RESEARCHING WOMEN’S WRITING: WHEN WILL INTEGRATION HAPPEN?

Last week I gave a lecture in Bilbao within a cycle devoted to publicising women’s work as scientists. My lecture was called “Women Scientists that Tell Stories: New Humanist SF Written by Women” which sounds worse in English than it does in Spanish (“Científicas que narran historias: Nueva ciencia ficción humanista escrita por mujeres”). You can see it on YouTube (https://youtu.be/fZTZqG0lI-k), and I hope you enjoy it!

Then two days later, I gave another talk, this time for the SF Catalan convention, or CatCon 2, on robosexuality as an emerging identity in real life and also about its representation in fiction (with a focus on ‘male’ robots). In the Bilbao lecture I spoke about Vandana Singh, Nieves Delgado and Carme Torras, whereas in the CatCon lecture I spoke again about Delgado and another woman author, Montserrat Segura, but also about a man: Isaac Asimov.

The strategies are, as you can see, quite different: a) publicising women’s work, b) discussing a topic in relation to both women’s and men’s writing. This has set me thinking hard about which of these two strategies is better and I must declare that I cannot solve this riddle: I prefer mixing authors in the discussion of a specific topic but I realise that we still need to make women much more visible. I wonder, however, why it is taking so long and whether we have collectively taken, as feminists, the right path. I’m afraid we have not.

I have been pondering this matter for a long time (you may check, for instance, “Hacia una nueva utopía en los Estudios de Género: El ‘problema’ del feminismo (en la ciencia ficción)”, http://ddd.uab.cat/record/176095) but still feel stuck in the same dilemma. As a feminist woman, I feel that I do women writers a disservice by asking for an end to the separate study of their work. And so, for the same reason, because I’m a feminist woman, I take up all the chances that come my way to explain why women should be better valued and discussed separately to increase their visibility. I do not particularly enjoy discussing feminism and femininity so often but if you’re a woman this is what you’re invited to do. I recently heard SF author Becky Chambers say that she’s happy discussing gender but she’d rather discuss spaceships and I sympathise, particularly because men are hardly ever invited to discuss gender and often monopolize the public discourse on spaceships (if you know what I mean).

Although the feminist approach to studying women’s writing had been used long before, among others by Virginia Woolf, for convenience’s sake I’ll date the academic project of tracing back the presence of female authors in the History of Literature to Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1978). That project is already forty years old, then, with all the controversies it has generated but also with all the colossal tasks so far carried out.

We have now a variety of resources cataloguing practically all the writing women have produced from the dawn of times, perhaps only missing sixth- or seventh-tier authors. The effort to make their works available continues and will continue for decades. Let me suppose, again for convenience’s sake, that it might take forty more years to fulfil the feminist utopia of bringing all neglected women back from the sexist past and into the limelight of a post-patriarchal future. Then what? Do we still continue writing monographs with the words ‘women’ or ‘female’ in the title? Or do we stop and start full integration?

I complained, perhaps too loudly, in the question time following a lecture on 18th century women’s writing that the problem with the separatist strategy is that a) we don’t have titles that refer specifically to men’s writing, b) feminism has failed in its attempt to make the study of women’s writing compulsory for male researchers. We may continue publishing volumes called Women’s Poetry of the 18th Century, for instance, but this is self-defeating, for we don’t have the equivalent Men’s Poetry of the 18th Century. Instead, a book called Poetry of the 18th Century written by a man is likely to be mostly about the male poets, though academic fashion, political correctness and perhaps the work of a female editor might result in the still token presence of a handful of women.

We should rewrite all the textbooks, then, for this is where the foundation for real change lies, and not only in the separatist line of feminist research. I must acknowledge, though, that when integration is fully achieved in an introduction, this produces a funny feeling. Perhaps a specialist in neuro-science should explain this to me but it seems that once you pass the early stage as an undergrad when you learn the basics of the literary canon it is really hard to change your own vision.

Of course, this is enlarged as you learn more names and read more women writers. Yet, if you’re asked about the main authors of a given period, your reply is likely to result in a string of male names. You need to stop and think, ‘oh, yes, and then there were all those women’. The names of Austen, the Brontës, (George) Eliot or Virginia Woolf do come to mind because they have been canonical for a long time. But, it is still easier to recall Anthony Trollope than Fanny Trollope, or Wilkie Collins rather than Margaret Oliphant. See what I mean? This is why, I insist, integration must happen at textbook level. The way I see it, that should be the focus of the feminist project.

Or, perhaps, I have all along misunderstood what academic feminism is about and integration is not at all its end. Yesterday I was interviewed by a fourth-year student of journalism and she told me that many young women involved in the current feminist movement in Spain do use feminism in the radical sense of reinforcing women’s superiority over men. As I explained to her, that is precisely the reason why I tend to call myself these days anti-patriarchal rather than feminist (my feminism aims at achieving equality, not exchanging one type of inequality for another). But I digress. There is then the likelihood that part of the women involved in feminist academia are actively working in favour of gender separatism–and, yes, I’m sounding this silly and naïve on purpose, to make this choice sound the more suspect.

And, then, we have the men in Literary Studies, some truly pro-feminist and anti-patriarchal, some rabidly misogynistic and the rest carefully navigating the waters of, as mentioned, political correctness. One strategy is the one followed by Peter Boxall in a recent lecture I attended and in which he managed not to discuss identity at all, as if that was not necessary. He is one of the researchers constantly producing surveys and introductions which is why I was so aghast at the neutral tone of his lecture (which dealt with men and women writers, that’s a comfort at least).

I simply don’t see men like Boxall, or similar academic male luminaries, facing the issue of how to write specifically about men writers, for they needn’t do that. We, women, being still subordinated in patriarchal society must consider how/why we write but men can still afford the luxury of not looking into their own masculinity and how they’re positioned in relation to patriarchy, and I mean both writers and academics. I feel deeply annoyed right now thinking of this… Women like me, interested in dismantling patriarchy, are the ones, then, writing about male writers as men, which is, if you think about it, quite strange since we lack the experience of being men.

I wish we lived in post-patriarchal, post-gender times and could get over the onerous task of having to take positions that are so hard to defend. Then we could talk about spaceships–though dear Becky Chambers forgets that this is also a heavily-gendered issue. Every time I see a phallic rocket taking off, I wonder what dictates the shape: pure physics or gender issues? In contrast, in Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood, or Xenogenesis Trilogy, the alien Oankali spaceship is an organic, fully sentient being, which often feels as a gigantic womb. You see where I’m going with this…

I cannot write here ‘in conclusion’, for I don’t know that I have reached any conclusion. I’ll continue accepting invitations to discuss feminism and women’s writing, as I work on gender integration as a teacher and a researcher. As a feminist, then, I’ll antagonize both my radical women feminist colleagues and also the recalcitrant patriarchs who think, for whatever reasons, that being a feminist entitles you to receiving constant support from the Government (does it??). I’m already working on a book about men’s writing within the context of patriarchy, so I cannot say that will be my next step. If anyone’s listening, please write inclusive introductions for, I’m fully convinced, that’s the only way to change the way we learn the canon.

And if you’re a woman fully committed to working only on women’s writing and for a female audience, well, I’m happy if you’re happy but do consider how/why male researchers can still afford to ignore your work, and simply not discuss identity in its most basic sense.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

(NOT) TRAINING STUDENTS FOR JOBS: EMPLOYABILITY, TEAMWORK, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES

I’ll begin today with a semantic quibble about the presence of the word ‘Bachelor’ in the name of the degree ‘Bachelor of Arts’ or BA.

Pop etymology indicates that the Medieval Latin word ‘baccalaureatus’ derives from Latin ‘baccalaureus’, a portmanteau of ‘bacca’ (berry) and ‘laurea’ (‘laurel’), because of the laurel crown awarded to graduates as if they were Roman victors. In Spanish this eventually gave ‘bachiller’, which refers to the man with a secondary education; ‘bachillera’ was used mockingly, since women were not educated to this level until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. The word ‘bachillerato’, still used for the two-year course after E.S.O. and before university has, then, that peculiar origin. For higher education, Spanish preferred ‘licenciado’, that is to say, the person who has a license to teach to others what he has mastered (note my sexist choice of pronoun), usually in a five-year course. Now we have ‘graduado’ in imitation of English ‘graduate’. ‘Bachelor’ appears in English as an import from French meaning a young man in training, whether this is in arms or in academic knowledge, hence the eventual use of the word for the degree. Also for the man who remained single for life, as, I assume, that was the case for many minor knights and scholars too poor to marry (besides, bachelors eventually took orders, or already belonged to them). So, ladies, think how funny it is that you claim to have a Bachelor of Arts degree.

This prologue is just the opening salvo for what I want to discuss to day: what is the point of a BA in the Humanities, and specially in English Studies? Please, note that I mean the Spanish-style BA combining Language and Literature in a four-year course, not English in the Anglo-American sense of the study of the literary arts, though my argument also applies in many ways. My post today is specifically a very personal response to the assessment the degree I work for has gone through. We have passed it though not with flying colours because it seems we have shortcomings to solve in three areas, or, rather, types of skills: employability, teamwork and digital skills.

To understand what we’re going through now, I need to mention that universities are Medieval institutions that have survived the vagaries of time because they are very slowly to change. In recent years, meaning within the timespan of my own personal memory, this change has been accelerated with very questionable results. I am constantly narrating here how as researchers we are constantly on the verge of burnout but hardly given any psychological support, much less reward. I won’t go again through the tragedy of the chronically exploited younger staff. Rather, the focus is why we have degrees at all.

The old focus was that degrees exist to enhance the territory of knowledge, and, so, ‘Filología Inglesa’ first saw the light in 1952 in the Universidad de Salamanca because it was such a shame that English language and Literature were so woefully unknown in Spanish scholarly circles. The initial reason why ‘licenciaturas’ were established, then, was self-centred in the sense that the presence of the student body justified the tenure of the staff, so that they could generate knowledge mainly for scholarly use. The students attended university to benefit from, so to speak, the fallout of academic life and perhaps enter it themselves. Students who did not pursue an academic career (95%) were supposed to get an education, not necessarily professional training. The education was supposed to give them general credentials to find a job beyond the specific knowledge they had earned. A ‘licenciatura’ in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ meant that you were competent, intelligent and capable of further learning.

The current model–established in 2009 after an intermediate period in which ‘licenciaturas’ were reduced to four years rather than five and before MA degrees were established in Spain–is radically different. Now universities need to justify their very existence depending on what they contribute to society via results, usually connected with the employability of students. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have, as we do, a German language and Literature unit, which contributes to our BA degree and to others in the Facultat. As long as student demand of German reaches a minimum, this section survives. If, as happened in Universitat Rovira i Virgili years ago, the demand dwindles dramatically, then the section is closed, regardless of the research it contributes. There is usually a time of transition during which the State will wait for the tenured teachers to retire and will hire no more staff (or only associates that can be dismissed). But, yes, whole segments of knowledge can be lost in this way, and I’m not talking about obsolete science.

In this market-oriented new model, then, teaching matters more than research when deciding which Departments you keep alive and, what is more, even though universities are formally research centres, the cost of keeping certain units open is calculated on teaching-related statistics. Now, here’s the problem: we know that we’re giving our students an education but we do not know what it is for. Furthermore, if you think about it, BA degrees should not worry about employability because they exist as a bridge between secondary education and the advanced education provided by MA degrees and doctoral programmes. Technically, then, the burden of employability should fall on the MAs, which is not an exaggeration considering that old ‘licenciaturas’ were five-years long, thus the sum total of UK-styles BA and MA programmes (3+2 courses).

Employability is a very tricky question for a BA degree in English Studies: 75% of our students will end up being secondary-school teachers, whether they have a vocation or not, but 25% are open to other possibilities (jobs in management or in professions connected with publishing, translating, writing and so on). We cannot formally train our students to be teachers, for this task corresponds to the School of Education (though, paradoxically, they train mainly primary school teachers). So, we proceed on the basis that whatever our students learn will be later applied to their future profession through some intermediate stage, whether this is a formal MA or direct work experience.

As a Literature teacher, then, I train my students in skills that are 100% of direct scholarly application, should they decide to pursue an academic career, but that are supposed to be also of general applicability in any professional occupation requiring intellectual abilities (reading and interpreting texts, seeking sources, giving presentations, writing reports, and so on). I use a mixture of the traditional and the new model. I cannot, however, organize my teaching around the idea that I’m training students for professions they don’t even know they will have. As for teacher-training, well, I wasn’t trained myself: I made a good note of what my teachers did and then copied what I think worked best. Other than presenting myself as a model to follow or not, I don’t know how to train future teachers, thinking besides that they might teach secondary school, which I have never taught, and against a mid-21st century background with God knows what kind of classroom technology (and students!).

Teamwork is an obsession with current regulators of educational rules that in practice all students hate. This is why they don’t like participating in class discussion, which is our basic, most uniformly used type of teamwork. I keep on telling my students that classroom work is collaboration and that I’m not there to lecture (only sometimes) but to guide them in collective discussion–if only for the sake of practising English. They do know that a class is a team which must work together but this is resisted every day in class. If I ask my students to work in pairs or in small groups of up to four and then walk around and talk to each little group that works well (though our classroom space is hardly designed for that). Ask them, however, to work in teams on a project and you have that typical situation: out of, say, five students, two do nothing, two do a little and one does everything, which ends up benefitting the lazy ones. Perhaps that is realistic training for actual job-related situations but students tend to see teamwork as frustrating (at least in this little corner of the university where I work). This is why I have tried other kinds of teamwork: producing collective volumes as e-books (available from the digital repository). The problem, I’m told, is that this is not visible in the official syllabus. Well, it is not because I’m still experimenting (this year, for instance, I’m thinking of applying project-oriented teaching to second year teaching, rather than third and fourth).

Digital skills–here I feel like screaming…!!! Teachers born in the 1960s and before should be learning digital skills from the digital natives in their classroom and not the other way round. We have self-trained at each point since the internet first reached Spain (in 1996) to use e-mail, online catalogues and databases, blogs, websites and the social networks. I don’t understand, then, why we should be made responsible for the digital training of our students–persons who often sit in class compulsively checking their cellphones rather than listening to us. Just let me explain that I do want to have my students collaborate in a booktube channel and produce basic documentaries to accompany papers or dissertations. However, when I asked my university for help to learn the required skills, they basically told me that they lack the budget and the facilities. I asked next the student delegation to find me a student with advanced audiovisual know-how who could train me and other students, supposing that we must have some vloggers in our classrooms. So far, no luck. I contacted then a professional company but they asked for 1000 euros which with our ridiculous yearly budgets is an impossible quantity (we get now one fourth of the money I could use back in 2005-8 as Head of Department and that was already very little).

I am, in short, plain angry to be constantly judged, as a teacher and as a researcher, by standards that can never be met because they are fundamentally elusive. Also the other way round: I have the suspicion that the standards chosen are elusive so that we can never be up to task. It’s this constant feeling that you’re working hard to run a 100-metre race and when you get to the starting line than you’re told that actually you must also compete in other events for which you didn’t know you had to train. If you manage you get some inkling, by the next time you’re assessed rules have, anyway, changed again.

The market, in short, wants to invest as little as possible in educating citizens, preferring instead to train workers that must have skills universally employable so that they can be moved around from one badly-paid job to the next. The market wants, in addition, to have us, university teachers, assume the burden of passing on skills for which we have not been trained, while at the same time it undermines the respectability of the academic skills we do possess. I often feel that the message I’m being sent is that, as a Literature teacher, I am a useless luxury and, as such, society would be better off without me. And I’m not speaking here of myself personally but of all Literature teachers in the world.

I must, then, justify how what I teach trains the university’s clients (are they still students?) for employability, team work and the use of digital technologies. Well, I have a double answer to that: a) obviously and b) not at all, depending on whether you are willing to value what we, Literature teachers do, or not. We can always improve our teaching in relation to our own subject needs but we cannot turn critical scholarly work on William Shakespeare into skills generally needed for current jobs. It is the employers’ responsibility to train employees, not ours, for we’re educators–and that’s a different set of skills. Don’t make us, then, shoulder a burden which belongs to the market, not to the university.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TOWARDS LIBERATION FROM EMPOWERMENT

I was watching last week the new wonder woman of Spanish music, Rosalía, in an interview on TV (in Pablo Motos’ El Hormiguero) and she confirmed that, indeed, her new recording, El mal querer, deals with ‘el poder femenino’ (I’m not sure whether she means female, women’s or feminine power). Rosalía herself is an example of sudden artistic empowerment that I don’t quite understand, as I think that we’re missing crucial information about her family background and her training as a musician. But that’s not my point (to clarify matters: like millions of people around the world, I love what she does, it’s so thrilling and refreshing!). My point is this: why do we speak of power rather than of liberation? When did liberation stop being a keyword for feminism?

The very accomplished article ‘Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse’ by Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (https://www.cairn-int.info/article-E_RTM_200_0735–empowerment-the-history-of-a-key-concept.htm) offers a very useful overview of how this term became so widespread and why. She cites as a major inspiration ‘the conscientization approach developed by the Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968’. According to Calvès, the 1970s were the time when ‘the term formally come into usage by social service providers and researchers’, particularly after Barbara Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (1976).

 The current popularity of ‘empowerment’, however, sinks its roots in the mid-1990s, when,Calvès explains, it firmly ‘entered institutionalized discourse on women in development’ thanks to feminist NGOs. Calvès highlights the UN’s InternationalConference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) as one of the main events ‘to give the concept international visibility’. Precisely, the article by Ann Ferguson ‘Empowerment, Development and Women’s Liberation’–one of the few publications linking the two concepts that interest me–appears in a book published by the UN’s University Press, The Political Interests of Gender Revisited (Anna G. Jónasdóttir and KathleenB. Jones, eds., 2009, 85–103. The article itself is not available online but you may easily find the volume’s introduction.

I have serious doubts about the word ‘empowerment’ because it seems to be intrinsically patriarchal. If, as I am preaching, patriarchy is a form of hierarchical social organization characterized by its placing individuals in different ranks according to the power they wield, why is empowerment desirable? If you start from a position of oppression and you manage to empower yourself, you may end up in a higher position but how do you contribute to undoing the very system of power? Could it be that we use empowerment mistakenly and we actually mean ‘liberation’?

Let me go back to Rosalía (born in 1993) to discuss next another young woman also born when the word ‘empowerment’ was become popularized, Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997).

As far as I know, Rosalía has freely taken all the decisions concerning her career and has not been the object of any patriarchal attempts to curtail her artistic creativity. In short, she is enjoying the chance to develop her personal agency in freedom (within the legal and moral limits of current Spanish legislation) like any other young man of her generation and inclinations. Agency, incidentally, is a word that seems to have disappeared from the horizon, though it seemed to be ubiquitous just a few years ago. So, how’s Rosalía a ‘powerful woman’ rather than a ‘free’ or ‘liberated’ woman? And how come ‘liberated’ has taken on this sexualized meaning? It seems to me that the ‘poder femenino’ she invokes and maybe embodies is a position, rather than a reality, a sort of pre-emptive strike against the patriarchal power that might limit her–it’s a way of saying ‘you can’t touch me’,even though, as we know, successful women like Rosalía attract much attention from misogynistic haters. Her ‘power’, then, is in how her popularity and public presence outdo the control that the patriarchal trolls would use, if they could, against her. It’s not power to repress or control others.

 Now takeMalala, the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and, thus, also another example of empowerment–or is it liberation? Unlike Rosalía, Malala grew up in an environment dominated by an extreme patriarchal regime, that of the Taliban in her native Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was motivated by his personal and professional circumstances to become an anti-patriarchal activist,willing to sacrifice his own life to give girls in his community an education.His sisters never attended school but he made sure that his daughter and other girls like her would have a school to welcome them: the one he himself ran. Malala learned her own educational activism from her father and almost lost her life in 2012 when a Taliban patriarchal terrorist shot her in the head. The family relocated then to the United Kingdom, from where both Malala and her father continue their task of empowering (or is it liberating?) other girls by providing, to begin with, the inspiration to demand an education.

Empowerment takes, then, as many forms as personal experience dictates and is supposed to act, as I was arguing, as a barrier against further oppression by shifting the relationships of power and introducing a better balance. This is where my misgivings resurface: if power is, say, a cake, the more I eat, the less you eat–which means that empowerment is necessarily finite and also that those in power will always resist giving any away. This is how things seem to be working so far: the oppressed demand a bigger share of the cake, which they seem to be getting but the ones who feel entitled to holding the whole cake under their control do not like the situation a bit (a bite?). Hence all the lashing out, from Taliban violence to online trolling, simply because we cannot all be empowered. In contrast, we could all be free, that is to say, liberated from the restrictions imposed by patriarchy if only we started thinking about who baked the cake and why we have to eat it at all for, you see?, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Bob Pease writes that ‘The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful while doing the tasks that are not traditional for men’ (30 in Carabí & Armengol, editors, Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World), such as… rearing children, he adds. I think these words encapsulate much of what is wrong with empowerment: what does ‘feel powerful’ mean, whether you’re a man or a woman? Isn’t Pease himself suggesting that being powerful is the same as having the capacity to oppress others? How can you ‘exercise power’ without controlling others? If you ask me, for men to change they should oppose the very idea of patriarchal power to liberate themselves and others from oppression–ask Ziauddin Yousafzai whether being powerful is a priority for him. He is the very example of what liberation is for men and for women under harsh patriarchal regimes. Why, then, knowing as we do that patriarchy survives because it appeals to men with a sense of entitlement to power, we want to empower women? Again: why not liberate everyone from the shackles of power?

Women who manage to choose how to live their lives, whether they’re called Rosalía or Malala, are, to me, not instances of empowerment but of freedom. Power, as we see in patriarchal men, does not free you: it’s the other way round–it enslaves you to living life as others dictate. If you’re thinking that I’m wrong and that only enjoying a great amount of power guarantees your personal freedom then you don’t mean power, you mean agency. Vladimir Putin has plenty of power and he’s not using it for his personal liberation: he’s using it to compete with other men for the title of biggest living patriarch. Angela Merkel also has much power–but isn’t she the counterexample of women’s liberation? Perhaps she’ll feel truly liberated when she retires next year and can finally use her agency to help others rather than uphold, as she is doing, the status quo.

 I think I’ve now hit on the key of my own personal philosophy of power, perhaps I should call it anti-power. If being powerful is being in a position to cause things tohappen (and being powerless is being in a position in which you can’t stopthings from happening), then I can say that the only use I see in empowerment is an altruistic ability to make life better for others. Rosalía’s ‘poder femenino’ should ideally translate into lending a hand so that other persons can flourish,as she is doing. Malala is more clearly following this path already, as are others. I don’t mean Bill-Gates-style philanthropy (though this is much better than what he used to embody and now Elon Musk embodies) or charity, not even NGO activism but a rethinking of what power is for. If, as a teacher, I am in a position to use my (very limited) power to benefit the careers of others who will in their turn help others, this is how I should use it. This may sound endogamic but that’s not at all what I mean. Patriarchy will be undone when we,men and women, ask ourselves ‘how can I help?’ rather than ‘how can I dominate?’

I’ll end by suggesting that empowerment is much more popular than liberation because the very idea of power is, regrettably, too glamorous. We also need to recall that empowerment is mainly a US export, pace Paolo Freire and NGO activism, and that in American culture the opposite of being powerful is not just being powerless but being a loser, which is even worse. Perhaps if we free ourselves from the obligation of being a winner that would be a step forward towards true liberation and the abandonment of the current obsession with power, which, trust me, is suspiciously patriarchal.

SLAP IN THE FACE, PUNCH IN THE GUTS (ON MACHIAVELLI AND TOLKIEN)

I was recently re-reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) in the elegant translation by Peter Bondanella (Oxford UP, 2008), when I came across this passage in ‘Chapter XXX: Of Fortune’s Power in Human Affairs and How She Can Be Resisted’: ‘I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’ (86-87).

I’m still reeling from the force of the slap, for this was possibly three weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about these words. I didn’t feel feminist indignation at Machiavelli’s blatant misogyny, which should be any thinking woman’s reaction, but a very strong sense of exclusion: I felt as if he was telling me to my face from his grave ‘you are a woman and the words you are reading are not for you’. I also felt positively unwanted in the circles discussing The Prince, perhaps, above all, because Bondanella added no explanatory note to this rude remark (among the many, many devoted to much minor details).

He did explain, as editor, that Fortune was habitually represented as a woman–for, I’ll add, Fortune is fickle and so are women. Bondanella also noted that, as I could check in his bibliography, very few women scholars have done work on Machiavelli; this comes as no surprise because they possibly felt the same rotund punch in the guts that I felt. Incidentally, Bondanella neglected to mention that Machiavelli was married (to Marietta Corsini) and he had six children. It took me a few clicks to get her name and the number of children, not out of idle curiosity but because I wanted to know whether Machiavelli could possibly be gay. I feel even more downhearted than usual when gay men support patriarchy.

Then, last week I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s selection of Tolkien’s letters (published in 1981) and enjoying it very much until I came to a letter sent to one of his three sons, Michael, dated 6-8 March 1941. Tolkien was in the middle of writing The Lord of the Rings and, so, the female Elf Galadriel already existed, also Lúthien in The Silmarillion, both characters much praised by feminist critics. Incidentally, Tolkien also had a daughter, Priscilla, 13 at the time.

Tolkien theorizes in this letter to his son about how ‘The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or specially desirous of being so (or seeming so), and very ready to enter into all interests, as far as they can, from ties to religion, of the young man they are attracted to’ (49). Um, I’ve always had my doubts about this fantasy of the Elf woman (Arwen) who gives up her mortality to marry a mere mortal (Aragorn). Tolkien continues in the same vein: women are not deceivers (what a relief!) but moved by ‘the servient, helpmeet instinct, generously warmed by desire and young blood’ (49).

As an Oxford professor, Tolkien had learned that women ‘can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be perceptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that’ (49). That possibly explains why so many male teachers see no difference between different types of fertilization in different rooms. Tolkien, not the kind to have affairs with his female students, explains himself further thus: ‘How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point–and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him’ (49). Learning for women, to sum up, is a love affair not with knowledge but with male teachers. I wonder what Tolkien made of female teachers and male students.

So, again the slap in the face, the punch in the gut, though neither Machiavelli nor Tolkien seem to understand, particularly Tolkien, that we women can read in their texts their candid revelations about masculinity. My message to all the feminist critics wasting their time in endless discussions of how empowered poor Eówyn is that they should look, rather, into how the villain Sauron’s defeat matters less than Aragorn’s ‘legitimate’ patriarchal entitlement to the throne of his ancestors. By the way: Tolkien engraved on his wife’s tomb the name of Lúthien, the brave Elf she had inspired. Here’s something the two women have in common: Lúthien, like Arwen, gave up immortality to marry a man; Edith, a fervent  Anglican, became a Catholic to please the ultra-conservative Tolkien before they married. Lúthien never regretted her choice but Edith, Humphrey Carpenter informs us, raged and raged (she hated compulsory confession) until her husband allowed her in 1940 (they had married in 1916) to attend church as she pleased.

What I am describing is yet another case of noticing the idol’s clay feet. I don’t mean that either Machiavelli or Tolkien are my personal idols but that most texts, past and present, which are extremely relevant to how we think and read in Western culture exclude 50% of humankind. (Of course, you silly girl!). Those reluctant to changing any rules of grammar concerning genre usually claim that ‘man/men’ is often a generic way of referring to all human beings, and that we women exaggerate when we complain against this usage. What I find, however, is that actually ‘man/men’ refers specifically to the male half of humankind and if you press me actually to its patriarchal top. Take the title of Damien Chazell’s recent film on Neil Armstrong, First Man: what is the word ‘man’ doing there? Does it actually mean ‘person’? Or is it, as I suspect, another neglectful way of telling us women, ‘none of you have travelled to the Moon’ (because we men didn’t allow you)? One more slap… (Now check what the Mercury 13 programme was).

I’m trying to be fair here and think of how often women’s writing excludes men, which is often, I’m sure, particularly in radical feminist works. The difference, I think, is that male readers (and please excuse my essentialism) are less likely to be caught unaware, as we are. If you read a feminist text you know where you stand. The problem with most patriarchal texts is that they tend to conceal their filiation not necessarily out of hypocrisy but because they assume that the whole world is patriarchal. Only when some kind of explanation is offered (e.g. Tolkien’s letter) are the true colours of the man in question displayed. It is, I believe, far less likely for a feminist woman to avoid commenting on her own gender views. Even so, I just don’t see a radical feminist making androphobic comments such as ‘Destiny is like a man and he needs to be grabbed by the testicles to be controlled’ or ‘male students only learn if they feel erotically bound to their female teachers but, even so, their ability to learn evaporates the moment she shows disinterest’. Amazing how things sound when you reverse gender.

Reading recently Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (a collection of lucid blog posts) I had to agree with her that it is very difficult to relax at the end of the day without being slapped in the face by patriarchy in any of the fictions and non-fictions we consume. I started watching a few days ago 1922, a Netflix movie based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella, and I stopped about 15 minutes into it when farmer Wilf James convinces his teen son Henry that they should kill his mother Arlette (she insists on selling the land they live off and move elsewhere). I did grasp that King and Netflix intended this crime to be a horrendous example of patriarchal abuse, and I knew that Wilf’s and Henry’s lives would be destroyed by it–but is this what I want to see? How does this help male viewers be interested in undermining patriarchy? How many enjoyed the very graphic scene of Arlette’s murder? The difference in relation to either The Prince of The Lord of the Rings is that I can ignore 1922 without feeling that my cultural capital is seriously diminished–but how can I ignore Machiavelli or Tolkien? I must read them, if only to better understand my own marginal position in a patriarchal world.

I think sometimes of what the world was like for, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, who understood so well her own marginal position 200 years ago and I wonder what it was like to know that, as a woman, you were not even a citizen with full rights. Some of us in a handful of Western countries have been told that we are equal to men but we get these constant reminders that we are not. You may be thinking that it is very naïve of me to expect to connect with Machiavelli and Tolkien, as they are instances of very different times and ways of thinking but here’s my question–how do we go on reading what we should read to be cultured persons without being constantly insulted as women? For we need to read men, right? It’s not a matter of not reading The Prince. And I certainly don’t want to ignore The Lord of the Rings (as I don’t want any man to ignore Frankenstein).

Here’s a riddle to finish: this is 2018 and no woman has travelled to the Moon yet–can we, then, say that the human species has reached our satellite? Will there ever be a film called First Woman about how the first human to step on Mars will be/was a woman?

Deep sigh.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/