Linzertorte, Women’s History Month, and feminism

One big chunk of my life finished in 2004 – I left the group that ran Women’s History Month. I was one of the founders of WHM in Australia, so I wrote about it in several places that year. This is one of the pieces. It was, initially, one of the lost bits of writing, then a feminist organisation published it, then I put it on my own blog, one Women’s History Month. I must have liked it a lot, to push so hard for it to be visible at a time when I mistrusted every word I wrote:

For five years Women’s History Month and mid-life crises had a lot in common. Me.


I worked on Australia’s Women’s History Month from 2000-2004. From the very beginning it force d me to rethink some basics about who I am and what my heritage is. I had to think about what I meant by feminism (which wasn’t what I thought I meant at all) and, more than anything else, it made me treasure a much wider range of women’s experience. Pretty big stuff.

So how did this pretty big stuff happen?

My view of history used to be shaped by my university training. Nine years of unrelenting full time history study has to have fixed something in my brain, after all. I came out of those nine years dedicated to the European Middle Ages. My passion for past is for intellectual baggage and culture, things like epic poetry and temporal awareness and obscure aspects of medieval literature. Always, always Medieval.

In March 2000 I found myself jostled by everyone else’s much more recent memories. Around me, for the whole month, people were talking about recent history. I read everything they wrote: I had to, because I was the technical backup for the Australian online program. I didn’t just read what people posted to the web, I had email and telephone conversations, because the women who ran into technical trouble were only too happy to find an historian at the other end of the phone and to chat about women’s history. There is nothing like reading for opening doors in the mind. Almost nothing; my mind-doors opened as much from those conversations as from the reading.

I read expert and personal views on everything from women in the labour movement, through women’s right to vote to how society thinks women ought to act. In this recent history I could see something startlingly different to my more dispassionate view of how epic tales were told in the twelfth century told and why the Arthurian stories developed the way they did: I was starting to see links between the intellectual baggage people carry, and the lives of people I know. I had to expand my definitions. One of my favourite terms of the past few years has become ‘portable culture.” In my mind this does not refer to lunch boxes featuring superheroes; it is an ever-changing array of ideas and judgements that we carry round with us. It is the rose or purple or psychedelic coloured glasses we see the world with, and the frameworks that we use when we try to explain our own worlds.

The experience of Women’s History Month started me wondering about other things as well. Where did I come from as a feminist? Why was my feminism softer than the public hard image of a tough militant political activist? Did I have role models? And why feminism and history? Gillian-as-historian became Gillian-the-person: I am more than just a repository of really interesting knowledge and ideas.

There are few declared feminists in my family. There is a cousin who edits a left wing newspaper. We always say we needed both her and my Uncle Sol in the family, to balance each other. Uncle Sol was as far to the Right, as my newspaper-editing cousin is to the Left. Very few other members of my family are active politically, though my father flirted with the idea in the 1940s. And my family makes no political judgements in terms of who comes to dinner; the hard right and hard left are as welcome as everything in between. So I did not inherit a set of political views from anyone, and there was no pressure from the family to become involved in politics and the women’s movement.

When you define feminism in terms of life style and life choices, however, rather than politics, the views were much stronger and the legacy greater. I had more role models than you can poke a stick at.

My cousin Linda, for instance was a composer and music critic. She was 103 when she died, just a couple of years ago.

Linda was the first woman in my life to talk openly about what it was like to hold down a job in a very male environment. One story sticks in particular. She told this to me at Passover many years ago, which was a very appropriate time in the Jewish calendar for telling it, since we all tell stories at Passover. Normally they are about fleeing from Egypt, and how hard it is to get the kids to do any work around the house.

Linda told me about her early days as a journalist. When she was a young music critic, she wrote her pieces and submitted them. The sub-editor looked at them, OK’d them, then put them in a drawer and forgot about them.

Linda was infuriated by this. In fact, as time passed and more and more of her writing never saw printer’s ink, she became quite tempestuous. Linda has always been a tiny woman, and this was over a half century ago, so ‘tempestuous’ was very restrained and ladylike. She approached the sub-editor and asked, “Why aren’t you printing my stories?”

He prevaricated and made excuses, but eventually the answer came down to, “Because you are a woman.”

Linda then did a very unexpected thing. She took her stories and went to the sub-editor’s boss. She placed them on his desk and said, “Read these.” He read them, and said that they were good. The sub-editor was ‘persuaded’ to treat Linda like a real journalist.

Eventually, he left the newspaper, for other reasons. He walked jauntily up to Linda on his last day and, looking down at her face, said, “It’s D-Day. I’m going.” Linda looked back up at him and said, “No, it’s V-Day. You’re going.”

When I started doing feminist things, Linda was the least surprised. She told me about my great-aunts who ran a specialist shop in Collins Street in the 1930s. They refused to get married, she said, because it would have meant giving up their annual trip to Paris, and they would have not been able to upset my grandmother by arriving everywhere in a chauffeur-driven car.


Linda was not my only influence, though. My mother taught geology. Rock samples sat on the kitchen bench next to home-made biscuits. When she was sent on a big interstate field trip, I had great trouble persuading her that her geological hammer could not go in her handbag.

What if I need it during the trip?”

You won’t need it until you get there, Mum. Put it in your normal luggage. The security people won’t like it when it appears on their scanners.”

No, I can’t do that,” she said, “I might have to get a piece of rock en route.”

Mum, you are flying.”

So what?”


We were taught to cook at the same time as we were taught to use scientific method.

This led to friction when I was seventeen. Embryo scientists do not become historians. The feminism was fine. As long as I didn’t grandstand or show off, it was useful. But history? We didn’t have any historians in the family and she wasn’t sure she wanted me to be the first. She has since recanted and is now a volunteer museum guide.

When I started looking to find other influences, strong women emerged just about everywhere. I told my mother about this piece and she told me to include my grandmother. My grandmother was a big macha (very important person) in the National Council of Jewish Women. This has led me to some extraordinarily interesting work, like the preparations for the Australian NGO part of the UN Beijing + 5 meeting. But that was not what my mother meant, when she said not to forget how my grandmother made me a feminist. This is the story she tells:

Mum always cooked fish for big functions. One year NCJW combined with the Red Cross and they hired the Town Hall, and had a fete. Mum fried the fish. And she fried the fish. And she fried the fish. To make sure everyone ate this fried fish, she would cook some onions alongside. The scent wafted through the air vents to the street. That fish disappeared like snow in summer, and the Red Cross did particularly well that day from passersby, who followed the cooking smells.”

I had not thought of feminism as related to fried fish, but Mum was right, and it is.

I was thinking more of my late cousin Edith, who used to work for the Blood Bank. She helped Mum train me as an embryo scientist almost as soon as I could speak. She also taught me to enjoy Persian rugs.

Once when I was visiting we started talking about family recipes. Edith managed to qualify as a doctor in the 1930s, escape Vienna before the Shoah, then survive Australia, despite the fact that Australia recognised neither her medical degree nor anything else.

In the previous war, it was her mother who had been the alien. She was Hungarian and had moved to Vienna because of her Viennese husband. Women do this sort of thing all the time. But this was not “all the time”, it was World War I. Her husband was guarding the aqueducts, and was almost the only person Edith’s mother knew in the city. She had very young children, and life was a struggle.

Then she heard her husband was to be sent to the Russian front. To be alone with young children in a strange city during a major war is not an enviable thought. Edith always sought sensible solutions to troubling situations, and this is exactly what her mother did. She made an appointment to speak with the wife of the Governor of the city, another Hungarian.

The Governor’s wife fed her coffee and linzertorte and listened carefully. Edith’s mother left with the recipe for the linzertorte and a promise that the Governor’s wife would see what she could do. Edith’s father never made it to the Russian front, and we still have that recipe for linzertorte. I make the cake occasionally. And from now, when I make it, I will think of the many reasons it became inevitable that Gillian, an historian, would also end up a feminist.

No Good at It

I took a drawing class through my local parks and rec department and learned that I can, in fact, draw. What I lacked was an understanding of how to look at something if I wanted to draw it.

I didn’t do this to become a serious artist and certainly not to become a professional one. I just want to be able to draw. I always have, even though I was told as a kid that I wasn’t any good at it.

I don’t know if it’s still the case — though I suspect it is — but back when I was a kid if you weren’t naturally good at something you were often told not to bother. Seems like a lot of teachers can’t be bothered with explaining things so that they make sense to those who don’t have a gift for them.

Plus, of course, art isn’t “important” because the accepted opinion is that it’s hard to make a living as an artist. So only those who are already talented are encouraged to try it and even they are rarely encouraged to take it seriously.

The fact that learning to draw can give you insight and personal satisfaction never gets considered. Just from taking this one short class I have learned so much about how to look at things as well as how to try to render them on paper.

I took up martial arts at 30. I’ve got a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and am a decent teacher. I still do a lot of Tai Chi. I spent years going to the dojo four or five times a week.

I am not a superstar and I never became a professional teacher. But movement matters to me, matters a great deal. It has nothing to do with making a living, though everything to do with who I am.

I spent much of my youth in marching band. I used to sing in church choir. I have a decent voice and can play an instrument. I am not a professional musician and I never had the urge to become one. I like to perform. I’d like to get back into making some music, just because it’s pleasurable to make music.

All these things are important, as are many other things we do in life. You don’t have to make a living from them for them to be important.

And all these things are good for your brain, good for your thinking, good for your health. Continue reading “No Good at It”

In Praise of Taylor Swift

I have become a fan of the Taylor Swift phenomenon.

This is not fandom in the classic sense. I am in no way a Swiftie. I’ve never seen her perform; in fact, I’d be hard-pressed to recognize one of her songs.

But I love it that she has this huge fan base among women and girls, so huge that she was just named Time’s Person of the Year. And while I’m sure she has fans of other genders as well, even male ones, it is the joy I observe among women that makes this so satisfying.

The point at which I realized Swift was a big deal was when I heard her discussed on podcasts with women lawyers and law professors. These lawyers were going to her shows, some with their daughters, some on their own.

I’m talking about the kind of lawyers who teach constitutional law, which is about as high-powered as you get academically in the legal profession. Women who are up and coming academic powerhouses are not only Swifties, but not afraid to trumpet their fandom.

When I think about how careful the women lawyers of my generation were, especially the ones who aspired to judgeships and high academic posts, I am agog. These women are demanding that you pay attention to their legal thinking and at the same time they’re the embodiment of Cyndi Lauper’s great song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

It thrills me to see it, much in the same way that the Barbie movie thrilled me. Like Swift, Barbie is not really my thing, but the combination of feminism and sheer joy in that movie – a movie about a major commercial toy! – was so damn refreshing.

And since we are still living in capitalistic times, it is worth pointing out that both Swift and the movie make money – big money – out of performances that are squarely aimed at women and girls. Continue reading “In Praise of Taylor Swift”

Sultana’s Dream and other matters

I nearly let my purple sparkly sorting hat decide what I would talk about this week. If I’d had just a little more energy, I’d have written a list of all the subjects (I’m thinking about so many things right now, ranging from whether I should write a vampire cookbook to how to deal with silencing in the current political environment) and chosen one at random. This is the first day in two weeks where the morning began with merely moderate pain, however, and fatigue is ever-present, so I played Solitaire. This was entirely the right thing to do.

The postie just rang my doorbell and she had a little package for me. In the package was something I’ve been after for a long, long time. Let me tell you about it.

The book is by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. It’s two novellas, Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag. Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream in 1905. Padmarag was translated in 1924, but Hossain wrote it in Bengali. Hossain was a feminist bilingual writer of speculative fiction, how could I not want to read her work? And it’s the hundredth year of the publication of Padmarag very, very soon. I shall celebrate, with food, music and with a reading. Whether that reading is for myself alone or online to share depends. If you’re reading this and would like to be a part of it, let me know!

One last note. It’s Mizrachi Heritage Month right now. Reading the writing of Mizrachi Jews or cooking delicious Mizrachi food doesn’t mean you support what Netanyahu’s doing. It does, however, help us understand a bit about the cultures are of the those Jews who never left the Middle East. Last year I read (here’s a list in case this appeals to you), and this year it’s all about the food. Next year it will probably be both. Right now, though, I’m playing the music of Ofra Haza: my favourite song (“Kirya”) changes the rhythm of my typing.

My background is mostly from Ashkenaz, with a bit of Sephardi. That’s different music and different food. Now, if you will please excuse me, I’m very excited about finally getting a copy of Hossain’s works and I need to read them at once!

What Deborah’s Playing on the Piano

Saturday afternoon, I attended a lovely Hallowe’en student concert at Cabrillo College. Audience was masked, performers masked or PCR tested. So great to hear live music again! One of the pieces was a synthesizer adaptation of Satie’s first Gnossienne, which I’m working on. (It was very weird. Very weird on steroids.) That reminded me it’s been a while since I posted what I’m working on now. For those new to this journey, I’m an adult piano student who began piano lessons 15 years ago, my first ever formal instruction. I’m a grown-up, or so the theory goes, so I get to play what I want.


  • Satie. Gnossienne #1. It’s a hoot. One measure that goes on for pages, with directions like “Postulez en vous-même” (wonder about yourself). Lots of repetition of the motifs with subtle differences of expression.
  • Gillock. “Silent Snow” from Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style. Gillock was primarily a teacher. These short pieces are beautiful and fun to play as they challenge technique. The one I just started requires exquisite control of dynamics and pedaling. Gillock’s pieces are a great prep for composers like Debussy and Satie.
  • A couple of Schubert waltzes. They’re like “bon-bons” or Chopin Lite.
  • “Warg Scouts” from Howard Shore’s music for The Hobbit. The dwarves are running for their lives, Radagast is trying to lure the orcs on their wargs away, and Gandalf is scheming to get his part to Rivendell. Pounding rhythm. Am I nuts? When I looked at the piece, I went, “Ack!! I can’t possibly!!!” So I’m tackling it slowly with the metronome under my teacher’s guidance. Might take a couple of years to get it up to tempo (quarter note = 180, agitated) but it will do wonders for my technique. And be soooo much fun!
  • Bach Invention 14. If I skip a day, it falls apart. Otherwise, I’m focusing on the way the motif bounces back from one hand to the other, detached notes in one hand but legato in the other.
  • Debussy. “Claire de Lune.” Be still, my heart. I’m about a page away from playing it straight through and then we get to work on dynamics, speed, and expression.
When I have time, I work on my past repertoire. Current favorites are “May It Be” (Enya), Debussy’s “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin,” Satie’s 1st and 3rd Gymnopédies, a transcription of Ashokan Farewell, and a bunch of music from LotR.

Lizzo and the Flute

There’s this little voice that pipes up when I see certain things, one that tells me some asshole is going to do their best to destroy this lovely thing I’m seeing.

Many years ago I went to an afternoon movie by myself. I even remember the movie: The Ruling Class, a dark comedy starring Peter O’Toole.

But although that movie made a deep impression on me itself, it was the short that preceded it that is important to this story. In it, a woman danced the tango.

The moment the woman appeared on the screen, I knew the men (well, probably boys, given this was next to the University of Texas campus and an afternoon show) were going to laugh.

And laugh they did.

The woman who danced was not skinny. She wasn’t fat, either, but she was buxom and curvy and in no way met the ideal of womanhood in the early 1970s or, in fact, in any part of my lifetime.

I suspect she met the ideal of womanhood in the place where the short was filmed, but since I do not remember anything about the film except a fleeting image of the woman herself, I can’t look that up.

She was a very talented and skilled dancer, but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t beautiful enough for the pleasure of the young men in our society.

I’d been around long enough by then to know what they would and wouldn’t find acceptable. It’s one of those things you learn early on if you’re raised female: how to predict what men will find attractive and what they’ll laugh at.

I felt the same thing when I saw the online clips of Lizzo playing the crystal flute from the Library of Congress collection. Continue reading “Lizzo and the Flute”

Very Clean

I was ten when A Hard Day’s Night came out. It played for about a year at the Village Cinema, four blocks from my house in Greenwich Village. The Village Cinema was a little art house, and while my mother was not against dropping the kids at the movies (I was 10, my brother was 8) especially during the summer when it was hot and there was air conditioning, she preferred to do it at the Waverly or the Loews Sheraton (both larger, with a larger, more supervisory staff to make sure we wouldn’t be spirited away). I think she found the Village Cinema–what was called an “art house” in those days, a little skeevy. In any case, neither my mother nor my father was enthused by the idea of taking us themselves and spending two hours watching what they anticipated would be a standard teen-pop-star movie.

Enter my Aunt Julie. Julie is my mother’s younger sister. She not only didn’t balk at taking us to the movie, she was delighted. By the time she came to visit we were in Massachusetts for the summer, so the three of us went to the Mahaiwe, the local theatre in Great Barrington, to see it. The rest, as far as we were concerned, was history. The three of us came home afterwards singing and quoting lines (“I now declare this bridge open…”) and within a week or two my mother, at least, gave in to the siren call of upbeat music and my aunt’s enthusiastic recommendation, and she began quoting from it as well. My grandmother called to ask me what the refrain of “he’s very clean,” referring to Paul’s grandfather, was all about. I saw Hard Day’s Night a good dozen times over the next year, and whole chunks of the dialogue moved into our household vernacular. Continue reading “Very Clean”

“The Changer and the Changed”

A couple of days ago I got to thinking about a summer day back in the 1980s when a group of women put on an all-day women’s music festival on a hillside next to a junior high school in Takoma Park, Maryland. I was there with my friend Victoria Eves, a professional videographer, and ran sound for the video she made of the event.

I couldn’t remember the exact year, or the name of the event, but, as is our wont these days, I googled, and not only found that the first Sisterfire event happened in 1982, but the video Victoria made that year. I even have a credit as the sound recordist. This website has a vimeo of it set up.

It’s an hour-long video that captures some of the high points of an amazing day. I got tears in my eyes watching it. All those wonderful musicians, the enthusiastic audience scattered over the hillside, the feminist activism that underlay everything that went on.

We were all so young then. We were all so ready to go out and claim our places in the world. And to change it.

We were, in fact, very much like the young activists I meet today. And yeah, for those of you who pay attention to generational things, both the performers and the audience were mostly Boomers, though since some of them had kids there were some members of Gen X running around as well.

Sisterfire represented a lot of the best of second wave feminism. Continue reading ““The Changer and the Changed””


On Memorial Day of 2020, as the pandemic was really getting going and many were sheltering in isolation, a new tradition was initiated: Taps Across America. Assisted by publicity from Steve Hartman of CBS’s On the Road, the movement inspired thousands of Americans to pause at 3:00 p.m. local time and play “Taps.”

The idea came from the National Moment of Remembrance in honor of Memorial Day, an annual event initiated by Congress in 2000. Americans, wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, are asked to pause for one minute to remember those who have died in military service to the United States. Because the pandemic had us staying at home instead of getting together for barbecues in 2020, this was a way of doing something together to honor the moment.

It’s almost enough to make me want to learn to play the bugle. Though I am not a buglar, I do play the clarinet, and I intend to play “Taps” at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day this year.


Because it’s this kind of shared moment that can save our country. This kind of thing brings us together, at a time when so many forces are seeking to divide us. This kind of moment is what America needs to heal its collective soul.

While my own immediate family doesn’t include military veterans, my spouse’s family does, and I will be honoring them as well with my playing. I invite you to join me in this moment, if not by playing “Taps,” then by observing the National Moment of Remembrance.

And then you can get on with your barbecue.


‘We Are Stardust.”

I mentioned last week that I had signed up for an 18-day virtual meditation retreat that started on Election Day.

It was the smartest thing I’ve done all year.

I was a little stressed as I watched returns on Election Day itself; I remember 2016 all too well. But on Wednesday, when it started to become obvious that the Biden-Harris team was going to win, I got calm.

And I’ve stayed that way.

It’s not that I’m sanguine about all the challenges ahead. I already sent money to Fair Fight Action for the Georgia Senate runoffs.

I’m worried about a lot of things. The Republicans seem to have become a cult. The moderate Democrats seem to be under the illusion that we can just go back to “normal” even though it’s obvious that ship has sailed.

And while our local races here in Oakland went well — we’re going to have a more progressive city council this time around — that just means that we’ve got a better chance of getting our voices heard. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to work to get something meaningful done.

I’m concerned about a lot of things, but I’m not freaking out. And that is truly wonderful. Continue reading “‘We Are Stardust.””