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The Female Conscience


ISSUE:  Fall 2012
Guest editor Marie Arana introduces the theme of our Fall 2012 issue, The Female Conscience.

When I was a child, my mother—an Anglo-American with a deep love for England—told me about Boadicea, a fierce Briton who defended her tribe from the depredations and abuses of Roman invaders. My mother was the only American I knew: a tall, blond, feisty beauty with piercing blue eyes, who broke all the rules of conventional, submissive womanhood. Stranded as she was on the coast of a decidedly Peruvian sea, with a macho Peruvian husband and three disturbingly spoiled Peruvian children, she hauled out the only defense a besieged party can muster: a powerful dose of cultural propaganda. You may look, talk, and walk like a Peruvian, she told me, but you have an Anglo heart. Anglo grit. And nowhere is that heart and grit more evident than in Boadicea, whose animating spirit is in you.

Guest Editor Marie Arana with Senna Ochochoque in the only school in the gold-mining town of La Rinconada, Peru. As Arana explains in her feature article, Senna and other girls across the globe can play a transformative role in their communities if given a chance at an education. (Photo by Gina Nemirofsky)

As I grew older and set out to read what I could about that ancient, first-century warrior, I was captivated. Here was a widow who had lost everything: Her husband—the king—was dead. Her daughters had been raped by the colonizers. Her possessions had been confiscated. She had been flogged in public for her inability to pay the Roman tax. Crushed, humiliated, she nevertheless had the moxie to rise up, defy a global power, and rally the masses to drive Rome from their shores. As Cassius Dio, who was writing for the other side, described it:

[A] terrible disaster has occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand Romans and allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame… . [T]he person chiefly responsible for rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans—the person thought worthy to stand at their head and direct the conduct of the entire war— was Boadicea, a Briton female of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than typically applies to women.

Being my mother’s daughter, I knew it was nonsense to think that women possessed any less intelligence than men; and being a native Peruvian, I knew that a female intelligence was perhaps—by nature or nurture—different. The question that most interested me, though, in the history of Boadicea, was this: When she leapt forth like a lioness, fighting to save what was left of her ravaged country, was she doing what came naturally? Or was she just aping a man? Cassius Dio went on to say more about the dread woman who had foiled Rome: “In person she was very tall, with a strong frame and a piercing glance; her voice was harsh and loud; a great mass of yellow hair fell below her waist and a thick golden ring circled her throat. Draping her body was a flowing robe and a sturdy tartan, fastened with a brooch.” Well, except for the harsh, loud voice, this was the very picture of my mother, down to the plaid dress held together, most emphatically, by a pin. All of which begged another question: Could I, a smallish girl with dark hair and dark eyes, ever be a Boadicea? Or were women not only fundamentally different from men, but also—depending on culture—entirely different from one another?

Jean Bethke Elshtain, one of America’s most distinguished thinkers on social and political ethics, parses these questions in her essay for this issue of VQR. Delving into the writings of Plato and Aristotle, who lived hundreds of years before the warrior heroine, Elshtain explains how it was that the Western world got its notions that genders were separate and unequal. Christianity changed the picture somewhat, and American scrappiness changed it further, but essentially, says Elshtain—war being as important today as it ever was in antiquity—we are still living with ideas sent down to us by the Greeks, not to mention Romans like Cassius Dio, who avidly promoted Greek thought. It is a curious outcome, given that at least one warrior woman beat the ancients at their own game.

Elshtain also addresses age-old philosophical struggles with motherhood: a role that, in Plato’s eyes, damned women to the servant class and required stern restrictions on gender. So, it is ironic that a new generation of American women, aged twenty-five to forty, has embraced motherhood so thoroughly that “super-mom” no longer means a woman who juggles work and family, but one who sacrifices work, play, even health and mental well-being, to make children the center of her universe. Judith Warner, who has dedicated a career to writing about women and families, elaborates on this in her report from the cutting edge of social research. The postulate currently being tested? Obsessive mothering may be hazardous to your health.

Indeed, new research on women is raising a whole host of epiphanies. The “girl effect,” for instance. I first learned of the transformational power of girls’ education from a 2009 Harvard report on social research, but many in the academy had heard of it long before. Hard, rigorous data was emerging to prove that in pockets around the globe, ten- to fourteen-year-old girls might be the key to breaking cycles of poverty. Educating a nation’s girl-children, as it turned out, shrank overpopulation, raised overall incomes, and could change the fabric of a whole nation. By targeting girls, a village’s productivity could be made to go up; the incidence of AIDS, down. Literacy would increase; infant mortality, plummet. As one corporate leader in America put it: Educating this segment of the population is a country’s “best possible return on investment” with far-reaching implications for the global economy. In short, by educating girls, you can change the world.

It was with this in mind that I traveled to the highest human habitation in the world, the mining town of La Rinconada, which sits on a glacial peak more than 18,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes. I had gone there to meet a girl, but I found a dizzying spectacle in her ambit: a lawless community that digs gold from glacial rock and sends it to the glittering marketplaces of the rich, yet lives in filth and abject poverty. My purpose in traveling there was to write about one brave child for a feature film on the “girl effect,” produced by the New York-Los Angeles company, the Documentary Group. The movie, which will be released in May 2013 and is unnamed as we go to press, has spurred a worldwide international campaign called “10 × 10,” whose goal is nothing less than raising public awareness about the urgency of educating the world’s female young. Of more than 100 million out-of-school children around the globe, the overwhelming majority are girls. What is it that makes them worth the investment? Social scientists don’t use the term, but I will: a female conscience.

There are a thousand and one Scheherazade stories we might tell about the ways a female conscience operates in the world, not always for the better, and sometimes totally under the radar of laws and social conventions. For example, there is the global phenomenon of sexual slavery, 12 to 27 million people strong (the great majority female): as vibrant and flourishing a commerce as the Atlantic slave trade ever was in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Unlike the slavers of yore, however, the ones at work today keep no ledgers; there are no names, no body weights, no bills of sale. We see a glimmer of that sobering reality in the squalid town of La Rinconada, in the anonymous girls who get caught up in prostitution, dreaming of El Dorado. We see them again in Nadia Cohen’s poignant photo essay of easy river sex in Brazil. This churning trade is largely out of sight, out of mind. If Peru is any example, it’s just as likely that the traffickers will be women. Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it this way: Give a woman a man’s power in a male world, and you cannot be sure that she will act any differently. And yet, give a young woman an education, and statistics reveal another face entirely: She will reinvest 90 percent of her earnings in her family. In due course, that simple act, repeated around her, will lift a community.

What does it mean to have a female conscience? Although it’s hard to put a finger on it, we recognize it in the people around us. It is there in the extraordinary person of Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, the founder of Mission Blue, and one of the world’s most distinguished oceanographers. Dr. Earle broke through the glass ceiling of scientific exploration, bringing women to space as well as deep into the heart of what she calls “our blue planet.” Her passion, acumen, and perseverance have mobilized whole nations to save the health of the oceans, which in turn will safeguard the Earth as we know it. In her essay, she makes a plea from the perspective of a veteran, calling us to do the right thing.

A female conscience is there in Saudi Arabia’s Manal al-Sharif, who rose up against the sharia laws of an all-powerful, male government to claim a woman’s simple right to drive. It is there, too, in Naomi Natale, who couldn’t read one more word about AIDS and genocide in Africa, without going out, recording the horror, and then bringing it back and putting it, quite literally, into our hands. There is, too, the quiet but unmistakable heroism of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who joined her husband, Charles, in aerial explorations after his historic Paris flight, but found her greatest joy in writing books and raising children. Reeve Lindbergh gives us a rare glimpse into her mother’s very private courage.

As for Eudora Welty, she was hardly the meek soul she was made out to be. According to Jonathan Yardley, here was no “quaint southern spinster, little-old-ladylike and sweet and dreamy and fragile. She may have held her stories together with pins and needles, but there was nothing faint about her… . Among the things that most struck me about her were toughness, opinionativeness, and determination.”

Likewise, Mindy Aloff describes the writer Joyce Johnson at twenty-one as a young woman who knew what she believed and was not afraid to stand up to a pugnacious Jack Kerouac in defense of her principles. The clarity of her voice, Aloff reports, has only sharpened with age. In a “magnificent bildungsroman biography” of Kerouac, Johnson chronicles, as only an intimate can, the brutal misogyny of the Beat poets and the talents and torments that racked her misunderstood lover, Jack.

In short, Boadicea’s heart and grit are in evidence everywhere in this issue, front to back—from our cover photo of a young writer who wants us to ponder her words, to our very last essay, where Eudora Welty says what is left to say. From a boxing ring in Drogheda, Ireland, where Deirdre Gogarty learns to spar, to an abortion clinic in Wisconsin, where Joyce Carol Oates’s heroine faces an angry throng. There is a tale of girlfriends by the talented Maggie Shipstead; a confessional essay on girliness by Harvard professor Stephen Burt; a measure of sisterhood by truth teller Roxane Gay. There is Chuck Leavell’s appreciation of the land; Robin Marantz Henig’s appreciation of what makes for good science writing. There are poems that speak to our passions, our powers of observation, our will to life. An indomitable spirit of moxie lives in these pages. I hope you will agree. 

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