Oh, Eleanor

This fall I am team teaching a course on social justice to high school seniors with three men.  I noticed that they had very few women up on their walls, the room saturated with amazing men like Malcolm X, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.  I think it would have been great if the three men had noticed this and joined me in the search, but be it as it were, I took it upon myself to find some posters of powerful women to join the ranks on our walls.  I had no idea how difficult this Cool Women Poster Project would prove to be.

First, I Google searched “women’s posters,” “posters of women,” “powerful female images” and general phrases such as these.  I found almost exclusively sex posters.  Not quite what I was going for.  When I expressed my frustration with this part of the Cool Women Poster Project, people just dismissed me by saying, “You have to be more specific in your search.”  Yes, true, but isn’t that the problem?  MLK posters are all over the Internet, and the fact that I had to really dig creatively points to a systemic problem of gender.  But I did persevere, and upon digging more specifically, I came upon angry, man-hating feminist posters, which is not quite what I was going for either.  In the depths of virtual reality there are some pretty cool posters of obscure women with powerful quotes, but they are tucked away pretty deep.

Part of my Cool Women Poster Project included asking both men and women what females they look up to.  I was shocked and dismayed at the lack of variety in answer.  Most people could site a woman in their personal lives who they look up to, which is great, but that was not what I wanted.  There were very few famous, powerful women that people could name off the top of their heads.  Another red flag.  It bothers me, going back to my last post, how women remain unnamed in history.  Think about the Bible (I have to since I am a religion teacher).  We have the Greek women who refers to herself as a dog, the woman who anoints Jesus with oil, and the woman who is healed by touching Jesus’ cloak.  What are their names?  And even the women we can name: Ruth, Rebecca, Mary—how much do we really know about them?  What is wrong with our systems that we look up to our moms but have few public figures to aspire to?  Looking over my own list, the women I like to channel for power are mostly musicians, writers, justice workers and survivors who are by no means known widely in the world.  Finding posters of them was close to impossible.

The last observation I will share from my Cool Women Poster Project process is that when women were named, they were usually wives of famous men: Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton. Don’t even get me started on Eleanor Roosevelt.  Now, Eleanor was wicked cool, but by the end of this process, I was a little done with posters of frumpy Eleanor busts with her one, over-used quote about feeling inferior.  Men would name her as the one woman they could come up with, but then could not tell me anything specific about her.  And what does it say that our namable women are wives who greatly stay in the shadow of the men they are connected to?  It is not just about having women on posters to look up to.  It is about having women writing policy, getting published, inventing things, working successfully on justice, singing songs, and building buildings in our society so that the feminine soul is reflected in our world.

During the Poster Finding Project, I did some reflecting on how our culture values the individual.  It was not Rosa Parks who ran the bus boycott alone, but we are wired to look to one person to personify a movement.  Instead of valuing community work and consensus, we put one person on the top, and so often the person is a man.  I reflected on the waves of the unnamed, unpostered people who have been a part of the foundation on which we stand.

Last week I stepped back from a bulletin board I had claimed in my classroom that I covered with striking 4 X 6 photos of gorgeous, empowered women that I had printed off myself on my home printer.  It was the result of a summer-long struggle to name and raise up powerful women so my female students could see their souls reflected in the world, too.  I smiled at the beauty of the board while noting how exhausting it was to create.  It felt like swimming up stream the entire way, and that fatigue is systemic gender oppression in the US.  Sometimes it is as subtle as noticing what comes up on a google image search.