Recorded history began with cave men as long ago as 25,000-30,000 years BP. Yet women's history began in 1987, at least according to the federal government. It was then that they officially designated the month of March as "Women's History Month," the fruit of a long-barren tree cultivated by generations of progressives who believed female experience is an integral part of human experience. The foundation was laid by a task force from Sonoma, California, in the late '70s, and the idea has ballooned into a national "holiday" of sorts to acknowledge all the untold stories and value of women past, present and future, and the challenges facing them today.
Cindy Clark, Cathy Reavy, Marni Allen and Pam Gehrke are voices for change when others are too uninformed, apathetic or afraid to make themselves heard. They are all professors with Boise State's accredited nursing program and are involved in campus politics through their work with the Gender Studies Board of Directors and the Women's Center. On March 9, Reavy moderated a panel designed to inform on the state of women's health care in Idaho in the face of shortsighted national policy and punative local legislation, that included Clark, Allen and Gehrke. It was also a chance for them to thank Lisa McClain (professor and chair of the Gender Studies Board) and Melissa Wintrow (head of the Women's Center) for all of their work in promoting women's issues on campus and in the public eye.
Each speaker had 15 minutes, and topics ranged from nurses helping to implement health care initiatives to health issues confronting women of diversity, to the incarceration vs. rehabilitation debate to what Clark calls "heterosexiness," or the societal pressure young female athletes feel to be "not only strong and lean and formidable but also beautiful." They discussed the staggering mental illness statistics for women prisoners, performance enhancing drug use, eating disorders, osteoperosis and overall barriers to adequate medical coverage, hoping not only to inform the audience of problems but also to involve them in finding solutions.
"Fear moves legislation, but someone told me once never to doubt the power of one," Reavy said. "We're working toward women helping each other one-on-one to make positive outcomes happen." Such positive outcomes include a publicly funded rehab center for recovering addicts, legislation that offers intervention and therapy rather than automatic prison terms and above all, increased community involvement in politics. "It's all about perspective. People often think, 'It doesn't matter to me until it affects me,' but you never know when someone's situation will change," Allen said. "National elections have a certain importance, but state issues confront us every day," Gehrke said. "So if you're going to a lecture, bring a friend. Help create a more informed population. Make a difference by becoming passionate about an issue; vote; call your legislators; get motivated to get out and act."
Hoping to set an example, Clark brought her 12-year-old daughter Emily to the lecture. "I wanted her to hear my colleagues talk about these issues from different perspectives but with the same passion," Clark said. "When I asked Emily if it was time well spent, she said, 'I didn't understand a lot of it, but I'm going to think about it.' I told her to talk to her friends about the importance of learning what's going on in the world. Over time, little things like that can cause the political landscape to change."
Despite all of the optimism and progress suggested by Clark, Allen, Gehrke and Reavy, American women in particular are plagued by body image as much, if not more, than politics. Confronted with ludicrous "personal enhancement" shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover, even healthy and attractive women are falling prey to the idea that surgery is the cure for insecurity. Faye Lederman, a young filmmaker from New York, touches on these issues in her comedic short documentary A Good Uplift. While it is a profile of the Orthodox Jewish family who own and operate a bra shop on the lower eastside of New York City, it is also about the customers coming to terms with their own bodies and letting a wise old woman teach them how to love themselves. Her name is Magda and in Lederman's words, "she is as complex as her customers: she's a shrewd retailer, a conflicted feminist and a doting grandmother. As such, her message is often murky. But ... we believe that in the end Magda wants everyone who walks into her tiny shop to leave feeling good about themselves and their bodies, whether that means they walk out padded or pointy, reduced or enhanced."
Over the past year, Lederman has traveled around the country with her film, presenting body image workshops to female audiences. They are split into groups and given discussion questions that spark the most unexpected conversations about everything from buying your first bra to getting a boob job to the words you would use to describe your own breasts. These fun questions lead to deeper issues of self, and Lederman hopes participants are taking her message to heart.
"Our ethnicities can often be read through our bodies, and there's no forgiveness for that, just laughing and pinpointing. Surgery is de rigueur-without any consideration for the fact that you might accept the way you are," Lederman said. "The film is great because you watch it and you laugh together, and that makes it easier to talk about misgivings about your body." Lederman admits to suffering from many of the same doubts herself, even though she is a size eight and a triathlete. "We're taught to be super critical in every aspect, so we have to learn to find our inner Magda and be gentle and warm and accepting of ourselves," she said. "This issue crosses over into so many other realms, and it's about acceptance in all of them."
While Women's History Month, health care and body image issues all warrant stories of their own, they are inextricably tied to female identity, a concept that has evolved over the centuries and will continue to evolve. Progress has been made and destroyed, but those on the front lines remain upbeat. "We're growing slowly, but wisely and steadily," Reavy said, "and we're interested in making the world a little bit better."
For more information on A Good Uplift, visit www.squeezethestone.org/agooduplift/index.html.