L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 08:12 pm: |
Over the last six months I've been working intermittently on an essay about Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See." In the current installment of my rewriting of the piece, I've been thinking particularly about Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See," which has necessarily drawn me into deep reflection on not only how the gendering of its author has always and ever, from the moment of its first publication, determined how the story was read (by both men & women, by both feminists & nonfeminists), but also about Alice Sheldon's performances of gender (both before & after the revelation that "Tiptree" was both a pseudonym & because of the gender disguise, an invented identity). Sheldon always insisted that she told the truth about "Tip's" background, that she never told an actual lie (though she performed male impersonation assiduously, especially with her courtly "Uncle Tip" act: but when it "all blew up," her failure to have corrected the male pronouns others assigned to the Tiptree identity was all that mattered, since most people do take gender identity as the first, essential truth about the person &, as such, don't see an equivalence between a man's experience of military life & a woman's, or a man's experience of hunting & a woman's, or a man's experience as an intelligence officer & a woman's. & so on. & thus, for many, it was all a lie. & so, Alice Sheldon says in her Contemporary Authors interview:
And to top all, offering such a dull surprise. Roll of drums, curtain quivers, thrills, starts up, footlights blaze, and front and center Our Hero turns out to be nothing but a nice old lady in McLean.
At least I hope I'm "nice". . . or do I?
CA: What's wrong with that?
Sheldon: Oh, nothing in theory, I suppose. Except stereotypes, my own included. But in practice you lose some context factors that give a bit of ersatz excitement ad credibility.
For instance, a woman writing of the joy and terror of furious combat, or of the lust of torture and killing, or of the violent forms of evil--- isn't taken quite seriously. Because women aren't as capable of violent physical assault---not to speak of rape---as men are. (Meet Me at Infinity, 351)
There are several essays, an interview (from which the above is quoted), & a short (auto)biography written for Contemporary Authors to be found in the collection Meet Me at Infinity that I've been over & over & over. & going over & over & over these pieces is proving to be more painful than I ever expected. For one thing, there's no escaping the conclusion that after the revelation Sheldon suffered such a sense of rebuff & tacit exile that she could not stop thinking about the difference the revelation made to the way people treated both herself & her stories, a difference she explains in different ways at different times, suggesting that she was constantly sifting over the matter, trying to make sense of something that could never be made sense of. Sometimes she seems determined to make herself believe that the difference was simply because people "don't like to be fooled"-- i.e., that her erstwhile "friends" felt resentment at her having concealed her "real" self from them. At other times, she's fairly sure that it's because her "real" self-- an old lady living in McLean, Virginia, & not the courtly "Uncle Tip" (retired spy, hunter, & world-traveler), someone who had no "epistolary style" of her own (unlike "Jim Tiptree," who indefatigably entertained a vast correspondence), & a scratchy, stuttering telephone voice to boot-- is inherently uninteresting & off-putting. More telling, perhaps, is her discussion of how the same acts, behavior, thoughts, & feelings signify so immensely differently depending on whether they are the acts, behavior, thoughts & feelings of a man or woman:
As Tiptree, I had an unspoken classificatory bond to the world of male action; Tiptree's existence opened to unknown possibilities of power. And, let us pry deeper---to the potential of evil. Evil is the voltage of good; the urge to goodness, without the potential of evil, is trivial. A man impelled to good is significant; a woman pleading for the good is trivial. A great bore. Part of the appeal of Tiptree was that he ranged himself on the side of good by choice.
Alli Sheldon has no such choice.
. . . .
What evil can a woman do? Except pettily, to other, weaker women or children? Cruel stepmothers; male fantasies of the Wicked Witch, who can always be assaulted or burnt if she goes too far. Men certainly see women as doing many evil things--- but always nuisancy, trivial, personal, and, easily-to-be-punished-for. Not for us the great evils; the jolly maraudings, burnings, rapings, and hacking-up; the Big Nasties, the genocidal world destroyers, who must be reckoned with on equal terms.
. . . .
Always draining us is the reality of our inescapable commitment. Whatever individual women may do, it is we who feel always the tug toward empathy, toward caring, cherishing, building-up----the dull interminable mission of creating, nourishing, protecting, civilizing--maintaining the very race. At bottom is always the bitter knowledge that all else is boys' play---and that this boys' play rules the world.
How I long, how I long to be free of this knowledge!
As Tiptree, this understanding was "insight." As Alli Sheldon, it is merely the heavy center of my soul.
Whatever can I do with all this?
Gardner Dozois cheerily told me that now I could write about "growing up female!" Ha! I can do it in a word: To grow up female is---not to be allowed to grow up. To be praised for childishness, timidity, vanity, trivialities; to be denied tough goals and mysteriously barred from the means of attaining them; to be left for crucial years, unaware of the realities for which boys are being trained; to lack continuity of character and mind; to find oneself reacting helplessly to male advances and retreats in the grip of obscure vulnerabilities from within; to waste years and emotional strength on idiocies (getting married); to yearn for "love" from those who do not even view one as a person, though they may be sexually attracted; to have no comrades (unless one is very lucky); to be alone and unarmed amid inexplicably hostile strangers who make smiling pretenses and who will not leave you alone. To have every aspect of your conduct and being criticized as by right, for the pleasure of others. To be confirmed in childishness, and have your vision of adventure narrowed to the space of---a bed.
So of course when the men in the sf world who'd previously been Tip's buddies began treating her with a heavily condescending & patronizing style, Alice Sheldon had to know that it wasn't because they resented her for having fooled them, but simply that this is the way men treat women. She was no longer one of the guys, but only an occasional guest in the boys' clubhouse. The greatest shock, of course, was to suddenly find herself demoted, no longer taken seriously.
But there's another matter in all this that I've been pondering. Sheldon often enough told the story explaining why she took a pseudonym in the first place (i.e., to protect her academic career): a story in every way plausible. But I've yet to hear any consideration of why she took a clearly male pseudonym: that, obviously, had nothing to do with protecting her academic credibility. Whenever I read the long passage I quoted above, where she talks about what it means to "grow up" as a woman, I feel absolutely certain that her choice of a male pseudonym was no accident. She chose the pseudonym back in the 1960s, when women were still barred from certain libraries, many occupations, & various academic institutions. I don't think it can be much more than a decade since one of the leading organizations of scientists conducted a study of the difference a female name makes to the evaluation & significance assigned to scientific papers in a blind study. If in the 1990s, the gender of the author of a paper still made an enormous difference to its scientific credibility & perceived importance, surely a woman scientist (which Alice Sheldon was) in the 1960s understood well the difference the gender of a pseudonym would likely make. Later, when she invented the Raccoona Sheldon pseudonym (because there were certain things she could not write in Tiptree's voice), she could not have been much surprised by the differences the change in authorial gender made.
It's really no wonder so many women have disguised themselves as men. The idea of it used to be a freak---but so many historically documented cases have been uncovered over the last twenty years (mostly by feminist scholars) that it's obvious there have been women passing as men for centuries. (One of the most famous recent cases is that of jazz musician Billy Tipton, discovered, as was typically the case, only after her/his death.) I remember admiring, when I read Kathryn Davis's The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, the audacity & cleverness of her Danish composer in posing as a man, & thinking: if only it had occurred to me do to that in 1968! Except, of course, I don't think that would have been practically possible, given the institutional realities in universities of the day. &, too, it would have meant that male-impersonation would have become the most important fact of my life, which, when one thinks about it, sounds dreary & tedious. Would male-impersonation have kept me from becoming a feminist? Would writing music as a man have changed the kind of music I wrote? More generally: has the willingness to undertake male-impersonation always been an implicit test women have been forced to take for determining whether they have what it takes to do seriously whatever it is they aspire to do? (Whether they have "the balls"---a possession so many people have declared essential for anything beyond amateurism & dilettantism.) My imagining that this is the key question that artistically & intellectually ambitious women have been forced to submit to is not all that outlandish, since what the unspoken set of gender values governing us (past & present) amount to is precisely the imposition of this requirement. Until the male-dominated aesthetic is no longer taken for the universal standard & is seen as the special-interest, particular case that it is, this demand will always confront serious, creative women, & continue to restrict women to be occasional special guests in the boys' clubhouse.
Nancy Jane Moore
|Posted on Friday, March 26, 2004 - 10:43 am: |
Timmi, you say all this so well that you bring tears to my eyes. All I can say -- and at the moment I'm saying it half-heartedly -- is that I do see some change. I think there's less need to "pass" these days. Male disdain is couched more politely now, though I often think the contempt for the words "politically correct" is really mean to imply that it would be nice to go back to the old days when one didn't have to consider women (and minorities, etc.) as people.
Your words brought to mind a couple of personal images. One is about being allowed into the club. Right after I got out of law school, I was visiting my grandmother. Her cousin Garland Smith (who was a lawyer and who had in fact been one of my references when I applied for admission to the bar) and his wife Vi were also visiting. It was a lovely day, and we ate outside. Lunch ended, and my grandmother and Vi got up to remove plates, and of course, I jumped up, too. "No, no," my grandmother said. "You sit and talk with Garland." I remember being both thrilled and uncomfortable. It was great being taken seriously as a lawyer (and by my grandmother, a world-class arbiter of proper social behavior), but sitting while "the women" cleared the table didn't feel quite right. Garland, of course, never even thought about it.
The other is more about my internalization of the male definitions. I'm sitting in a movie theatre, and there is a short feature about flamenco dancing before the main movie. The dancers come on the screen, and the instant I see the woman, I know that the men in the theatre are going to laugh at her. And, indeed they do. But the point is that I knew it before they laughed. She was too large (though far from fat -- she had the sexy curves that would have generated great appreciation in some cultures) and dressed too old-fashionedly to avoid their ridicule. And I just hunched down in my seat, wanting the feature to be over, hating the men for laughing at her, wanting to defend her and yet wanting her to go away. I not only knew what men would laugh at; I knew their laughter wasn't just aimed at her, that it could be aimed at me if I wasn't careful.
What you wrote about the post-Tiptree reactions of Alice Sheldon triggered that memory very powerfully. I think it's my way of saying I agree that she must have understood clearly what she was doing when she took on male identity as a writer -- because she knew how men thought of women. And yet I gather from your comments that it still surprised her that some men who had respected her as Jim patronized her as Alice. I'd like to say she shouldn't have been surprised, but I think I would have been, too. It's so easy to convince ourselves that we're being praised on our merits, and not for things that we have no control over (such as our gender).
You've certainly sent my brain off into a number of directions. And here I just set out to write a couple of lines now (because I have this huge things to do list that's getting ignored at he moment). I've just got one more thought, and I'll just toss it out here and leave it with the hope that someone will address it:
Why is it that "most people do take gender identity as the first, essential truth about the person"? I also saw this issue in a discussion about fiction recently, and most people seemed to agree that readers will reject a story in which gender is unclear, or in which there's a surprise about gender. I can come up with some explanations (your discussion above makes them clear), but my heart isn't satisfied. Why the hell have we made gender so important?
L. Timmel Duchamp
|Posted on Friday, March 26, 2004 - 02:57 pm: |
That's a very potent image, Nancy, of your grandmother according you the status of a professional man. In the middle part of the 20th century, being a lawyer (or a doctor) made one, effectively, an honorary male. (This didn't go for all other professions, of course. Women academics, for instance, didn't rate in that way.) I suspect that the formal institutional curbs carefully designed to keep the numbers of women admitted to those professions below a given number contributed to this notion that when a woman did succeed in certain professions, she became an honorary male. (& of course, all the admissions committees did have an exact number of women to be permitted admission, just as they had exact numbers for the maximum numbers of minorities---& in many places, this included Jews.) I can well imagine that if some of the old farts who once kept the numbers of invaders into WASP male preserves under control are still alive & kicking, they would likely point to the crisis in white male authority today & say "see, once those controls were lifted, everything went to hell."
All I can say -- and at the moment I'm saying it half-heartedly -- is that I do see some change. I think there's less need to "pass" these days.
I don't think the degree of change can be overstated, Nancy. The big problems haven't been fixed, but the fact is that from 1950-1975 in the US, just about every least move any woman made required her to submit to hazing. Even for the smallest things. Here's one small example: when at age 19 I went to a gynecologist to get birth control pills, while I was in the stirrups the doctor interrogated me, determined that I was neither married nor engaged to be married, & informed me that he had no intention of "contributing to female promiscuity in the dorms." Humiliated, I not only left his office without a prescription, but also had to pay a hefty fee for the privilege of being lectured to (a lecture that now would constitute sexual harassment; this was the sort of thing that was done only to women, never to men) & worry that the doctor might take the trouble to hunt down my parents' address in order to inform on me. Doing well in a course, or writing a brilliant piece of music, always meant going through hazing of one sort or another. Doing anything that deviated in even the slightest degree from the feminine mystique "normal"--- having any ambition at all--- was punished harshly. Alice Sheldon talks about what it means to grow up female; what she really means is that it meant that you had to be a little crazy to have any ambition at all, since rather than getting the constant praise & pats on the back that the boys got whenever they did the slightest thing, one could expect ridicule & warnings (& explicit punishment if it looked indecorous or sexually immodest for a girl to have done).
When I think of it in this way, I realize it's more a sign of sanity on my part that I left two promising careers before I settled on writing (when I was already past thirty). I could probably write a book on the various strategies of gender presentation that I performed to deflect various kinds of hazing. One particular strategy-- the Earth Mother role-- was overwhelmingly successful in damping fears of my intelligence, but ultimately it utterly did in my academic career. (& then I had to kill that persona-- & a lot of social relationships-- in order to become a writer: but that's another long story.)
& yet-- just writing about these things now makes me feel a little insane. It was such a total mindset that one had to fight with every breath. It's the consensual-reality totality of it all that's almost beyond language even to hint at. It is as though it is barely possible to talk about the reality of my young-adult life in a way that fits sanely into today's language. You are all too correct when you write
Male disdain is couched more politely now, though I often think the contempt for the words "politically correct" is really mean to imply that it would be nice to go back to the old days when one didn't have to consider women (and minorities, etc.) as people.
On the one hand, things are infinitely better for women than they were; on the other hand, the problem persists & because things are so much better, we have much to lose by being as combative as we were back in the late 60s & early 70s, when there really was nothing at all to lose (but our chains, as the saying went), since no one ever bothered to co-opt us then.
This reminds me of the women commenting on the 1975 Khatru Symposium in the early 1990s, when it was reprinted-- expressing discouragement in the fact that after twenty years the most fundamental problems persisted (in spite of being able to see that many practical things had indeed changed).
& yet, though I am sad when I think about Alice Sheldon's pain at "Tiptree's death" (as she called it, without the slightest shred of humor), I am full of hope. Perhaps because I've been fighting for so long & am far from giving up.
Nancy Jane Moore
|Posted on Friday, March 26, 2004 - 04:10 pm: |
The time period you cite -- 1950-1975 -- really was the most repressive time, wasn't it? I had a similar experience to yours with the gynocologist, though mine was with the doctor at the public VD clinic after I went in to get checked after a scare. And my mother put up with a lot during the 50s and 60s.
I'd say being a lawyer was effective outside the profession. Lawyers scare people -- even women lawyers (or, in the vernacular that was common when I got out of law school, lady lawyers). I've found it very useful in other respects -- It gave me confidence at times when I really needed it. But within the legal profession, things weren't all that good. The women who came before me (I graduated from law school in 1975) all had stories of incredible insults that they endured along the way. I still recall the late Judge Sarah Hughes saying that the only job offer she could get after law school was as a legal secretary.
And it occurs to me that I know personally the first black woman who was licensed to practice law in Texas -- and that was in the 1950s. We were part of the Wichita County "Women's Bar Association" -- which was the eight of us getting together for lunch every once in awhile.
Lots of progress -- lots more needed.
|Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2004 - 05:32 am: |
It was great meeting you at the Nebulas. I'm very interested in the piece you're working on regarding "What I Didn't See" --any idea when it'll be done and where you'll publish it?
|Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2004 - 10:33 pm: |
Ellen, the pleasure of our meeting was mine. My long essay on "What I Didn't See" has been through several drafts already; Justine Larbalestier commissioned it for an anthology she's editing for Wesleyan University Press, which will feature ten stories of feminist sf (ranging over many decades) paired with essays about the stories. "What I Didn't See" & my essay on it will make up the final pieces in the book.
Of course I will now want to amend my essay in order to note that the story is a Nebula winner. I suspect I'm not the only person to have read it many times. It's so rich & subtle that I see new things every time I read it. In fact, I feel certain I could write a couple more essays on different aspects of the story that I lacked the space to engage with in my current essay. Which is, obviously, a tribute to the artistry of Karen Joy Fowler.
|Posted on Friday, April 23, 2004 - 06:46 am: |
If the essay is online at any point, I would very much like to link to it from Karen's story. I think it would make a nice addition to the reading of the story itself.
|Posted on Saturday, April 24, 2004 - 04:28 pm: |
I'd like that, too. It'll be a while before I'll be able to put it online, though. (I don't think Justine has given us an actual publication date for book, & it would have to be after the book's publication.)