Sunday, July 22, 2007

When refusing to compete looks like winning

In a conversation in which I was fondly reminiscing about the pleasures of my grade-school spelling classes and classroom spelling bees back in the 1950s, my partner Tom said, “I bet you were one of those girls who was really good at spelling.” I admitted that I had been, though I noted that a couple of boys were close rivals and on more than one occasion beat me. The girls in his class, he said, had wiped the floor with the boys when it came to spelling. And because of this, the nuns used to pit the boys against the girls in the classroom bees. [The Catholic school he attended did not segregate boys from girls until the sixth grade.] The nuns, he said, actually imagined that the boys would be shamed into learning their spelling words so that they could beat the girls. But that was a big mistake, Tom added. The nuns, he said, didn’t understand our world view. We just thought that if the girls were good at something and the boys weren’t, then it meant it wasn’t something that mattered. Because that was the way the world we lived in worked: the work women did wasn’t important, and so it was fine for women to be better at it than men.

This reasoning is so familiar that though I can just about mange to laugh wryly when I hear such an anecdote, it almost makes me want to cry. The Russ-ian literary equivalent would be: If women are good at writing a certain kind of story, it must not be either profound or interesting and is certainly not worth reading.

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