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An Emotional Conference on Women, Myth

November 13, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

Surely few conferences convened in academe--after a familiar format of scholars delivering papers, moderators fielding questions and comments from the audience--are the emotional workout that the one held by UCLA'S Center for the Study of Women was last weekend.

It set out to be a conference. It wound up a happening.

"The Dark Madonna: Women, Culture and Community Rituals" was the theme of this first public effort of the newly established center, approved in 1984 as an interdisciplinary organized research unit of the university.

Response Called Overwhelming

Partial funding was obtained from the California Council for the Humanities, the flyers went out and, to the organizers' surprise, the response was overwhelming. As people began arriving at Dickson Auditorium Friday evening, Karen Rowe, center director, said more than 600 had pre-registered. More overwhelming, however, was the response of those intrigued, excited people at the opening session. It was a diverse group of all colors, cultures, ages, religions, sexes and sexual persuasions and life styles that had been drawn to the topic.

For a few tense moments at the close of that session, it seemed the whole innovative effort would end prematurely in a shambles, or as one man walking out declared, "a sad blunder."

The brochure had promised the following: "In mythic images of women, we see ourselves reflected. The Dark Madonna symposium will identify goddesses and madonnas from different times and cultures, particularly figures representing women of color. Speakers will consider the origins and transformations of spiritual images of women, the community rituals that celebrate their powers, and the contemporary meanings of female icons in multi-ethnic cultures and in women's lives." Next to the printed message, a logo of a Negroid-featured Madonna and child.

Speakers Tackle Racism

Imagine the audience's surprise then, and discomfort, and consternation as the speakers at the opening session turned out to be six white women whose presentations contained either no reference to the Dark Madonna or tangential ones at best. Considerable reference was made, however, to racism in U.S. society and some of these women's struggles in coming to terms with it.

The evening focused on the political uses of art by women, specifically within the context of the 19th-Century U.S. suffrage movement and the re-emergence of the women's movement in the '60s. Scholars read papers and showed slides of women, mostly upper-middle class, liberal or iconoclastic white women, engaging in rituals, tableaux, pageants and, in later times, performance art.

There was a reason for this: The symposium was conceived as part of a project the center is engaged in, which will culminate in the spring with performance art directed by feminist artist Suzanne Lacy in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden on campus.

Between the symposium and the performance, the center, and some on-and-off campus co-sponsors, will conduct small group discussions where women will explore women's relationships across racial and ethnic barriers. There was mention of this near the bottom of the brochure, but most arrived unaware of any larger context and it was not fully explained until Saturday when Friday's blow-up required a response.

On Friday night, the first to pose a question from the audience was Esther Broner, a writer from Wayne State University who would speak the following day on modern rituals, especially women's adaptations of Jewish rituals.

Describing herself as a little confused, she asked why there had been no mention of black women. Were there no rituals, or pageants or tableaux they had participated in?

"I hunger for this knowledge," she said.

"Well, God bless you ma'am. God bless you," a black man seated behind her spoke out.

Indeed, a panelist answered, there had been black pageants put on by churches, camps and women's clubs.

Next, a Latina stood and spoke up: "I drove a long ways to get here. I was very excited about learning about the Dark Madonna and the opening session has six white women up there."

Looking somewhat stunned at the direction things seemed to be taking, Karen Rowe answered that there had been no attempt to balance each session, but to balance the conference as a whole. She pleaded, as did the others, that they not be judged by one session. There would be much discussion of women of color, just as there would be panelists of all races.

From a white woman: "Is this really going to be about white women's pain in dealing with racism? I mean, is that why we're here?"

The audience was not through: Charges ranged from one outraged black man who took everyone to task for leaving out reference to the Catholic Church, "the treasurer of the black Madonna," to the incensed response from a goddess worshiper from a local coven who shouted across the room that the church had co-opted that image to oppress women.

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