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Kim Farleigh

EXTENDING PRIVILEGES

Ladies in the Garden by Cecilio Pla

A black, iron fence against a half-metre-high hedge surrounded a garden whose sole statue commemorated Spain’s first female university student. The statue’s bowed head of tied up hair, and its body-length robe of flowing folds suggested hard-fought-for erudition.

Three women and two men on a guided walk faced the statue. One of the women was a thirty-six-year-old industrial engineer who spoke four languages, her black-framed glasses highlighting her white skin, black and white magnifying each other, a freckle archipelago upon the shoals of her cheeks, her ankle-length dress, tied in at the waist, emphasising her boomerang curves that boomeranged before men’s eyes.

A wooden bench faced the statue. The guide said: “This will take at least ten minutes. Sit on the bench if you like.”

The three women raced to the bench.

The guide said: “She wasn’t allowed to study with men. A teacher had to take her to a separate room and lock the room’s door to keep her inside.”

Two of the women gasped. The engineer didn’t. She was studying WhatsApp. The guide didn’t look offended. He earnt the same whether people listened or not. The gaspers occupied one half of the bench, almost touching, the engineer in the middle of the bench’s other half.

One of the men stood beside the engineer. The guide continued: “She worked to ensure that women could get an education and have the same opportunities as men. She wanted women to stop being submissive to their husbands. She became the first woman to be accepted into the legendary arts and business society, El Ateneo, and the first woman to work as a university lecturer in Spain and one of this country’s first female novelists.”

The guide read an exchange, written by the legendary woman, between a man and a woman, the woman demanding equal rights, the man saying: “Impossible!” His contemporaries would have called him an insane maverick for supporting such rights.

“Impossible?!” the woman screamed. “Isn’t this supposed to be the age of equal rights?”

That age will never exist, the man beside the guide thought. Power maintains power to get more from less.

The seated women shunned sharing comfort. Having a rotation system where everyone took turns standing never entered their heads. Why should it have? The men were irrelevant.

The legendary woman’s busy social life with aristocrats and politicians (“She was a countess,” the guide said) had given her many more opportunities than most people will ever have. The man beside the guide moved to ease his backache. He couldn’t stand for long without his back aching. The other man, finally bending down, whispered to the engineer: “Can I…….?” His voice was almost undetectable. He didn’t want to highlight the engineer’s obliviousness. Her head shot up when realising her thoughtlessness. She moved so the man could sit. Will this teach her anything? Backache Man wondered. Probably not. Nature guarantees that she can satisfy her needs easily. Any punishment she may receive would be so limited it would have no impact on her thinking, other than to assume that others were demented.

The guide said: “She advocated positivism. Positivism purported that the only authentic knowledge was scientific knowledge, knowledge only obtained through empiricism or the scientific method. This paralleled her belief in naturalism, an artistic style based on realism that permitted scientists to study people as if they were also objects, like other living creatures.”

Research was what the Backache Man did naturally. It’s the one choice we all have. And being one of the few choices he had, he engaged in it. What choice did he have, but to engage in one of the few choices available to him?

“She exposed society’s contradictions in her works,” the guide added, “and the arrogance that demanded that people only marry within their class.”

The standing man put his left foot forward and arched his back. Changing positions reduced pain, so he changed positions regularly. Sitting had become a luxury, his satisfaction scale minute in comparison to the engineer’s. A passing pedestrian was asked to photograph the group under a sign that said: The Garden of Feminists. Had the statue’s inspirer witnessed the bench events she may have had a more subtle vision. And who believes in equal rights? Backache Man thought. We believe in extending our privileges. Not giving them to others. Some people naturally have more chance of doing that than others. Things now are really naturalistic.

* * *

Following behind the guide and the three women to the Metro, the two men resembled useless appendages hanging off power’s hierarchy. The engineer’s buttocks crashed into her cotton dress, each thump making Backache Man think: “Those buttocks are privilege-giving powerhouses.”

Equal opportunities? he then thought. How can they exist when some people can connect desire with opportunity, while others have no choice but to connect it with probable frustration?

At the Metro, the women went their separate ways. The two men entered the Metro to catch different trains. Before parting, Backache Man asked the other: “Have you ever met a real feminist?” The other man’s chin rose. That man’s smooth, tanned skin indicated that his hair had turned grey prematurely.

“Maybe,” he replied. “But I can’t think of anyone at the moment. And you?”

“One of my grandmothers. She used to point out how some types of legislation were unfair towards men.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Apart from her, I can’t think of anyone else.”

“Now, in Spain, because of economic differences, people don’t have equal access to education.”

“How many rich women have you heard complain about that?”

The man with the smooth, brown face smiled like a spotlight.

“Maybe your grandmother would have complained about that,” he said.

“She definitely would have. Maybe she’s a dying breed in a world that loves privileges?”

When Backache Man’s train began slowing down to stop, he moved to where he predicted a door would open, getting there just before a woman who had raced towards the door from the opposite direction. He was training himself to not let his gentlemanly upbringing give women undue advantages. After all, they believed in equal rights. The woman, who had flown towards him from the other direction, had demonstrated by her speed that there was nothing wrong with her physically and that therefore that no extra consideration should have been shown towards her. She had tried to reach the door before him and had lost; but she hadn’t given up trying to enter the carriage before him to grab a seat. She thrust her left arm in front of him to press the button that opened the door. She had seen that door, therefore she believed it was hers. He, however, didn’t agree. She had to pull her arm out of the way as he entered the carriage. He got the only available seat. She stared at him as she walked by, trying to induce guilt. He stared back. She looked away, the first time he had felt proud, instead of contrite, for beating a woman to a seat.

Welcome, he thought, to equal rights.

 

About the writer:
Kim Farleigh has worked for NGO’s in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He takes risks to get the experience necessary for writing. He also likes painting, art, bullfighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. He has received 224 acceptances from over 100 different literary magazines.

Image: Ladies in the Garden by Cecilio Pla (1860-1934). Oil on canvas. 16.5 x 26.1 inches. Circa 1910. Public domain.

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