February 1, 2010

Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett was a 2005 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She is the author of Derivative of the Moving Image (UNM Press 2007) and (a) lullaby without any music. Individual poems have appeared in New American Writing, Ratapallax, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. In 2009, she was featured in Michele Beck and Jorge Calvo's documentary film series. Bartlett teaches poetry to people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities at United Cerebral Palsy (NYC). She is also a half-time First-Year Writing Instructor at Montclair State University. Bartlett lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with the writer, Jim Stewart and their son, Jeffrey. (Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.)

This is not my beautiful house; this is not my beautiful wife

I see myself as employing feminist ideals practically in my daily life. The most important aspect I take from feminism is the idea of choice. I have chosen my life. My feminist belief -- that girls can do anything derives from both sides of my family. My feeling of oppression comes from being a person with disability - cerebral palsy. People very often react strongly negative to my slightly slurred speech (or "cp accent ") and awkward gait -- which is actually very minor in the disability world. The frustration I feel, both real and imagined, is not gender specific - it comes from the able-bodied community. It is both women and men who have, at times, made me feel less than.

As Denise Levertov points out, "Not to deny the history of women. But women who see exclusively the oppression of women tend to forget other kinds of oppression." In day-to-day life, if you have a "double minority" one inadvertently trumps the other. This is why I have had an easier time relating to the Civil Rights and gay Movements than the Feminism Movement. Like some African-Americans, what has happened to me a disabled person has been so profoundly worse than what has happened to me as a woman. I am sure there is gender disadvantage in my life, but I can't even begin to see it because I'm so busy dealing with the other.

It is embarrassing, yet liberating, to disclose the things that have happened to me as a person with cerebral palsy. There's the time that the teenagers rode their bikes around me yelling "retard, retard." There's the time that a man asked me to dance at a club and, after discovering my voice, told his friend, "She's some kind of retard" and walked off. There's the time that someone in NYC Teaching Fellows, whom I trusted, told me she would never want her young child to have a teacher 'like me.' (By the way, I was 'kicked out' of the elementary school teaching program due to my disability). There are the many, many other jobs I have been passed over. There's the time that some folks with a racist, homophobic, ableist website got a hold of my blog writings and wrote about me: relentlessly, ruthlessly, mocking me. There's the time the woman asked me in the park in disbelief - "Is that your baby!?" People have mistaken me for drunk (that was the police!), Deaf, on drugs, unable to feel physical pain, mentally handicapped, incapable of giving childbirth, and asexual. (Not that any of these are bad, they just aren't me. Well, I have been drunk from time to time, but that's another story).

As I write this, I see more and more the equation - woman and disability. Would there have been the same response if I had been a man? Perhaps, but probably not as aggressively. Perhaps not the same events, in any same order. However, there still exists the paradigm that the things people believe able-bodied women should do (or feel obligated to do) are the same things that people believe women with disabilities shouldn't do. There are still complexities between the disabled and feminist communities: Feminists fight not to be forced into mothering; women with disabilities fight to HAVE children. Feminists want to be looked at as more than sexual objects: women with disabilities are rarely considered sexual.

Sometimes, I feel like the community has forgotten us! Despite wonderful strides toward inclusion in many areas of feminism, disability is often the overlooked element. The issues of women with disabilities are among the most extreme cases of female abuse in the United States. So, it is shocking to that the pages of MS. Magazine are not full of issues such as forced sterilization or the fact that some women with disabilities have their children forcefully taken away at birth. Many people do still do not know about abusive institutions, such as Willowbrook, which were the norm as late as the 1980's. The unemployment rate for women with disabilities remains at a steady 70% or more. While Affirmative Action has become a given for African-Americans and women, for people with disabilities it is still a theory at best; the exceptions being higher education and the government. Many employers fail to note disability in their EOE ads.

On a more mundane note, women with disabilities are consistently absent from women-only poetry conferences, journals, and anthologies that champion diversity. When popular feminist journals do write about people with disabilities, they often use outdated, offensive language; confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound, and, my personal favorite, 'the disabled.'

What is the answer? It would be ideal if feminist writers and activists examined the exclusion and could write in an honest way about why this exclusion takes place. Is it a benign oversight? It is because women have as much difficulty dealing with the 'othered' bodies as men? Is it because of the primal fear that the able-bodied have of becoming disabled? Does it have to do with the complexities of the physicality of a woman's body? Fear of aging? What makes the able-bodied community still unwilling to see people with disabilities as merely 'different' rather than 'less than?' I worry that feminists might be hesitant to align with women with disabilities out of fear of the society's concept of bodily weakness. Women do not want to be considered as physically incapable, which is often the stereotype bestowed on women with disabilities. In my experience, the problems of physical disability are largely, if not exclusively, a social construct. For example, there is nothing wrong with using a wheelchair; the problem lies, rather, in non-accessibility. What I would like to convince people is that being disabled can mean a stronger body, not a weaker one. Sure, I can't run as fast as some, but I do everything else people do with more than average bodily limitations--and all the prejudice to go along with it. I am not sure how that could be construed as anything other than strength.

To readers, I would like to pose these questions:
1. Where have you seen mainstream Feminism and disability intersect in positive ways?
2. If you do believe disability has been glossed over in feminist culture? If so, why do you thing this has happened?
3. What can both disabled and non-disabled feminists do to make disability more prominent, resulting in better understanding, job opportunities, and birthing/abortion rights?

I think the problem is not maniacal. I think that people tend to focus what is on their radar. I think people with disabilities (and their problems) are still utterly marginalized in our society -- so that even the most sensitive thinkers aren't aware. I think feminism is the ideal place to begin. For me, at its core, feminism is about becoming enlightened -- and moving forward accordingly.

from Autobiography (Dion Chapter)

takes the ticket out
of the purse

looks at the ticket

puts the song on
takes the song off

returns the ticket to the purse

yells at the social worker

don't you people care about
patients with AIDS

looks toward the cold field
where the geese

startle and lift

like their return,
this will all be over soon

takes the ticket out
of the purse

looks at the ticket

puts the song on
takes the song off

returns the ticket to the purse

looks out on the field, amongst
the geese, this will all be over soon

phones the nurse, phones the friend
phones the clinic, yells at the nurse

people look, look at her,
look at the field,

the geese lifting

yells at the nurse
yells at the field

blames the geese

takes the ticket out
of the purse

looks at the ticket

puts the song on
takes the song off

returns the ticket to the purse

looks out to the field
amongst the geese

this will all be over soon


Ann_Bogle said...


Thank you, beautiful you, this is what a feminist looks like numeral one.

Sarah Sarai said...

I'm responding on My 3,000 Loving Arms, one entry for each question. Here's the first few paragraphs. To finish go to: http://my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com/2010/01/delirious-feminism-question-1-of-3.html

First the definition: I see mainstream Feminism is an impulse similar to that impulse which voted in our first black president, a desire to make amends and a hope the amends (such as Obama) is intelligent and capable. (He is.) In other words, men and women sense equality of male/female capability, each according to their light, which can cause confusion, hurt or ridicule: We are all well armed with expectations and mindsets.

Disability? Since women have been objects of a "gaze" for several millennia, our level of self-consciousness about our appearance is near electric and at odds with disability's perceived threat to our poise and ability to navigate male (and female) expectations. As more women are more conventionally successful, the culture has expanded its zone of the amount of "differentness" it will tolerate. This extends to disability, but only some. Only if it's not threatening. People are really easily threatened and difference is scary, I guess.

I have to laugh at the word "differentness" and the underlying presumption that there's a fine woman who is slim and straight-haired, fair, and is what the Creator intended. That the rest of us are "different." What a crock, but how we all buy into it.

Sheila Black said...

Jennifer--I love this essay, so much of it so felt and familiar to me. One point that emerges is that perhaps the mingling of disability and feminism has been problematic (and is potentially so powerful) because the disabled woman embodies so viscerally the anxieties that have been used against all women and with such effect--the spectre of bodily incapacity, the notion of being or seeming improper and/or strange, the fear of not being beautiful or beautiful enough. The phrase "primal fear" strikes a real chord with me. I, too, was circled by chanting boys and once told by someone close to me that she could not believe I had chosen to have children (and my disability, honestly, in the spectrum is not very major). As a disabled woman and a sadder-but-wider feminist, this essay made me feel fierce and proud. Thank you for writing it.

Book Girl said...

My response to your excellent post:

Sarah Sarai said...

Response to question 2 at My 3,000 Loving Arms blogspot. Go here:

If we're not beautiful we can be dismissed as horrors--a lesbian. God bless dykes, I say. We all need to access our inner big-breasted, no bra, T-shirt wearing mamas.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Thank you guys so much for writing in! I hope people keep up with the feedback. I so want to help the disability movement. As a PWD, I am relatively privledged. But, my students can't even do common things like go to the corner store or use public restrooms due to accessibility issues. My students also share one computer for 44 students. They don't even have access to the world through the internet. It is a population that has been forgotten and dismissed. My students have so much potential, but they haven't been given a chance.

et said...

I want to support you utterly, here and elsewhere, Jennifer, but I must admit I feel a little thrown off by this notion of some big bad (or perhaps little & stupid) "mainstream Feminist" which to me seems at best a tiresome simplification and at worst a total myth. Also, the presumption that every other "movement" but the "womens" has validity and is free of problematic complications, is troubling to me.
Love and power to you.

Unknown said...


Qs 2&3:

I call myself a feminist. I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about feminism.

I work with young people with SEN. I see the discrimination that they face daily.

Despite this it's only just starting to dawn on me that there is a huge intersection between misogyny and ableism and that I've been unconsciously 'prioritising' feminism, which really just means completely failing to confront my own lack of knowledge and my privilege.

The dawning understanding is coming through an evening of reading blog posts like this one. I think it's easy to play that classic game of 'let's focus on what's important, and deal with your minority problem later'. But feminists should be wise to that. If you keep talking, I'm sure that more and more people will listen.

Sarah Sarai said...

My third response. I met Lucy Grealy once. ...


Anonymous said...

Have you seen the wonderful blog FWD? http://disabledfeminists.com/

Too often in mainstream feminist discourse, disability becomes a symbol for what women don't want to be and don't want to be treated as. I've seen this made explicit even with the temporarily able-bodied saying they shouldn't be treated like a cripple. (For real! On what is probably the largest feminist blog out there.)

At any rate, I think that the most important things we as disabled women can do right now is to find each other and speak about our experiences, not in isolation, but together. (Hi, I'm an Aspie and I write poetry too.)

Ashley Ashbee said...

Those cruel comments about your gait and speech broke my heart, especially when you said they make you feel that you are "less than." You are so right: disability is socially constructed.

I think feminism, or at least simplistic feminism, tends to focus on sexuality and appearance. Women with disabilities aren't often seen as sexual beings, so maybe that's why they seem to be left out of the conversation altogether.

I love the way you write. You are so honest and concise.

Terry Provost said...

I had the enlightening experience of visiting the country of disability after surgery, when I lost most of my voice for a couple of weeks.

Remarkable how people just didn't have time for me. When the couldn't hear me, they wouldn't slow down, or make any effort to work with me to understand what I was saying. They just guessed at it and moved on with their assumptions.

I 'recovered', but have had a different understanding of disability ever since.

Much of the problem is (charitably) that people just don't understand things they have little or no exposure to. They just need education.

My mom was a teacher when many women were 'home-makers'. I grew up with a great deal of respect for women, and their ability, when given a chance, to do everything that men can do. I cannot presume to say what "feminism" is, or "main stream feminism"; I would suggest, however, that one should be (forgive the other meaning of the term) catholic about this. We all belong to many different groups and subgroups, and to different extents. We need to work together to build a better and more understanding, and better educated world.

imfunnytoo said...

So much of this resonates with me. My primary disability is CP...so I've been through some similar stuff...I wish I knew 100 able bodied feminists to forward this to.

Linking to you.

Tina said...

I definitely don't see feminism and disability cross over much unless I specifically search it out.

Even then, it' typically a person with disabilities who's also a feminist. It's very rarely a feminist taking a stand for people with disabilities.