FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 03/10/2011

Entering The Picture: Towards Personhood

For Women’s History Month
March 9, 2011                                                Volume 4 Issue 4
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Ivy George

One of the searing memories of the 1960s civil rights movement etched into my mind is the photograph of the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike in 1968. It is a profoundly paradoxical and disturbing cultural document. A black and white photograph of the protesters shows a stream of black men carrying placards that say, “I am a Man.” There are a handful of white males dressed in ties, carrying nothing, sprinkled among the black workers. The protest is framed by a row of National Guard riflemen with bayonets on one side, and tanks skirting the marchers on the other side.

As a woman from India, I cannot help but note the “absences” in the photo. I am thinking about the black women who are absent from the photograph. What kind of a placard would they carry if they’d been present at the protest? “I am a Woman”? What privileges would accrue from such a claim? Even white women could not assume full and equal pay, respect, and personhood.

What is ultimately evident with this image is the assumption of white manhood as the standard for humanity. How shaky that scaffolding becomes, though, when we examine our social systems and structures and identify how all of us are wanting in self-realization. And so, at issue here is the fundamental question as to whether women are human beings. Nothing less.

Granted, today there will be many (among my students, to be sure) who view this photograph as a thing of the past. The veil has been rent. The dream is no longer deferred but has been realized. All it takes now on the part of the historically marginalized, many believe, is commitment and hard work—even a Facebook account—before they too have equal opportunity.

After all, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Clarence Thomas and innumerable others appear on our dual lenses on race and gender with ease and grace. They’re in the picture.

To such friends I would suggest that serious and subtle lapses occur when we bring up isolated instances of individuals who have “overcome” structural constraints. After all, I teach sociology, a discipline that opens one’s eyes to the complexities of society in ways that are exhilarating.

When I become the subject of sociology, for instance, I am forced to locate myself on the map of the world. When we uncover vital statistics about women and their status nationally or globally, when we discuss where women stand in terms of their life chances in the spheres of physical, psychological and emotional safety, education, employment, health, religion, media, sports and politics, or immigration, then the complexities become instructive.

In other words, Hillary and Sonia’s success hardly translates into success for all women.

Nevertheless, there are some paradoxes to today’s structural realities. The first decade into the 21st century, the built-in anomalies of this largely male-designed socioeconomic and political establishment of ours has flipped the odds for women and now put them on the front lines in many societies. Social changes in many societies over the last fifty years—contraception, political progress, and economic crises—have precipitated this push of women to the forefront in labor and education. Increases in literacy and microfinance lending for women in developing societies have given women entry into the picture.

Even so, there are mirages on the horizon—more women working in the public sphere does not automatically create structural change or translate into social justice. The architects of our public spheres remain largely male with few women thrown in here and there. Competition and hierarchies either render women vulnerable or take advantage of pre-existing fault lines between genders. This reality is so common that most of us have developed adaptive mechanisms to survive in it.

In spite of such complexities—or maybe because of them—our purpose as women, and therefore our personhood, remains clear: the pursuit of Life for self and for others on this planet. I think of women who are mothers and in a kind of way their bodies become channels for the greater good. Mothering offers an unparalleled space for creativity and pleasure for women. Surely mothers sense this in their intimacy with their children, a divine gift for women through the many oppressive constraints put on them by time and place even in these sacred spaces.

So we work towards the transformation of our systems and structures. We raise our children to unmask evil and follow the good, to enter the picture in hopes that one day, the question—are women human?—will cease to be.

Ivy George is professor and chair of the sociology and social work department at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her husband and their 11-year old daughter live in Beverly, MA.


Ivy George