Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Some thoughts on “whoa, man”

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day. This is apparently a tradition of some standing, but this year marks the first time I really became aware of it. There was, first, the intriguing doodle — who can resist mousing over to see what it signifies? There was also an appreciation for women resounding through the blogosphere. But I might have shrugged off these things were it not for certain elements of my current personal zeitgeist that made me inclined to prick up my ears.

I’ve mentioned before how attitudes in Switzerland can feel downright sexist. Remember the women’s guild that fought for the right to march in the Sechseläuten parade for the first time last year? Well, there has since been a vote against that becoming a regular occurrence (warning: the article may cause feelings of impending head-explosion).

I’ve also regaled you with examples from my German class, but I can’t resist throwing in a new one, from a few weeks ago:

HERR GERMAN TEACHER (HGT), during our “crime unit”: So, the language has no word for a female detective. Only the male form of the word exists.

ME: Ah, interesting. So what do you do if you have to address a female detective, then?

HGT: I don’t know. Are there any?

ME: Why, yes. Certainly there are.

Sexism: it’s frustrating. I have never thought of myself as a feminist, but there’s a little part of me that feels guilty about this, that knows that I was just lucky to be born in the 1980s, at a time when most of the important fights had already been fought and won, and at a time when I could grow up taking for granted the idea that I could do or become anything that I could dream up. But now I’m living in a country where the right to vote was only granted to women in a certain canton in 1990, and I realize that I would have grown up with different ideas here. I realize, too, that I would brand myself a feminist and fight for the rights of women before I would be willing to have a child who felt her possibilities to be limited by her gender.

There have also been events in my family recently that have reinforced the strength of women for me — their strength in caring for others, their strength in facing obstacles, their strength in caring for others while facing obstacles. My sense of privacy and respect prevents me from saying more, but the formidable nature of women in my family has been at the forefront of my mind, lately.

Then there are those favourite female writers of mine — they’ve been mental companions of mine since teenagehood, so that by now I think of them like old friends. For a writing workshop I attended in the fall, we were asked to arrive on the first day prepared to talk about who our favourite writers were and why. As I prepared a long list and then painstakingly pared it down, I found that it was women — Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro — whose names crowded the final list, along with just a couple of men.

These women writers have done important trailblazing work, too, showing how wise and witty and bang-on accurate a woman’s depiction of the world can be. So many are indebted to them, and I feel all warm inside when I see a fairly masculine writer, such as Jonathan Franzen, exhorting people to read Alice Munro, who is nothing less than a Canadian treasure.

Joyce Carol Oates’ story is an interesting one: she undertook a doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, but ending up being granted a Master’s and then shunted out of the program. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay:

 In May, one sunny morning, I was examined for my master’s degree, in venerable Bascomb Hall for what would be the final time. My examiners were all men; two were older professors with whom I’d studied and who had seemed to approve of my work; the third was a younger professor of American literature, very likely an assistant professor, who stared at me, now “Joyce Carol Smith,” doubtfully. A married woman? A serious scholar? It did seem suspicious. In this man’s unsmiling eyes, I saw my fate… How negligible in his eyes, how expendable, a young woman, and married; not a likely candidate for the holy orders of the Ph.D.

The verdict of the examining committee was that “Joyce Carol Smith” be granted a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin; but she was not recommended to continue Ph.D. studies there. The verdict was You are not one of us, and how could I reasonably disagree?

Her story ends well, with her achieving a pre-eminent and highly decorated position in American letters: a thing, she notes, that might never have happened had she been allowed to do the planned thing, the Ph.D. It’s also worth noting — as she does later in the essay — that she has been granted about a dozen honorary doctoral degrees, including one from — guess where? — yes, Wisconsin. But she merely mentions this fact, and does not gloat about it, because women can be excellent models of graciousness, too.

So, I’m feeling pretty humbled by all of this female greatness, and it seems therefore fitting to leave you with the words of Mike Myers’ character in the immortal movie So I Married an Axe Murderer:

“Woman: whooooa, man!”

And I mean that in the best way possible.

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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “whoa, man”

  1. With all the 16th-century-style rhetoric about women being shouted in the US right now, I needed to read something like this. Thanks.

  2. You have honoured all the strong women in our family and wherever women are connecting, relating and caring. A wonderful tonic for today. Happy International Women’s Day to you!

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