April 20, 2010

Feminism: Don’t Give Up the Ghost

While Lily was hanging out Sunday at Smith College, getting a sense of what it means to attend an all-women’s institution in the 21st century, I was reading Hilary Mantel’s autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Mantel recently won the Mann Booker Prize for her brilliant, challenging novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. The book so intrigued me that I pulled everything of Mantel’s from my branch library’s shelves. The autobiography was among the haul and proved to be a fortuitous read on this particular trip.

Mantel was studying law in her late teens and early twenties, first at the London School of Economics, then, following her geologist husband, at Sheffield University. She described her disappointment with Sheffield: “one of my tutors was a bored local solicitor who made it plain that he didn’t think women had any place in his classroom.” (153) Mantel’s comment on her tutor’s approach to women’s education is worth sharing:

Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronize you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favor. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by — educators and employers both.  It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life.  It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family.’ Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible preplanner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation. (153-154)

I wish Mantel had kept her verb tense in the present: why we need the feminist movement so badly. The fight’s not over. Here’s a not-so-subtle statistic I learned during the information session at Smith: at women’s colleges, women hold 100% of all leadership positions. At peer institutions, men hold 90% of all leadership positions. Lily will decide what she’ll decide when it comes to college. Meanwhile, if I had it to do all over again, I’d be inclined to explore women’s colleges with an open mind.

Mantel titled her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” as a way to refer to the process she went through as she coped with surgical menopause and subsequent infertility. She was diagnosed with endometriosis in her late 20s. Her illness would end her law career, opening the way for her fiction writing but closing her path to parenthood.  ‘Twould have been excellent if she’d added in one sentence about the importance of not giving up the ghost when it comes to feminism.