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Monday, September 6, 2010

What I Did on my Summer Workation: A Woman’s Work and Woman’s Worth (Or, Who's Afraid of Lolita Lebrón?)

Happy Labor Day.

I’m back. I have been underground this summer working on several projects. I spent much of the summer in the Virgin Islands, where, though it may be hard for many people to believe it, it is possible to have an awesome workation. A workation is like a vacation in that you go away from your usual place of abode, but when you get there, you set up office and work as much as (and often more) than you would at your regular office. Famous writers engaged in workations all the time—think about those stories of people going up to abandoned cabins and writing world famous treatises and novels. Though I got a lot done on my workation, I don’t think I quite achieved literary greatness.

My workation has been over for several days now, and my regular work begins anew with the commencement of the academic year. Why, I’m even working especially hard today, on Labor Day, though perhaps ironically so. I am mostly doing research for scholarly papers, which I call work, but the meaning of work is relative, I guess. I was reminded of this by my daughter, who is in the process of finalizing an essay about the meaning of Labor Day (I am grateful that my daughter's teacher has eschewed the more traditional "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay; some kids, as was true for me as a kid, did very little and went nowhere, and so such essays can be sad reminders of the summer void). She is using a set of encyclopedias that my mother bought in the mid-1980’s for her grandchildren, both existing and future. My mother came from an era and a culture wherein knowledge was absolute (at least the knowledge written in books was)and forever. A set of encyclopedias should be valuable, she thought, until they fell apart. To forestall the latter, she bought the more expensive leather-bound set.

The books seem to have been published in 1980, and they have a decidedly ideological bent. First, nowhere in the article on “Labor Day” did they say that it was a celebration of “workers”. Instead, it talked about when such observations began in the United States and the parades that went along with such celebrations. The entry closed by indicating that Labor Day is celebrated in Europe on May 1, and also celebrated on May 1 “with great official gusto in the Soviet Union and other Communist-ruled countries.”

Wow. I urged my daughter to look up the word labor in order to get a fuller sense of what Labor Day is about. Again, I was fascinated that the word work did not appear until several paragraphs into the article on labor. The entry on labor begins: “Labor may be defined as the physical or mental effort of human beings for the attainment of some object other than pleasure. Simple as this definition is there is scarcely a word in it but what has been subject to discussion. The popular use of the word restricts it to those who engage in manual toil but this is of course too narrow. Any scientific definition must include mental effort. In modern industry brains are needed as well as muscle.”

Wow again. The author seemed to be fearful that somehow readers would more quickly equate labor with, say, digging ditches, than with “brain” endeavors such as, say, leading a multinational corporation. Well, I guess I’m safe; no doubt that my “mental effort” counts as “labor” under this definition.

Though I mostly kept my nose to the book and my hands to the keyboard this summer, a couple of interesting things that happened during my workation this summer got my attention.

On August 1, 2010, Lolita Lebrón the Puerto Rican nationalist died at the age of 90. Lolita Lebrón is best known for being part of a group of nationalists that in 1954 opened fire on the United States House of Representatives, wounding five Congressmen. Ms. Lebrón served twenty-five years in prison. After her act, she was either revered or reviled, hailed as a heroine or as a terrorist, depending on your point of view. In either case, she made history in the United States, and is worth including in any review of the noteworthy events of the 20th century.

The death of Ms. Lebrón struck me especially because in my life I have been aware of only two famous Lolita’s: Nabakov’s Lolita and Lolita Lebrón. When growing up I hated my name once I understood what Nabakov’s Lolita symbolized in the minds of many. I recall being a teenager and sometimes getting leers from middle-aged men who became aware of my name. I often mumbled my name to avoid snickers and lewd responses. I learned about Lolita Lebrón when I was in college and I was asked my name by a history professor. When I told it to him, he asked, “Lolita, as in Lolita Lebrón?” When I said that I had no idea who she was, he told me. I was shocked, first by the audacity of Lolita Lebrón’s actions, and next, by the fact that I could have gotten to college and not known that the United States Congress had been fired upon at all, and that it had been fired upon under such circumstances. For those wondering, no, Lolita Lebrón does not appear our encyclopedia. She is, I think, way too scary for either the encyclopedia or the standard school curriculum.

The other summer event that got my attention occurred on August 26, 2010, when we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States. While the fact that women in the United States have not always had the right to vote is probably far better known than the story of Lolita Lebrón, not enough people acknowledge just how big a fact women’s suffrage is. When women were given the right to vote, it was one of the largest enfranchisements in United States history. Moreover, as an Op-ed contributor to the New York Times reminds us, several states opposed the amendment and some went to the Supreme Court to invalidate it. Despite the rejection of their claims by the Supreme Court, some states waited decades to ratify the 19th Amendment: Maryland until 1941, Virginia until 1952, Alabama until1953. Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina ratified the amendment between 1969 to 1971. Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1984.Wow again.

I decided to peruse our encyclopedia to see what it said about women’s rights or women’s suffrage. The closest thing I found was an entry on “Women’s Liberation”. It begins: “‘Women’s Lib’” would have delighted the 19th century theorists of feminism, but it differs in its aims and philosophy from the women’s rights movement as the Black Power Movement differs from the Negro rights movement.” It goes on a short while later: “Unlike the 19th century women’s right’s groups, Women’s Lib is revolutionary rather than reformist….It urges women to unite in sisterhood, as blacks and workingmen have been urged to unite in brotherhood, to overthrow the oppressive order by sheer weight of numbers , and by force of various kinds, such as demonstrations and boycotts, rather than by persuasion or legal action.” Wow oh wow. This is real, folks.

After my most recent encounters with this set of encyclopedia, I had formed the idea of discarding them. I was scandalized with what seemed to be its pure ideological cant. But then I recalled that my mother had spent a lot of very hard earned money to obtain them, and that it was one of her last gifts to me before she died. I also recalled that my mother sacrificed a lot to send me off to college, and that college was the beginning of my journey to becoming a scholar. Scholars work to promote an open exchange of ideas. Even when ideas are disputed or ultimately discredited, scholars should not fear ideas with which they disagree or the books that contain them.