The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.
Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.
I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.
Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.
The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.
She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”
One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:
You Get Proud by Practicing by Laura Hershey
If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.
You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.
I don’t know who my father was — and maybe that’s why I got so riled up about a recent news story about “fertility doctors” scamming their patients who were trying to get pregnant by substituting their own sperm for donor sperm.
Try this timed writing exercise: First, make a list of the insults used only against women. Then, make a list of the insults used only against men. Compare your lists.
You’ll see that most derogatory terms for women have to do with promiscuity and most derogatory terms for men have to do with homosexuality.
I used this excercise back in the twentieth century when teaching college writing to women in a re-entry program. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate how language both creates and reflects cultural values. It’s very easy [surprise!] to come up with a long list of insults that get slung against women, but not so easy to write a list of insults slung only against men, especially if you don’t use slurs against specifically gay men. . . .
I dreamed of being serene, no longer subject to fits of anger and outrage.
I longed for the wisdom of age that would stop me from making the same stupid mistakes, over and over again.
Only the first wish came true.
Anger, agitation, and outrage fuel my political writing. I tone the rage down so it’s safe for public consumption, instead of being a chaotic string of expletives and, more importantly, I back up my rants with research and facts.
One of the many things that has pissed me off is how pundits and others minimize or dismiss allegations of sexual assault with “We can’t know the truth because it’s a he said/she said situation.”
Like many people in America, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. We all bring our experience to the table when analyzing the news, and I’ve been looking at the issues raised by these hearings as both a feminist and a former trial attorney.
Sometimes, anger motivates me to write. I want to figure out why I’m angry, what I can do about it, and whether my anger is valid. I mean “valid” in the logical sense.
This article, published last week by the Washington Post, concerns something I’ve been angry about since I was in law school: special terminology that sets alleged sexual assault victims apart from alleged victims of other crimes. As I note in the article, you never hear alleged robbery victims referred to as “the accuser,” and yet, this is the norm for the media in cases of sexual assault.
Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.
As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of advice: Keep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.
Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.
Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.
For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.
That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.
On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss. They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff, cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia.
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.
Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared. The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.
In the 1970’s, as the American divorce rate rose, women who performed unpaid work in the home and who relied on husbands for economic security increasingly found themselves displaced. With limited paid work histories, many ended up living in poverty and confusion, struggling to achieve independence in a culture that had dismissed them.
Two extraordinary women, Laurie Shields and Tish Sommers had experienced the “displaced” phenomenon themselves. They put together a national coalition of activists and successfully lobbied 39 states and the federal government to create programs to train and counsel women.
Tish Sommers came up with the term “displaced homemaker” because she saw parallels between the experiences of women who were ousted from the homemaker role they expected to play for life, and the experiences of people who are forcibly exiled from their homes through political upheaval. Women who were displaced as homemakers by death, divorce, desertion, or disablement of a husband could find themselves ineligible for Social Security benefits, for unemployment benefits, and for welfare benefits. With little paid work experience, they could appear unemployable. As Laurie Shields notes in her 1981 book, Displaced Homemakers: Organizing for a new life, “homemakers assumed that retirement benefits, health insurance, and economic security flowed from their marriage.” When marriage ended, or a husband became unable to work, the safety net of marriage came unstrung.
How widespread was this phenomenon? In 1976, the Department of Labor estimated there were 4 million displaced homemakers in America, and that 3 million of those were between the ages of 40 and 64. Statistics like these, and the personal stories of women who’d been displaced, created a public outcry and support for programming. Columnist Ellen Goodman noted that women in these circumstances were caught “between the expectations of one decade and the reality of another.”
The first displaced homemakers program was authorized by the California legislature in 1975. By 1979, approximately 300 programs operated nationwide, but opposition among anti-feminists was strong.
Phyllis Schlafly, perhaps the most well-known anti-feminist of the time, and, ironically, a “career woman,” was especially suspicious of displaced homemaker programs, calling them “nothing but indoctrination and training centers for women’s lib. The feminists who run such centers use them to push ERA, abortion, federal child care, lesbian privileges, etc.”
Sommers and Shields were puzzled by the level of outrage against displaced homemaker programs. They wondered if some of it was age bias. Nevertheless, they persisted through years of drafting legislation and lobbying in Congress and at the state level. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the revised Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which included provisions related specifically to the employment needs of women, providing a method for funding programs for displaced homemakers. In 1984, passage of the Perkins Act, which provided career-development funds for women’s training, further ensured the viability of displaced homemaker programs.
The Displaced Homemakers Network formed by Sommers and Shields evolved into a national organization that hosted annual conferences where program staff from across the country met to exchange strategies for helping displaced women. Some of the challenges faced by women at that time included a high rate of unemployment ascribed to age and a lack of paid work experience, along with limited opportunities for assistance from social security, unemployment compensation, medicaid, and benefit or pension plans arising from the husband’s employment.
For example, in Florida, Displaced Homemaker Programs drew on a state trust account that was funded by state marriage and divorce fees. The trust was dissolved in 2017 by Governor Rick Scott. Of the seven programs active at that time, only one remains: a program at Santa Fe College where I was lucky enough to collaborate with the DHP staff as part of my work with the Women’s Economic Stability Initiative.
Here we are (at left) in a photograph taken shortly before the 2016 presidential election. The poster image is of the program’s patron saint — Rosie the Riveter. The Santa Fe program survived budget cuts thanks to college president Jackson Sasser’s commitment to the program.
My experience on the fringes of Santa Fe’s DHP proved to me without question that there is still a deep need for programs that help women navigate changes brought on by the loss of financial and emotional support. But who is today’s homemaker, and how likely is it that she will experience some version of being “displaced”?
Some homemakers are mothers. According to Pew Research, “The share of mothers who do not work outside the home rose to 29% in 2012, up from a modern-era low of 23% in 1999.”
Some homemakers are unpaid caretakers who give up their own jobs to care for ill family members or partners.
Although more women today have college degrees than ever before, younger women opting to stay at home to care for children still suffer serious impairment to their overall earning capacity. And as health care costs increase, many older women choose to care for elderly family members at home, giving up or reducing their employment income.
In the ever-changing culture of America, disruption and displacement seems more likely than not. Women, and men, will continue to lose the security of marriage and family. They will need programs like Santa Fe’s that support their employment goals and personal goals. “I’m living proof the program works,” said one participant in an interview with local media. “I can smile again. I have self-confidence. They’re my family.”