Two things to read today: women, anger, and cultural expectations

Mar 06 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The NYTimes has two things well worth reading today.

The one that will get/has already received lots of attention in this corner of the internet is Hope Jahren's oped titled "She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’". Every woman scientist, of any age who reads it, will nod their head in agreement. The best quote about it, from Jahren herself is:


This is a strong piece, a good piece. Read it.

But, it is not the most subversive thing in today's NYTimes. This is. It is Jill Lepore's review of ‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter. It is a book review in the best sense of a review - it not only  makes one want to read the book, but it opens new ideas in one's head as to why one should read the book. It makes one think about other things in one's own life that touch on the ideas of both author and reviewer.

We know (we do, don't we?) Julia  Ward Howe as one of the leaders of the Women's Suffrage movment in the late 1800's. If that part of history is obscure to you, you may recall that Howe also wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic and was an active abolitionist. What Showalter and Lepore bring into sharp, painful focus is the scope of her life, especially the cultural slavery to a husband, who was a lauded, important, right-thinking (at the time) man with Victorian expectations of female behavior.

Lepore starts her review, and puts Howe's life in the context of this Virigina Woolf quote and comment:

"It needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929 in an essay about 19th-century women writers. A woman might start out writing about one thing or another but, before she knew it, she’d find herself “resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights.” This was a pity, Woolf thought, and a trap she hoped women were on the verge of escaping.

I stopped reading at this point. I am not a serene person, and truly in my youth, did not have a powerful enough mind to resist the anger. I wasn't pleading for rights or doing anything grand. I was trying to survive as "the woman in the department". I was resisting the culture that Hope Jahren talks about in her op-ed. I didn't get the kind of letter Jahren talks about: I was too unlovely, too rough, probably too strong, and certainly not "feminine" enough to be attractive to men at that point in my life (not that I am now, but now I am old, and men do not chase or put upon old women. It's just a new and different set of behavioral expectations). But I was talked down to, not taken seriously, and when I did (inevitably) get mad, I was told to "calm down". There is nothing that makes me want to punch someone, of any gender, in the mouth as much as when they tell me to calm down.

The review ends with some thoughts on the history of feminism and feminist thinking. I know that among my younger friends the word "feminist"  is fraught with negative implications. Reading the cruelties of Howe's husband (he threatened to take away her children if she did not submit to his demands), one can say "that doesn't exist today". Go back and read Jahren again. Sexism is not the overt: submit or else of the the late 19th century. And its not just the more explicit cultural expectations of men of Jahren's post.

Lepore says, in the next to last para of her review:

In many ways, of course, it would be good to get past feminism. It can be tiresome to fight so old a fight. But that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t urgent.

I would say to the young women who think the fight is old and tiresome, it is still urgent. If men's cultural expectations inhibit your achievements, set boundaries around your dreams, then there is still a fight, no matter what you chose to call it.

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