Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vulpes Randoms: The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

At Vulpes Libris, we have long discussed hosting one particular theme week: Feminism Week. But, the subject is so close to our hearts that the prospect of writing for such a week has been a little daunting. This post by Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville, made me think about Feminism Week again, and hope that 2013 might just be its year.

Here is a short excerpt from Melissa’s article, “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” and, if any of it rings true, I highly recommend reading the whole piece.

There are the jokes about women, about wives, about mothers, about raising daughters, about female bosses. They are told in my presence by men who are meant to care about me, just to get a rise out of me, as though I am meant to find funny a reminder of my second-class status. I am meant to ignore that this is a bullying tactic, that the men telling these jokes derive their amusement specifically from knowing they upset me, piss me off, hurt me. They tell them and I can laugh, and they can thus feel superior, or I can not laugh, and they can thus feel superior. Heads they win, tails I lose. I am used as a prop in an ongoing game of patriarchal posturing, and then I am meant to believe it is true when some of the men who enjoy this sport, in which I am their pawn, tell me, “I love you.” I love you, my daughter. I love you, my niece. I love you, my friend. I am meant to trust these words.

There are the occasions that men—intellectual men, clever men, engaged men—insist on playing devil’s advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading: Women’s Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, want to wrestle over details, want to argue just for fun—and they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps raising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes. Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that’s so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, like womanhood is an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn’t make one more objective; it merely provides a different perspective.

Would you like to see “Feminism Week” on Vulpes Libris? Some of the texts we have considered for the week include Dale Spender’s Man Made Language and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, but there are many other influential feminist texts, so if you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear them.

With thanks to Melissa McEwan for allowing Vulpes Libris to quote so extensively from her original post.

16 comments on “Vulpes Randoms: The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

  1. Annette
    March 16, 2013

    Yes, I’d love to see a Feminism Week on Vulpes Libris. There’s a lot to say about women’s position in society, and many excellent feminist writers who have said some of it. It would be lovely to see discussions of some of their writings on VL, particularly as so many of those who write and read this blog are women.

  2. Urbana
    March 16, 2013

    YES! YES! YES!

  3. Kate
    March 16, 2013

    Excellent quotation. And YES.

  4. Christine
    March 16, 2013

    Please! As a woman just turned 50, I am amazed by the attitudes young women (see: my 21 year old daughter) have towards the word and the reality. She does not consider herself a feminist yet gets outraged when she experiences the kind of behavior described in the quote above. What is “feminism” that it provokes a negative response? Is it the word? Discuss!

  5. Melrose
    March 16, 2013

    I have to say that I took Lisa’s excellent advice to “read the whole piece” over on Melissa’s blog. For me, personally, and I can only speak for myself, I found the tone of the rest of the piece aggressive and unbending. I’ve not read many blogs (and perhaps I have a sheltered lifestyle) but this seems to be one where you have to do required reading before you are allowed to comment. So, based on Melissa’s blog, I might give Feminist Week a miss, I’m too lilly-livered…

  6. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2013

    I recognise what Melissa describes all too well. Tremendous piece. Brava.

  7. Jackie
    March 16, 2013

    That was tremendous! I feel like giving Ms. McEwan a standing ovation. And yes, I read the whole piece, nodding my head the whole time & agreeing with everything in it. It says a LOT of things that women think, but don’t say. And a lot of things that they put up with, but don’t always realize what is really meant by the words and actions.
    Thank you so much, Lisa for posting this and thanks also to Ms. McEwan for writing something so blunt and truthful.

  8. Melrose
    March 17, 2013

    I am so surprised to hear people agreeing wholeheartedly with all of Mellisa’s blog post, especially the bit specifically chosen for this item. Is this how everyone feels about the men they deem or deemed important in their lives, that they applaud Melissa’s sentiments:

    “I am used as a prop in an ongoing game of patriarchal posturing, and then I am meant to believe it is true when some of the men who enjoy this sport, in which I am their pawn, tell me, “I love you.” I love you, my DAUGHTER. I love you, my NIECE. I love you, MY FRIEND. I am meant to trust these words.”

    I find this very sad.

  9. kirstyjane
    March 17, 2013

    Well, speaking for myself — and why I should haul this out in public I don’t know — I love the nearest and dearest men in my life, in whom I am very fortunate. But I’ve been on the receiving end of what she describes from elsewhere, and seen friends suffer far worse. And not just women suffering from men, as McEwan says at the end of her post: it is all too commonplace, this treating of certain people as second class because of their category.

    Also — although I wonder again why it must be mentioned — Melissa McEwan writes beautifully about her own husband, in whom she clearly also feels very fortunate. She made a point in another post of hers that has stuck with me: if she were not a feminist and did not have the tools to understand how these dynamics come about and why they do, she would be much more embittered when she encounters them. Because they would seem purely personal rather than societal.

  10. Leena
    March 17, 2013

    Melrose: On its own, that part you quoted would be perplexing, but what about the context? I thought McEwan’s point was to highlight the cognitive dissonance in men who make dismissive and misogynist comments and jokes about women in general, but claim to love their daughters, female relatives and female friends as individuals. (I also think she left out ‘I love you, my wife/girlfriend’ for a reason, and was highlighting the types of affection that should be gender neutral and should promote empathy, respect, understanding and human connection beyond gender/sex differences.)

    I don’t mistrust the men who are important in my life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the the inconsistencies between what they say about me and some of their categorical statements about women. From that cognitive dissonance I can only deduce that either they’re insincere in their respect for me, or I’m one of the few glorious exceptions among womankind. (A bookish sort of Joan of Arc, say.) Neither seems convincing, so the third possibility is that the men don’t really understand the implications of what they’re saying.

    I hasten to add that I’m lucky as I’ve never personally, in any way, felt myself to be dismissed, disrespected, discouraged, belittled, categorised or abused because of my sex: certainly not by the men who are important to me, and because of my sheltered life, I’ve had very little exposure to others who might have been inclined to do so. And yet, it’s puzzling that the only man I’ve never heard making any dismissive, stereotypical or nasty comments about women in general – a man for whom the equality between the sexes was a second nature and who didn’t pick and choose among the kinds of equality he chose to believe in – was my late grandfather, who was born in 1913, fought in the war and was an unwitting paragon of traditional masculinity. (Among other things, he built a house without any outside help and taught me how to make a longbow and arrows from a pine branch… a skill that should come in handy in a potential dystopic future. If there are any trees left in the dystopic future, that is.)

    It should be possible to ask why this cognitive dissonance exists in various forms in otherwise perfectly decent men, without being labelled as a man-hater. The example of my grandfather shows me that it doesn’t have to exist.

  11. nanoubix
    March 17, 2013

    Looking forward to reading your reviews and to seeing how VL writers will curate such a project – what feminism(s), ‘feminist texts’, feminists will they include as representative for this huge, undefinable, open-ended movement. A weekly review, maybe, rather than a week?

    My suggestions:

    Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam
    This Sex Which is Not One / Spectulum of The Other Woman / Being Two / The Way of Love by Luce Irigaray
    The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous
    Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
    Un barrage contre le Pacifique / Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras
    Trois femmes puissantes / Three Powerful Women by Marie NDiaye

  12. Melrose
    March 17, 2013

    Leena: There seems to be a bit of dissonance amongst women too. There are of lot of women who can’t understand Melissa’s support for Bill Clinton, which seems to be so strong that she will shut down comments on her blog, which question, in a non-belligerent manner, her allegience to Clinton, despite the controversies surrounding him. And some women, who have suffered as badly as Melissa has, are heading to other websites for support because they feel intimidated by the harrassment they get if they proffer a different view from the desired one:

    Here’s the Bill Clinton thread, it all kicks off near the bottom of the page.

  13. kirstyjane
    March 17, 2013

    Been thinking about Leena’s points while washing up and the phrase “unexamined privilege” keeps coming to mind: I’m convinced that’s the primary mover behind well-meaning people saying denigrating things. And most if not all of us are susceptible to that: certainly in the “first world” (don’t like the term but it does the trick). Socio-economic, ethnic, hetero and cis privilege also mean earning the trust of others we might too easily hurt. McEwan touches on this at the end of her post, and it comes up even more strongly in the comments.

  14. Skywatcher
    March 17, 2013

    Yes, a Feminism week would be good. As someone who grew up with an older sister who was also my best friend, the idea that women should have equal status as men was always a given with me. It never seemed that there was any other opinion to have. I have women as well as men friends, and I don’t treat them at all differently.

    If you will allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, has it ever occurred to any of you that, for all of the patronisation, the inequality, and the sneers from men, women are incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy a full, rich emotional life? Maybe we men are unthinking and even callous, but perhaps that comes because we have to die a little bit more inside every day in order to keep sane and functioning. Can you possibly imagine what it is like to not be able to cope with all of the **** any more, and break down in tears in front of your wife, and feel ashamed for doing it because that isn’t what men do?

    Just a thought.

  15. Kate
    March 17, 2013

    Just a reminder that, so far, all of us commenters are talking from a nice, safe, comfortable western perspective in which choices and feminism are possible because the politics and religion in power allow them. None of these arguments are possible within some other cultures we all know about. So perhaps we might stop getting so het up and keep things in perspective?

  16. Skywatcher
    March 18, 2013

    Quite true. Although I still think that the feminism week wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the risk of sliding off the point a bit (well, quite a bit), I was fascinated to discover that women purchase about two-thirds of all the book sold in Britain. If you go into your local Waterstones, let’s say, then it seems that there is a segment which sells ‘chick-lit’, with another section nearby which sells ‘bloke-lit'( I’m not sure exactly how you define ‘bloke-lit’, but you’ll find lots of books by Andy Macnab). However, once you get past this, there doesn’t seem to be any particular differentiation between male and female writers. One of my interests is detective/crime literature, and if you go to some blogs about vintage crime fiction you will find both the writers dealt with, and the commenters, being about 50/50 male-female. The world of true crime, which was once pretty much a male preserve, is now dominated by women writers (Kate Summerscale, Ann Rule etc). Is there any fundamental difference between male and female writers? I’ve never really thought of someone like Susan Hill as being a ‘women’s writer’. She nowadays writes a lot from the viewpoint of male characters. Is the world of literature gender-blind? This may not be the place to discuss it, although it does intrigue me.

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2013 by in Vulpes Randoms.



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