03: Ruth Peyser
illustrator and filmmaker
Ruth Peyser is a graphic and web designer, filmmaker, and illustrator living in New York City. She graduated from Sydney College of the Arts (Australia) in Graphic Design in 1977. In addition to her thoughtful and inventive approach to design, she has a vast knowledge of the latest technologies in web, print and video production. She is also an award winning animator. Her films have been shown on television and in film festivals both here and abroad.
Elena Mudd is a New York based visual artist, specializing in photography and video.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on August 15, 2016, in Ruth's Manhattan apartment. Elena Mudd photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
RUTH: My experience of girlhood was very much fashioned because of the era I grew up in, the place I grew up in, and the dysfunctional family I grew up in. And this is not a happy story, but I grew up in Australia, in Sydney, and I had refugee parents. Immigrants. It was the second World War, and my mother and her family escaped. She came from Vienna. She escaped in 1939, and my father was from Berlin, so they saw terrible things, and they had to start a life. I was born in a very sort of WASP-ish, white country. When I was born in Australia the immigration policy was called the White Australia Policy. It's pretty straight out, huh? Pretty amazing.
My father left my mother when I was about three, and I had a brother who's four years older. They had a horrible marriage. He fell in love with another woman, and my mother was terribly bitter about it. We weren't allowed to mention his name in our family. She subsequently married three more times over the years. My mother was not very emotionally intelligent or self-aware. And they didn't have much money, so she went out to work. And this whole situation affected my brother very badly, too. He was very angry, having our father (who was a funny guy) leaving, my mother refusing us any communication with him, and my mother was the responsible, serious, not-fun one. (These are, of course, the impressions I'm left with.) So [my brother] became my caregiver, and he was my best playmate, and he was also really abusive. Not sexually, but he physically beat me up, and when you're in fear of someone and they're your best friend, it puts you in a very bad place as a girl having an older male treat you like this.
We were both very sporty and athletic, so I was a tomboy, and that made me even a little bit of an outcast, too, because I wasn't a girly-girl. And even though my mother was this strong woman who earned money, she would say "All I ever wanted to be was a housewife," and she'd be very meek, so I had these conflicting messages being sent towards me. I had an unusual family, because I was the only kid in my school who had a single mum, and that made me very uncomfortable. I was the odd kid. We had no money —my mother sent me to a school in a rich neighborhood because it was better academically— so I was the poor kid and dressed very differently from everyone else. And also my relationship with my brother and not having a father around really set up not a very good understanding of how to relate to men in a natural way. It also made me strong.
When I became a young teenager I got into being really sexy and overly flirtatious, and my rebellion was smoking weed and drinking, and I was very into older men…what a surprise. I can't say I was completely promiscuous, because I would make out, but I would not go all the way, which is so crazy, and frustrated a lot of these men. I didn't know how to say no sometimes, and it was a very sort of mixed up childhood in an era where there was no support system. There wasn't stuff being written about a woman's role in society, and by the time I was in my mid-teens, there was the whole women's liberation, but it was in a very undeveloped way. It was burning your bras and wearing more comfortable clothes, not having to wear makeup, and [being] very natural. Having "free love" and all of this, but again, it seems archaic compared to how women examine their role in society nowadays.
SOPHIA: Can you talk about your big trip to the '89 women's march?
RUTH: Oh wow, yeah. That was so amazing. Roe v. Wade was being threatened in 1989, and I was pregnant with my first kid. I've always been, even when I was a sexy teenager—
RUTH: I was always very committed to feminism. I know that's a word which has strange connotations nowadays, but you know what I mean. It wasn't until I was sixteen that abortion was actually legal, so imagine that. I was already a sexually active young woman, and that was the only thing my mother actually understood in a progressive way —that teenagers will be sexually active. She had me on the pill, and she always said, "If you accidentally get pregnant, tell me, and I will find a way to help you." It was really amazing. I remember there was a doctor who performed abortions in Sydney who got caught while it was still illegal and it was a huge scandal. I can't remember how many years he had to spend in jail. When you live that way, it's very real. So of course even if it [isn’t real to you], hopefully people have an understanding that if you lose a right to get an abortion, what that will do to women's lives.
So my husband and I and a couple of friends drove down to the march, and I was extremely pregnant, and [we were] carrying these signs. And it was a huge march. I think it was one of the biggest ever in Washington at the time. And [there were] people of all different ages, races, men and women. It was an amazing feeling. I think the thing about it, too, when you go to something like that —and I think something I had back then and have lost now— is a feeling of hope, that you can participate in something like this and it will actually affect policy. When you get to a certain age and you've actually gone out there, and you know…I protested the Vietnam War in the late 60s, I took my two little girls on a freezing cold day to protest the potential invasion of Iraq in what was it, 2003? And it was fucking cold that day and there were cops on horseback…the crowds were huge. It was scary. But you go to these things and see the passion that people had to protest something that they believe in so strongly, and their care [for] other people, and then ultimately seeing what little effect it has. Back then that march was fantastic, being pregnant and we're all very optimistic, and [now] they’ve eroded Roe v. Wade but it's still there, but [I'm] overall seeing how things just keep going around in circles. I think when I was younger I believed in progress, and it's really disheartening now —it's not only with war and everything, but how even in our society how the right to an abortion can be threatened. People even protest women getting free contraception... [exasperated shrugging motion]
RUTH: I just don't understand women, especially women who've had children, who could even think that if a woman —even at the most extreme level, if a woman gets raped— that she doesn't have a right to an abortion. Or if it's a sexually active fourteen or fifteen year old who doesn't know what the hell they're doing because they haven't had any education in terms of contraception and they get pregnant, what that will do to their lives. Just generally I think the idea of feeling that you're not alone in these things that you really passionately believe in is the most powerful experience in terms of a protest, but as I said I'm a little disillusioned now about how to affect change.
SOPHIA: What female artists have been important to you, especially in your early New York years?
RUTH: Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, they were all making fantastic statements. It took me a while to appreciate Cindy Sherman's work, and now I do very much because of the [way it addressed] stereotyping, and she does them beautifully. In my young years in New York, art was important, and I did see lots of art shows, but I was really also into the music scene, and there was this scene called No Wave where you didn't have to have any skill to play an instrument, but the fun part was if you play it enough you develop some kind of style. If you play in a band you really have to listen, and that's an interesting thing about that music and also improvised music. Within your musical limitations, you have to be able to work with other people. In terms of that scene, there were mostly guys but there were also a lot of women. The one band that was all women that I loved...Y Pants.
RUTH: Did you ever hear Y Pants?
RUTH: I should send you their CD, they were great. And there was some visual art as a part of that, too. And the woman who has something at MoMA now, and I knew some of the people that lived in the loft? Nan Goldin. So she also bartended up at Tin Pan Alley, which was a woman-run bar on west 48th street. This great woman called Maggie who wasn't an artist herself but ran this bar, which was a really cool place, and she had people like Nan work there, she would book the bands I played in and be very supportive of women. It was a great scene.
And part of the scene at the time was not having that ambition to become famous. [It was] so much a part of my personality, because even though I think I'm outspoken and I have strong views, I always have this underlying insecurity and self-doubt. And that's useful to a point, but it can hold you back, too. There was a performer called Karen Finley: she did outrageous things, like her big thing was sticking a yam, I think, up her vagina? And she was part of the [NEA Four]. [Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller] were so outrageous that they were discussed in Congress, who defunded that grant-giving organization, because [the NEA] funded such outrageous art. It was a really interesting time.
SOPHIA: Can you speak further about the period after your daughters were born and before they were teenagers in which you basically had to stop making art?
RUTH: I was so exhausted that for a while it was a shock when I had my older daughter. I didn't realize how much motherhood would involve me giving so much up. The one thing that I kept up is this martial art that I do called Aikido. There were classes, so there's no self-discipline involved. All you have to do is get yourself there, and you do it, whereas when you do your own artwork, it's not just the time you spend doing it, you need a certain amount of headspace, you know? So I accepted [not being able to make art] for a while. I didn't think I'd ever have a second child. My first daughter is just so willful and demanding, and because I only had one kid I was placing all this attention on her, and I did not know how to [alter] that, so I thought "Maybe I should have two kids. It will be a much healthier relationship for all of us." Which I did, and it was a good idea. They became very close and good playmates.
But the guy I was married to and I were not getting along, I mean it was clearly falling apart, and when we split up, he had a job in Washington and I didn't want to move, so he was living down there and I did most of the childcare. It wasn't something I expected when I had kids —that I would be a single parent. He was pretty good in that he would come up almost every weekend, but I was just too exhausted to do anything but have some time to myself or see friends. I got used to not doing art.
I was good friends with one of the Hispanic families, and when I was pregnant with my second daughter and I was thirty-nine, the fifteen year old was also pregnant with a child, so we sort of bonded and gave birth within a month of each other. It's this sort of commonality —a child having a child, and a woman who's too old to have children having a child, with completely different culture. I mean, you're nineteen or twenty, right?
SOPHIA: I'm nineteen.
RUTH: It's really hard. I think people don't know what's involved in having a child, and how it changes your life. I think most of us —and I did, too, even though I had friends who had babies— had this romantic ideal about cute little babies, and they might keep you up at night, but [before you have them] you don't understand how irrational children are. There's always this underlying power struggle; children are very willful, and they know how to push your buttons, and it's an incredible emotional education. You can get buried by it and become enraged, which we all do, or you can learn from it. I don't think I was grown up until I had kids, in a way, and I had them in my thirties, so I can't imagine how younger people manage on an emotional level unless they have a lot of support around, or they're incredibly mature.
SOPHIA: Even then, your brain isn't mature until you're like twenty, but for people a couple hundred years ago, [having children at that age] was completely normal. I wonder what that was like. I have no idea...
RUTH: But they lived in communities, I think, back then. So it wasn't all on one person. We're very isolated when it comes to having children, and you're the age of my children or even a little younger, but when I was brought up, our parents didn't over-parent us. If anything they just said "Be quiet," you know, and it was more discipline. And I think my generation of parents has over-parented tremendously. You know, there's competition to get in schools, they want their kids to be the smartest, children are always supervised, you know? And I've seen so many people, and to a degree even myself...you have a kid, and it consumes your life and you give up a lot of the things you have enjoyed doing because you don't have the time or the energy, and your focus just...jzzzoop! —goes too much into those children. And that where all the terms helicopter parents and everything sort of come in.
My art project was learning how to be a parent and bringing up these kids, and in the back of my mind I was always scared. "What will I do? Expressing my ideas through my work has always been important, and will I ever get it back?" But I did. Bringing up my kids brought up a lot of things from when I was a child, and I started writing stories that I remembered, and when I had some time and some headspace and they were teenagers, that developed into something. So in terms of not doing my own work, I think I came to terms with that pretty well, because I kept doing Aikido, and I've done that for thirty-six years now.
SOPHIA: Feel free to speak about that!
RUTH: Any martial art is a male-dominated space. I went in there wanting to be equal and compete with the men even though my body size is about half theirs, plus even though they're really nice, the sexism on the mat is guys always need to tell the women how to do things right.
RUTH: They either throw them too hard, throw them too soft —it’s a martial art where you work in partners and throw each other. And frequently, guys who haven't been there as long as you feel that they can show you how to do it better. You have to deal with them equally physically, and when you have a smaller body size, it takes a long time to get the skill so you can. Now I've been teaching there for years, and I'm older, and guys don't really mess with me for those reasons. Hopefully part of it is that they respect what I do, but I do watch how the younger women have to deal with a very similar thing. It’s really interesting in examining it as a microcosm of how women have to survive in society outside of it, but the other thing that really interests me is how women feel about themselves when they have physical strength. Like I feel completely different, and I have a different level of confidence —whether I’m walking down the street and it's 2:00am, or just how I interact with people. It is not separate. If you feel physically threatened because you don't have any physical power, it affects how you interact with people generally. I think it's really important for women to develop their bodies, and I started doing this in 1980 where it was an oddball thing to do, and fitness is huge now.
SOPHIA: How did becoming and being a mother change your ideas of what it was to be a woman?
RUTH: Really alarmingly quite large in realizing that no matter what kind of role model you are as a parent…like I do wear dresses sometimes, but I'm just a jeans and tee shirt kind of person, and being a single mom, I was doing everything in terms of being able to cope with my family, with my income, with the world. I think the way I interact with men is not in this sort of stereotypically girly flirty way or anything, so I thought as a role model, it would affect my kids, but when they were growing up, it didn't. They were little girls, they liked their dolls, when they became teenagers, they just got into, you know, whatever they're seeing on TV or on the internet or whatever. They're just so malleable! They will just fall for a trend! And it was pretty shocking to me to watch my kids behaving in a certain way because of what they got in the media and social pressure. They went to pretty progressive schools and everything, they did classes on feminism, but still the way they interacted in the world was pretty much dictated by social pressure. Now that they're adults I'm super proud of them; they've grown into really wonderfully competent outspoken young women. Again, you wouldn't use "feminism" because it's just who they are. But me as a parent, I [couldn’t] really lecture them. I might have a discussion with them, but it's just letting them be who they are and discover the world themselves. It was hard because watching a lot of the stuff that they did, it was like, "Oh no! No! It's me all over again!" Because as I described what I was as a child, I did it, too! I just thought in this much more enlightened city —I’m not going to say world— but this city, and because of their schools that that wouldn't happen, but there's still something that's so powerful about the message that the media and people trying to sell them things inflict on not only our girls, but our boys, too! It's so detrimental, and that's really, again, just a little disheartening.
On a personal level, I learned in a way not to reprimand or shove my ideas down people's throats. I think a part of my process of growing older is really learning how to listen and not be telling people what to do or judging them, which is so much my nature 'cause that's what I grew up with. I grew up in a family…Donald Trump keeps reminding me of my family.
RUTH: They never apologized. They always had to prove they were right. Even if they came up with the most ludicrous idea about something, they could never backtrack and apologize. That's what I came from, and that's really what I was when I was younger, and it's taken me many years to try and naturally let a lot of that go, and I thought giving my own kids a healthier (hopefully), emotional environment would prevent that. I mean, it prevented things like not being able to apologize, but certainly they had to have their own [developmental] process. I learned on a personal level that the best way to influence people is to listen to them and respect their ideas, which are the sort of things I didn't have in my emotional education.
SOPHIA: What do you feel women in the world need or can do for each other right now?
RUTH: That is such a tough one because the world is such a mixed up place. In this country and the world with the sort of clash of religions...though I sort of see it as all the same in that an ultra-conservative evangelical Christian will subjugate women in a parallel way that maybe, a very rigid Muslim family would, but what can we do for each other...again, I mean I'll sort of go back to what I said, [which] is not to judge things like wearing a headscarf or something is wrong for women to do, you sort of need to go further and accept that people have different beliefs, and when you're trying to communicate with women, to make it...I don't know what women in the world can do for each other. This is going to be a really mixed up answer. It’s one thing, in this country….it’s a tough one right now because everyone’s so polarized. You can have great conversations with people you agree with but then you’re sort of preaching to the choir, which is what Facebook does in a way. But how to bridge that gap...What we can do for each other when you have similar ideas is to support each other, like one of my clients is a reproductive health organization, so what they do is go to different parts of the country, and they set up family care, teach practitioners how to perform abortions. They're trying to set up networks and send people to other parts of the country in order to help poorer women have access to contraception, where abortion's getting harder. Organizations like that can do fantastic things. Or Planned Parenthood, all the ones that are being sort of criticized.
With women, we're going back to trying to get them those basic reproductive rights, let alone sort of going to that next step of how they interact with men in society, like why do women get in abusive marriages and that kind of thing. It's so vast, and then you have the whole rest of the world with all these different culture clashes. I think maybe what we can all do for each other is create a world where there's a place for everyone and people aren't starving. Once people all have roofs over their heads and food to eat. I mean I'm going off here, but what the world can do for each other is take in refugees, the more humane you are to other people, the more humane I think they become, too. So it's really on that level at this point. It's hard to generalize as a group, and that's where I can really get depressed —when I think about the world. So then all I think about, is bringing myself back to as an individual, all I can do is what I can do in my own little world. Which is be a thoughtful, considerate person, and it's like being a parent and not arguing with people. Listen. Have conversations. The world is too overwhelming. There's too much inequity that I can't answer that question, really. [laughs]
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