Half the Sky: Men, women and feminism in New Hampshire

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“Women hold up half the sky.” – Mao Zedong

There is one building in the center of New Hampshire that stands as an architectural marvel and metaphor for gender equality, the Meetinghouse at Canterbury Shaker Village, built in 1792. The meetinghouse, with its symmetrical design centered on two separate identical front doors, one for men and one for women, may have more to say than appears at first glance. The inward convictions of this celibate community centered on the seemingly paradoxical concepts of community and celibacy dwelling side-by-side, a community founded by a woman, Mother Ann Lee.

The Shakers give us a vivid example of community in which men and women are total allies, with the gift or the torment of sex, left out of the equation. The shakers were such allies that, as Shaker diaries record, this meetinghouse – the first and most important building built in a Shaker community – was framed with great reverence, in just one day, and in total silence. To frame a building in one day without a word spoken certainly speaks to the utmost experience of fraternity and sisterhood.

Women’s history represents the history of half the world, and it remains the most untapped human resource in the world. Women have survived or thrived. Women who managed to thrive often credit the fact that they were blessed with a man who was a staunch ally – a father, brother, or friend – who defied the status quo and encouraged them.

The New Hampshire Women’s Heritage Trail highlights 27 Granite State women who moved the women’s history narrative forward, with or without male allies.

Dinah Chase Whipple (1760-1846) ran the Charitable African Society School for African children in Portsmouth, the only school known to exist in the state for former slaves or their children. Armenia Aldrich White, (1817-1916), born of Quaker heritage, married Nathaniel White, joined him in the anti-slavery movement and became a leader in the New Hampshire Women’s Suffrage Movement. Suffragette Sara George Bagley (1806-1883), an activist millworker, led the “Ten Hour Day” movement to reduce women millworkers’ day from 13 hours to 10.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) founded the Christian Science Movement, a movement centered on the link between health and spirituality. Today, there are 2,000 branch churches in 79 countries. Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), pioneering women editor and publisher, was arguably the most influential woman of the 19th century, editor of the widely popular Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1837-1877, which prior to the Civil War, had a national circulation of 150,000.

What spurred these women to do what they did? Defiance, creativity, and an inherent belief in themselves to create change by living it. But these Granite State women, for the most part, found their autonomy without fearing for their very lives – unlike some of the women in the world whose lives are endangered every day, their sexuality traded and abused like a commodity.

More than ever, we need to celebrate the men who are helping these women in crisis – men like Dr. Denis Mukwege, winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel because of their lifetime mission and efforts to “end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

A native of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mukwege graduated with a medical degree from the University of Burundi in 1983, after which he worked as a pediatrician in a the rural Lemera Hospital near Bukavu. In 1999, after the First Congo war began, Mukwege returned to Bukavu due to the violence there, and founded the Panzi Hospital.

As founder and lead doctor at the Panzi Foundation, Dr. Mukwege treats some of the most vulnerable women in the world – girls and women who are victims of rampant sexual violence; women who have been raped in front of their husbands; girls suffering repeated assaults from soldiers; babies as young as four months old who have been raped. Mukwege: “When I have women coming to my hospital, they are completely destroyed, physically, mentally and economically.”

Since 1999, under the direction of Dr. Mukwege, the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu has treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence and over 37,000 patients with gynecological injuries. At least 120 sexual-violence survivors seek help at this center every month. Mukwege, a specialist in fistula repair surgery, pioneered a holistic approach that empowers survivors by giving them mental, educational, legal and financial resources and tools to rebuild their lives.

Mukwege’s vision is to enable these women to take back ownership of their bodies and their lives. Mukwege: “My hope is that women are not waiting for their freedom to be given by men. Women are realizing that nobody gives them a gift, they have to take it.”

Dr. Mukwege is a great role model for everyone – men and women. He has lived feminism in a way that suggests how all men can be active allies to feminism, helping girls and women to find their voice and own and create their destiny. In her Bustle article “Ten Ways Men Can Be Feminist Allies, Because, YES, Feminism is for Everybody,” Emma Cueto gives some balanced insight into feminism to help men see where and how they fit into this complex set of issues.

First, tune into and become aware of your own unconscious bias. Cueto: “We live in a patriarchal society, and…that society raises men to be confident and to believe that their opinions are always valuable. So it can be hard to realize that when it comes to feminism, you need to stop talking, especially at first. Feminism is a movement founded by women and its primary goal is to end oppression of women. Women are the ones who have had to deal with most of the negative effects of patriarchy all our lives, and this gives us a more informed and useful perspective on patriarchy than men have. So as a male feminist, it’s your job first and foremost to listen to what women have to say…respect our point of view even when you don’t understand it or disagree.”

Cueto’s recommendations to men: (1) Be a feminist – don’t be afraid of the label – use it proudly. (2) Recognize that feminism is complicated. Understand that feminism does not have one voice, but many voices and perspectives. (3) Listen. Listen. Listen. (4) Don’t put men’s issues first; don’t diminish a woman’s response to something by labeling it “hysterical” or “emotional.” (5) Challenge other men. Men can challenge other men in ways that women cannot – send the message that sexism is not OK, that it’s only about women – it hurts us all. (6) Support the women in your life – family, friends, co-workers. If they ask for support, encourage them. If they want to just talk and handle a situation on their own, respect that request. (7) Vote. Send the message that women’s issues are everyone’s issues. (8) Don’t overstep or over-simplify. (9) Accept that these problems are bigger than you – not easily fixed.

Take the message of the Shakers to heart – be an ally.

Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, biographer and poet. Contact her at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com or quincy@quincywhitney.com.