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Myths women grow up with August 31, 2009

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As young women, the 77 storytellers or the women elders in BC who agreed to be interviewed for “Mythogyny”, the book that Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) is due to launch, they stepped into womanhood in a mist of myths.

What is a myth? According to the Random House Encyclopedic Dictionary, it is “an unproved collective belief that is accepted uncritically and is used to justify a social institution. “One of these would be “marriage as the only end for women, or wife and mother as her only role in life.”

In the book under the chapter on marrriage, the women unravel the myth further as  “the illusion that Prince Charming would inevitably appear to rescue women from uncertain futures and the need to provide for themselves; that marriage and motherhood were the only valid choices.”

On closer view, other facets of the myth reveal quite sinister sides that solidify as barriers such as, ” education was wasted on females who would never have to work outside the home because their biology was destiny; that the work of homemaking was so intrinsic to women that it could never be considered honest labour with any real value; and, most harmful of all to our storytellers who are struggling with limited incomes today, that following the prescribed path would  ensure that they were taken care of for the rest of their lives.”

In surviving shattered illusions, the women emerged almost with superhuman abilities as they grappled with the unexpected. Yet having moved on, their voices carry no hint of bitterness or regret. Having debunked the myths, their stories in effect turned out as “mythogenesis” not so much as “to create” but to unearth and lay bare “lives more mythical in more ways than ever imagined.”

Consider these:

                *I watched my mother be abused, psychologically, and saw her lack of choices in life and how everything was based on my father’s life. I was conscious of that but I didn’t really see it in my life – I lived it – and while I was living it, feminism arose. And so the words started being there…—Marjorie Drayton

               * I’ve had everything done to me imaginable and I’m not an abuser and I’m not an alcoholic and I’m not a drug addict. You don’t have to be what social workers tell you you’re going to be.—Sheila Baxter 

                *I walked out of the marriage with nothing, he owned everything. But I didn’t have to write him out a cheque at the end of every month.—Colleen Carroll

                *We imported some stuff from Germany. I was going across the country to stores to sell these. He stayed home while I went around the Lower Mainland. When I came home in the evening, he was sitting in the chair and asking me what I sold that day. I hated that chair. I did that for about twelve years…Leticia

               More than the relevance of their voices in women’s lives today, their stories also prove how much or how little Canadian women have gained in terms of rights and equality. 

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mythogyny, the anthology August 12, 2009

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Women debunk myths in Mythogyny August 11, 2009

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“It was a good life even though we were poor as heck. We didn’t know that we were poor because everyone else was at that time, too,” says Alice West of her childhood in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. What Wilma Hanson recalls of those hard times in Kansas was “the dust that covered the thistles ‘til you couldn’t see the fence.”

Both their stories and seventy-six others from women elders of BC’s lower mainland will be read in Mythogyny, an anthology of unattached, living on low income women elders’ true life stories either as a whole or in excerpts.

Against the backdrop of today’s societal breakdown and financial challenges, their voices ring with relevance as they relive dramatic experiences of the ‘20s, the deprivation of the ‘30s, the chaos of WWII both here and abroad, the rebuilding of the ‘50s and the upheaval of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, right up to the readjustments of today.

Senior women who underwent extensive training in interview techniques, gathered the stories on a tape recorder, then transcribed, read these for themes, pruned some and edited them for cohesion, excerpted others and organized the seventy-eight “voices” for a book with no extraneous writing.

What turned out as a predominant theme are the myths they grew up with, especially in marriage, the realities they faced and how in debunking and surviving the falsity of myths, these women lived lives more impressive in their reality than myth could ever be.

Most of them marrying or having a baby in their teens or early 20’s, fell for the mythical “prince”, who when unmasked turned out unfit for “happily ever after”. A number had to deal with the “other woman”, and poverty in their marriages; “Who can live on $9 per hour?” one of them still asks.

Most of their marriages ended in bitter divorce with one woman losing custody of her kids and everything she worked for, a land mark case in BC court. “But I didn’t have to write him out a cheque at the end of every month,” she said; he had pursued for alimony.

While guide questions were discussed in the training and used in the interviews, the stories yielded individually textured narratives out of the spontaneous telling. Some of the stories personalized history such as that of the woman among the “freedom riders” in the US. A number of them bring fun during the wars like a “party sometimes in the bomb shelters”, while one of them simply recalled a wartime job driving a forklift for a company making elevators but which was as well, manufacturing Lancaster bombs.

A number of the storytellers recall “patches of Eden” in places they grew up as they moved in BC like the Doukhobor communities. Some poignant events have also turned up like a woman finding her biological mother who, it turned out, was the caregiver her adopted parents had hired for her as a baby.

Most of the storytellers are now in their seventies, a few in their sixties and four in their nineties. In the course of the book’s production, two have died.

Most turn out to be immigrants from Europe, and England, a few from the US, four from Asia including three from the Philippines. A lot of them live in Vancouver, a number in Abbotsford, Burnaby, Langley, Maple Ridge, Nelson, and Smithers. One or two come from Delta, Grand Forks, Nanaimo, Port Moody, Sooke, and Telkwa.

Mythogyny concludes a story gathering project entitled, “Lessons Learned: the Lives and Times of Women Elders in BC”, which Women Elders in Action (WE*ACT) undertook with financial assistance from the Women’s Program, Status of Women Canada and 411 Senior Centre Society in Vancouver.  The book will be available in late September.

For more information, call Weact at 604-684-8171 local 228 (please leave a message, it will be picked up soon) or email weact@411seniors.bc.ca.  or mythogyny@gmail.com