This is the third and last of our virtual panel discussions on themes of the stories in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology. We get down to some plain speaking about the power differential between men and women and how both socioeconomic status and gender play a role in how the women in the stories are treated, just as they can in real life.
Moderator: Elizabeth (Liz) Zelvin
Participants: Julia Buckley, C.C. Guthrie, Lynn Hesse, V.S. Kemanis
Julia: My protagonist, Sophia, her best friend, and her mother are small-town women whose existence is constrained by poverty. Their paltry finances are controlled by men. All the men have some form of leverage.
C.C.: My story is set in the rural South in the 1930s. The women are Lizzie King and her daughter. Two of the men occupy traditional power positions over the protagonist, Lizzie, her daughter, and the lower status men. One is the landlord, the other a sheriff's deputy.
Lynn: My Southern family lives below the poverty line in the projects in Southeast Atlanta. The mother uses the welfare system to survive after her husband disappears. When Jewel, the protagonist, turns thirteen, Bess, her mother, forces her to turn tricks at a truck stop. The son becomes her pimp. Bess abuses Callie too My story takes a non-traditional look at the domestic violence cycle by making the main abuser a woman. Bess herself was abused, sexually assaulted, by her father as a child. In a twisted way, she's getting even. And so the cycle continues.
V.S.: The narrator of my story is Arlene, a middle-class widow and retired career nurse. The woman at risk is her neighbor, Cherise, a young single mother who's being stalked by the father of her child. Cherise’s socioeconomic status impacts her ability to flee from danger. She is strong enough to break away from a dangerous man once, but her poverty limits her options when he continues to stalk her. She lives in a suburban neighborhood, has no friends, and doesn't have a car.
Julia: My fictional town is economically depressed. It offers women limited opportunities for a fulfilling life.
Liz: Very limited, as you've described it. Sophia's choices are marriage, dead-end jobs, and prostitution.
Julia: And there aren't many chances to leave. The town's sagging economy defines Sophia's life. Then she reads a disheartening article on the Internet that says the prognosis for women who live in small, financially-disadvantaged towns is dire.
Liz: That's a turning point in the story, isn't it?
Julia: Yes. She refuses to accept her fate.
Liz: C.C., how important is the socioeconomic factor in your story?
C.C.: In mine, the socioeconomic status of the two men in the power positions is central to the story.
Liz: Lynn, in your story it's more complicated than that, isn't it?
Lynn: I think survival mode kicks in anytime you are hungry, cold, and deprived of shelter, but family dynamics are not controlled by socioeconomic status.
V.S. I believe that instances of men treating women poorly occur across all socioeconomic classes, whether we’re talking about physical aggression, discrimination in the workplace, verbal abuse, or otherwise. The same can be said for instances of good treatment and healthy attitudes toward women.
Lynn: Some of the hardworking, honest, and decent folks I know are poor.
Liz: How much of the power differential in your stories based on gender?
Julia: In my fictional town, the men have all the power. Sophia manages to find personal power through her ingenuity, and this encourages other women.
C.C.: The power differential in my story is based equally on socioeconomic status and gender. The landlord could evict the family and push them into homelessness. He walks into their home without permission. He could file false charges against them, claiming they damaged his property.
Liz: And he could carry out a threat to rape the fifteen-year-old daughter. That's the quintessential power imbalance based on gender.
V.S.: My story is based largely on physical and emotional dominance. Cherise's male stalker is threatening because he's stronger. A woman of greater financial status might have more options available for escaping an abusive relationship but still feel the stigma of societal expectations or have emotional difficulty extricating herself.
Lynn: Upper-class women meet with a more subtle form of discrimination and harassment, but the outcome is the same. I come from blue-collar people in Southeastern Missouri. In some ways, I am fiercely proud of my independent, determined, and inventive ancestors. But women waited while the men went off to war and worked in factories and fields to survive with their children. When the men returned, the women were expected to give back their jobs to men and ask for money to go to the grocery store. My grandmother divorced her second husband and remarried him after he put her name on the deed of the country store they ran together.
C.C.: The group that controls the money has the power. They write and enforce the laws, own property and businesses, and determine who will is hired. Until the last century or so, women, as a group, were excluded from political, social, and economic decision making, which resulted in laws and social norms that disadvantaged them.
Lynn: Power and dominance isn’t solely based on economic freedom, but it helps maintain the balance in a relationship. Recognizing your personal identity and believing in your power are learned skills. Something like your own bank account is imperative. My mother never wrote a check for a bill until my father died.
Liz: My mother came through Ellis Island as a four-year-old immigrant and went to law school in 1921. But when she and the few other women in her class graduated, they couldn't get jobs as lawyers.
V.S.: When I was working in the highly competitive legal system, there were times I was ignored or felt intimidated by male power and dominance in the workplace and in court. Now I worry very much about my two daughters, in their twenties, in the world they live in and the issues they face.
Julia: I think women are still routinely oppressed in environments where dominating male behaviors are encouraged and justified as “tradition.” Whether the patterns are conscious or unconscious, men who limit the agency of women within a social framework perpetuate the pattern by glamorizing or minimizing the oppression. They may call it a form of love, protection, admiration, male pride, or responsibility. Women and men can both fall into the assumption that what is traditional is also “natural,” and this can protect them from any awareness of oppression.
Lynn: Recognizing your personal identity and believing in your power are learned skills. Do you believe you can arrest a two-hundred-pound drunk? I do, and I did.
Liz: That sounds like both physical and emotional empowerment.
Lynn: Mentorship is another tool women overlook as an important component of success. Men cultivate it automatically. I offered to help every female recruit I saw in DeKalb Police Department, and not one officer asked me a question in twenty-three years.
Liz: I suspect that may have something to do with subculture and generation. Neither of my parents believed in mentors. Their line was, "Nobody helped us!" But when I discovered what I was missing, thanks to the women's movement, around 1971—not only mentoring but also networking—I took to it like a duck to water. My career as a mystery author and especially this anthology has been all about networking and community.
Now, last question: Is there a difference between power and dominance on one hand and status on the other?
C.C.: The central element of my story is a powerful man exerting authority over others. You only have to read the headlines to know that it still happens every day at all levels of society. If influential media stars can be threatened and their livelihoods put at risk, then it can happen to anyone along the economic ladder. I believe that when someone attempts to exert power over others, their effort to dominate is firmly grounded in socioeconomic status. Every story begins with the threat, “Give me, or else.” What makes each story unique and powerful is how the victim reacts and the decisions they make.
Julia: You can find the situation my women characters face anywhere that minds are narrow and those in power have a desire to dominate and humiliate. Oppression and socioeconomic realities go hand in hand. An enlightened man with money and power might help women out of a basic sense of equality and justice, while a man oblivious to his own oppressive habits might decide that any aid given to a woman is at the whim of his generosity. This would encourage him to feel kinglike, and he might derive a certain pleasure from seeing that the woman’s happiness or disappointment, her success or failure, lay within his control. In Sophia’s story, I wanted to subvert that idea of power and suggest new ways for the oppressed to find agency in their own lives.
Liz: So our stories, in general, show women acting differently in response to threats and dominance, empowering themselves and, in Julia's phrase, finding agency. And clearly, we believe that women who survive can do this after even the most shattering experiences. For every woman who shows she's a survivor, another says, "Me too!"