, I can certainly testify, having tried them myself, that these blueberries are the most delicious I have ever tasted.

Blueberries

Miss, Mrs or Ms; a step towards feminism or superficial shower thoughts? – 09/11/18

Sophie Robertshaw, music teacher at Wimbledon High School, looks into the forms of address for female staff.

There are a huge variety of ways of addressing a woman in a school context.  By contrast, men are addressed only as Mr or Sir.  Having worked with children as a teacher and music tutor since I was a teenager, over the years I have been addressed in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a casual first name greeting to the somewhat unexpected “ma’am” (rhyming with palm).

I would expect adult learners to address me by my first name – anything else would seem condescending.  However, in a school context, I feel that it is important for pupils to use a more formal mode of address as I believe it promotes discipline and respect for those in authority; skills which are in vital in success within a workplace. This brings me to the issue of what exactly I should be called in a professional context – am I a Miss, Mrs or Ms?  Or perhaps something else entirely?

The problem is that all these traditional titles have particular connotations about my marital status, as Dr Amy Louise Erickson of Cambridge University explains: “The ubiquitous forms of address for women ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are both abbreviations of ‘mistress’.  ‘Mrs’ did not describe a married woman: it described a woman who governed subjects (i.e., employees or servants or apprentices) or a woman who was skilled or who taught. It described a social, rather than a marital status.”  However, unlike Mrs, which has changed from a social to a marital meaning over time, Miss always indicated an unmarried woman.

Why does this matter?  As a young, recently qualified teacher I feel that it is unnecessary for my pupils and their parents to know whether I am married or not.  My marital status has absolutely no impact on my ability to teach.  As a “Miss” I occasionally feel that there can be negative connotations in the minds of some students and parents – that I am less experienced, less mature, less qualified.  A “Mrs” on the other hand conjures images perhaps of an older woman, with children of her own, who has greater experience and expertise and is therefore an inherently better teacher than her unmarried childless counterpart. “Ms” is to my mind an unsatisfactory halfway house.

So, what then is the solution?  Should an address include education and qualifications details?  Should the whole system of Mrs, Ms or Miss be replaced? Or expanded in favour of gender-neutral titles in support of equal rights not just for females, but individuals within the LGBTQ+ community?

Back in 2017, Stuart Barette, a transgender project manager at HSBC, announced the expansion of gender-neutral titles within their banking systems to include “Ind” (individual meaning free of gender), and “Mre” (mystery). An article published in the Independent in March 2017 goes on to explain that within the title section, “Mx” is listed as an option, but that the bank will also allow nine other new titles, including “M”, “Misc”, “Msr”, “Myr” and “Sai”.

Whatever the answer, Wimbledon High School has high aspirations for all its students to become highly educated, confident and articulate young women, capable of great success in their career and life choices and they should not find themselves limited in any way by the title society chooses to address them by.

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-40530920
  2. http://www.econsoc.hist.cam.ac.uk/docs/CWPESH%20number%208%20July%202012.pdf
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hsbc-bank-transgender-customers-neutral-titles-mx-ind-mre-a7659686.html

The Wicked Women of Literature – 05/10/18

Lydia, Y12, explores the way the “evil” women in literature have been presented and what links these women across the centuries.

From Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1950), the presentation of women throughout literary history is fascinating, often providing a lens through which modern readers can appreciate the attitudes of the past. It is especially interesting to focus on the presentation of evil and transgressive women in literature, revealing the gender-based fears that have plagued western-society for almost two and a half millennia.

Focusing solely on Medea and East of Eden as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), these evil women span an enormous timeframe yet adhere to strikingly similar tropes, almost invariably defying female-specific social mores. These include a rejection of motherhood and an assertion of dominance over their husbands.

Medea is a jilted bride, seeking revenge on her former husband, Jason, for leaving her for the far richer Princess Glauke. As the ultimate revenge she slaughters her own children with a knife. The childless Lady Macbeth speaks in graphic terms of her readiness to “dash the brains out” of a breastfeeding infant. Shakespeare also emphasises her physical aversion to motherhood as she implores spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”. In East of Eden, Steinbeck’s villainess, Cathy Ames, echoes this motif. Steinbeck describes that “[Cathy’s] breasts didn’t grow … There was no quickening of milk glands, no preparation to feed the infant”. As soon as Cathy’s children are born she rejects them both. The repeated presentation of wicked women as child killers or negligent mothers across thousands of years reveals how deeply entrenched societal associations between child-rearing and womanhood are.

These literary women also had in common their assertions of dominance over their husbands. Steinbeck claims that Cathy had “the most powerful impact upon Adam (her husband)” and Lady Macbeth was much the same, yielding a sinister amount of power over Macbeth. Medea emasculates Jason as she tells him his “complete lack of manliness” is “utterly vile”. This fear of female scorn is repeated in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth asserts “when you durst do it, then you are a man” in the face of her husbands hesitance to assassinate the king.

I find these similarities particularly interesting to consider in relation to women in our society today. Even in 2018, 2449 years after Medea was first performed, women in parts of the world are stripped of the access to legal and safe abortions, forced into the role of motherhood against their will and no country on earth pays women and men an equal wage. Though it may be discouraging to think about these attitudes towards the role of women and how deep those attitudes run, I believe there is a positive angle to be considered. As society moves forward, however incrementally slow the pace may be, consider it a triumph in the face of a thousand years of prejudice.

Euripides: a misogynist or a prototype feminist? – 07/09/18

Anna (Year 13) explores the works of Euripides and endeavours to establish whether he was a feminist through analysis of his plays.

Often regarded as a cornerstone of ancient literary education, Euripides was a tragedian of classical Athens. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three ancient Greek tragedians for whom a significant number of plays have survived. Aristotle described him as “the most tragic of poets” – he focused on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way that was previously unheard of. This was especially true in the sympathy he demonstrated to all victims of society, which included women. Euripides was undoubtedly the first playwright to place women at the centre of many of his works. However, there is much debate as to whether by doing this, Euripides can be considered to be a ‘prototype feminist’, or whether the portrayal of these women in the plays themselves undermines this completely.

Let us first consider Medea. The play focuses on the eponymous heroine, and centres around her calculated desire for revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, which she achieves by killing his new wife and her own two children, then fleeing to start a new life in Athens. Medea is undoubtedly a strong and powerful figure who refuses to conform to societal expectations, and through her Euripides to an extent sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Because of this, the text has often been read as proto-feminist by modern readers. In contrast with this, Medea’s barbarian identity, and in particular her filicide, would have greatly antagonised a 5th Century Greek audience, and her savage behaviour caused many to see her as a villain.

This negative reception of Euripides’ female characters was echoed in the Greek audience’s response to Euripides’ initial interpretation of the Hippolytus myth, in which Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, which has horrific consequences. It is believed that Euripides first treated the myth in a play called ‘Hippolytus Veiled’. Although this version is now lost, we know that he portrayed a shamelessly lustful Phaedra who directly propositioned Hippolytus on stage, which was strongly disliked by the Athenian audience. The surviving play, entitled simply ‘Hippolytus’, offers a much more even-handed and psychologically complex treatment of the characters: Phaedra admirably tries to quell her lust at all times. However, it could be argued that any pathos for her is lost when she unjustly condemns Hippolytus by leaving a suicide note stating that he raped her, which she does partly to preserve her own reputation, but also perhaps to take revenge for his earlier insults to her and her sex. It is debatable as to whether Euripides is trying to evoke sympathy for Phaedra and her unfortunate situation, or whether through her revenge she can ultimately be seen as a villain in the play.

However, if you look at Hecuba, Andromache, and the Trojan Women, we see how the evils of war have a grave effect on women, and in his play ‘Ion’, he sympathetically portrays Creusa, who was raped by Apollo and forced to cover up the scandal. Although some believe it is difficult to fully label Euripides as a feminist, he nonetheless understood the complexities of female emotion in a new and revolutionary way, whether the audiences, from both then and now, view his female characters as heroines or as villains.

Links and further reading:

https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/ancient-greeces-legacy-liberty-euripides-woes-woman

https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ouashonors1428872998&disposition=inline

Men writing about women: how male authors have depicted female characters

Lydia (Year 11) investigates the portrayal of women in literature, a field that has largely been controlled by the male voice, and how this has changed throughout the centuries.

The literary world has always been (and remains) dominated by men. As male writers create their female characters, they often fall short of capturing the interesting, vivid complexity of womanhood which we, as women, know to be reality. Since Shakespeare’s heyday, it’s fair to say that the role of women in society has changed significantly; but how has this change affected how male writers portray women in literature, if it has at all?

When Shakespeare’s Macbeth was performed (circa. 1602), women were expected to be submissive to their husbands, punished for being ‘scolds’ or ‘nags’. Fear of women’s speech was prevalent, spread by imperious treatises. The extremely popular treatise, Anatomy of a Woman’s Tongue, claimed

“A woman’s tongue it is the devil’s seat;

and that it is a most pernicious lyar,

a backbiter and a consuming fire”

summing up misogynistic attitudes of the Jacobeans with a catchy rhyme. And, of course, there were the witch burnings, vast numbers of women executed for being transgressive, reclusive or powerful.

This attitude towards women is noticeable in Shakespeare’s work as he links the powerful women in Macbeth to the world of spirits and demons. Through studying Macbeth and watching various productions, such as that performed at the National Theatre, it is easy to be struck by how Shakespeare presents women as a manipulative force, blaming them for the immoral actions of men. The misogynistic attitude behind this becomes obvious when compared to how Shakespeare presents Macbeth himself, murderer of the sleeping king and his own close friend, as a basically good, if slightly unhinged, man.

Another greatly beloved male writer is Charles Dickens. By the time Great Expectations was published in 1860, the Jacobeans and their witches were centuries dead, though reductive attitudes towards women lived on. The continued ownership of women by men and the surprising lack of social progress in the centuries between Macbeth and Great Expectations is revealed by similarities between Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s portrayal of women.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth’s desire for power as unnatural and dangerous as she orders spirits to remove remorse and conscience from her body and replace her breast-milk with acid. Dickens uses uncannily similar imagery of mutilation and hardening in Great Expectations as the proud Estella claims “I have no heart … I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense” and Miss Havisham echoes “I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.” This idea that all women who transgress the role of tender, servile femininity must be unnatural perversions of nature is used by both Shakespeare and Dickens, revealing that, despite the centuries passed, men continued to hold the same views regarding the role of women in society.

Dickens is famed for his portrayal of meek, simpering virgins (often paired with epithets such as ‘dear’ and ‘little’). In Great Expectations this trope manifests itself in Clara Barley. Clara is a paradigm of servility, tending constantly to her abusive father yet still managing to appear “natural and winning” and well as “confiding, loving and innocent”.  Dickens reveals Victorian attitudes that women should be submissive, praising Clara’s “modest manner of yielding herself to Herbert’s embracing arm.” The anti-Estella, Clara is just as two-dimensional, a figment of the imagination of the imperious male.

The 20th Century saw great change in how women were viewed in society, earning the vote in Britain in 1918. The end of the 1920s saw the Equal Franchise Act passed, granting equal voting rights to women. Did this rapid progress, and the surging momentum of the feminist movement, pave the way for a parade of wonderful heroines written by men?

It seems not, if John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, best-seller of the 1930s, is anything to go by, featuring not one named female character, only ‘Curley’s wife’, the self-absorbed, cruel and teasing caricature of female shallowness and naivety. Steinbeck punishes this woman for her crimes of promiscuity and stupidity with a broken neck, echoing the methods of past writers; Shakespeare delivers Lady Macbeth a grizzly suicide and Estella is condemned to a life of abuse at the hands of Drummel. Though Steinbeck sticks fast to the well-trodden tropes of two-dimensional femininity, the literary world has a growing female voice in this decade as Daphne du Morier, Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf begin penning novels of their own, featuring swathes of heroines.

However, men have, on occasion, written brilliant female characters: for example Shakespeare’s Juliet and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but these are exceptions to a centuries old pattern in which women are written as either fantastical paragons of innocence or cruel monsters. The recent twitter trend, which inspired this article, asserts that this pattern marches onwards to the present day. So as far as writing funny, interesting, realistic women goes, I guess it’s down to us.

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