When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, she extolled the virtues of the androgynous mind: the mind that sails on serenely, undistracted by circumstances, like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë and Jane Austen (of whom more anon). As an example to avoid, she chose Charlotte Brontë, who “had more genius in her than Jane Austen,” but whose rage makes her books “deformed and twisted.” Woolf continued:
“She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience. // One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism. // She was thinking of something other than the thing itself.”
About twenty years later, Virginia Woolf dared to express direct gender anger herself in her Three Guineas, her last non-fiction work before she committed suicide and her most political one. In it, she systematically deconstructs the patriarchal system one of whose apexes at that time was the Nazi regime. That book is universally deemed by male Woolf aficionados as “her sole major failure” because, well, it’s not up to the standards of detached “reason” they expect.
Women have only recently (and only in small pockets of the world) managed to attain quasi-human status. They managed to excel before that in dire contexts, even with Harrison Bergeron ankle weights and brain-noisemakers piled on them, if they had a modicum of free time, money or other niche privileges. So it’s really silly at best (and usually malicious) to ask “So, where are the outstanding women in X?” where X is any sphere that seems threatened by major girl cooties, from paradigm-shifting science to politics to “hard” SF. For one, there are always outstanding women in every X. For another, every X is mostly inhabited by mediocre and below-average men with nary an outcry.
Those who deem themselves extra clever in the Gotcha! department say that, according to statistics, women try less or get more easily discouraged, hence their lower status, fewer awards and thinner wallets. However, there is one aspect of this that’s valid, and related to Woolf’s observation. Women indeed have fewer chances to do earthshaking “olympian” stuff for three reasons, even in places where they don’t have acid thrown in their faces for daring to attend school: they often need to defend their legitimacy before they can proceed to primary non-reactive creative work; they are invariably asked to clean up the literal and metaphorical messes of their male relatives, whether blood or chosen; and to show that they’re worthy citizens of X (and of the human species) they do so routinely as unpaid labor, with zero acknowledgment or support, in the vain hope of not being called by their body parts.
A textbook example of this were the last four issues of the SFWA (Science Fictions Writers of America) Bulletin, the organization’s official publication. The content of these issues included a pornokitsch cover showing a barely clad woman “warrior” with the standard spine-shattering pose required to push breasts and genitals simultaneously forward; an article advising women to emulate Barbie’s “quiet dignity”; and two lengthy dialogues that, inter alia, called objections to blatantly sexist remarks “censorship” and Stalinist “thought policing”. As the saying goes, Feminazis: because asking to be treated as a human being is the same as destroying most of Europe. If race had been treated the same way as gender was in these four issues, the “controversial” items would never have landed on the editor’s desk, let alone cleared it. Yet in today’s self-labeled “progressive” circles, which include SFF, blatant –isms are generally not permitted (or have consequences) except one: unapologetic misogyny. We still have gender discussions that should have ended in 1973, at the latest.
For those like me who are in the last third of their lives and lived in real dictatorships bolstered by fundamentalisms, this is being bitten to death by ducks. The same whiny infantilism, the same smug lip-smacking prurience, the same blathering of long-discredited pseudoscience. After a while it becomes boring, even as it remains debilitating. And, of course, the reflex reaction I described earlier recurred in the SFWA incident like clockwork: women dropped whatever they were doing and rushed into the breach to once again explain 101 concepts and to clean up (for free) the PR mess for which the perpetrators got paid pro rates; and the advocates for “reasoned discourse” who eventually condescended to behave like proto-humans were showered with flowers, kisses and bravery medals for essentially not (or no longer) slapping women in the face – while the volunteers are expected to clean up these Augean stables with zero kudos, infrastructural support or funding.
So here are stories that won’t get written or, if written, will carry the same dislocations that Woolf discerned in Brontë. Here are stories that won’t get awards or pro rates because they were sandwiched between stints of soul-withering labor that nurtures the infantilism it tries to cure – because we share this world and cannot afford to have it turned to shit, and because, unlike other marginalized groups, we cannot sequester ourselves or stop loving our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. Here are hours, days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes that could have been spent, if not in creative fever, at least in pleasure rather than bitterness and fatigue. There is no way to win this, as activists learn. It’s a Sisyphean labor. If we do nothing, we lose; if we do something, we still lose – blood and bone marrow, time robbed and effort wasted, the luxury (yes, for us a luxury) of considering ourselves, for fleeting moments, human beings rather than battered furniture.
Even the olympian composure of Jane Austen cracked at the end of her short life. In her last novel, Persuasion, her stand-in, Anne Elliott, finally cries out in anguish and protest. But Jane Austen still had to put her work aside to attend to the needs of her male relatives, as did the three Brontë sisters. Women who are geniuses or charismatic and insist on showing it get treated like Camille Claudel or Rosalind Franklin, or… the litany is endless.
I’ve said this before, and will repeat it now: I personally believe that our intractable problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.
Is it Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape
Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge
Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Steering the Craft – Reprise
Images: 1st, Virginia Woolf late in life; 2nd: Aubrey Beardsley, drawing for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors, detail); 3rd, a hefty subcategory of the responses (many verbatim) that greeted women’s protests at the SFWA.