Shakespeare's Sister

Every election it happens. I start getting emails from dudes, always dudes, wanting to know why it is that I can't just stick to the political news and stop mucking it up with all the feminist junk.

Shakesville has been an overtly feminist blog for so many years now that I can't imagine whence comes my correspondents' expectation that it would be anything else. It may be that they came to know me through a place that tends to link or syndicate only my non-feminist political work, or it may be that they remember when this space was more preoccupied with the incessant drumbeat of corruption and fuckery emanating from the Bush administration.

It's not that I believe the Obama administration is vastly different; I don't. (Would that they were.) But I do find less to which to object, and, more importantly, I have simply found, over time, that I am more effective and my work more meaningful when I am not flinging fistfuls of mud at ancient stone citadels but working with the people who might be inclined to build something else altogether.

This makes some people angry. Some of them have even gotten themselves banned, because they can't stop telling me what to write about and how to write about it. You've seen them in comments. Some of them flounce with grand rhetorical flourishes about how this space isn't "serious" because it gets feminism mixed in with the "important issues," or some variation thereof.

Once they're banned, they shake their digital fists at me in my inbox. Just to be sure that I get the message I am terrible and feminism is stupid. Noted!
[Shakespeare's sister] lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.

—Virginia Woolf, concluding her essay "A Room of One's Own."
I am Shakespeare's Sister.

I am the heir of Shakespeare's Sisters before me, who carved out rooms of their own, tiny pieces of space and time, in which they formed the habit of freedom and mustered the courage to write exactly what they thought. I heard their whispers, their haunting encouragement, telling me to put on their bodies laid down and become born. And on October 5, 2004, I was born Shakespeare's Sister.

It is because they worked for me, all of Shakespeare's Sisters who went before, because they worked for me in poverty and obscurity, that I could be born. I took up their legacy with breathless gratitude and compelling need, and I created a room of my own, built of 1s and 0s. There I began to honor them, as best I could, drawing my life from their unknown lives, being born and born again every day, as Shakespeare's Sister, beneficiary of a legacy I only deserve if I endeavor to enrich it with my own contributions, no matter whether infinitesimal or grand, as long as they are honest and true.

I was, for quite some time, standing alone in the center of my room, which was precisely as good and precisely as flawed as I was. In this good and flawed and mostly empty room, I formed the habit of freedom, to the extent that it's been granted me, and, with some intrinsic courage and the rest conferred by anonymity, I wrote exactly what I thought.

And I invited people in.

My room became, by virtue of those who entered it, better than I am, and worse. I built the room bigger, for more people to come inside. It became better than I am some more, and worse. I discovered that the fight to be born and born again every day, the work in poverty and obscurity for all the other Shakespeare's Sisters who will come hence, was just one part of a fight with many parts. Making the room a safe space is a fight. Making the room accessible is a fight. Making the room as warm at its center as at its margins is a fight. This fight is my obligation and my muse. Its mere existence inspires and taunts me in equal measure. Work that teaspoon…

But sometimes I am so busy fighting for this room, and against so many things outside it, that I struggle to find the energy to fight for myself, for my voice, for my agenda within it. Easily and casually come the demands for my silence or my acquiescence to what visitors to this room deem important. Boldly come their orders, their exhortations to be less feminist, accompanied by exasperated sighs, wholly devoid of any suggestion a moment's thought has been dedicated to contemplating the careless audacity of conveying exhaustion with fighting misogyny, when they will never be its direct target. Enough, they moan. It's a distraction. It's a bore. The poor souls, burdened by having to hear about misogyny in a space where their presence is not required, created by a person who cannot escape misogyny for a solitary moment. There is no day, no hour, no single breath drawn or exhaled in an entire lifetime, free of misogyny for Shakespeare's Sister.

And so she will not accommodate demands to be free of her fight in her space.

I cannot walk away from misogyny for a moment, and so I cannot for a moment walk away from feminism, either. I cannot set it aside any more than I can set aside my womanhood. No—I will not. The choice is mine, and I choose to face the world equipped at all times with the only tool of self-defense I have against inequality. Feminism is my sword and my shield, which I carry because the world is hostile to me, not the other way around.

I fight because I have to. My obligation. My muse.

That is the context of this room. It was built by a woman. A feminist woman. Shakespeare's Sister, carrying the weight of all of Shakespeare's Sisters with her, as she clumsily stumbles toward making long, greedy use of the opportunity they provided her, sucking up every last drop of the chance she's been given to do what others could not and pay forward with interest the chance to another sister of Shakespeare who may just now be warily peering into this room and thinking there's something I like in there…

I want her to be born, too. More than I want just about anything else. I want her to know the feeling of putting on their bodies, our bodies, laid down, putting them on and finding home.

That possibility requires my vigilance, my unyielding defense of myself, my voice, my agenda, in this room I created and we all filled. I am reasserting them all, because there are so few rooms like this one.

I want to say that again. There are so few rooms like this one. That makes me proud, and happy, and sad. And it underlines why it is such a breathtaking impertinence to suggest making this room less feminist. Nearly every other room in the world, virtual or corporeal, is less feminist than this one. Nearly every other room in the world will accommodate the demand to be free of feminist standards, of feminist politics, of a feminist lens.

If less feminist is your preference, the rest of the world awaits you.

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