Sunday, December 20, 2009

Behind every great man is a great woman.

I've always found this aphorism to be irritating and condescending. It's like a conservative uncle patting you on the back with an open pocket knife in his hand -- patronizing, dangerous, and creepy. There are numerous problems with the actual phrase, the most obvious of which are the implications of the word 'behind'. This woman is not only behind geographically, she is likely behind economically, socially, politically, and in every other way that matters. This woman is 'behind' this man as his support system, which means she has likely sacrificed her own needs for his, or at the very least, her own success, notoriety, or status. Being 'behind', she is also blocked from view, cast in shadow by his colossal glow, made invisible.

Luckily, I don't feel this way. Ever. Nor do most of my female friends, those attached in some way to men or not. We are powerhouses in our own right, just as comfortable leading the way as following, and preferring some kind of shared trail blazing. My male friends certainly don't feel this way either, nor would I likely be friends with them if they did.

As a matter of fact, we so infrequently consider gender as a dividing line of equity in our own lives that when it does come up, it tends to be a bit shocking. When the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in January of 2009 (2009!) women were still making 78 cents for every male dollar. Which means we probably still are. The Center for American Progress Action Fund maps the career wage gap between men and women over a 40 year period which, in places like Wyoming, can mean a $700,000 difference. In California the gap between men and women across 40 years of earnings who both have Bachelor's Degrees or higher is $674,000; $277,000 if your education stopped at the end of high school.

But money is only the easiest metric.

On November 18th, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon died in New York City. Known typically as only Jeanne-Claude, I wondered as I read her obituaries if anywhere near as many people know of her as they do her more famous husband and collaborator, that global wrapping sensation, Christo. The Daily News headline read, "Jeanne-Claude, wife of Central Park Gates artist Christo, dies at age 74." The New York Times did better, though a bit clunky, with "Jeanne-Claude, Artist Who, With Christo, Wrapped Objects Large and Small, Is Dead at 74". According to the Times, "To avoid confusing dealers and the public, and to establish an artistic brand, they used only Christo’s name. In 1994 they retroactively applied the joint name 'Christo and Jeanne-Claude' to all outdoor works and large-scale temporary indoor installations. Other works were credited to Christo alone." According to their website, other than the mildly confusing branding efforts that ended in the 90s, and his production of the drawings and collages, they were fairly equal collaborators for 51 years. Someone let the Daily News know that 'wife of Central Park Gates artist' is not a very accurate description of her official role.

Two weeks before Jeanne-Claude's death, I attended an afternoon symposium at LACMA on the New Topographics exhibit entitled "What's at Stake? New Topographics: Photography and the Man-Altered Landscape" (it's just now that I'm even noticing the odd gender-specificity in that title supported by a day of all male speakers talking about an exhibit of all male artists, with the single exception of half the Becher team). James Venturi, son of Bob Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, spoke about the documentary he created of his very famous parents, Learning from Bob and Denise. The documentary was quite clear on the fact that Las Vegas as a worthy place of study was all Denise's doing and though Bob became plenty invested in its analysis over the years, he was hooked by seeing the glow of the prosaic through the eyes of his partner. After two decades of collaboration, the Pritzker Prize was given to Bob Venturi alone in 1991, something that stings enough still for James to spend more than a sliver of his 15 minutes discussing.

How often do we perpetuate that disparity of notoriety by leaving out co-conspirators?[i] How much of Frank Lloyd Wrights' Wasmuth Portfolio, or even the conceptualization of the Prairie Style itself, was really Marion Mahoney's work? What of Lilly Reich and her prominent role in designing the Barcelona chair? I've always been amused by the idea that she is the symbolic woman represented by the Kolbe statue at the Barcelona pavilion, embodying some unbalanced light cocktail of inspiration and oppression. Jose Quetglas in "Fear of Glass: The Barcelona Pavilion" says this so compellingly:

From the corridor, at the back of the pavilion, one discovers the Kolbe statue trapped and inundated by an avalanche of light -- a terrible light, more brilliant and clear by virtue of its contrast with the half-light of the corridor at the end of which the statue appears, rudely dislodged from its reticent and protective obscurity. Sunrise, the first light of the approaching the woman, the only solid form in the entire pavilion, the only possible interlocutor for the visitor. But the woman does not radiate this light; rather she is crushed by its weight, oppressed by this corrosive force that melts and dissolves her, and she tries to fend it off with her arms, covering her face to protect it with a precarious shadow. At her back, at her side, at her feet, three mirrors of marble and water double and fragment her presence, with each reflection more tenuous -- but the mirrors themselves are halved again by the reflection of their own pattern. At the feet of the woman who is melting, the darkness of the pool grows, picking up her dissolved form...

Of course many a great Ivy League theorist has made a life of studying the role of gender in architecture.

The Barcelona Pavilion would not be the same piece of architecture without this voluptuous counterpoint. Alba (meaning dawn), is the real linchpin of the pavilion, the anchor that binds the modern grid of infinite space to the luscious greens and rusts of the marble planes; the open sky to the plinth of travertine and water. She is the human presence, but more.

To wrap this all up in some kind of even less tidy package, last night I saw George Clooney's latest film, "Up in the Air". To say it is 'George Clooney's' latest film is both true and not. If "Thelma and Louise" was the first buddy movie with women buddies, as it is known to be, then it's possible that "Up in the Air" is the first completely mainstream movie where George gets out-boyed by his female counterpart. I won't give anything away, but I will say it's kind of a movie about the irrelevance of gender -- which means our entertainment and our health care debate are going in exactly the opposite directions. There is one humorous scene where Natalie Keener, the young and ambitious new hire, has a relationship trauma where she consults Ryan Bingham's (George Clooney's) love interest, Alex (both tidy, androgynous names), and dutifully thanks her for all her generation has done for women's equity. Of course it's a very funny, generationally misplaced, pc-generated gratitude that takes a great comic jab at what it means to be a liberated woman, particularly at 23 and 34 in 2010. An abundance of frequent flyer miles? Independence? Options?

Yes, but more. What we want it to mean is that gender just doesn't matter. That all men and women are varying degrees of both masculine and feminine, and that we all should get paid, recognized, and adulated equally for equal contributions.

We should also all have equal access to legal health care.

No woman should be denied coverage for legal procedures because someone else bargains their moral posturing like a poker chip. That 22 cent difference per dollar - that $125,000 per decade - that men earn over women is partially attributed to their not choosing to leave the work force to start a family. Pregnancy is the great unequalizer, in more ways than one. Only women run the risk of absolutely having to quit their jobs for this reason even when they may not want to. Bart Stupak and Ben Nelson -- two of our anti-choice legislators demanding limitations on women's reproductive rights in health care reform -- make that tragic life course (having to make decisions rather than choosing to) even more likely for women in or near poverty. Their moral chip is that stab of the knife, that heel of the shoe kicking back from higher up the ladder. Would the conversation be different if there was still a Senator Clinton? I don't know. Would she choose to cover 30 million uninsured at the cost of weakening the rights of women to determine their own futures? She must certainly be torn, watching her life's investment in health care reform come down to such a vile bit of bargaining.

If behind every great man is a great woman, then there is also a great woman in front of that man, and a great man behind that last woman, and a man to her left, and a woman to his left, and so on and so on and so on. Sure, clusters form in this giant grid of humanity. They are supposed to. We are not equally spaced apart, nor are we moving in the same direction or at the same pace. Some days we need our partners closer than others, and some days further away. Some days we need to work at our greatness all by ourselves, and some days we really, really need help. Real equity is the right to make all your own choices, and to have the rest of the world respect the choices and the outcomes as your own. It doesn't mean we all aren't connected - the grid disintegrates if broken into a million individual points - but it does mean that each point, every point, in varying versions of Alba, is a powerful anchor in its own right.

Carmen Herrera, a 94-year-old artist who gained recognition for her work only after the death of her husband is quoted today in the New York Times as saying this: "Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above. Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud. I worked really hard. Maybe it was me."

[i] Steven Izenour, the third and almost always left off author of Learning from Las Vegas, probably proves that credit is not only an issue of gender.


Anonymous said...

too bad it was necessary in this age to write this. I consider you in your life as an achiever, and then admire the preservation of your femininity.
-- Bill

frances said...

I always think of Mary Cassatt when this subject comes up.
Mary came from a prominent Northeastern city. Her brother was the president of a local bank. When Mary returned to America with the first Impressionist Exhibition here, the local newspaper published a brief blurb:
“Mary Cassatt, sister of _________ (sorry I don’t remember his name), president of _____________ Bank, is in town for a visit after spending some time abroad. Miss Cassatt paints for a hobby and is known to have the world’s smallest dog.”

Thank God we don’t remember her that way now.

lcsamuels said...

In the surprising new and very publicized abundance of giving (rather than object gifting) options this season, I came across this list. It's mostly about women's health, so an appropriate follow up. Check it out.