I've been in some mindbending conversations lately about feminism and Joanna Russ and that has encouraged me to continue reading. I find reading hard because I find finding time to read hard. So the reading I am doing on Joanna Russ feels really precious.
And then I read this week the first two chapters of "How to Suppress Women's Writing". The first is titled "Prohibition" and is about all the ways that groups of people can be prevented from participating by denying them the time to create. A couple of things stood out about this chapter for me. The first is that almost all the examples were several decades old from when Russ wrote the book which is again several decades ago. That makes many of the arguments feel less than current or perhaps easily knocked back with "but now we've had the feminist movement, it's not like that". And with no newer examples, it's hard to know whether that is an artifact of history that we can solemnly observe or whether it's something to scout out for now.
There were some interesting things in this chapter that stood out for me. The first was that it never occurred to me that Marie Curie was anything other than a full time researcher/scientist. And that that never occurred to me is kind of fascinating too. I was jolted out of the book to contemplate the idea of forging a career in science only after one has shopping, cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. And how bloody hard that would make the thinking about science and how tired you would be and therefore how committed you would have to be to persevere. And then I got a little angry at Pierre Curie there for a bit.
I also thought about the recent discussions that were on lj a couple of weeks ago about juggling expectations with writing - notably cassiphone, Writing While the House is Messy:
I spend huge amounts of mental energy justifying time to myself. Allowing myself to feel okay about the things I do, and not beating myself up about taking that time away from other things. It is easier to balance these thoughts right now because a) I am being paid for my writing, thus it is a job and can reasonably be prioritised and b) I am caring for a five month old baby which means I am able to tell myself that anything I manage to contribute to the household beyond that is a bonus, not a necessity. Other years have been much harder for me to justify the amount of time/energy I put into the writing life above and beyond my family’s needs.
Also, Rachel Swirsky, "We know he's busy, but why didn't she clean the house?" thoughts on challenges faced by female writers:
There are any number of ways that systemic sexism interferes with women’s careers, but one of the most direct is time. Time spent on housework is time not spent on writing. Time spent on hair and clothes and makeup is time not spent on writing. If women put in more of this time (and overall in America, they do), then that’s fewer woman-hours that are available for writing stories. When we start to address unequal representation in magazines, it’s important to ask questions on the editorial level, the content level, the submissions level, and so on — but it’s also important to interrogate the gendered ways in which sexism blocks opportunities for writing to occur in the first place.
And more at Jeff Vandermeer's blog, Gender Roles and Writing. Ann Vandermeer comments:
There are definitely more societal expectations on women for household responsibilities, regardless of how far we may have come. I work a very demanding job outside the home, in addition to my volunteer work and editing/publishing projects. My husband works at home all day. And yet if our home isn’t kept clean and beautiful, if the yard is a mess, people tend to look askance at me, not even considering this is also Jeff’s responsibility.
If a woman supports her husband’s writing career, it’s expected, because traditionally a woman is SUPPOSED to support her man. However, when a man supports his wife’s writing, some look at it as a HUGH sacrifice and a favor and oh, what a great guy he is…blah blah blah. I am waiting for the day when both men and women who support their creative spouses get the credit due them..
Which actually all provide some interesting newer quotes for the chapter of Russ's. Maybe not so totally out of date after all.
In contrast, Charlotte Bronte is quoted on the subject as having said in 1837:
I carefully avoid any appearance or pre-occupation and eccentricity... I have endeavored not only attentively to observe the duties a woman ought to fulfill but to feel deeply interested in them. I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself.
It's an interesting thought ... instead of deciding that less women submit to SF magazines because they don't read or write SF, perhaps there are other reasons afoot. Personally I am most amused by Bronte's quote in the implication that not only are women not supposed to be writing but doing their "womanly duties", they're also supposed to be enthralled with such duties. Excuse me if I find floor washing and underpants rinsing banal.
I liked this quote by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea who in 1661 (and who was wealthy and had an understanding husband) said:
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
That fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
Chapter 2 is called "Bad Faith" and is short but highly pertinent to many discussions we've been in lately. It refers to what Jean Paul Sartre called "bad faith" - To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realise that one's making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what these advantages are (and who hasn't got them), to accept mystifications because they're customary and comfortable, cooking one's mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behavior as if it were actively moral behavior, to know that one doesn't know, to prefer not to know, to defend one's status as already knowing with half-sincere, half-selfish passion as "objectivity' - this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith.
Essentially in this chapter Russ talks about not direct, conspiratorial racism and sexism but the kind that comes about through cultural conditioning. She talks about how we can't all reinvent the culture in which we live, that we must accept large chunks of it as it comes. She says:
At the level of the high culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is far from neutral. To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one's class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.
I really enjoyed this chapter. I shouted YES at almost every sentence and it made me feel better because I didn't feel alone. Like what I have been discussing here on this blog, is not just me or us. That that the real problem (in the gender disparity in SF) isn't the outright overt sexism and racism, it's the embedded cultural, hidden biases.
Until next time, I'll finish with, I'd love to discuss this material but I will not be participating in any threads that lead back into Feminism 101 territory as per this blog post here - No More Feminism 101 Here