finger blame

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I just watched a series of MOOC lectures on bitcoin and cryptocurrency technologies, and the instructor just said, “…now you have to worry about the fact that they’re supplying code that has its grubby fingers on your bitcoins…”. 

Ah, yes, fingers. I guess my fingers are deceptively large. Or my hands are larger than they look. I was recently reminded of this … optical illusion when someone commented on my awkward, off-kilter hand gestures, citing how non-authoritative it looks when I use my index finger to scold someone (jokingly or otherwise) because my hands are “so small”. But I put my palm flat against his, which left him shocked to discover that our hands are basically the same size. And then when the time came to demonstrate dexterity and strength, I was able to stretch my hand across the top of a large can of paint and lift it. He was not able to do the same. In some small way this was an emasculating act, and I have been doing this same kind of thing my entire life by being physically stronger than most of the men I’ve been around (even when we’re only talking about fingers and hands).

And being as conditioned as we are, I end up being the one ‘blamed’ and shamed for how ‘unfeminine’ this is.

And to this, I erect a deceptively small – or deceptively large – middle finger.

Rousing sessions, furious responses

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“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

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“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

The silent woman

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“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.” —D. H. Lawrence

“It has taken me most of my 40 or so years as a conscious person to realize: I don’t owe anyone an explanation.” – Me

Today I read an article by Danish writer Dorthe Nors on the invisibility of middle-aged and older women. She writes: “A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything?” It fell in my lap at the right time, seeing as how I’m sidled right up to middle age, and have always been a bit invisible anyway.

In that sense I, perhaps wrongly, feel like I can see this clearly and objectively, but I doubt this is true. Perhaps it is, as one dear friend commented when I shared this article, “I think middle age must come as much more of a shock to women who fit the current standards of beauty. For someone to whom men have never paid much attention, there is not much difference in how we are considered in middle age. While difficult to deal with when young, you are forced to find your self-worth outside of a man and man’s view of you at an earlier age.”

This article arrived at a moment when I was otherwise contemplating commitment and choice. We are led, at least by the media, to believe that our choices become ever-more limited, and scarcity rears its terrifying head – in the workplace, in terms of potential relationship or sexual partners, even in our friendships. I don’t think any of this is as acute as we’re told, but it is also not universal. It depends on you, where you are, what you are doing, what you want and all kinds of other factors. In the midst of all the infernal thinking, someone said to me, referring to more specific things than I thus applied it to, “There are still a number of points ahead of you at which your life branches off in multiple directions. You still have options, choices.” Logically I know this but a combination of inertia and grief, and a soupçon of fear, has stopped me in my tracks. I feel a bit like I have been shaken awake and have no time to lose.

But a lot of sluggish meandering through literary contemplations on women, communication, relationships and marriage had to happen first.

Finding a voice

For a lot of women, finding their voice – the voice that represents them truly, not just the voice and content she uses as a conciliatory mediator, but the voice and content as the one who gets labeled as a bitch or troublemaker or a roadblock simply because she actually is the smartest one in the room, knows what she is doing and has thought through all the potential outcomes and problems. The voice that is not just a cushion, a boomerang, a mirror for something a man says or does, but the voice that is not afraid of or concerned with how she is perceived. This is mined with risk. It is all easier said than done. It’s not just having the knowledge and eloquence to hold forth on a given subject, it’s as Rebecca Solnit posits, just being able to assert the right or space to say anything at all:

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

I am not sure how much of my own difficulty in asserting myself is rooted in age-old shyness (as opposed to my being female). But, as an adult, I also live in Sweden, so I don’t find that men are quite as domineering, particularly when they have sought out my expertise in my own field. Right after I wrote that sentence I happened to see this opinion piece by Paulina Porizkova on feminism. She realized when she moved to Sweden as a child that suddenly “my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s”. In the Swedish world, “the word ‘feminist’ felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it”; after all, “Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men.”

It was only later, in comparing the roles of women in her native Czech Republic, in Sweden, in France and finally the United States that she could embrace the need for feminism:

“In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.

But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.” –Paulina Porizkova

I also tend to have the upper hand in business dealings because everyone else is using English as a second or third language, and it’s my first. But I certainly recognize that battle of trying to gain the right to speak. And the ability to say what I want or need to say without being interrupted or talked over or “mansplained to”. This isn’t scientific, my observations/thoughts. But being this insular, shy person for my entire life, while teeming with vociferous opinions, thoughts and ideas, I experience the ongoing struggle, but then I also experience this with louder, more domineering women who stubbornly want to hear the sounds of their own voices and repetitive thoughts (they’ve probably learned to behave this way because they too are fighting for a space for their voices). I also keenly feel that these communication difficulties (not mine specifically but more general, gender-related mismatches) have informed my opinions on male-female communication, relationships, and have contributed a lot to my desire to be alone.

It often takes us such a long time as people to find our true voices, to be ourselves, that it’s a shame that it’s twice as hard for women of all ages under most circumstances, and that by the time we as middle-aged women find our voice and claim the agency to speak openly and freely and to demand the floor, so to speak, we are silenced by this invisibility (or as Alex Qin explains in her SkillShare TechSummit 2017 keynote, linked above, being hypervisible and invisible at the same time).

Make manifest the hypocrisy

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“Should I be a killjoy now and point out that we are objectifying all these people?”

Not two days after two acquaintances were railing against gender inequality, the continued need for active and vigilant feminism and the gross objectification of women, insisting that we are not heard and are constantly interrupted, not only did they interrupt and talk over each other, they wheeled out loads and loads of pictures of people active in CrossFit and started commenting on their muscles, their bodies, their appearances, and their preference for “muscular women who don’t appear muscular in clothes”. Normally I would not care – this would be something I’d happily and easily ignore because this kind of commentary is not my thing, but this time, suddenly I was thinking, “What the hell is this?” It’s somehow okay to objectify people (granted, these people have public, visible Instagram accounts where their muscles are on display) and critique them like it’s the fucking Crufts Best in Show? As I say, I don’t care in theory – this is just what we do as people, even if I don’t participate, but the muted hypocrisy defied reason, smacked of inconsistency and screamed ‘double standard’.

I’d argue that most of us are objects and objectifiers in one way or another. It’s how we make sense of the world and the people in it. I’m hypersensitive to it and, at the same time, questioning my own blind spots. Whom am I objectifying, overlooking or generalizing about without knowing it?

En garde: Gotta be vigilant and police the self.

Short Time
-Gavin Ewart

She juliets him from a window in Soho,
A 'business girl' of twenty.
He is a florid businessman of fifty.
(Their business is soon done.)

He, of a bright young man the sensual ghost,
Still (in his mind) the gay seducer,
Takes no account of thinned and greying hair,
The red veins webbing a once-noble nose,
The bushy eyebrows, wrinkles by the ears,
Bad breath, the thickening corpulence,
The faded, bloodshot eye.

This is his dream:  that he is still attractive.

She, of a fashionable bosom proud,
A hairstyle changing as the fashions change,
Has still the ageless charm of being young,
Fancies herself and knows that men are mugs.

Her dream:  that she has foxed the bloody world.

When two illusions meet, let there not be a third
Of the gentle hypocrite reader prone to think
That he is wiser than these self-deceivers.

Such dreams are common.  Readers have them too.

Difficult to please

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Yesterday someone told me, in a list of things, that I appeared to be ‘difficult to please’ (or that this was the version of me he had created in his mind). It was all in light conversation, but it made me think about the things I have heard all my life, about all the things I read – about all women – particularly this week when International Women’s Day hit.

“She’s so difficult to please.”
“Really? Do you even know what she wants? Did you ask? Did you, more importantly, listen? Did you even try?”
Somehow, dude, just by existing in the world you didn’t please her. Imagine that.

My Facebook feed and other online outlets were filled with stuff about women’s day, women’s strength and the fight for equality. (We’ve got a long way to go as long as sexist buffoons like Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke exist.)

I had and really still have almost nothing to add to any of it. I wish none of this ever needed to be discussed. International Women’s Day was always one of those things that seemed like such a big deal everywhere except America (where I was educated). I only knew of its existence at all through my Russian studies, when it became clear that women’s day was supposedly such a big deal in Russia. Little did I know it was ‘big’ everywhere. It figures that it doesn’t register with me even now, after almost 20 years away. “What? It’s women’s day? So?” It doesn’t register with me – not because I don’t think it should exist. Not because I don’t believe in feminism or equality. Of course I do. But it’s like with all days set aside to “honor” some group, accomplishment or … even love itself, it sequesters it. Sure, it’s meant to shine a brighter light on something (or sell more greeting cards and flowers), but does it excuse everyone from thinking about women and equality the other 364 days a year?

It’s obvious to say these things – and it is obvious that it is so much more complex than being reduced to memes and 10,000 articles on variations of the same theme, as the women’s-day-dominated internet was. Subtly discriminatory practices and ripples of inequality are insidious – they are everywhere (and this, of course, is applicable to the ‘enlightened’ northern European world I live in – I can’t speak for anywhere else). And they live every single fucking day.

After reading what was meant to be a comical take on women/feminism (a primer for men, I guess), I questioned what is actually wanted/desired versus what people say they want. As long as a woman is called out for “being difficult to please” because she has preferences and reasons for them, we’re still far from total parity.

“Our ultimate aim, when it comes to men, is to find an amusing mate we can have sex with, then sit on the sofa with, watching re-runs of Seinfeld and eating a baked potato. Discount all that Christian Grey/abs of steel/”bad boy” shit. Our priorities are: 1) Kindness; 2) Jokes; 3) High tolerance of carbs.”

If this is true, why is it that women as a huge, whole, general population have this reputation for “being difficult”? (Surely some other part of the article, such as “Periods”, cannot account for all of it.) Could it be that things that are perfectly logical to women, such as having a closet full of clothes yet still have nothing to wear, sound illogical until you take the full picture into consideration (as the article’s author does): “What we mean is, “I don’t have anything to wear for who I need to be today.” Most men will never live with the same kind of scrutiny women do for how they look and what they wear and what it says about them. All these decisions are loaded for women.

I guess what I am trying to say is that these things that seem frivolous and vain are often informed by so much societal and cultural baggage – if you’re not a woman, you are not going to get it. Or at least if you do get it, you’re going to get it intellectually only because you’re probably never going to experience anything in the same way. I’m sure we appreciate that you try to ‘get it’, but there are experiences all of us can never have and lenses through which we can never see.

I read a recent interview with Allison Crutchfield in which she touches on this – men are never going to understand the woman’s reality (any more than we will understand theirs), but there is a certain self-congratulatory strain in some men, which wouldn’t be half so bad if they did not proceed to hijack the discussion:

AVC: You say in the song, “You assume you understand because your voice is the loudest while you borrow our reality.” How often do you see men adopting these ideologies and then using it as a means of asserting dominance?

AC: I think it happens all the time. I can only speak to my experience, but I think that I had a few different relationships with people—platonic or romantic—that inspired this song. I’m happy to say that those relationships have all kind of ended, slightly because of this. But that line is specifically about just actually having a conversation or a discussion about feminism, and about my experience as a woman, and literally being talked over by a man who had not had that same experience. And that was really difficult for me.

I feel a little bad calling him out on this, but I had a really hard time watching that show Master Of None. I like Aziz Ansari, but the feminism episode of that was so hard for me to watch. It didn’t necessarily inspire this song, but that is something I can point to where it’s like, Aziz Ansari just gets feminism all of a sudden and is just yelling about it from the rooftops. I feel like a lot of people, a lot of men, want this pat on the back for correctly identifying how they feel about feminism, how radical they’re being and how much they “get it.” That is just really gross to me. That’s what that line comes from. It’s about feeling like I’m surrounded by these people who really think they’re doing the right thing but they’re completely socialized to scream over women who are trying to talk to them about their actual experiences and also sort of borrowing the reality of a woman’s experience.”

In fact, as a case in point, a lovely former colleague (a man) shared:

“Well, that didn’t take long.

Staff chat about International Women’s Day descended into a group of men mansplaining why any institutional solution to the shortage of women in tech is mathematically bad and undermining the goals or equality.

The actual women in tech who weren’t being listened to mostly dropped out early and got back to work.”

I am no expert on this subject. My own attempts to undertake formal education in gender studies ended in frustration when many of the readings were just slightly less venomous than Andrea Dworkin’s infamous “sex is just rape embellished with meaningful glances” comment. My only claim to being able to talk about this, and it should be enough to have an opinion, is that I am a woman. Rambling on about this is not an edifying experience; it’s just that this stuff is so virulent but often just beneath the surface.

Am I difficult to please? No more than any other woman who wants to be heard and have choices.

Photo (c) 2017 astoller used under Creative Commons license.

Thoughts on Une si longue lettre: Tout ou rien

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How long have I had this novella, Une si longue lettre, on my shelf, picking at it, reading a page or two and setting it down again and again? It’s difficult to carve out the time and concentration space to focus on reading books in languages that are not my own. I have until this year packed my life with so much (meaningless) work and ‘stuff’ that I have rarely read books faithfully in my own language, let alone in other languages, except when required.

I have demanded of myself, though, that things change this year. If not dramatically, at least incrementally – and intellectually. It is not that demanding or time consuming to read a book that is just 130 pages long, in French or otherwise. In a relatively brief and personal story, Mariama Ba provides a glimpse at feminism and equality through the lens of being both an African and a Muslim woman. Many evaluations of this book will describe it as something akin to “Africa’s first feminist novel”, a “portrait of the struggle between modernity and tradition” (the story concerns polygamy and its effects on women and society as a whole).

And the bits that spoke to me most loudly:

The book, written as a long letter, takes place after the protagonist’s husband dies, and she is forced to mourn alongside his second wife. She writes to her friend, who has done what she did not have the strength to do – the friend leaves her husband when he takes a second wife. On the endurance of friendship: “L’amitié a des grandeurs inconnues de l’amour. Elle se fortifier dans les difficultés, alors que les contraintes massacrent l’amour. Elle résiste au temps qui lasse et désunit les couples. Elle a des élévations inconnues de l’amour.”

After the narrator/protagonist’s husband dies and her former suitor returns and offers to marry her, she considers seriously and declines, asking instead for his friendship. He responds, “Tout ou rien. Adieu.”

Hillary Clinton: Benefit of the doubt or disingenuous cackling witch?

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While not succumbing to or fully recognizing the “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ pick for US presidential candidate, I do think it’s fair to dig in to see if I can at least extend the benefit of the doubt to her, as an entitled and “moderate Republican” Democrat.

After all, if she is ultimately the nominee, what alternative is there? Certainly not a Republican, probably not a third-party candidate … not voting at all?

I read an article about women around my age, who fall into the gap between the over-45 women who support Hillary and the Millennial women who overwhelmingly support Bernie. A Gen-X Hillary problem. As the writer points out, people our age think “Hillary is fine” without being particularly interested or in support of her. Her biggest, loudest supporters, though, tend to be rabidly loyal assholes, to put it mildly, who don’t inspire confidence or support for Hillary in others. (And this, coupled with loads of historical reading that make Clinton seem testy, secretive and non-collaborative, for example, in designing and trying to implement the universal healthcare plan in Bill Clinton’s administration, makes me cringe.)

We also have felt safe and distant from the kind of broad and loud feminism that women of Hillary’s generation had to champion. We have not been subjected to the same kinds of workplace humiliation (most of the time – and I know this article, and my thoughts now, are written from a particular perspective under layers of privilege, so I won’t pretend that everyone has it so easy). We, on the whole, can make the choices we want, have the careers we want and generally do not run into the same conflicts Hillary ran into as First Lady during Bill Clinton’s first term (i.e., widespread media opinion that Hillary should be more of a “housewife” with a gentler image). Needless to say, this was the beginning of Hillary’s national-level pandering and image “crafting”, trying to spin herself into something the American public could like (as the article points out, she published a cookie recipe in a popular “women’s” magazine). She’s been shape-shifting her way through her career ever since.

The fact that this is necessary (and this touches on the heart of the article), this is just sad. We never demand that men do anything like this. Hillary’s every action, every word, was questioned and analyzed through the “woman” lens and the expectations (spoken or not) that society has for women. The article’s writer questioned the insidiousness of hidden sexism – she believed that we were beyond a point that we should vote for a woman just because she is a woman. But then heard a man ask Hillary a question on the radio, and she was struck by the tone – condescending.

“It was subtle, but there was something in his tone I recognized. It was not a tone you would use to speak to someone who was a former secretary of state and senator. It was the tone you reserve for that dumb chick in your meeting who probably doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It was a tone I’d heard countless times over the course of my career, and in that moment I suddenly saw Hillary Clinton in an entirely different light.”

She recognized it from her own experiences – just so well-hidden in her daily reality that she had never stopped to think about it. Everyday conversations that inherently undermine the woman’s qualifications and abilities. Maybe she is just overly sensitive, but in truth, it happens all the time. There is a wall that you never quite scale as a woman (and this is not always true, but is frequent enough that it is troubling and needs to be acknowledged), and the wall is built with bricks of condescending and/or backhanded praise.

Even acknowledging this, though, and feeling like maybe I could take a second look and view Hillary through that lens, there always ends up being a stumbling block.

Every time I try to look beyond the Clinton fatigue, the Wall Street connections, the lip service and her moderate Republican record, with which my beliefs do not align, some new evidence bubbles up that shows this disingenuous nature and snippy impatience and temperament that I feel form the basis of Hillary’s real personality. We all have bad days, we all lash out and get snippy – but unless you are an orange Teflon ape – politicians on the stump, trying to get into the land’s highest office, cannot afford to let the mask slip. A recent clip of Clinton talking to a Somali-American woman, basically making her standard speech (and not making eye contact, you notice), shows Clinton lose her cool and tell the woman to “go run for something yourself then”! Naturally, she almost immediately tried to fold herself neatly back into form, pretending like the comment was actually one of encouragement, as though she wanted the woman to stand up and be more civic-minded and involved, but the fake pasted-on smile and dying-hen/witch cackling that followed the encounter were telling.

Ah, America, you get what you deserve.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there’s always Canada.

Women (“…only like me for my mind”)

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I don’t really want to be told by old-guard “feminists” (or anyone for that matter) that my support for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is wrong. Or why it’s wrong. The voices of feminist leaders, such as Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, trailblazers and leaders in theory and practice, are normally so measured and reasonable. While they have taken on the mantle of speaking for many in the past, which has been appreciated, co-opting the voices and choices of other women now is inappropriate. It is no wonder that women of all ages are angry. The idea that we should be told for whom to vote under any circumstances is egregious and over the line. To be told we betray all women by not voting for Hillary Clinton is feminist apostasy.

In defending Hillary Clinton and her candidacy for president, both women have pulled out the generation card and slammed the younger generation of women in what can only be called a sexist way by claiming that younger women’s support for Bernie Sanders stems from following the path where they might find boys at the other end. Not only does it imply that young women’s only concern is meeting, impressing and gaining the attention of boys – it discounts the well-reasoned support women of all ages have for other candidates. (And couldn’t the same have been argued so long ago when Steinem went to work at the Playboy Club in the service of getting an undercover expose? She was going to bat for true feminist causes but was doing so by “going where the boys are”.) I am not discounting the value of this work, but if looked at only on the surface, which is about how Albright and Steinem looked at young women’s political choices right now, they look about equal.

At a recent Clinton rally, Albright reportedly said, “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done.”

I think anyone alive today knows that it is not done – not for women’s equality, not for racial equality, not for economic or social justice at all. We know that Roe v Wade is never a done deal. We know that there are still massive strides to take in getting equal pay. We know, in fact, that families – men and women both – are struggling with the consequences and sacrifices they have to make to have families. Women end up struggling more, on the whole, because of the inequalities at work and because of the biology of their having to be the ones to carry and give birth to children. That is not going to change, but society’s approach can.

So no, no one imagines that the work is finished. Yes, we may take for granted the work that has been done – for example, no one demanded that I get him a coffee when I entered the workforce. I took for granted that no one could have such an expectation of a professional woman (or man). An older colleague who worked in a technical capacity since the 1970s schooled me on my obliviousness and ignorance (she and her few female colleagues were often maligned this way or saddled with extra “women’s work” like fetching coffee or something that had no formal place in their work description). Perhaps it is good that people my age and younger grew up completely ignorant of the fact that it was once acceptable to make these kinds of petty demands of you just because you were the female employee in the room. But forgetting may, in fact, lead to complacency – and I suppose this is at the heart of Albright and Steinem’s argument.

But being complacent about how far we still need to travel to get to gender parity is not the same thing as making a conscious, well-informed decision not to support Hillary Clinton.

By not supporting Hillary, are people somehow not supporting all other women (as Albright implies, saying there is a “special place in hell” for women who do not support other women)? Are we obligated to support Hillary just because she is a woman, particularly when she has let her views, her talking points, her votes, her perspectives, shift casually to suit her purposes at any given moment – sometimes in ways that damage equality and grant favor to corporate over human interests?

Other than “Hillary fatigue”, the urge to fight against the sense of inevitability and her attitude as though it’s “her turn” now – I have to ask, “Does she deserve the support?” At this stage, no. If she ultimately gets the nomination, I will support her. She will still be better than whatever the alternatives are. Hillary is not my first choice because Hillary feels insincere, insubstantial and untrustworthy. It is not that she cannot get the job done. It is not because her views change because in fact, if someone’s views change and grow more nuanced, that is one thing. But changing to pander to the rising voices of the day – that’s disingenuous. Her time on the world’s stage has been so long and public that we have a very clear view of just how disingenuous she has been over the course of time.

While I very much support Bernie Sanders’s aims and like the idea of the US moving toward “democratic socialism”, I am a bit burned out on the whole idea that there are not more of Sanders’s ilk among younger politicians. I will vote for Sanders or Clinton, whichever gets the nomination, but the idea that we can be carried forward by the oldest of the Baby Boomers (in fact Sanders was born at the tail-end of the previous generation) is a sad commentary on the state of American progressivism. Clinton is a tired reminder of the old guard, and the Baby Boomers in general need to start handing over the reins already. I feel as though we took many steps forward with Obama in handing over responsibility to a new generation of leaders, but the only reasonable voice we have is an old man. (And the young politicians are snake-like zealots and anxiety-riddled, almost-human robots. Nothing remotely presidential… or sane.)