Girls and Freedom

Where I come from, girls are monitored much more carefully than are boys. Still, yes, even decades after the Dinosaur Era when I was a child.

Girls are taught they are responsible for the comfort of others, the ones who will find you that cool drink, the most comfortable chair, the clean sheets. And they are the ones who are admonished to be modest. And ready to be a mother at the drop of a hat.

Taken to its extremes, the message to girls can be the same in South Carolina or Saudi Arabia: You are responsible for how men treat you. Cover yourself appropriately, don’t be loud or boastful or too sexy. And maybe then you’ll be safe from men’s “animal instincts.” (The insult to men is noted!) But control over when and how you have children is pretty much out of your hands.

These days, however, nearly every ad, movie, or product placement screams at women to unleash their inner animal. To show the world “what you got.”

There is a freedom to be found in pride and enjoyment in one’s body. But there is also a line between pride and being eye candy, easily dismissed, a line that is seldom discussed. And modesty can be a tool like any other.

How is a girl to parse all this?

In Eve’s Garden, I wanted to explore this world. To talk about “bad girls” and what they give to us, their friends. To look at what happens when a young woman does put herself first. To examine Louise Westerly’s suggestion, in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens, that women have to leave the South to earn their freedom.

I do know, from conversations with friends, that many of us GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) and Romniya (Romani women) have pondered whether we would have had more choices elsewhere.

Do girls in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, or Kenya feel the same? I suspect they do, given the news items about the Boko Haram, Malala, and the recent spates of gang rapes in India.

But what will happen to our world, the one we grew up in, to our daughters and nieces and mothers, if we don’t stay and try to make a little more space for those who come after?

This is part of what I wanted to examine in Eve’s Garden. I hope it might somehow, even in a small way, make a difference. In my library talks, especially, I’ll see if we can get a good conversation going on this topic.

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Last thoughts for Women’s History Month

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Betty Friedan used to say that the 1950s and early 1960s were a time when we wore girdles on our heads.

I think of that remark when I talk to writers. If I ask a group, “Who’s working on a novel manuscript?” A few will put their hands up, boldly, but I see many hesitate and even more squirm as if the manuscript were an uncomfortable telephone book beneath their bums. My goal in a workshop is always to get those hands in the air, waving with confidence.

I set Eve’s Garden in those days, when our heads were wrapped in layers of expectations that didn’t accommodate bold visions for women. In some societies, in some segments of our own society, those confining, latex-like expectations and teachings still prevail.

Eve and her mother, Maisie, and especially her grandmother, Evangeline, defy those expectations. And they pay the price, but not without gaining more than they lose. In fact, Eve has a plan to build greater possibilities for the girls under her care.

In October, I’ll be teaching a workshop for Jane’s Stories Press Foundation on what I learned about writing a novel during my time spent with these three wonderful imaginary women. Date and time and place (other than that it will be in the Chicago area) haven’t been announced yet, but if you’re floundering with your novel or just a bit stuck or maybe hesitant to take it head-on, I hope you’ll join us; watch here for details.

In the meantime, if you have a story about what confines you and what you’ve observed about bold visions, please drop me a line in the comment section.

And, by the way, what is the difference, do you think, between what’s above and Spanx, etc.? Are we a little sexier, but still “reducing” ourselves?

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