Gender memory

That’ right ladies, it’s our month. Now that the black folks got their 28 days, we get to celebrate our place through out human history for a whopping 31 days. Wowee zowee! Okay, maybe I’m being a little cynical about the whole Women’s History Month thing, but it does feel a little antiquated and shallow. Black people and women deserve to be written into the history books every damn day of the year, and then some (as do so many other invisibilized groups of people).

Rather than throw out a couple of forgotten names and biographies of sheroes we should all already be aware of (go to Shelby for that), I’d like to pose a question about culture and history. Carl Jung, the much-celebrated psychologist, coined a term called “racial memory,” connected to the concept of genetic memory. He claimed: “racial memories are posited memories, feelings and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a collective consciousness.” In other words, we’re sort of born into the world loaded up with a legacy of culturally-constructed ideas and emotions about race.

This got me thinking about gender. I’ve been on a ten year journey learning about the lives of my paternal and maternal grandmothers (who both died in 2002) and along the way I’ve been deeply struck by the sense that I already “knew” some of what I discovered. Maryanne Smith, my dad’s mom (pictured here), for example, wanted to be a writer more than anything, but because of economic constraints and cultural mores, she never got to live her dream. Here I am, writing my way through the world. It’s hard to believe that’s not, on some level, a coincidence, not some kind of unspoken legacy that I sensed from the time I was a little girl (I barely knew Maryanne).

So is there such a thing as “gender memory”? And if there is, how is it transmitted? As I said, I barely knew Maryanne, so it wasn’t as if she handed me a copy of Virgina Woolf’s “Room of One’s Own” and told me–“Go forth and write my dear.” Was it transmitted through the body? The women in my paternal line have suffered from debilitating migraines and a lot of mental illness–from my great great grandmother on down. I, too, get migraines, though I am lucky enough to have avoided most of the mental health issues. Is that some kind of inherited physical, but also metaphysical legacy? There is actually a budding interest in a field called “embodied memory” that focuses on the ways in which “the body can also be seen as a container, or carrier of memory.”

This might feel woo-woo for some of you. It feels a little woo-woo for me, but it also feels undeniably real. I believe that we carry our grandmothers and our mothers lives with us. We live, not just for ourselves, but in agreement and disagreement with these figures from our past, these women who survived our sexist culture to make lives the best way they knew how. Sometimes we live their unlived dreams. Sometimes we speak their unspoken words. Sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

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