Female Unity Through Storytelling

Female unity is strengthened through the act of storytelling, as evident in stories shared throughout history in such novels as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg and Two or Three Things I Know For Sure by Dorothy Allison. Allison’s cathartic memoir speaks to the kind of candid conversations that create a safe space where dialogue can be opened, and women can begin to change the labels that have been misplaced on women in society. Flagg’s novel brings women to the forefront of a story, instead of an addition to a male-driven narrative. By showcasing honesty, love, and the reality of women’s lives, reflecting upon what it all meant to them in the end, female storytellers invite communal thinking and problem solving through shared experiences. It is the bond of women that has proven throughout history is the tie that can knot strength in unity for change in society. I will explore the connections made between female storytellers and the change it affects in society through their unity.

Storytelling Sparks Imagination

Jacques Lacan discusses the “desire for the mother or the imaginary unity with her” and how it “must be repressed” (Lacan, 97).  It is in this repression that the unconscious mind is developed, and imagination is suppressed. Only when the repression is not present that a child will begin to see their place in society and see themselves as “I am” and not “you are” or “he is” (Lacan, 97). When women are groomed to accept Symbolic Order patriarchy becomes the governing body that dictates how life looks and feels. Storytelling rewrites perspective of readers by broadening worldviews to see life through someone else’s eyes. Stories such as Allison’s and Flagg’s, women are viewed in the I am creating female unity through storytelling. I will argue that this is the path to unity among women by sharing honest stories about where women have been, what women have been through and what women want.  “Feminist critics like Judith Butler began to argue in the mid-1980’s that all gender is ‘performative” (Rivkin, 768). I will argue that by lifting repression of women’s voices in literature, performative roles become genuine representations of whom women really are, forever changing the literary canon of women-authored stories, influencing women readers, fostering unity page by page.

“Taking the classical model back through the long ‘ideological history of the self,’ Anglo-American feminism, as articulate and complex as it is, lands upon a common principle: the uniqueness of the self (even more strikingly alleged to be a real and material existent), is nothing more than a ideological construct of traditional and patriarchal autobiographical standards” (Cavarero, 69). Post-modern feminism takes several approaches to the classical models and deconstructs them for a closer look at self, while writers such as Dorothy Allison write from the center of self, knowing exactly what she was willing to divulge about herself in order to connect to other women who are reading, searching for their inner self without prior knowledge of the complex nature within her own femininity as it correlates to society. Allison saw silence as the secret killer of men in her family, that disguised the “sharp glints of pain in their eyes, the restless angry way they gave themselves up to fate,” which fueled her desire to speak up and kill the silence by telling her story regardless of the inequality given to female storytellers (Allison, 28). Allison’s story was not unique, but it certainly represented a group of women who were largely underrepresented in literature and whose voices were often stifled in society. “Lesbian and gay coming-out stories could hardly be heard publicly before the 1970s, although they may have been secretly said” (Plummer, 35). “Survivor stories of sexual abuse were largely silenced until the 1980s” (Plummer, 35). “To publicly tell a story to someone who will then mock you, disbelieve you, excommunicate you, sack you, hospitalize you, imprison you or bash you bleedingly senseless to the ground may be brave but it is foolhardy: it is not a fertile ground for the amplification of that story” (Plummer, 35).  To be a female storyteller in any age or decade is a task that requires strength and support to overcome the backlash that is inevitably coming when a woman tells her story. The reason this simple act is met with such resistance is the unity that follows shared stories among women bonds and empowers creating a movement. Female storytellers such as Lena Dunham would disagree with Plummer in her book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. Where Dunham shares her intimate personal stories that caused her backlash but opened a dialogue about sexuality, gender, and what it means to be female in the modern age. Dunham’s wildly popular HBO series Girls takes the same approach about female storytelling and leaves nothing left unsaid, biting back at the idea that it is better to be silent, even if just for one moment. Dunham’s approach states the moment is now, just as Mrs. Threadgoode did when she came upon Evelyn Couch in Flagg’s novel. There is no right time to share a story to create unity among women, so now is as good a time as any.

Female Storytellers and Why They Are Important

The role of plays, essays, and fiction in literature during an antebellum America served to provide proof, trust, invoke emotion, and add value to the experiences and lives of those authoring the pieces.  Writers such as Fanny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson wrote through antebellum America, the Civil War, and postbellum eras documenting, defining, highlighting, and changing viewpoints to readers looking to understand and heal through a tumultuous time in American history. Dorothy Allison authored Two or Three Things I Know for Sure with a cathartic memoir of stories that connected her point of view through her experiences that invoked emotion and added value to those experiences, while Fannie Flagg authored fictionalized characters that dealt with tragedy and trauma invoking emotion in readers while adding value to the narrative. Both authors took two different approaches to storytelling while offering value in the connections made between their words and the women who read them. Storytellers that came before them fought hegemony to get their words into print because they felt strongly about what they had to say and subsequently added value to the lives of women who read their words, just as Flagg and Allison did. The value of these women’s stories is validated by the unity that blooms from one woman to the next, generation to generation without ever having met in person. These female writers tell stories that connect them to the canon of literary writers whom without their contribution would be dominated by patriarchal voices acting in authority over each generation of women asking permission to speak.

Allison wrote stories about issues that faced women in a specific social class that was often misrepresented in literature, television, and cinema. “Class difference is a predominant theme, as many of her characters confront others’ stereotypical expectations of rural southerners” (Reames). While other writers that came before her sought to add their voices to the literary canon, they were faced with an industry that sought to suppress their voices. Unless someone is looking for representation of authentic female written narratives, they are not at the top of the list of referenced authors, due to the industry that governs them being run by the patriarchy.  Several categories of a woman’s life are often ignored or written from a male’s perspective. Women have to go above and beyond in order to carve out a notch in the system for their voices. Under the pseudonym “Franny Fern,” Sarah Willis Parton wrote about and addressed the issues that faced “women writers who were also wives and mothers” (Baym, 2012). Parton applied “Franklinesque and Emersonian notions of industry and self-reliance to women’s lives,” when she wrote as a novelist and a newspaper columnist (Baym, 2012). Issues such as marriage, divorce, politics, prison reform, inequality, poverty, gender, and “woman’s suffrage” were yet to be accepted as topics to be written about, much less by a woman (Baym, 2012). Women such as Parton widened the path for women storytellers by pushing her way through a field of hegemony, creating a notch so that future female storytellers such as Allison and Flagg could push further up the mountain on the path to equality in representation of authentic female storytellers, creating unity along the way.

“Storytellers speak in the language of myth and metaphor. They tell us a truth that is not literal but symbolic” (Johnston, 185). Allison and Flagg wrote about women who were symbolic of what a woman could possibly be in order to bring about change in a society that was stacked against them while writing stories that changed the narrative of expectation for female possibilities in society. Women were not the “dreadful figures, creating dark doubles for themselves and their heroines, women writers are both identifying with and revising the self-definitions patriarchal culture has imposed on them” (Moi, 59). Female storytellers each stacked upon the last who wrote before they were changing what it meant to be and to write about and for women by first identifying the broken narrative placed first by patriarchy. United by cause and strengthened by purpose women such as Flagg and Allison began to write about taboo subjects that were made to be taboo for the sole purpose of shaming women into submission to fit the hegemony. By doing this, women identify with each other by shared experiences, bringing them into the light and lifting that shame replacing it with unity.

Since Allison and Flagg brought light to the dark areas of taboo subjects, such as rape, they had to tread carefully to construct their literary voices. Allison was afraid to tell her personal experiences and wrote fiction before memoir in her highly acclaimed novel Bastard Out of Carolina.  Neither the Founding Fathers nor the slave narratives previously accomplished this task. Inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacobs wrote her narrative story to change the social acceptance of men that were forcing themselves upon women. All of these women’s stories that came before Allison and Flagg inspired them to pen their own narratives. One woman inspiring another through storytelling, uniting them through shared experiences, whether fiction or non-fiction, bravery is always identified by readers as the key to shattering taboo and marginalization.

White women who had elevated privilege above their own skin color and who possibly could relate from a maternal source within that ultimately could change the patriarchal system.  Flagg’s novel presents race as a relevant key to the overall story, giving context to the women in the story. Idgie fights society to accept anyone and everyone, including the KKK to stave off retaliation for serving the members of Whistle Stop who were considered unfit for a society based upon their color, class, or sexuality. When Big George is talking about the backlash of Frank’s death he reminds, “there was no defense for a black who killed a white man in Alabama” (Flagg, 365). Sipsey would be killed and there would be no remorse from the hegemony of society and that was when he took the law into his own hands. This important conversation gives credence to what Big George does, but also to the larger picture of how society saw race and women. Sipsey was protecting people she loved, and she used every brave fiber in her body to protect that baby from Frank Bennett, the abuser she watched harm the white woman she loved like a child of her own and Buddy Jr., like the grandchild of her own. By Flagg sharing this aspect of Sipsey it validated that there are more layers to the black woman servant in any given story because women are not one-dimensional characters used to serve as backdrops to the men in a story, women have their own stories and until someone takes the time to tell them they will continue to be overlooked and subjugated to second-class citizens in society. Flagg’s validation of Sipsey’s actions speaks to the decades upon decades of African women who were forced into American slavery by white male patriarchy and were not allowed to speak their minds, offer opinions, stand up for themselves. African American female slave stories are incredibly important to understanding female unity and how stories can not only offer insight into their lives but also demonstrate how important post-modern feminism crafted an importance of equality of gender and race.

Jacobs, storytelling created a push for black female storytellers and the importance of what they had to say. African American female narratives unite the voices of shared experiences while unifying women as a whole to the larger point, which is to come together and support each other to change the narrative about them, to them, and represented for them by patriarchal systems that seek to dominate their lives. Regardless of the system of oppression, various systems have worked together to marginalize women and scold them for speaking their minds and one of the most often used systems, religion has been used to oppress women, claiming God would punish them if they dare challenge or question men, because the bible makes it so and the bible is the voice of God, according to the men that wrote and read it. Flagg approached slave narratives in her story as a means to work through the disparaging inequality that existed among not only the races but among women in general. Society did not see value in giving a voice to African American women because they were considered lower on the rung of society than white women, therefore, held no value in the system of hegemony. Flagg showcased voices to characters in this societal class adding value to the story, but also representation matters. Women cannot feel confident and lead the way in change if they do not see themselves in literature, on television, or in political circles. Allison showcased another class of women often subjugated to the dark corners of society, poor white women, which added further representation to the various types of women that society has but often do not get to be heard, seen, or valued. Without these women and others like them, the inspiration from representation does not exist and the hegemony would continue.

Emily Dickinson’s parents were Calvinists, “a faith centered on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ” (Dickinson, 2015). Dickinson peeled back the layers of society to show the ugly side of a utopian idealism and oppression. Flagg and Allison did this for the south postbellum. Religion seeks to give power to those in charge, systemically patriarchy, and oppress those who are to follow rules without question, systemically matriarchy.

Perspective and Representation

“Women from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson produced literary works that are in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning. Thus these authors managed the difficult task of achieving true feminine literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards” (Moi, 59). Franny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson used their writing in the antebellum, Civil War, and postbellum America era’s sharing perspectives to form arguments based upon reason, trust, credibility, emotions, and values. Placing self at the helm of change from what had previously been established by the founding fathers, native narratives, and slave narratives while working within the established patriarchal systems.  Stemming from a place of establishing what would become America and then romanticize its potential, these writers saw a different perspective and enabled their readers to see it too. Like any good speechwriter, these writers saw a vision and conveyed it through storytelling to sell their vision. Antebellum America did not see what these writers were and as visionaries they showed everyone the reality of possibilities, leaving the romantic ideals and utopian societies to other writers.  For without the realists of literature readers could never be grounded.  Flagg and Allison pay homage to women such as Dickenson, Jacobs, and Parton by carrying the torch of female unity through storytelling that will continue to burn as others pick it up and carry on. These women presented themselves to share a voice so that others could see their torch and continue to carry it, creating unity among women who have never met or lived in the same decade. Their representation matters, because without it, women such as Flagg and Allison might not have shared their stories keeping women’s absent voices in the literary canon of literature.

Women have largely been underrepresented in literature and this includes textbooks. “Bazier and Simonis (1991) studied high school chemistry textbooks” and found that “gender representation in the books’ pictures was unbalanced; the authors encouraged chemistry teachers to review carefully potential textbooks in order to promote gender equity” (Paynter, 24). The importance of unity among female storytellers is evident in the lack of representation in referenced material. While professors and teachers across classrooms everywhere construct the list of materials they will use to teach their students the availability of female voices among the options is limited and often missing. For centuries women have been told from a male’s perspective what to do, think, say, where, eat, love, learn, and feel from their perspective, which is projected onto women to meet the patriarchal needs of society. Women can only begin to construct their own choices through the support of unity identification, which will change the representation of the female identity in society from performative to authentic. Sexism exists because it has been permitted to grow without valid replacement of a strong female united front demanding representation without asking for permission for validation. Permission isn’t needed nor is it warranted when women unite and stake a place in society that as filled in with projected gender identities. Women aren’t demanding men give up anything, despite what they may say to disagree with feminism, but instead sharing the table of representation that was meant to be equal in the first place, but they took two and three places instead of their one. In elementary school children are taught to share, but by adulthood women are taught to take what is left after men get their needs met. There is a break in the system that begins in childhood with “rampant gender stereotypes” in children’s coloring books, that lays the groundwork for an adulthood of inequality, that exists because women are divided and told they are wrong for even asking for equality as adults (Raynter, 25). Patriarchal systems work off of the premise that is narcissistic in nature. Men think they are superior and therefore know better than women and without men in charge, women would be ruining everything. This premise leads to women doubting themselves, accepting patriarchy’s opinion of them, jealous of other women, charged with taking care of everyone before themselves, a lower self-esteem and self-worth, constantly seeking approval from others, and misguided goals that they aren’t sure are their own (Almendraia, 2015). This system breaks the perspective women have of themselves, society, and other women through lack of representation, which could be corrected through unity by shared stories. The most powerful tool that can be used to break the narcissists’ cycle is empowerment through unity.

Women United by Stories Shared

By understanding the well from which men and women draw connections, unity can be identified among genders. “The feminine spirit within us promotes nurturing, supportive relationships. The masculine promotes autonomy, separation, and individuality” (Johnston, 11). By understanding the well from which men and women draw connections, unity can be identified among genders. Having representation of gender that is more than performative means the difference between isolation and unity among females. “For women, the absence of an interactive scene, where uniqueness can be exhibited, is historically accompanied by their constitutive estrangement from representations of the subject, which rule in the patriarchal symbolic order” (Cavarero, 57). In order to remedy the estrangement and lack of representation stories can be shared within communities of women to challenge patriarchy that can bring about change through unity and a sense of community.

“Stories have been shared in order to educate and build civic involvement. One example was a national voter education effort in the United States in which women shared personal stories to show the personal impact of government decision on people’s lives” (Flaherty, 69).  Allison shared her story of rape and the abuse endured by the women in her family, which brought light to her personal story, but also let other women know they are not alone. Shame keeps women from sharing their stories and this feeds to separate and isolate them to a place in society that makes patriarchy comfortable. Stories of rape, torture, sex workers, abuse by men like Frank Bennett in Flagg’s novel can be transformed into the “gender reality” that needs to be addressed in order to “continue to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity…that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms” (Butler).  In Whistle Stop Junction and rural South Carolina, where Allison and Flagg’s novel take place, women are telling their stories and having their stories told by other women. The location may change in any given story and the women’s faces may change from race to creed, to region, to class, to age, and to sexuality, but one common story binds them all, which is a shared gender that has been fighting since documented conception to tell their stories. When women tell their stories they organize and become powerful, a measurable entity that frightens the hegemony. Regardless of the year on the calendar, women have and do fight to be heard and given permission to govern their own bodies and minds. Through empowered unity by sharing stories, women will stop asking for permission and construct their own “grid of cultural intelligibility” constructed of their authentic needs and wants (Butler). The binary system marginalizes and discredits women in order to push them aside in society, but cohesion can unite the opposition bringing about long-term meaningful change that is required for the systemic change to hegemony.

Conclusion

Organizations such as Girls’ Globe and Women and Girls Lead are “driven by the belief that storytelling is a fundamental way in which we can trigger change” (James). Female storytellers uniting causes change that can be measured and replicated for long-term change in the power structure of hegemony that reinforces subjugation and marginalization. Flagg and Allison wrote characters that underwent change giving readers a measurable baseline for invoking organization transforming the performative identity that damages female unity. As Judith Butler stated, “I continue to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity…that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms” (Butler). Unity through female storytellers supersedes the limits imposed upon women in society, stifling the voices of the only gender in a society that has yet to be given an opportunity to just be without question. Women organize and gather to share stories to feel connected to something larger than they identify with, which is each other.  The White House has formed a forum that invited “Female Unity Youth Leaders” group in order for “young women leading the way” can be represented and by sharing perspectives that are missing in American politics and society. Patriarchal systems fight to distort and “imprison women before women can even attempt to pen which is so rigorously kept from them…deny(ing) them the autonomy to formulate alternatives to the authority that has imprisoned them and kept them from attempting to pen” (Moi, 56).

Allison and Flagg represent two voices that took to pen to formulate stories that tell more than just the beginning, middle, and end of a narrative, but represent the female voice telling a story that unites generations of women that came before them and will come after them.  Men have been projecting and weakening female unity through lack of presentation and misinformation. Flagg wrote, “Ed said those women were nothing but a bunch of frustrated old maids and too ugly to get a man anyway. So there she was, too bored for Tupperware parties and too scared to look at her own vagina” (Flagg, 43). This encapsulates how men’s views on women have disabled them into inaction within their own lives and the community. Where there is a male represented, a female is absent, as Sigmund Freud describes the male as having an “obvious sex organ, the penis, and the female has not” (Moi, 131). The absence of something that is replaced by the obvious lessens the value of the absence, despite that the absence was created by biological differences that do not equate to a lesser than value but instead was constructed to justify the demeaning system sanctified by patriarchy. Women such as Luce Irigaray who dissect and analyze the patriarchal system exposing “the flaws and inconsistencies of phallocentric discourse” unite women behind an inspiring “anti-patriarchal criticism” that is plausible and valid (Moi, 138). When female storytellers invite communal thinking and problem solving through shared experiences that are supported other women who see through the hegemony that seeks to marginalize women and show them to their designated spots in society they can transcend through a coalition that challenges the normalization of violence against women in all forms. Allison wrote, “the last time my stepfather beat me I was sixteen years old” (Allison, 67). This is a line in a story that many women can relate to. Thousands of women have been subjected to verbal, physical, mental, and financial abuse at the hands of the hegemony in many forms. Women need more than just two for one drinks on ladies’ night at the local watering hole in order to find a striking match empowerment that will lead to effective, long-term, permanent change in the system that has no problem oppressing them. “Two or three things I know for sure and one of them is that telling the story all the way through is an act of love,” wrote Allison (Allison, 90). The first step to unity through storytelling for women is the love of self. Challenging the dominant structure that seeks to oppress women requires positive reinforcement from other women who are facing the same challenge in their daily lives, keeping them from equality in all areas of their lives. Flagg and Allison are two voices among many who had a story to tell and it was more than just writers getting something off their chest, but instead the stones in which other women could step upon to tell their stories, building a future that includes the voices of women united through shared experiences. When women stop asking permission and stand up for themselves great things can and will happen. As the great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Female unity through storytelling rejects consent for oppression and changes the narrative that is projected upon women and replaces it with authenticity in representation.

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