Yes, All Women: Cultural Misogyny from a Writer’s Perspective

First off, if you are somehow on the internet and not yet aware of the #YesAllWomen phenomenon going on over on Twitter, then you need to check it out. If you’re a woman, you will probably feel some combination of depressed, heartened, proud, scared, and totally unsurprised by the stories being shared. If you’re a man, especially a man who wants to think of himself as a good guy, as a feminist ally, as someone trustworthy, then you need to go read, absorb, learn, and resist the temptation to put your two cents in.

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I have a lot of thoughts on this. A lot. It’s certainly no secret that I am an outspoken feminist, and this issue is one that cuts deep. It would at any time, but after the UCSB tragedy, after the girl who got stabbed to death when she wouldn’t go with a guy to prom, after the girl who got kicked out of her prom because her dress was considered impure by a bunch of gross fathers… it’s particularly timely.

I was ten years old the first time I feared for my safety because of sexual aggression from men. Boys, really — they probably weren’t much older than 16 or 17. But I was 10 years old, walking my dog, and they were following me in their car and shouting things I didn’t even understand yet. They circled back around again and again, until I, terrified, took a shortcut between several backyards to get home. I didn’t tell my father, because I was afraid he’d hunt them down with a gun.

It started when I was ten. It has not stopped.

I have friends who have been raped. I have friends who have narrowly escaped rape. I have friends who’ve been physically assaulted. I have been physically assaulted. I have been emotionally abused. I have friends who have been abused. I have friends who have been followed by men, on the street, in cars, in hallways, in hotels, in dorms, in museums, in libraries. I have friends who have had to resort to physical violence when men wouldn’t take the message. I don’t think I have a single female friend who doesn’t have a story about a time a man made her feel unsafe.

So I have a lot of feelings.

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I’m also a writer. So I think about this issue as it pertains to storytelling.

And just as an exercise in that, it’s enormously powerful. The stories being told on that hashtag are emotionally moving — some are so sad, some are enraging, some are empowering, but they’re all getting my heart rate up. And as depressing as the stories are, as hard as they can be to read — particularly when the stream just keeps throttling, when the tales of misery and fear just. keep. coming. — it also makes me proud, and happy in a perverse, backwards sort of way. Because women so often feel silenced. Women don’t always get the space and the attention to tell their stories — and there are plenty of people out there trying to take this one away, to shame and silence what’s happening. (A note: If you’re a man arguing against this hashtag, you are part of the problem. If you’re a woman decrying it and claiming to be “not like those others”, you have some internalized misogyny that needs examining).

But I’m also a writer of fiction. So I’m thinking about that as well.

Media perpetuates these problems, but it can fight them, too — if done right. Some media tries and fails. Some — a lot — doesn’t try at all. And some stories — generally those told about women, by women, for women — succeed, at least in some measure. We can fight through stories. We can tell our own, we can tell each other’s, we can tell imagined stories that illustrate the reality.

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I write fantasy and science fiction. When I write fantasy, it’s generally historical fantasy — but that means AUs, which means I could change any rules I want. And in futuristic sci-fi, you get to make it all up anyway. So could I write a world without misogyny? Could I write a world where women felt safe in public? Where sexual violence was not the first threat an opponent would think to make? Where it wasn’t something women just expected to have to guard against?

I don’t think I could. Because I wouldn’t believe it.

I have to believe what I write in order for the story to work. Not in a literal way, but in the “things need not have happened to be true” sort of way.

And while I can believe in the possibility of elemental magic, of starships and moving through dark matter, of alien races and alternate words, of the dominos effect in history that could create a whole new reality… the misogyny of the world that I live in  is so ingrained that I don’t know that my imagination stretches far enough to undo it. I can hope for it, but not really believe in it, and that would out in the writing.

And I doubt my readers — at least, my female readers — would be able to believe in it, either.

There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend.

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Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.

On David Gilmour

Just a quick note regarding the ongoing David “I only teach real manly manly men, no homos, no lady bits, you understand?” Gilmour controversy — this post by Anne Thériault is one of the best things I’ve read on it so far. So go read it.

Because the thing is, if you’re not a cis white straight male, you are constantly expected not just to expose yourself to, but to immerse yourself in media that is not about you, not written by someone like you, not written for your experience. Gilmour’s flat-out refusal to examine any experience other than his own (and his promotion of that viewpoint to his students) is, well, a lot of what I feel is wrong with modern culture, really. Our world needs a greater degree of empathy and a greater capacity for divergent thinking. Gilmour — and the many, many others like him who deserve but aren’t receiving equal castigation — have a lesson to learn about that.