Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Great Divide

By Nancy Jane Moore

Gwyneth Jones, ruminating on feminist SF and related subjects, wrote the following in a post on her blog called "Shora":

Meanwhile, my personal investigation kept coming up against the wall, the real problem. Speaking bitterness in a society that oppresses women, but doesn’t know it (such as the sf community, as addressed by “seventies feminism”), is brave, but it’s easy. Celebrating the feminine, the womb above the penis, motherhood, lesbian starship captains, sexy cyberbabes, is easy too. Though if you miss out the rip-roaring adventure fantasy you won’t catch many punters, and if [you] don’t, it’s hard to see how the story differs from any old sf, (where the feminine has always been celebrated, ask Robert Heinlein). It’s all easy, as long as la lutte continue. The wall is when economically liberated women, readers and writers, have to face the fact that when patriarchy goes, we all go.

No one is born a woman. No one is born a man. You can have an evil patriarchy that is secretly an evil matriarchy (which is too damn close to the situation in our world right now, IMO). You can have a corrupt liberation, informed by the “Spirit of the Beehive”, as Guevara says (cf Joanna Russ’s chilling, prescient, The Two Of Them). You can have a matriarchy that secretly, shamefully oppresses men, and denies it, and lies about it with every breath (cf The Gate Into Women’s Country, Divine Endurance etc etc). You can’t have the goals of feminism, if you want to keep the Great Divide. And we, we in the editorial and every other sense: everyone, including myself, we do not want to lose the Great Divide. [emphasis added]

(I recommend reading the whole post, and also her follow up "Shora Revisited" to get the full sense of Gwyneth's point.)

I hesitate to proclaim myself as different, to set myself apart from this we, and yet -- and yet -- every fiber of my being tells me that I would love to be rid of the Great Divide.

Oh, I'm not without qualms. Even the smallest change is hard and this one is a mind blower. While I've had no problems putting women into roles once reserved for men (starship captains and other rip-roaring adventures), I find that I run into limits when I try to put men in women's shoes -- literally: I cannot imagine men in high heels except as art or parody. (I am sure this is in part because I have so much personal contempt for high heels and the roles they represent.)

I came of age in a world of feminist change and have spent a lot of years doing things (practicing law, studying martial arts) once reserved for men. But I also live in a world in which calling a man a "girl" remains one of the worst possible insults. Shifting women into roles traditionally called male comes easy; opening the door the other way is trickier.

These days there's a lot of pseudoscience "explaining" brain differences between men and women, pushed of late by a book by a female author, Louann Brizendine, called The Female Brain. I have not read the book -- it sounded so absurd in the reviews I was unwilling to read it -- but the linguistic scholars on Language Log have critiqued the significant errors in the underlying research and the whole different brain movement very effectively. Their most recent post is here and a list of links on the subject is here.

That even women scientists are trying to build a career around the differences between the sexes presents a strong argument for Gwyneth's point that none of us welcome an end to the Great Divide.

The other night I was watching the new Doctor Who. Earth was being invaded by Cybermen, who proclaimed that they would solve all of Earth's inequities by making everyone a Cyberman -- no race, no gender, no difference.

I think people are afraid if we give up the Great Divide, we'll become Cybermen. And Cybermen are not only neuter; they're automatons.

I don't want to be a Cyberman, either, not because it would mean the end of the gender divide, but because Cyberman aren't individuals. And -- in this way I'm very much a product of my US upbringing -- I'm a great believer in individuality.

I don't think the core individual -- the person at the heart of each of us -- is male or female. When I'm dealing directly with my friends both male and female, I don't think of them as one thing or the other. But at a little more remove, I tend to make sex-linked distinctions. It's easier; it's an old habit.

In Timmi's interview with Chip Delany in the WisCon Chronicles, Chip puts it like this:

In my ideal world, there is one gender with infinite variations; not two with the variations limited to what lies between them.

That isn't Cybermen. That's a world of infinite individualism. I'm sure that frightens some people as much as the Cybermen do, but it appeals to me. Of course, in such a world, it would be very difficult to pigeonhole people by gender. Or, in fact, to pigeonhole them at all.

Personally, I am very tired of being pigeonholed. Today at least, when I'm sick of a world in which over-the-top myths about masculinity dominate international relations and corporate structures while equally overblown myths about female nurturing are used to limit the participation of women, I welcome the revolution.

To hell with la lutte. Vive le manque de difference.


Joan Haran said...


Do you think the overblown myths about female nurturing still carry the same sway? I'm not sure that they do. Or perhaps it is that they're deployed ever more strategically.

It seems to me that one of the double-edged successes of feminism has been to make it easier to see women as aggressive, as perpetrators of crime, as just as capable of the more pejorative versions of rampant individualism as men. Not to say that they won't face a more punitive reaction when the chips are down ...

That some women are still in the position of being used as a 'reserve army of labour' for the capitalist workplace and required to perform domestic labour disproportionately seems to me a necessary contradiction in a capitalist society.

At which point, perhaps the myths of female nurture may be trotted out, but perhaps more pragmatic rationales might also be offered - albeit pragmatism linked to another version of biological essentialism - somebody has to reproduce the next generation so those (women) who are already doing the biological reproduction may as well be saddled with the rest.

all best


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Joan, you make some very good points, particularly your reference to deploying the myths strategically. That is, the nurturing myth is pumped up when we want to move women out of the workforce, and denigrated when we need more employees.

When I wrote that bit about female nurturing, I was thinking about the so-called "mommy wars" we're still having in the US over whether women should stay home with kids. And I do think that some people -- including some feminists -- are holding onto the idea that women are more nurturing.

But I probably chose the term as kind of a shorthand representation of the gender differences that are being pushed by supposedly scientific evidence about male and female brains -- especially since so much of the science appears to be shoddy. It might be better to have used the supposed difference in communication styles to represent the current myth of gender gap.