Gender

Vanishing Women

Buckley 1911I was writing yesterday about Yoi Pawloska, also known as Yoi Maraini, a travel writer and free spirit who I became aware of because of a brief connection to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s literary executor and one of the main characters in my forthcoming Oscar’s Ghost.

Her connection to my story is a society scandal in which the young woman, then known as Edith Buckley, left her husband and two children after she fell in love with Coleridge Kennard. Robert Ross was one of the people who tried to intervene to prevent a larger scandal.

The young lovers did not marry, and after her divorce a broken-hearted Yoi traveled Europe and wrote the first of many books.  They received mostly positive reviews, albeit reviews that used feminine adjectives like “charming” which denote something other than seriousness. Was her work really more lightweight than that of the many male poets who populate the edges of Oscar Wilde’s narrative? She was more prolific than many, and also worked as a journalist interviewing Mussolini for the Saturday Review.

Her granddaughter, the Italian novelist Dacia Maraini, would one day write, “…after two generations, the silence about her was more tenacious than the desire to remember her. She was surrounded by an aura of scandal– a solitary traveller, and adulteress abandoning husband and children to follow the man she loved, but with whom she wasn’t able to build a family, remarried later to a man ten years her junior. Things our family did not speak much about. Actually, to tell the truth, we did not speak of them at all.”

There was no great desire to remember Yoi.

Today I was reading a book and a reference came up to Dame Hariette Chick. She lived from 1875 to 1977.  One of the leading microbiologists of her day, she was instrumental in finding a cure for rickets. I had that moment of surprise, that I always do, to learn of an accomplished professional woman from another era. Each time I discover a woman like this she stands out as exceptional and singular.

Why is that? A few weeks ago, I watched a program on our local PBS station about the Van Hoosen farm, near my home, and the sisters who eventually ran it. One of them was Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, a pioneering obstetrician.

I find myself wondering, how many “exceptions to the rule” do I have to encounter before I start to question whether “the rule” accurately reflects history?

Age and the Single Story

“The older, wise woman has rarely had a starring role in the American story, beyond grandma and her cookies.”

This line from a Washington Post story on Hillary Clinton struck me. I wanted to share it, even though at the moment I am on a tight deadline on my forthcoming book and won’t have time to comment at great length.

The Karate Kid goes to Mr. Miyagi. Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda. When it comes to mentors, there are all these guys.

Yet we have few narratives about women beyond beautiful object of longing and desire, and parent. Even that second role is limited. We have stories about perfect mothers, and occasionally villainous wicked step-mothers, but few dramatic parenting narratives.

What struck me in the Washington Post story is how deeply ingrained these assumptions about the role of women are. Because the very next sentence, after the one I quoted is this:

“Plenty has been said about the way American women feel invisible once they reach 60, or 50, or — gack — even 40 today. We live in a culture where gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal is being told she’s invisible before she’s out of her 30s.”

Note how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s relevance in her 30s is defended. She is “gorgeous.” Even while making the case that women can be sages, the author resorts to a “still sexy at sixty” framework. She should not be dismissed, because she is still attractive. These ideas run very deep.

 

See also: The Happy End: Male vs. Female.

 

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

Restroom Anxiety and Verbal Violence

“I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings— why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic. Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant.”-Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Perhaps I should see it as a rite of passage. I’ve often read about how often women who challenge men online suffer this kind of verbal abuse. I’ve managed to write on line for years and it was only a few days ago that it happened to me.

“I hope someone comes into the bathroom in a dress and rapes you.”

The crux of the argument, such as it is, was that I was not taking the issue of women’s bathroom safety seriously enough, whereas my male counterpart understood how dangerous and fraught it was to be in a women’s room. If I didn’t see it, well, then he hoped I would get a first hand demonstration so he would be proven right.

One particularly odd thing about this whole exchange is that I had been wondering out loud why men were not offended by a lot of the conversation surrounding transgender bathroom laws. All of the discussion seems to focus on the fear that a penis might be in the women’s room. It seems to me that the underlying premise here is that people with penises are rapists. I am surprised more men are not offended by this assumption. So “I hope you get raped” seems like a feeble answer, unless his point was “yes, we’re all rapists, here’s some verbal violence to make that clear.” Perhaps it was, but I don’t think so.

Actually, what set off the most angry part of the exchange had little to do with this. I had abandoned the whole transgender rights vs. safety frame. My simple question was whether the law as it was written would solve the problem it was designed ostensibly to solve. That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through. Does pointing this out mean I don’t care about safety? Well, my conversation partner felt so. I gather he had passionate feelings about safety.

I read an interesting story in the Atlantic a day or two after this happened.

In a study published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2012, Moore, along with Simon Breeze, observed 20 public toilets in London and Bristol, and interviewed the men and women who used them. She found that though both sexes had plenty of complaints, women’s were more about the cleanliness and quality of the facilities than anxiety about other occupants. They were more relaxed and social overall, chatting with strangers in line, watching doors for each other, sharing makeup.

Men, on the other hand, were on edge. Moore goes so far in the study as to say that for men, public toilets are “nightmarish spaces.” The anxiety they reported was centered around “watching”—being watched by other men, or being perceived to be watching other men—and that this watching was linked to the possibility of sexual violence.

The theory Moore lays out is that, in public, the gender hierarchy makes women the ones who are watched (under the “male gaze,” as it were). But in the bathroom, sans women, men worry about being the object of another man’s gaze, a feeling they don’t often confront in other places. This can make them fearful, even if there’s no real threat present.

This may explain why my male counterpart was much more spooked by this issue than I was when the danger is supposed to be in the women’s room. It seems it is the men who are really anxious, and they are projecting because it is more socially acceptable for them to make the case that women and children must be protected than to say that they are kind of freaked out.

If this is the real issue, maybe designing men’s rooms for more privacy is the answer.

 

 

 

 

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

Identity and Caitlyn Jenner

I’m sure you were wondering, “Yes, but what does Laura Lee have to say about Caitlyn Jenner.”

Several months before Caitlyn Jenner broke the Internet with a tweet about her Vanity Fair cover, a friend of mine, much more quietly, said goodbye to her old male identity. Although she had transitioned in her social life, she was still a man in her work life and decided to use her retirement as the opportunity to live entirely in her new identity. She wrote that she was surprised at the emotions she felt in letting that male self go. It felt like mourning a death, she said.

Most of us have some experience of transitioning from one “identity” to another, at least metaphorically. My first (unsuccessful and unpublished) novel was called “The Birth of What’s Living” an allusion to an Arlo Guthrie lyric “The death of what’s dead is the birth of what’s living.” At the time I was dealing with burning out on a career in radio, and giving up on the idea of myself as a radio announcer. People take on new identities when they marry, have children, change jobs, immigrate to a new country, change religion.

But it strikes me that we do not really consider any of these changes to be a complete change of personal identity in the way we view gender. We generally believe you can be one gender or the other but not both, and each is seen as an entirely different type of person from the other. There is the pronoun trouble that comes with gender ambiguity. The entire language is structured (although not as much as some other languages are) in a way that distinguishes male people from female people.

A change in gender involves a change in name because we have men’s names and women’s names. There are a few other life changes that also come with new names. Sometimes when people join different religious orders they adopt a new name to signal a change in identity. When a woman gets married she usually sheds her maiden name in favor of her husband’s. Yet we don’t really think of the married woman or the convert as being an entirely different person from what she was before.

In the video above and in the tweet announcing the media debutante ball, Jenner ends up talking about herself– both now and before– in the third person. “Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” The male Jenner and the female Jenner are presented as entirely different people. I can’t think of any other aspect of identity that is quite like that.

For that reason I have always found gender particularly interesting as a window into what an identity is in general. The etymology of the word “identity” is sameness or oneness and it refers to that which is continuous, the essence of an individual that remains the same throughout life. If this is truly the definition of identity then neither Bruce nor Caitlyn should be Jenner’s “identity.” The identity would be the unchanged. Yet identity really is a relationship between people. The community, at least a certain percentage of it, has to acknowledge the self you claim. Otherwise you’re considered mad.

So what is the essence of Caitlyn Jenner exactly and how can others recognize it? It is not simply a dress, a hair-style, a photo shoot, a new name.Yet those outer aspects are ways of demonstrating what she feels is that essence. We telegraph who we are through presentation and symbols constantly and largely without giving it a lot of conscious thought.

Those who are close to her would recognize the sameness of Jenner as Bruce and as Caitlyn more than people like me and you who view this stranger through the lens of the media. We are more impressed by the difference. Does it follow then that part of being an intimate friend is knowing someone’s true identity? (Or at least knowing a bit more of it than acquaintances do?)

When I went to look up the Jenner tweet in order to link to it, I couldn’t help but notice that the first comment at the moment comes from someone who wishes that Jenner would find Jesus Christ and turn away from the devil.  The commenter says that he/she will “keep praying” for Jenner. (This will not be the top comment by the time you read this, the responses are coming in so rapidly.)

I felt compelled to talk about this “I will pray for you” language. If you actually believe that someone needs God’s help and that prayer has the power to help– there is no reason to announce that you are praying.

Saying “I will pray for you” is a way for the person standing in judgment to continue to think of himself, and ostensibly to present himself,  as loving and concerned while the actual message he is conveying is “I am morally superior to you.”

My message to the commenter: Pray if you want. Pray silently.