how a woman can write to change the world
“Powerlessness and silence go together.” — Margaret Atwood
“Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde
So Vogue magazine got all literary and did an Edith Wharton spread to commemorate the grande dame’s 150th birthday. But there’s a problem. We see Edith and her friends kicking it at The Mount, Edith’s country home. Living male writers depict deceased male writers:
“There is Jeffrey Eugenides in a bowler hat doing his best Henry James. There is a bow-tied Junot Diaz as Wharton’s (unrequited) love interest, diplomat Walter Berry. There is Jonathan Safran Foer, hair severely parted down the middle, posing as Wharton’s collaborator, the architect Ogden Codman, Jr.”
And the woman depicting Edith Wharton herself?
30-year-old Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.
As I would tweet on Twitter: *Headdesk*.
Apparently Vogue decided not to include any female writers in a feature about — brace yourself — a female writer.
On the one hand, this seems stupid.
On the other, perhaps it’s sadly and weirdly appropriate. Not because Edith’s time lacked for accomplished women writers or because said writers resembled Russian supermodels (don’t we all?)….but because as women we seem to have this habit of modestly removing ourselves from the spotlight and giving it up to the menfolk.
It’s entirely possible that Vogue approached some female writer, somewhere, and she said in response, Oh no, your pages are too glossy for me, why don’t you let Jeffrey do his Henry James impression, it’s a kick, you’ll never look at PORTRAIT OF A LADY the same way again!
(Not that I think this happened. I don’t. This is an awkward attempt to segue.)
After all, TEDXWomen came into being (or so an organizer told me) because women kept turning down invitations to speak at the regular TED, politely demurring to their “more qualified” male colleagues. The organizers figured that an all-female TED conference would force the women not to do this.
“We silence ourselves,” said Katherine Lanpher at a seminar I went to last Saturday called WRITE TO CHANGE THE WORLD. It’s part of THE OP-ED PROJECT, dedicated to training female and minority voices – getting them into the op-ed pages, into key community forums, into the world.
As the Project points out
“Who narrates the world?….Most of the voices and ideas that we hear in the world come from an extremely narrow echo chamber – mostly western, white, privileged, and overwhelmingly male.”
A big part of this is because women don’t participate in these conversations with anywhere near the same frequency that men do.
“At the Washington Post, for example, a five-month tracking found that roughly 90% of op-ed submissions come from men – and about 88% of Post bylines are male. If you think about it, women are actually being fairly represented, in relationship to our participation/submission radio.”
This is a problem, because:
• it suggests that women aren’t leaders or thought leaders
• who tells the story – who narrates the world — writes history
• a public conversation that excludes half the population robs us of the full-bodied perspective we need in order to make the best decisions
And because as Margaret Atwood put it:
“A word after a word after a word is power.”
When I was growing up, my father was always telling me not to interrupt people. I was never a rude kid — I was Canadian — but I could get fired up over ideas. I would get so passionate that my father would interrupt me interrupting someone else in order to tell me, loudly and firmly, not to do that.
As I got older, I noticed something. There were certain, male-dominated situations – be it a dinner party involving my ex and his friends, or a discussion about zombie literature at which I was the only female panelist – where I discovered that asserting myself felt dangerously close to interrupting. But if I didn’t do it – if I didn’t jump into the fray and compete for my share of attention — then I didn’t get to speak and be heard. Period.
After being trained all through my childhood and adolescence not to interrupt, I had to teach myself how to do exactly that – or at least, how to interrupt the men who were interrupting me — hopefully in a way that wasn’t completely obnoxious.
This involved climbing out of what I’ve come to think of as ‘the good girl box’.
Good girls don’t put themselves out there, throw down the conversational gauntlet, express intense and passionate opinions (at least not without apologizing profusely). After all, we might come off as too loud, too obnoxious. We might offend people. Take up too much space. Attract too much attention.
(A good girl is never too much of anything. She’s perfect. She’s always just right.)
When we speak up, we are rebelling against the conventional idea of what it is to be feminine (which demands we be quiet). We make ourselves vulnerable. We open ourselves up to criticism and attack.
I’m reading shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown’s new book, and she has some interesting observations about what she experienced when her TEDXHouston talk went viral. She dared to put herself out there in order to connect with the audience and drive home her argument. As she watched the video of that talk race across the world, she admits to feeling “exposed” and wanting to hide.
“That was when I realized that I had unconsciously worked throughout my career to keep my work small.”
(It’s safer in the shadows. It’s safer to be small.)
Online, people made mean-spirited comments about her weight (“How can she talk about worthiness when she clearly needs to lose fifteen pounds?”) and her mothering (“I feel sorry for her children”) and her face (“Less research. More Botox.”).
Brown urges us to
“Think about how and what they chose to attack. They went after my appearance and my mothering – two kill shots taken straight from the list of feminine norms. They didn’t go after my intellect or arguments. That wouldn’t hurt enough.”
This isn’t to say that men don’t get attacked when they put themselves out there, when they open up some vulnerability of their own. When I suggested that the reticence to speak up “was a woman thing”, Katherine Lanpher was quick to correct me: “It’s also a cultural thing,” she said, referring to men of certain minority groups who also happen to be underrepresented in the forums of public opinion.
At the same time, I can’t help remembering something that acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith said during a talk at UCLA. She found it a lot easier, she told us, to get under the skin of a character from a different race or culture than one from the opposite sex. She considered the male and female viewpoints to have some fundamental differences between them, and as a fiction writer she did her best to honor this when writing the perspectives of her male characters.
But when men narrate the so-called real world – or roughly 87% of it – that means there’s a depth and breadth of female perspective that is not being honored, whether it’s in the op-ed section of your local paper or the halls of Congress.
So we need to speak up and speak out. Get our voices out there. Put our stamp on the corporate world, on public policy, on culture. Help each other navigate the attempts to shame us whenever we step away from the good girl box, whenever we put ourselves in front of the camera not because of how we look but what we’ve got to say.
It’s time to write ourselves all through the story of this world — so we can change it.