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Entries in #feminism (4)


My Recent High Horses

I'm really really tired of societal problems being discussed in the media as though the solution comes down to the behavioral choices of individual women and families. On an individual level, you can mitigate a situation, but good luck creating institutional change all by yourself. Pretending like that's not only possible, but necessary, isn't good for anyone and not only ignores the issue, but redirects attention away from it. (Link to Jezebel and not New York Mag, because seriously, I am not giving them clicks from up here on my horse.)

I'm upset to see what's happening to a city I love. Haven't we all read or seen Children of Men? Bad things happen when you get rid of the kids!

There. I feel a little better.


Writing Across Gender Lines

I've been giving a lot of thought to the project of writing from a gender perspective different from one's own lately, for fairly obvious reasons. At The Atlantic, Michele Willens has posted a nice meditation on some of the questions and potential roadblocks that arise with projects like these. 

I chose to write a male main character precisely because of these roadblocks. Had I written a female character instead, the reflexive shift into my own experience in China would have been too hard to avoid, and when I began my novel, that experience was still so close that it would have colored everything, and not in a positive way. By following a young man around, rather than a young woman, I was forced to sit at a slight distance, and it was this distance that allowed me to write fiction, rather than thinly-disguised memoir. 

As time has gone on and Will has survived more drafts than I can possibly count, other benefits to his being male have slowly emerged. For one, the experience of a white male expat in China is still quite different at times than that of a white female expat, and that allowed me to explore certain themes that would have remained at arm's length had I been writing a woman. That said, I am very aware that the majority of the supporting characters are decidedly female, and it would be dishonest of me to say that they weren't easier, in a lot of ways, than Will himself has been.

Some people have suggested to me that this might just be the main character effect, and that it's always trickier to figure that person out compared to those who are not so spotlighted. But I do think that writing a man is harder for me than writing a woman in a similar situation would be, even if it has been better for the project overall. 

That said, Sally Koslow, as quoted by Willens, may well be correct. It may be more difficult for men to effectively cross that gender line. Koslow believes that "By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex, because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." But even if we take this as truth, I have to wonder to what extent women writers are influenced by our years of reading women--as written by men. What have we internalized as somehow "necessary" or "true" about literary representations of women that may only be necessary/true because it became conventional through a long line of male authors? (Women's Studies 101, right here.) And assuming that there is at least something that's come out of that long line that's worth challenging, do women writers have a responsibility to represent ourselves in a fictional space that we create and control? 


Rebecca Solnit is at it again

And when writing about her, there is nothing to do but go straight to the source itself. This time, she's in TomDispatch with a piece entitled "The Longest War."

Go read it. If my recommendation isn't enough, here she is on street harassment-turned-violent:

As for that incident in my city, similar things happen all the time.  Many versions of it happened to me when I was younger, sometimes involving death threats and often involving torrents of obscenities: a man approaches a woman with both desire and the furious expectation that the desire will likely be rebuffed.  The fury and desire come in a package, all twisted together into something that always threatens to turn eros into thanatos, love into death, sometimes literally.

Solnit is so very good at stating things so clearly, logically, and precisely that it is nearly impossible to look away. I don't usually try. That's saying something when faced with sentences like this: "Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S."

Go read it.


File under: Missing the Point

Over at Salon, Katie Roiphe weighs in on one of this week's "issues of the moment," older parenthood, in an article entitled "The Feminist Fertility Myth." The subheading reads like so: "Why do women believe they can delay children for so long?" 

Roiphe writes in response to Judith Shulevitz's piece now up in The New Republic, and she challenges both the idea that women can "have it all" (a subject for another post, but one I successfully avoided dealing with/reading about all summer--don't get me started here) and that they

"...should be able to have children...that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s. We tend to view basic biology as a practicality to be surmounted, something trivial and irritating that shouldn't get in the way of the promise of a full life. It's almost as if we are shocked that nature itself has not read The Second Sex and The Feminist Mystique."

Sigh. Where to begin? As a writer, I claim the right to respond with a story. This is a story that an American woman recently told me--just last weekend, in fact. She is married to a Swede, has two children, and has raised them in both the US and Sweden, where they currently live.

Once upon a time, she said, the Swedish birth rate was one of the worst in Europe. It was bad. No one was replacing anyone else, and in a country where, post-WWII, social support structures for the elderly were becoming even more societally important, this was a problem. 

So the Swedish government did what Swedes are wont to do: they looked into the problem systematically. They found a bunch of Swedish women of childbearing age and asked them why they weren't choosing to have children. And the answer? Well, it wasn't that they felt that biology or Mother Nature owed them--it was simply that they lost too much by putting their careers on hold. They lost earning potential, they lost their ability to support themselves, they lost their identity outside of being a mother, and they got little to no help from their partners or society. So they gave it a pass.

Pragmatic as always, the Swedish government took action. They instituted some of the best parental leave requirements in the world. They made daycare accessible and affordable. They provided child support payments to make up for the loss of income while on leave (Swedes are paid a percentage of their salary by the government while out, but not the whole thing unless the company chooses to make up the difference). Most recently, they extended the mandatory (yes, extended. Yes, MANDATORY) paternal leave. If dads don't take the leave, both parents lose out. BOTH parents expect to take time off, and BOTH parents expect to return to their jobs, without penalty, when that time is over, or at least be able to look for a new position without having a black mark on their resume for the two "empty" years spent bringing up their kids. And from what I can see, what they expect is how it usually happens. (And just as a note, 'both parents' can and does cover same sex couples as well.)

And lo and behold, while it took some years, the birth rate here is currently doing pretty well. Stockholm in particular is in the middle of a little baby boom, something immediately apparent if you spend time anywhere outside of your home. And there are lots of parents--fathers and mothers both--out with their babies during the day, because they can't go to daycare until they are around two. (I told some Swedes once that lots of parents in the US have to put their kids in daycare from eight weeks or so, and they were absolutely horrified. "That's way too young!" they said. "Kids that little need their parents!" I couldn't do much but agree.)

The social message here is clear: children are important. Parents are important. They are so important that we will make sure everyone involved in bearing, birthing, and raising kids is able to keep both the little ones and themselves happy and healthy. Swedish women don't seem to have children in their mid-twenties, but they also aren't waiting around until they're forty. Early thirties seems to be it, and it seems to be working well.

The system isn't perfect. But it does NOT treat having a child as some sort of duty borne only by women, for which they (and they alone) must be willing to sacrifice their careers, earning potential, and independence. It doesn't label as selfish women who choose to establish themselves in their 20s and 30s, knowing that because of the way things work, having a child earlier would leave them (and their children!) less secure in the future.

Looking at the US from a distance, the moral tinge to this mandate (and Roiphe's article is just full of it) is even clearer to me now than it was while living there. Oh, those selfish mothers who won't make enormous sacrifices on the "appropriate" timetable. Oh, those women who think that they can have a job and thus ESCAPE BIOLOGY. Oh those future mothers trying to resist the pull of the kitchen and apron strings when we all know that their children would be better off if they'd just get back where they belong.

Look, Slate. I like you. But Roiphe is missing the point. It's not about looking at the choice many, many women are making and then condemning it as detrimental to society. It's about looking at society and asking why it can be detrimental to the point where so many women are making the same choice.