“Rich crop of women’s anthologies published in 2019, the International Year of the Woman,” Essay by Donna Meredith

Essay by Donna Meredith 

Maybe they arose from the Fourth Wave of feminism that took hold in 2013, a movement focused on female empowerment. Perhaps they were further nourished by the “Me Too” movement that arose in 2017. No matter the source of inspiration, two important new collections of works by women found their way into print in 2019, the International Year of the Woman. Both anthologies give voice to women’s concerns and issue a call for justice, equality, visibility, and bodily autonomy.

“Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment” (Mountain State Press, 2019)

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Edited by Cat Pleska 

This anthology contains thirty-one essays, poems, and stories that, in the words of the editor, are “about women knowing they have a longer road to walk and how they got to get where they need to be.” Each is accompanied by a brief commentary by another woman. Full disclosure: I provided commentary on one gorgeous piece of creative nonfiction by Colleen Anderson, titled “Ready About, Hard Alle.” The catastrophic event behind the piece is a brother’s suicide, yet Anderson delivers a full rendering of family dynamics. Her brother’s love of sailing becomes an extended metaphor for the family, which she compares to a sailboat with the father at the helm giving orders, the mother in charge of food, the sister as a mystic gazing outward, and herself as the tiller trying to hold the family on course—but the brother, the rudder, is gone.

A lovely poem by Sherrell Wigal opens the collection. “You Do Not Have to be Good: after Wild Geese by Mary Oliver” gives women permission not to be the omnipresent caretaker of every lost and damaged creature they encounter at the expense of their own dreams and ambitions:

Though these have brought joy
In those moments of attention,
Someday you will weight their cost,
Wonder – was there more?

The poem finishes with haunting images of removing “stiff shoes in spring” to “let bare feet offer devotions / to expectant soil” and eyes uplifted “as Canada geese / chevron the blue dome / over West Virginia.” The poet suggests women will find greater contentment if they give birth to all their dreams.

Janice Gary takes us on her journey through depression, rape, and feelings of powerlessness, using fire as a powerful metaphor in her essay, “Into the Fire.” Suffering from PTSD and fibromyalgia, she spends years struggling for a diagnosis and cure, partly because women’s complaints are dismissed as imaginary:

     We are not supposed to notice when we hurt.
We are not supposed to complain.
We are not supposed to resist.
When I was raped, the advice from law enforcement was to relax and enjoy it. No wonder so many of us are on fire.
While I’m writing about burning women, my body is burning. Not just from Fibromyalgia, which comes and goes and happens to be present today, but from the rage—the absolute outrage at how pervasive and hidden and destructive the damage has been—and still is—from the out of control fires of a patriarchy gone mad.

Despite all her trials and the abuse she endures, Gary eventually finds “a strong voice” of her own and “knows how to burn and not be destroyed.”

The women in these essays, poems, and stories show how they use the writing life to share their stories and offer models to other women who are struggling. In “And with a Word, I Began,” early in life Candace Jordan discovers the “superpower” of knowing words, which “empowered” her “to rise above the shame and self-doubt  . . . even in the darkest times . . . creating space for me to grow as a human being.”

In “The Girl in the Mirror,” Carter Taylor Seaton recalls a female friend who “boasted of how clean she got her boys’ jock straps,” and she thinks to herself, “Dear Lord, please let me have something else in my life to talk about besides that.” Oh, please—let us all have something else to talk about besides that!

Karen Salyer McElmurray, in “Knowing What It Takes,” says “The courageous  . . . don’t just trip and fall” but get “back up and walk on.” They have a “will not just to survive, but to live.”

Teacher Katherine Manley says in “Poverty Brain” that she is paying it forward. She acknowledges she has “known hunger, cold, and loneliness, but school was my best friend and my escape for poverty.” She is thankful “for the few teachers that looked beyond the dirt” and saw her potential. Because of them, she realized her dream of escaping poverty and becoming a teacher herself, one who can help others “find a larger dream.”

Every piece in this rich collection is a gem worthy of being mined.

“Feminine Rising: Voices of Power & Invisibility” (Cynren Press, 2019)

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Edited by Andrea Fekete and Lara Lillibridge

This fine anthology is divided into eight thematic sections that speak to the breadth of issues addressed: On Resistance & Roles, On the Body & Sex, On Love & Leaving, On Family & Heirlooms, On Violence & Survival, On Silence & Subversion, On Pregnancy & Birth, and On Late Life & Death. The editors’ stated goals were to “hold the reader’s interest,” and in that they succeeded.  Poems and short pieces open each section, delivering a quick punch line, while the longer pieces that follow “allow for more meditative immersion into a chosen topic.”

The opening brief memoir, Lynda Levy’s “The Tear,” expresses a Jewish girl’s disappointment in the curriculum at Neve Yerushalayim Girls’ Seminary. She can’t breathe in the “restricted air.” The “crucial laws of modesty” governed so much of “what religious girls could do and say and be.” A religious girl had to wear “long skirts and long sleeves so as not to attract male eyes; to pin up [her] seductive long hair; to sing [her] psalms only in the company of other females lest [she] tempt a male to sin.” As a female, she feels rejected by her religion and by Jerusalem, which she had naively assumed would have “unconditional love for her lost children.”

Cheryl Denise offers a similar complaint in “God (According to Pastor Smucker).” The pastor likes carefully defined roles for men and women. He likes “Maybelline women / who make Jell-O salads / for carry-ins” and is happiest when women are pregnant but otherwise are skinny and silent. Women need to make men feel strong.

Religion is not alone in limiting gender roles. Ellen Cantarow writes of how Harvard asked her to serve tea at a department function and Ann Pancake’s narrator in “Ice Fight” ponders that there “are several ways to be a girl” but only one way to be a boy, and the narrator’s brother Sam doesn’t fit in that mold.

A number of the works deal with women’s shame over some aspect of their bodies: menstrual blood (“The Stain” by Mary Imo-Stike), small breasts (“After Years of Being Told I Have the Body of a 12-Year-Old Boy” by Jessica Spruill), fang-like teeth (“Tackle Box” by Elizabeth Johnston), stretch marks (“Stretch Marks” by Sarah Sadie), anorexia (“When My Best Friend Came to Stay; or, Corporeal Minimalism: Composition in Twelve Parts, Inspired by Philip Glass” by Sioghan Harvey), abortion (“She Decides about the Baby” by Martha Clarkson). Remarkable, isn’t it, how many reasons women can find to be ashamed, yet so few of these works express real pride, even though these women clearly have achievements they should take pride in. To be sure, there are a few pieces in which women express some sense of pride in overcoming sexism or surviving assault and rape. While it takes tremendous courage to overcome such experiences, it is sad that these women had to cope with them at all. Perhaps the most upbeat example of pride was expressed by Andrena Zawinski in “Rosie Times.” Her strong mother came of age in WWII and welded boxcars. The strength of that mother offers a worthy role model for all women.

Anger simmers and boils in many of the pieces. In “You Believed,” by Jennifer L. Freed, the narrator’s anger is fueled by experts who told a young mother not to pick up her new baby when her son cried at night. The new mother trusts that this experienced man knows best, even though her heart and every natural instinct tells her he is wrong.

In “The Poison Our Mothers and Grandmothers Drank,” Michele Tracy Berger says “there is a lot of poison out there that women of color wind up swallowing. She notes that female ancestors “swallowed the poison because they found themselves alone often, afraid constantly, and shamed routinely. They swallowed the poison because anger basted their vital organs, rotting them from the inside out.” She swears that now her “vessel is stronger than any poison.” Maybe, but there is no doubt she is still angry and still is forced to swallow poison.

Another piece stands out as a powerful expression of anger. In “The Angry Girl at the Funeral,” Eileen McDermott finds that her anger was a healthy emotion, the only reasonable response to a grandfather who abused her and her younger sister:

I had exploded into adolescence like a suicide vest. The anger boiled so deep then that I could not speak to the people closest to me. Rebellion is natural, but when provoked by the poking of an unacknowledged wound, it expands into warfare.

The anger saved my life: every seemingly unfounded act of vitriol wielded at my parents or sister was a day that I avoided self-destruction.

I was a ghost to my family. They could not see me anymore.

No wonder she is furious when she hears her dead grandfather Joseph compared to Jesus and when she hears “a line about how much he cared for his family.” Then comes the worst line of all:

“Joseph touched his family every day.”

In another life, I would have bursts into maniacal laughter, a scene from my own personal rock video. Spit on the Corpse. Pushed the minister into the coffin and slammed the lid shut.

Instead, she pays her last respects with the family and “shovels the anger into a hole.”

Judging by these women’s experiences, our society has a long way to go to allow our girls grow up with the same sense of power and visibility that is a given for most of our boys.



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