Thoughts on female power & my grandmother

Osman Rana

Osman Rana

I never asked my grandmother what the words “powerful woman” meant to her. I suppose I never thought to. In her own way, she was as powerful as they come, a fierce independent and the matriarch of our large family. She was by no measure a modern woman: she might not have survived, with her lifestyle, as a member of my generation. My father joked, always, that she hadn’t cooked a meal for herself in her life – that, in fact, she didn’t even know how to boil water. When my sister and I (and any member of my family, or friend of hers) would visit her for cocktails or dinner at her apartment in San Francisco, she would invite us to sit around her in her living room (she always sat in the same big red chair). She would then use the little bell to the right of her chair to signal to her staff (which, in her lifetime, rotated every few years – she had high standards) that we were ready to place our drink orders. She would ring several times though the evening, when we were ready for more coca-cola (we only graduated to alcoholic drinks toward the end of our relationship, and it never felt quite right to drink with Nana), or when we’d run out of Macadamia nuts (always on her table during cocktails), or when we were ready to head into the dining room. My grandmother didn’t wash her own hair – in the style of many ladies of her generation, she got it done once a week at the hairdressers’. And, of course, she had never had a career – had never even considered having one. Each of these qualities of her life – being taken care of, really, through marriage from a young age, by her staff, her hairdresser, and surely others in the smallest of ways – were the expectations of her generation and of her social class. She was not raised to take care of herself; and yet, in so many ways, she did. And she took care of those around her as well.

A picture of me and my sister crafting in my grandmother's apartment, circa age 11.

A picture of me and my sister crafting in my grandmother's apartment, circa age 11.

I recently went to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum about Judy Chicago and what she put into creating her famous permanent installation there, The Dinner Table. I had studied The Dinner Table in college, during the required Modern Art class for all Art History majors; and I remember finding it interesting, at best, as slides of the place settings assigned to each major figure in female history flashed up on the screen. I wasn’t compelled to read further about it, wasn’t compelled to write a paper about it; feminist art didn’t speak to my heart at a time in my life when my empowered experience was handed to me and I got to take it for granted (i.e the fact that I got to sit in a large lecture hall studying art history with the goal of getting a college degree simply because that was what women my age in MY generation were supposed to do in order to get CAREERS). Believe me, there was plenty that was anti-feminist going on in my college culture, but this is not the article in which I will explore that particular issue.

 

Walking through the Brooklyn Museum recently, however, I felt incredibly touched. By the little things that were really ENORMOUS things that Judy Chicago took on to create the church that is The Dinner Party. Judy Chicago studied several crafts traditionally assigned to women in order to create the installation. She embroidered and sewed; she sculpted, glazed, and, most importantly, she designed beautiful spaces – figurative seats at a table - to represent those women who have powerfully stood before us, in previous generations and within the constraints that those have placed on them. My favorite part of the exhibit was the set of plates that Judy Chicago had glazed to tell the story of her difficult experience learning to china glaze ceramics; she revealed a sweet sense of humor and of friendship in this daunting creative process.

 

Judy Chicago's narrated china-painted plates

Judy Chicago's narrated china-painted plates

 

Women have always held enormous power. Power, in the female sense of the word, is something unshakable. Female power is honed, cultivated, just like all of the crafts that Judy Chicago mastered, like so many women before her, to create The Dinner Party. Female power is what the elephant has, a matriarchal animal who just STANDS in her power - softly, gently, even joyfully and playfully - with unmistakable strength. Men, I might add, can cultivate female power just as beautifully as women can. It’s just that we are all often taught of male power as being the truest form of power, the kind that we must throw at others to prove ourselves, and the kind that has no real backing. Smoke and mirrors and echoes and a whole lot of trying to prove ourselves to overcompensate for something. We all should take up knitting, I think. My grandmother was an excellent knitter.

 

Recently, female energy has been surrounding me in the most magical way. I am currently in a space where I am working for and with ONLY WOMEN. I don’t know how I made this happen – it wasn’t something I consciously sought out – but I did. I am freelancing at the moment, doing about five different projects. And each project is run by at least one woman. Most of these women are futuristic badasses who believe in non-hierarchical work structures. It is amazing to see what a non-masculine, non-corporate, non-money-driven energy can do for a space – a work environment, its people, the whole idea of what “work” even is or should be, really. These women are creating things – blogs, spaces, brands – because they believe in the product itself and want people to know about it and benefit from it; not because they see a possibility to make a profit from it and are running with it. See the difference from how most people think about business? It is pure magic. What I have learned is that we are all just humans trying to create beautiful things out of this world; why can’t we do that in a way that feels good? FEMALE POWER.

Scott Webb

Scott Webb

All of this gibberish to say, in conclusion, that female power is not a new idea. The modern woman did not invent it. Female goddess energy has existed forever and ever (as Judy Chicago quite simply lays out at her beautiful Dinner Party, inviting Primordial Goddess, for example, to partake), and was present in women long before they were empowered to have careers. I think that my grandmother was amazed by how much I did – my writing, all of the activities I juggled in college, the way my sister and I, and our cousins, I'm sure, too, pushed ourselves – but I admired the same determination in her. She called me and each of my family members every week to tell us how proud she was of us (and never forgot a birthday), she played bridge furiously, she knitted blankets for every new baby in the family, and she always strove to get to know me and all of her friends and loved ones deeper, deeper, deeper. She spoke with one of those fancy American accents you hear in old-time movies, and she loved to use the word “nifty.” She was elegant and giving and bright. And my father would have made sure I mailed her a copy of this blog post if she were still around :) and she would have immediately called me to tell me how delightful it was and how truly special I am, and how I MUST keep writing. And so I will. This is how we must support each other.