Monday, March 7, 2016

Eva Flynn - author of Renegade Queen - on solidarity and rivalry within feminist ranks

Morning, commies!
In the honor of March 8th, the international holiday of female solidarity, I am pleased to introduce a gifted, humorous and passionate author Eva Flynn, the author of The Renegade Queen.  I've been waiting for this opportunity to conduct a thoughtful, constructive interview with a feminist. Too many of my discussions on gender end in a ... cat brawl. Not very dignified. But wait, the heroine of Flynn's novel had her own share of cat fights - with a fellow feminist Susan B. Anthony. Who said that girls who fight for the same cause have to see eye to eye? Please join me for this marvelous interview.

MJN: Victoria Woodhull is "discarded by society" ... So much meaning in those three words. First of all, what defines "society"?  Is your immediate neighborhood, your church, your country club, or something on a larger scale?  To many women, even in the 21st century, the idea of being "discarded" is horrifying.  Yet for some of them, the idea is electrifying! They thrive on their status of being discarded.  Sometimes, being discarded means notoriety, a public scandal, a moment in the limelight, a chance to be heard and gain sympathizers. Sometimes, being discarded means just that - tossed into obscurity.  Tell me how you personally define "discarded".

EF: What a great question. Victoria Woodhull both loved and loathed her position in society. She wanted to be accepted by the elite but knew she never would be and she used her rejection to her advantage politically. At one point in the novel, Representative Benjamin Butler tells Victoria that she has a distinct advantage to demand her rights because she is not a lady and does not have the encumbrances that come with the social standing.

My personal definition of being discarded is being told over and over again through words or deeds that you have no value and are not worthy of being acknowledged. Victoria certainly felt that way which gave her greater empathy for the immigrants and the newly freed slaves and helped her put together a coalition of support behind her radical ideas. I guess you could say she was the first female populist.

MJN: Interestingly, some of the influential women in history, who had political power and gave their male contemporaries a run for their money, were not preoccupied with the fate of other women or advancing any "female" causes. They considered themselves above the typical "female" concerns.  Nor were they particularly concerned with the fate of the less fortunate. I'm referring to Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great of Russia, Queen Victoria. Essentially, they had many qualities that one would associate with men, including aggression and certain callousness. My mother, who is a very regal, powerful alpha-female herself, with a touch of cynicism and even nihilism, said that "social activism is for those who lack real power." Basically, as a political leader, you can either focus on advancing your country's global status OR trying to combat the socioeconomic disparity, but not both.  Would you agree? I'm asking because your heroine does campaign for women's rights. She does embrace activism.

EF: I love that quote by your mother! In the case of Victoria Woodhull, America was just recovering from The Civil War and the idea of America as an important country was not present at that time in our history. If you fast forward today and look at recent female presidential candidates, I never got the sense from Hillary or Carly that they were too concerned about narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor or advancing women/minority issues. I think both campaigns were more focused on America’s stature within the world. Could women do both? I would like to think so, but in American history I can only think of three Presidents who did both:

·         Woodrow Wilson helped secure the suffrage for women in 1920 and we became entered WW1.
·         FDR signed the New Deal and we entered WW2.
·         Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, crafted the “Great Society” legislation, and furthered our involvement in Vietnam.
MJN: Let's talk about the intimate lives of some of the great women in history. They were either celibate or promiscuous, rarely in between. Victoria does have one great love of her life - Colonel James Blood. Do you believe that for a woman on a mission, one strong emotional attachment is dangerous? On one hand, it can fuel her determination, but on another hand, it can make her vulnerable.

EF: If a woman has the right mate, then it’s a great asset. We all need support and love from trusted advisors. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s husband did not even agree with his wife that women were equal but he stayed home and helped raise their kids while she went on speaking tours across the U.S. demanding her rights. Margaret Thatcher was married to Denis for over fifty years. Carly Fiorina has been married to her husband Frank since 1985 and he took an early retirement so he could support her career. It’s rare for a man to be willing to support a woman’s large ambitions, but when they do then they are invaluable mates.

MJN: Your novel explores the subject of rivalry between Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony, who was a Quaker and therefore a more likely feminist candidate. I commend you for highlighting the fact that two men can be on the same side ideologically and still have quite a bit of personal friction.

EF: Yes, there’s one point in the novel and this is based on letters written by Susan B. Anthony where she does not know whether she should support Victoria Woodhull’s testimony in Congress asking for the right to vote. She does not agree with Woodhull on everything and Anthony also feels that Woodhull’s family background is beneath her and the cause. Anthony confides this to a Congressman and he says, “Good Lord woman, this isn’t politics, do you think I’d ever get anything done if I sat around and worried about the backgrounds of my fellow Representatives?”  He goes on to tell Anthony that he co-sponsors all sorts of legislation with people he does not like, but he believes in the bill. The rivalry with Anthony and Woodhull became very personal and they both lost sight of the higher goals.

MJN:  You begin your biography by saying that you were raised with feminist bedtime stories. As a mother of two boys, how do you tackle the issue of gender roles? Do you tell the same bedtime stories to your sons, and do you adjust them for a male audience?

EF: This is a really interesting question and it’s a topic that we struggle with at home. For example, my first grader came home one day last year and said, “Mommy, I feel sorry for you.” And I asked him why and he said, “because you do not get paid as much as boys, my teacher told me so. Girls do not make as much as boys.” And I had to question whether it was appropriate for my son’s teacher to bring up the wage gap to such a young audience without any kind of context they could understand. And I also wondered what message this sent to the girls of the class. My son took these statements from the teacher just as “a fact of life” rather than something that is worth discussing or exploring.

I have young boys, so at this stage I do explain to them the story of the early suffragists and I also explain to Martin Luther King to them in the most simple terms so they can understand both the mistakes this country has made and how people can make a difference.

I was in my son’s classroom last week (he is now in second grade) and I was looking at the biographies the teacher has in her class and it was: white man, white man, white man, Rosa Parks, white man, white man, white man. Now these are books that were given to her by parents, and do not represent the school library but I was saddened to see that she did not have biographies of women. So I’m going to see what biographies I can buy and donate.

MJN: One of the reviewers commented on the timeliness of your book, in light of a viable female presidential candidacy.

EF: Yes, it is exciting that we are getting closer to a female candidate in recent years. Before Hillary and Carly, we had Geraldine in the 1984 election and Sarah Palin in 2008. What I have found interesting in recent weeks is the comments that feminist icon Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made that seem to suggest (although they have since apologized and backpedaled) that women should support women.  Have women ever supported women? If you look back at Susan B. Anthony, two women ran for President (Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood) in her lifetime and she never supported either one. In fact, when Victoria Woodhull was running, Anthony was arrested for voting….for Republican Ulysses S. Grant. For whatever reason, the majority of women have never felt that it was important enough to have a women in the White House either as President or Vice-President that they vote based on gender alone.

MJN: Are there any trends in modern feminism that you consider frivolous and unnecessary? For instance, do you think there is validity to allegations that we live in a "rape culture" and there is an active "war on women" being waged? Most importantly, if Woodhull were to visit 2016 America, what would her reaction be to current state of affairs?

EF: Well I actually wasted my time reading an entire article about how true feminists will grow out their armpit hair, I can put that down as frivolous! I do think that women judge other women harshly and the definition of “feminist” can become so political and polarizing. I do not agree with the feminist leaders of every issue, for example, and I realize that my disagreements may put me out of favor with some staunch feminists. I think we should all be less judgmental. I do think we live in a culture that hypersexualizes women and marginalizes their value. Movies and popular music, for example, frequently disrespect women. Before I wrote The Renegade Queen as a novel, it was a movie script. And I was very excited to talk to many kind and famous producers. One production house script reader told me that my novel was about a “Marxist whore that the Chinese audience would not understand.” What a way to distill a woman’s life, especially a woman who broke all sorts of barriers! I can’t imagine a script reader saying anything similar about a man.

I think Victoria would be both pleased and dismayed. She would be pleased at how much progress we have made, but she would be shocked that it took until 1993 for marital rape to be illegal in all states. And she would be shocked that we have never had a female president. And “equal pay for equal work” was a campaign that Susan B. Anthony first introduced in 1848.

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