Saturday, October 14, 2006

Gina Barreca

Let us now praise strong women...

Joel Achenbach's column in Sunday's Washington Post starts by discussing the recent Newsweek cover story about "Powerful Women" and then goes on to Arianna Huffington's latest book, Becoming Fearless, which is aimed at helping women reach their potential and be more powerful.

Since Joel has covered those two, I will approach this subject with reference to Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist studies; a woman with a very strong personality and presence. Gina came to my attention as a co-writer with Gene Weingarten--he contacted her with the intent of ridiculing her and making her look stupid because she was an "expert" on feminist studies and humor. He thought those two subjects were incompatible, and he challenged her to see who could be funnier in print. That's his specialty, writing humor, not hers, but she was funnier than he was every time. They went on to write a book together, and I saw them last year at the Miami Book Fair. They were both funny, but Gina was by far the more impressive--she is beautiful, brilliant, bold and witty. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.

I bought Barreca's book Babes in Boyland and read it this summer. It's a memoir about what it was like to be one of the first female students at Dartmouth College. Here's what it was like, at first:

"Classes begin, and once again Good Girl Gina sits up front. The American lit. professor appears to be a bulky, middle-aged, heavy-set, tweedy, standard-issue type. Wire-rim glasses perched on a long patrician nose, sparse white hair, broad chest, and deep voice all add to the sense that he's straight out of central casting. Gina feels this is what college is all about.

"Then the professor opens his mouth.

"He announces at the start, "My name is MANN, I am teaching a book about a sperm whale named Moby Dick. anybody who has a
problem with that can leave right now. I have been teaching here for thirty years and I am not about to change my ways because there might suddenly be in my classroom a delicate flower whose feminine sensibilities I might offend." He pauses, and walks over to a large, beefy guy in the first row and puts his hand on the young man's shoulder. "And I'm not referring only to Pemberton here, either, although he is known to be sensitive."

"Applause breaks out, whoops and hollers...

"Gina buries herself as far as possible into her seat. How can you be a Good Girl in a place that doesn't want any kind of girl whatsoever?"

Barreca was from a working class family in Brooklyn; being female wasn't the only, or even the most difficult, barrier she faced. But it was the trait that she found could be turned to her advantage, the one that she finally derived her identity from. She has a great voice. Here is what she wrote recently when she found that her column was being dropped from the Hartford Courant: "Long Cool Woman in a Pink Slip" It ends, "I hope I won't be out of circulation long." And I'm sure she won't.

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