An Interview with Sivan Butler-Rotholz
Sarah Marcus: You are the Contributing Editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be. I am a huge fan of this series and of the poets you choose to feature. What is your process for choosing featured work? What value do you see in giving voice to feminist work?
Sivan Butler-Rotholz: Thank you, Sarah. I am so happy to have you among my readers!
There are a variety of ways I select features for this series, but they all boil down to one thing: I read and engage with a lot of poetry. When I come across a poem or collection that speaks to me, that moves me, that is stunning or heartbreaking or exquisitely lyrical, I reach out to the poet to seek reprint permission.
I arrive at these poems in a variety of ways—by reading online journals, by attending poetry readings and literary gatherings, and by engaging with Facebook communities such Binders Full of Women Poets, Binders Full of Jew(ish) Writers, etc. The latter is where I have had the greatest opportunity to give voice to feminist work on this series. These #binders groups arose—in an act of reclamation of female strength and solidarity—in response to Mitt Romney's famous sexist quote at the 2012 presidential debate that he had "binders full of women." The women in these groups are kindred spirits—incredibly talented writers and artists who have come together to advocate for gender equality and celebrate the rich contributions that women can and do bring to this world.
My interest in women's voices and feminist discourse is pervasive. In addition to the incredibly talented #binders poets I have featured on the series, I always have an eye and an ear out for women's power, women's wisdom, and women's words. Howard Zinn writes that "what has transpired for the past thousands of years has been written, interpreted and told from a male-centered, patriarchal point of view." We are the inheritors of this legacy, which can be seen today in wage inequality, glass ceilings for female employees, underrepresentation in government, the war on reproductive rights, proscribed gender roles ("institutionalized gender normative bullshit," as Kirsten Clodfelter aptly named it), and much more. The value of giving voice to feminist work is that it both brings awareness to women's struggle for equality and creates a safe space to give voice to the historically voiceless.
SM: I have become pretty obsessed with Reviving Herstory, a website you founded that is devoted to bringing women's history to new light. Reviving Herstory explores biblical tales and the Near Eastern myths that inspired them. This project culls history, art, literature, and the modern world for women's voices, women's power, and women's words. Can you tell us how this project began and the role you hope for it to take in our greater literary community?
SBR: Reviving Herstory began when I started writing my first novel. I wanted a space where I could write about the same interests and themes that inspired the novel—biblical women's history, the shift from a polytheistic, matriarchal society to a monotheistic patriarchal society, and the writing and editing of the Bible that housed an agenda of diminishing women's power and influence. I was seeking a community of people who were also interested in exploring this rich history, and, in particular, in reviving the herstory within.
I hope Reviving Herstory becomes a place of beginnings for today's literary and online communities. A source to turn to to discover the other side of a history written by men. The women and ideas I write about are not new, but they have been too-long relegated to the sidelines. Many of my readers thank me for introducing them to women and concepts they had not previously known about. Reading Reviving Herstory should be an act of discovery, just as I have discovered these stories and concepts from my own intellectual forebears, be they biblical, feminist, historical, or otherwise.
SM: I have been especially gushing over one specific essay that you wrote and published on Reviving Herstory titled "The Dark Queen You Won't Meet in Sunday School." This essay challenges our perception of Eve and addresses the role of Lilith as the actual first woman created. You write, "If you didn't even know that Adam had a first wife, it's not your fault. Knowledge is power, and there are those who don't want you to have the kind of power that comes with knowing this woman's story." Can you elaborate on this concept? I am furious that she's been kept secret. I feel like this could have been a childhood game-changer!
SBR: Lilith epitomizes feminism, as she advocated for equality between the sexes. When she was given the choice between admitting she was inferior to her male counterpart and giving up paradise, she chose independence at all costs. But it is important to note that she did not believe herself superior to Adam. She sought and fought for gender equality. Nothing more. Is it any wonder she has become an icon of the feminist movement?
Historically, Lilith was not kept secret so much as demonized. As recently as the 19th century she was still well known in the Jewish community, but she was believed to be a demon capable of possession, of baby-killing, and of other lowly acts. In modernity she has been mostly lost to us due to a combination of factors. Old world superstitions have been left behind, while modern religion has not been quick to embrace this woman who challenges the idea that woman should be submissive to man.
I titled this piece "The Dark Queen You Won't Meet in Sunday School" because you won't learn about Lilith from today's traditional religious sources. Her story is not included in the Bible itself. Instead it arose from biblical scholars seeking to explain why the Bible appears to have two different versions of the creation of man and woman—first they are created side by side as equals, and then woman is created from man's rib. Because the story of Lilith as Adam's first wife is not included in the Bible itself, she is easy to ignore by religious educators. But that's a copout. The truth is, there are many powerful biblical women's stories that don't find their way into Sunday sermons or Friday night services. It simply doesn't serve the dominant (male, monotheistic) power to teach the flock that women have always been strong, independent, opinionated, powerful creatures capable of thinking for themselves and taking matters into their own hands. I agree wholeheartedly that knowing Lilith's story could have been a game-changer for countless young women and young men alike, and that, I would argue, is exactly why she has remained shrouded in mystery and excluded from mainstream education.
SM: How does history and inclusive feminism inform your own work? What can we look forward to seeing from you?
SBR: I am so glad you asked about inclusive feminism. At its core, feminism is the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. But feminists today rally around a lot more issues than equality between the sexes. Racism, classism, religious oppression, and human rights across the globe all intersect with the feminist movement. Of utmost importance to me when it comes to inclusive feminism is LGBTQ rights. When we say, as feminists, that we advocate for equality between the sexes, there is an implication that there are only two sexes, male and female. But that's just not the case. Feminists have a responsibility to embrace and advocate for our transgender community and for the LGBTQ community at large. Discrimination based on gender and sexuality needs to be done away with, regardless of who is being discriminated against on these grounds.
Inclusive feminism is a mantle I have picked up in my own work, from As It Ought To Be to Reviving Herstory to personal essays and beyond. Because of the nature of social media, on the Reviving Herstory Facebook Page, and on Twitter @RevivingHer, I have the opportunity to share and discuss a wide array of ideas beyond the original content I write for the RH Blog. This year for New York Fashion Week, for example, I created a "Transtory Fashion Week" campaign, where I highlighted the history of transgender fashion models. Recently I shared a post by Angela Davis on racism and police brutality. Inclusive feminism is about inclusion, and so we need to actively make space to discuss and share the issues that inherently intersect with the feminist movement and with our struggle for human rights.
History, of course, is at the core of my work. But herstory is a more accurate word because I am uniquely interested in the women's herstory that has been left out or minimized by the history of men. I was recently asked why I chose "herstory" rather than "ourstory." The answer is that we are working toward a balance, toward "ourstory." But to level the playing field we need to start by addressing the deficiency in women's history that has been created by the writers of history. History is written by the victors, and women have not, historically, been the victors. When the goal of feminism has been accomplished, when gender equality is a reality, then the discussion can shift to "ourstory." Until then, I'll be hard at work reviving herstory.
As for what you can look forward to seeing from me, I have a lot of irons in the fire. Reviving Herstory will continue putting out original content. There has been an outpouring of interest in Lilith, and a loud cry for more, so you can look forward to several more Lilith pieces in the coming year, and likely a Lilith ebook. Reviving Herstory will also begin welcoming guest bloggers, with different voices contributing their own unique interests and specializations to the discussion. There has even been talk of a video series, so vlogging herstory may be on the horizon. I am finishing the first of a series of three novels that center around a young woman living in the court of King David who wants to be a scribe at a time when only men are allowed to hold this office. The themes are central to women today, while the backdrop is a scandalous court of antiquity. Think Philippa Gregory meets Anita Diamant. And, of course, there will be poetry. Every Saturday on As It Ought To Be.
Sivan Butler-Rotholz is the founder of Reviving Herstory, editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be, and a columnist for iPinion. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and teaches creative writing, composition, and feminist biblical interpretation in New York City and abroad. Sivan's many hats include writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita.