Feminism is the idea there should be equal rights and opportunities between the sexes under the law. The U.S., however, has a long history of patriarchy, making the goal of parity elusive.
The patriarchal systems women face today have been embedded in our world’s social and psychological structures for eons. How we do feminism today, like marching in the streets in the hundreds of thousands in many cities clad in pink pussy hats to give Trump the double bird, isn’t much different from how the suffragettes risked their lives marching in the streets for the right to vote. During one major suffragettes’ parade that took place March 3, 1913, as part of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, historical records from the Library of Congress show the women who marched in Washington DC that day were jostled, jeered, ridiculed, tripped, and assaulted as they made their way along the parade route. Some women were grabbed and shoved, and many heard “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.” The records show police did little to help the suffragettes, who had purposefully planned the march one day prior to Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration day for maximum effect.
By Kriss Perras
“Instead of protecting the parade, the police seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter, and in part participated in them,” stated the Library of Congress records. “One policeman explained the women should stay at home where they belonged. They did not regard the affair very seriously.”
Over 100 women were hospitalized with injuries that day in 1913 for the sake of the Nineteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1920. Today the idea of parity between the sexes has made some progress, as there are now men who call themselves feminists.
“I’d been writing a bunch of feminist songs about women and men and our issues,” he recalled of his time in New York 50 years ago. “I was raised in a family where there was a lot of humor. I started looking at some of that stuff through humorous eyes.” Dr. Peter Alsop
This journalist sat down for an interview with Dr. Peter Alsop, a psychologist and longtime feminist, nationally known singer-songwriter, lecturer, husband to actress-director Ellen Geer and humorist. He received his bachelor’s in religion at Trinity College and master of arts at Columbia University’s Teachers College as part of his PhD program in educational psychology. He finished his doctorate at Columbia Pacific University in San Anselmo, California. He is also a certified experiential therapist.
This is the first in a three-part series of stories about Dr. Alsop and the idea of feminism. In part one we learn what feminism means to him, why it is important to distinguish between using verbs and labels, and when he first recognized how he wanted to “do” his feminism. The hours of recorded interviews have been condensed and edited.
Dr. Alsop’s awakening as a feminist was sparked 50 years ago by a former flame. Hell-bent on raising his consciousness, a girlfriend opened his eyes to the lived experiences of women all over the world by a simple, and early, exercise in walking in her shoes.
On a New York City morning in the 1960s, he recounts he had said to her, “You’re a feminist. It’s your turn to go downstairs and get the newspaper.” She balked, he said, telling him he had no idea what she would go through when she went to get the paper. He didn’t understand, so she told him to follow her.
“So I went down and followed about fifty feet behind her,” recounts Dr. Alsop. “The whole environment was different for her walking alone as a young woman in New York City. The friendly flower seller on the corner was making lewd noises at her with his mouth. You could see the guy staring at her ass. I thought, wow, this sucks. It didn’t happen to me. It wasn’t the world I lived in. I wasn’t aware of that. I went, this isn’t OK. It was guys doing it. I should be talking about this stuff.”
Aghast at his girlfriend’s experiences on a New York City street, Dr. Alsop put pen to paper with his musical talents and humor. He said it wasn’t about making fun of people but rather about acknowledging our humanity, and the ways we “do” masculinity in this culture. Take note of the word do here, dear reader. Dr. Alsop is about to make a few changes in the way you “do” thinking in your head.
Dr. Alsop’s music is about challenging patriarchal thinking. His album Disciples of PerFection begins with the title song. It includes a phrase about how the light shines through our cracks, or personal imperfections through which our uniqueness shines through.
Dr. Alsop croons, “Disciples of perfection don’t like changing … it’s mostly male brains who say, there is no other way…. And so the wars we have fought, religious rules that we’ve been taught, came from these fearful thoughts by disciples of perfection…. Is life broken when a beggar begs or part of life like cracks in eggs, which is where life’s perfect light shines through? That light connects us, me and you.”
His healing music lifts people up and fosters understanding among them. He uses the folk genre to help build bridges of compassion between otherwise polarized ways of thinking.
“I’d been writing a bunch of feminist songs about women and men and our issues,” he recalled of his time in New York 50 years ago. “I was raised in a family where there was a lot of humor. I started looking at some of that stuff through humorous eyes.”
Another formative experience in his journey as a feminist was his attendance at a conference of male feminists. At that conference, he began to consider the distinction between being labeled a feminist and doing feminism.
“I don’t know the label feminist can encompass something, because it’s a label,” said Dr. Alsop. “One of the things I teach is the importance of verbs more than nouns. You can say a feminist, and I go OK, what does a feminist do? Because that can make sense, and I can start understanding it. I do this with my audiences sometimes. I say raise your hands if you ever saw a Christian coming towards you and you went the other way. Many people get embarrassed and raise their hands. I go, exactly. It’s not about the label, it’s about how they do their Christianity. It’s about the verbs. If they want to push their stuff on you without listening to what you have to say or be curious about you as a human being, why would you want to be around them? Verbs are very important.”
Dr. Alsop said our brains are designed to tell stories. He said of his feminism, and the reason he writes the songs he does, is to help people without making fun of them or without threatening their old stories. Perhaps they could consider a different story about themselves. He recounted how he and Ellen Geer availed themselves of teaching moments while rearing their children.
“When our kids were growing up they would say, ‘I can’t do that.’ And I would say, wait a minute, you know the rule. They’d go, ‘OK.’ The rule was you can use the word can’t in a sentence, but you just have to say the word yet at the end of the sentence. ‘I can’t whistle, yet.’ It totally blows the can’t out of the water, doesn’t it? There are little techniques I’ve had great fun passing on, because they’re playful and attainable by somebody who can hold a concept, when so much of our life seems interwoven you don’t even bother trying to undo what’s there. That’s what I’ve been doing with my songs.”
When asked why feminism is necessary, Dr. Alsop defined it.
“What is called feminism for me is really about creating a more life-affirming world,” he said. “There’s a poem by Judith Viorst: ‘My husband the writer works in an office with a couch that costs $500 while I write at home amidst diapers, laundry and a little baby that hollers.’ The difference is, a guy is like, ‘I can’t write with this kid around. I can’t think.’ It’s only because you don’t have to.” Single fathers, for example, quickly learn how to occupy their children while remaining present and interactive with them. “If you don’t have to do it because you’re privileged, by being male, and people say, ‘I don’t get along with kids. Wait till they get to be three, and then I’ll play with them. Wait until they can talk. I don’t do diapers,’ they’re missing some of the richness of life. When I talk on the stage like that, guys are sitting in the audience going, wow, I do that, don’t I? Maybe I ought to cut that out.”
Dr. Alsop decided to become an educational psychologist 50 years ago. After Richard Nixon won the presidency in a landslide victory, he decided to work with children. The way he figured it, if adults could not see Nixon was crooked, they were not to be trusted. He felt, he said, he needed to raise children’s awareness, since adults were not getting it.
“I feel like a lot of what I do is subversive parenting,” he said. “If you have a parenting workshop, the parents who need it the least are the only ones who come. But if I have an award-winning kids record, and they take it into their homes, they let the kids play it. I sing about the importance of diversity, about speaking up, setting boundaries, my body is nobody’s body but mine, you run your own body, let me run mine.”
To illustrate the importance of setting boundaries, Dr. Alsop described a common practice in many families: A child will tell a parent that she disliked it when a grandparent pinched her cheek. The child asks the parent to please ask the grandparent to stop it. The parent, however, will dismiss the child’s request by saying the grandparent meant nothing by it, so the child need not worry. Justification for this dismissal often comes in the form of “your granddad, or grandma, is going to be dead soon.”
“What are we teaching our kids?” asked Dr. Alsop. “That if they don’t like the way grown-ups are touching them, how they feel is not important because I don’t want to deal with Grandma, or Grandpa. That’s not a lesson we want our kids to have. We want our kids to know their feelings are important and have a right speak up about them. I’ve gotten testimonials on camera about the My Body song. They’ve said that song has literally saved their kid’s life.”
The social and psychological structures that support the patriarchal system that prevent women and children from having control over their own bodies and futures are threatened by feminism. What Dr. Alsop’s girlfriend of 50 years ago, the suffragettes of 1913, and women today on their way to the gym or store have in common is the experience of being subjected to foul noises or words hurled at them from men nearby. These experiences are just some of the many reasons that make feminism as an idea and movement necessary. The way people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual and implied influence of others matters. This influence has consequences for women and their freedoms, economic status, and right to vote, as well as their pursuit of happiness.
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