Last week I was given a copy of a new anthology of women’s poetry, Me Too,- ‘rallying against sexual assault and harassment’, edited by Deb Alma and published by Fairacre Press. My first thought was O no! Not more post-Harvey-Weinstein climbing on to the PC band wagon,– like all those Hollywood actresses, so keen to join the Oscar parade in their black ‘Me Too’ protest dresses. But after “burning through”, with pain and shame, poem after hard-hitting poem, I am coming to the conclusion that this is an important anthology; it bombards us with examples of male inflicted assaults and insults and generally overbearing behaviours. The subject matter varies from the “merely annoying” roue’ type behaviour – being touched or eyed up in offices and tube trains – to the extremely shocking ; there are many poems about having been sexually abused as children. Another group of poems are about being sexually coerced as young women, often as students, often in party-going or holiday circumstances. Other poems describe the abuse to be found within partnerships and marriage. Me Too is an anthology which should, at the very least, be part of Sixth Form education – that age when testosterone loaded males are especially prone to misinterpret borderlines between flirting and “trying it on”. At best, it should be compulsory reading for everyone, giving voice to what has been suffered, usually “under cover” and unspoken, by too many women for too long. This Me Too anthology, so thoughtfully edited by Deb Alma, is also notable for the high quality of the contributions she has elicited; interspersed with pieces by some currently well-known “Names”, the consistent effectiveness – the homogeneously strong voice speaking out – within the overall variety of contributions, is remarkable. Me Too has certainly made me review my own inappropriations, from the almost laughable (drunkenly throwing a bicycle at an ex-girlfriend under Magdalen College walls), to the creepily insidious (favouring with too close attention some of the more attractive schoolgirls I was supposed to be teaching).
As Zeitgeist, spirit of the age, this Me Too anthology feels like a final swing of the pendulum away from the all-permissive attitudes of the Sixties and Seventies towards a corrective re-education of male attitudes. And yet…and yet… even as I heartily agree with the anti-male disgust implied by so many of the poems, I begin to think: but surely that’s not the whole story about male/female relationships? Perhaps there’s a need for another complementary anthology (not Me Too but Not Me) which might celebrate a range of positive models of male behaviour – men as friends, as fathers, as unthreatening, helpful, sometimes even amusing, companions.
At the same time, I’ve also been reading a wonderful double biography by Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws, about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. As mother and daughter they must be reckoned among the first truly “feminist” writers. Their impulse is always towards freedom – freedom for the American colonies, freedom from the unjust bonds of marriage, freedom from religion. I knew a little about Mary Shelley, how her most famous story, Frankenstein’s Monster (as it should be called) seems to project conflicted feelings towards her husband, the poet Shelley, whose clumsy idealism and Me First way of life seems to have resulted at times in.prisoning his wife in depression and tragedy – not least through the unnecessary deaths of their first three baby children. About the mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, I knew only her name, but through reading this book, have come to admire her pioneering spirit in living what she believed – and suffering for it. Believing in freedom of choice, as against parent-led marriage, she had her heart broken, first through a relationship with Fuseli the artist and then with Gilbert Imlay, a charming American businessman who abandoned her when she became pregnant. Similarly, a fervent supporter of the Jacobins, she moved to Paris, only to witness the idealism of the French Revolution turn murderous, including the guillotining of some close friends. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to express themselves in every way, unimpeded by men, is clearly an important book – next on my reading list. At a time when women had “less value than cattle as parcel of their husband’s possessions”, when children were the legal property of fathers and when only men were able to instigate divorce proceedings, freedom seekers such as the two Marys are inspiring and salutary. At other times (such as now?) we seem to need the opposite of their thrilling advocacy of Freedoms – thus the admonitory tone of the poems in the Me Too anthology.
Shelley himself as husband and serial eloper I can’t forgive for how he degraded some of the women in his life with his libertarian enthusiasms (two of them committed suicide) – nor for perpetuating what must be one of the worst lines of poetry ever in his Ode to a Skylark: “Bird thou never wert”. Really! As well as sounding ugly, that half line seems to sum up all Shelley’s tendency not to face facts but to go in for dreaming, disappearing into clouds of abstraction much like the bird itself .