Giving Thanks to Women Past and Present

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By Arzie Umali

The UMKC Women’s Center blog will be quiet for the next few days as our staff takes a break for the Thanksgiving Holiday.  As we take this opportunity to spend time with family and friends, catch up on some well deserved rest and relaxation, or gear up for finals, we’ll also be reflecting on what we are thankful for. 

A recent Time Magazine article reminds us of some of the women we should all be thankful to.  These women were scientists, politicians, humanitarians, and all around brilliant and beautiful human beings.  Without women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, Margaret Mead, Rosa Parks, and Hillary Clinton, the world would be a much different place.

More On Stieg Larsson and Lisbeth Salander

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By Arzie Umali

Recently the UMKC Women’s Center, together with University Libraries and the LBGTQIA Resource Center, hosted a couple book discussions analyzing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest).  The discussion focused on the main character Lisbeth Salander, her heroism, her feminism, and her interaction among a cast of characters carefully defined by Larsson. The small groups that met had varied experiences with the books.  Some had read the entire series, some were still making their way through the books, and some had not read the books but had seen the movies.  The comments and views were just as varied, but Scott Curtis, UMKC Research Librarian, did a great job leading a conversation that benefitted from the different perspectives. 

One question that remained at the end of each discussion was what was going to happen to Lisbeth Salander after the third book.  Rumors have circulated that Larsson’s intent was to write as many as 10 books in the Millennium series, but his untimely death in 2004, a year before the first book was even published, abruptly ended the possibility of continuing the saga of Lisbeth past the three manuscripts that were already written.  A fourth book is also rumored to exist, but speculation about a legal battle over the rights to the work, will probably keep it from being published. 

To possibly tie up the loose ends and appease the curious fans of the series, like those in our discussion group, the publishers of the Millennium Trilogy will be releasing a new book to go with the Millennium Trilogy box set that will hit retail shelves after Thanksgiving.  The new book, On Steig Larsson, includes four essays about the author, as well as emails between Larsson and his editor, Eva Gedin, as they were communicating about the publishing of the series.  This book intends to give fans of the series a glimpse into the mind of Larsson as he was developing the computer-hacking, enigmatic character of Lisbeth Salander.

What the new book also does is reveal Larsson’s creative process, and explain his motivations for creating the stories, plots, and subplots that take Lisbeth and the books’ other main character Mikael Blomkvist  through a roller-coaster of dark, violent, and oftentimes unbelievable episodes toward vengeance and redemption in the end. As our discussion group discovered, many of the secondary characters in the series had the potential of playing more major roles had the series been continued. Feminist characters, Sonja Modig, Annika Giannini, and Erika Berger were particularly interesting, and many of us in our group felt that those characters could have become even more believable feminist heroines than Lisbeth Salander. The new book includes an email sent by Larsson to his editor where he admits to an excitement about more fully developing some of the minor characters in future plots.

There probably won’t be any more books in the Millennium series.  The three books have now been adapted into movies in Sweden which have all been released in the U.S.; and the American movie is currently in the works.  But for true fans of the books, On Stieg Larsson, may be the best alternative for those who weren’t satisfied with just three books about the enigmatic, feminist heroine Lisbeth Salander and the man who created her.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Final Saga of the Millennium Trilogy

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 If you are looking for a good book to wrap up your summer reading, allow me to recommend three:  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Also known as the Millennium Trilogy, these books by Stieg Larsson are a great collection of crime novels whose best feature is the heroine Lisbeth Salander.

I introduced Lisbeth to most of you last month in my review of the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She is mysterious and harsh, not just in appearance, but also in attitude, and chooses to silently exist within the margins of society. Her actions in this first book define her as a feminist, a heroine, and a survivor, but as the story unfolds we’re immediately aware that there is more to this girl than what appears on the pages of this book.

Larsson’s second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is what I consider to be his actual unveiling of Lisbeth’s character.  Her feminist passion, her reactionary (often violent and avenging) handling of situations, her distrust of society and authority, and the callous attitudes of others toward her, are all exposed in this book. Larsson ends this book with our heroine so beaten down and vulnerable by such exposure that our emotional commitment to Lisbeth has us anticipating  the third and final book before we’ve even finished the second. 

In the final book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Larsson handles much of Lisbeth’s fate in an uncharacteristic way.  For most of the book Lisbeth is somewhat powerless. She has been weakened by her adversaries and removed from many of her resources of strength. Helpless, she’s forced to do something her survival instincts have trained her not to do – trust people. Luckily for Lisbeth, there are people who believe in her and who care about her. And their systematic scheme to save her must fall exactly into place in order to bring her to the redemption she deserves.

I have to admit, I found the final book a bit disappointing. After all the character development and suspense of the first two books, the third book seemed inconsistent and a bit sluggish for me.  I didn’t like seeing Lisbeth, who before was so strong and indomitable, left vulnerable and dependent on others to “rescue” her.  It seemed out of character for her and definitely out of character for the development of a feminist heroine.  I wonder if Larsson had checked his feminism at the door and felt that he still had to put Lisbeth, a young woman, in her place. Or perhaps it was the idea that no one, male or female, including Lisbeth Salander, can exist in a vacuum and no matter how much we think that we can survive on our own, the very nature of society being a complex system of human lives makes it necessary at times to depend on each other to survive.  In the end, Larsson brings Lisbeth back to her true character and she does tie up some loose ends with her family on her own – kicking butt once again and nailing things down, so to speak. Lisbeth has the chance for redemption, but with this redemption, will life forever be changed for her? And if so, how much will it change Lisbeth?  A fourth book is rumored to be in the works that may answer these questions.

Overall, the Millennium Trilogy is a great series for those who enjoy crime novels and suspense thrillers.  But mostly, it’s an excellent portrayal of a feminist heroine in a genre where women are not often portrayed in such a way. Please join the Women’s Center, UMKC Libraries, and the LGBTQIA Resource Center this fall at our book discussions as we examine Lisbeth Salander and her role as a feminist heroine.  Even if you’ve only read one or none of the books, it will be a great discussion on feminism, crime, and violence against women.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

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The Girl Who Played with Fire

is the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  In the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we were introduced to Lisbeth Salander, an expert hacker with a mysterious past.  In my review of the first book, I described Lisbeth as a feminist heroine who’s dark past forced her into a life heavily dependent on her keen survival instincts.  She has a loathing and distrust for most people, and thus prefers to exist within the margins of society.  Contrary to this, Lisbeth also has a compassionate side for human life and a compulsion to act when she knows someone has been wronged. I found myself intrigued by the character of Lisbeth Salander in the first book.  Larsson did a great job of teasing me with just enough information about Lisbeth that I couldn’t help but want to read his next book.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire Lisbeth Salander is back, but the story opens with a Lisbeth who almost seems to want to fit into society.  She has altered her physical appearance slightly, as well as her lifestyle – initiative that she took after capitalizing on her activities from the first book.  Despite these superficial changes, her distrust of society and authority is still firmly planted and her survival instincts override any mundane choices that any other “normal” person would make. Lisbeth is still reclusive and quiet – conscious not to reveal too much of herself to anyone.  In Lisbeth’s world, no one can be trusted.  It is a world where violence against women is committed without conscience and corruption and cover-ups have left their lasting impression on her.

In this saga, Lisbeth is our feminist heroine once again.  But this time, her past has caught up with her and she finds herself the prime suspect in a triple murder investigation involving drugs and sex trafficking.  Immediately judged by society and the authorities, not for what they think she has done, but for who they think she is, Lisbeth realizes that guilt, at least in this case, is proven by reputation, misinterpretation, and misogyny. We learn more about Lisbeth’s dark past, as Larsson peels back yet another layer of her enigmatic persona. And we find out about “all the evil” that consisted of so much violence and pain, it forever changed our heroine. 

With many of my curiosities about Lisbeth answered in this second book, I began to understand why Lisbeth is the reactive, calculating, survivor that she is.  And we find out why her feminist passions lie where they do and why her actions, at least in her mind, are justified.  One thing that surprised me about this story, was the moral dilemma I found myself in as I sympathized with Lisbeth. I now question my own feelings toward revenge and whether or not the use of violence can ever be justified given the circumstances.   I am a huge fan of Lisbeth Salander as a feminist heroine, and given her circumstances, I found myself cheering on her every move.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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The previous blog mentioned the Women’s Center’s upcoming book discussion this fall on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  I just finished reading the first book in the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I can’t wait to read the other two books.  Larsson’s development of the character Lisbeth Salander is brilliant.  She’s mysterious, yet direct; serious, yet passionate; troubled, yet ingenious.  Larsson unveils her character gradually, only mentioning her in random chapters and paragraphs through the first parts of the book.  You are left curious and almost doubtful of whom she is, but then at one heroic moment in the book, he unveils her true nature as a survivor.  No longer wondering who Lisbeth is, you are only left wondering why – why is she someone who lives most days on her survival instincts?

Lisbeth is described as a frail, anorexic-looking, young woman with harsh features and a wardrobe that harkens back to the 1970’s Brittish punk rock scene – leather jacket, tight jeans, combat boots, and t-shirts that make sharp, sarcastic statements.  Lisbeth makes up in inner strength and intellect what she lacks in physical presence.  She is often quiet but always very present.   A feminist heroine she is; woven into a plot that involves violence against women, sexual assault, family drama, and murder.   Lisbeth is a feminist, a heroine, and a survivor.  Of what?  Hopefully, that will be revealed in Larson’s subsequent books in the Trilogy.  If not, oh well.  Lisbeth’s character is not one that commands the readers’ sympathy for whatever happened to her in the past, but their support and applause for who she is now.

I plan to start reading the next book in the Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, tonight.  If you haven’t started reading the series, there’s still plenty of time left this summer.  Then join us on Oct. 26 in the Women’s Center to discuss Lisbeth Salander.  I can’t wait to talk to you about her.

The State of Women in the Arts in Kansas City

On Tuesday, April 27, a group of about 30 local arts supporters gathered at the Diastole in downtown Kansas City to discuss the state of women in the arts in Kansas City.  The event was billed as an “Artist Salon” where informal conversation about a shared topic of concern could take place amongst the diverse, yet like-minded group of individuals.  Those in attendance included Jan Schall, curator at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, several local visual artists including Ritchie Kaye, Shea Gordon-Festoff, and Nicole Emanuel, local spoken word artist Natasha El-Scari, and several other arts supporters.

The evening began with a reception hosted by local artist Sonie Ruffin, who is also one of the 2010 Charlotte Street Award recipients.  The conversation during the reception was lively and convivial.  It was obvious that many of people in the room were well acquainted with each other and had talked “art” before. 

But the real discussion began when facilitator, Renee Blanche (host of Night Tides on KCUR), welcomed the group into the Diastole’s kiva where she asked everyone why they were all there.  “Support… Recognition… Balance…” were words that were called out.  It was clear that the state of women in the arts was a topic this group had been waiting to talk about for quite a while.  Before getting into the discussion a short clip from the documentary “Who Does She Think She Is?” was shown followed by a presentation of some statistics on the state of women in the arts in Kansas City.  Both the movie clip and the presentation emphasized the inequities that women face in the art world.  For example, women comprise of more than half of the students studying art, music, dance, or theater; however, men overwhelmingly dominate museum collections and positions of power in the art world. [youtube=]

The movie clip and presentation provided much fuel to get the conversation going.  Most of the people agreed that there were disparities when it comes to female representation in the visual arts.  There were many comments and personal accounts from several female artists who experienced sexism from gallery owners.  Others commented on institutionalized and systemic problems that caused the imbalance of male to female representation in the museums.  And there was much discussion about the woman’s role in society – how does a woman have enough time to raise a family, have a career, and express her creativity?  Natasha El Scari and Nicole Emanuel talked about sacrifices that they had to make in their lives in order to do all those things. 

The discussion ended with a conversation about support.  It was clear that the women artists in the room were in agreement that support from all directions was necessary to making it all work.  Ritchie Kaye talked about having the support from her family and friends so that she could travel long distances to and from art school when her children were young.  Others emphasized the support of other female artists and coalition building.  And it was discussed that leaders in the art world, whether male or female, needed to have a sensibility to women artists’ unique needs in order to get the support that they deserve.  In the end the group agreed to come together more frequently to put together an action plan for how the issues raised could be addressed.

The artist salon ended the Her Art Project, a month long series of events that explored the unique challenges women face as they bring together motherhood, careers, and artistic fulfillment, including the group art exhibit Her Art: Who Does She Think She Is? on display at the Leedy-Voulkos Arts Center through the end of May.  This series was sponsored by the UMKC Women’s Center, the Leedy-Voulkos Arts Center, the Women’s Employment Network, the University Libraries, the UMKC Department of Communication Studies, the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, and STUFF.  The Women’s Center hopes to build on the Her Art Project and continue to provide programs about women in the arts.

Flex-Work Helps with Work/Life Balance

Recently, NPR took an in-depth look at women in the workplace through a 3-part series about Flex- Work.  According to the report, women now hold half of all jobs and are faced with the demands of balancing a career and family more than ever.  In order for employers to retain some of their most valuable employees, many of whom are working mothers, more and more businesses are joining the trend to create more flexible work environments.  By offering flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, job sharing, or a results-only work environment, working mothers have the flexibility to create their work schedules around their kids’ school days or extra-curricular activities. What this means for women is less stress worrying about after-school care, snow days, or a sick child, and less guilt about missing out on school activities or family time.  What this means for employers is happier, more focused employees who feel valued and trusted; resulting in higher productivity and employer loyalty.  It’s a win–win for both sides.  Listen to or read the full series and find out how several women have benefitted from Flex-Work including one report on how Flex-Work can make low-income jobs more family friendly.  Then think about your own workplace.  Could it use a little flexibility too?

Kate Clinton Brings Lesbian Humor to UMKC

Last night, Kate Clinton performed in UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium.  Co-sponsored by Willow Productions and the Women’s Center, the event drew more than 300 people to campus.  The publicity for this event described Kate as a “faith-based, tax-paying, America-loving political humorist and family entertainer”, but in Kate’s own words, she is a “fumerist” or feminist humorist, set out to prove that lesbians can be funny. 

Last night’s show did not disappoint the mostly female audience.  Kate’s jokes were hilarious, current, and thought provoking.  She has a keen way of stating the obvious, pointing out ironies, and poking fun at hypocrisies that have you doubled over in laughter one minute, but later analyzing the absurdities.  And that’s what makes comedy like Kate Clinton’s great:  she uses humor to bring attention to tension on issues like homosexuality, feminism, religion, or politics to spur further discussion and activism. And although, Kate’s show last night was preaching to the choir, it never hurts to get a reminder sermon every once in a while.

Below is Kate Clinton’s tribute to Mary Daly.   A radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian, Mary Daly was known to stir up controversies at her own institution, Boston College, and among other feminists.  She died recently at the age of 81.


A Better Princess Movie

This weekend I took my 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old niece to see Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. I’ll have to admit, we were pleasantly entertained.  As a feminist, I have always had issues with Disney’s  princess movies and their portrayal of women as helpless, beauty-obsessed, females whose ultimate dream is to find a prince charming to rescue them from their life of boredom and meaninglessness. But in Disney’s latest full-length princess movie, they finally gets some things right by giving us an atypical princess and a story line that teaches our young girls (and boys) that it takes more than waiting around for Prince Charming and wishing upon a star to make your dreams come true.


From the movie trailer for The Princess and the Frog you see that Disney has finally recognized the diversity of their audience and given us a Black princess. Tiana isn’t really a princess, but rather a working-class waitress with two jobs and a dream to one day own her own restaurant. Contrast her with Snow White, Disney’s first animated princess who debuted some 72 years ago, and many people would agree that Tiana is the atypical princess by Disney standards.  Unlike Snow White, whose dream that “someday (her) prince will come” created the standard for many subsequent Disney princesses; Tiana is a strong, intelligent, and independent, heroine.  She takes charge of her own destiny, wishes upon a star not for a man, but for entrepreneurial success, and doesn’t have time for the handsome, yet lazy and self-absorbed prince.

Through hand-drawn animation that is visually stunning and a sound track that brings together jazz, zydeco, and gospel music, the culture of Jazz-era New Orleans and Cajun-country Louisiana are laced throughout this movie. Against this backdrop, Disney delivers a princess movie that seems to be more culturally aware than any of their previous features.  Tiana is much more relatable for a broader audience of little girls and the lesson that the movie sends treats women in a more respectful way than ever before.  Although, this movie isn’t perfect, and there are some missteps (I’m still undecided on whether or not I was offended by the representation of the Cajun firefly, Ray), I’m not going to nitpick at this movie; but rather, applaud Disney for finally bringing some real diversity and gender equity to their movies.

Art Imitates Life

Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon passed away recently at the age of 74 and was eulogized in an article in the Wall Street Journal.  Sadly, many people do not know who this person is. But what I find more disturbing is that, despite being one of the most creative minds in the last half of the twentieth century, many people in the art world may not recognize the name either.  It is only when her name is mentioned alongside her husband, Christo, that her status among the art greats becomes clear.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were the artistic duo that created some of the world’s most memorable and monumental art installations.  Their large, public displays of fabric and textiles have adorned the world’s landscape for the past several decades.  Among their many works were the 2005 creation, “The Gates,” a series of 7,503 orange nylon panels erected for 16 days in New York’s Central Park, and “The Umbrellas,” an installation of 3,100 umbrellas that covered two inland valleys in Ibaraki, Japan and California in the early 1990’s.  And for those Kansas City natives old enough to remember, “Wrapped Walkways” covered the walkways and jogging paths of Loose Park in 135,000 square feet of saffron-colored nylon fabric in 1977-1978. 

Jeanne-Claude was an equal collaborator in the creation of these works, and according to her husband, she was also the business genius behind their success in what can most often be a fickle art market.  But references to their large art installations, whether in art books or in conversation, usually credit the works to be by Christo, with no mention of Jeanne-Claude. This, unfortunately, is typical for women in the arts.

As a young art student in the early 1990’s, I became well aware of how marginalized women were in the arts.  In my search to identify any female role models from art history, I found little written about women artists compared to the volumes of information about male artists.  In many of my art textbooks, the marginalization went so far as to annex women into chapters titled  “Women Artists,” as if to emphasize where the woman’s “place” was in the context of visual arts.  While artists such as Monet and Picasso were regarded in chapters that hailed their contributions to important art movements like Impressionism and Cubism respectively; women artists were regarded not for their creative contributions, but for, well, being women. Discussions in my art history classes mirrored the information in the text books.  More time was spent critiquing the works of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Warhol, than Mary Cassatt, Freda Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe.  Moreover, my first visits to the Met and the MOMA in New York really punctuated the disproportionate representation of women.  On the walls of these major museums, works by men greatly outnumbered works by women.

Nothing has really changed much in the 20 years since I graduated from art school and the article about Jeanne-Claude’s death was a grim reminder.  Why did she exist in her husband’s shadow?  I must not blame Christo for this, and to his credit, their website does bare her name. But why does society have such a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of women in the arts without attaching them to a man?

Other brilliant female artists have fallen victim to this fate, and like Jeanne-Claude, it was their relationships with the men in their lives that make people say, “Oh yeah, now I know who she is.” Lee Krasner is barely known as a talented abstract expressionist artist, but better known as the wife of the irascible Jackson Pollock. And Camille Claudel is better remembered as Rodin’s apprentice and mistress (and for going insane), than for her genius at sculpting marble and stone. Even the stories of well-known female artists like Freda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe cannot be told without significant references to Diego Rivera and Alfred Steiglitz. It disturbs me that all these women cannot be recognized without the mention of their male partners. 

Is talent not enough when you are a woman and an artist?  Should all these female artists really just be grateful to the men in their lives for helping to bring them some bit of recognition in the cold, cruel, art world? Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, women today are still fighting for some status among men in all career fields.  And the arts are no exception. On the Christo/Jeanne-Claude website, Christo honors his late wife’s legacy by reminding us of her talent, creativity, and genius. It’s a beautiful tribute and hopefully one that leads us in the direction where all women artists are standing, if not ahead of, but at least, next to their male counterparts in their status as great artists.

In spring 2010, the UMKC Women’s Center will address this issue with a series of events including a screening of the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (a film that chronicles the lives of five, diverse female artists), an art exhibit featuring local women artists, and a discussion about the state of women in the arts in Kansas City.  Plans are still in the works, but please check the Women’s Center website in the next few weeks for more details.