Writer and Author

Tag: Women (Page 2 of 2)

A Womb with a View

 

L'Origine du Monde

Viewing L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris

Last week the Telegraph printed a piece by novelist Amanda Craig pondering whether a woman’s ability to produce offspring was, in fact, the font of perfect understanding of the human condition. The fact that the hook used to sell this rather daft premise was the childlessness of recently deceased author Maeve Binchy took the thing to rather spectacular levels of tactlessness but the argument itself is one that makes me want to bang my head off the keyboard. While I’m not for one moment suggesting that Amanda Craig is representative of all maternal thinking, her argument is one that’s depressingly familiar, and as a woman who’s hit 40 without child-shaped appendages it’s one I’ve heard in various incarnation way too often and every time I hear it it seriously pisses me off.

It’s a big subject but the first and foremost thing is that, as a writer, I don’t see myself particularly as male or female. The writer is a puppet master, inhabiting the head of every character. It doesn’t matter if they’re barren or fertile, male or female, sweet or rotten to the core. It’s my job to understand each one of them, what makes them tick, why they do what they do. Walking in their  shoes, seeing through their eyes is in the job description. Some of the characters will have jobs I’ve done, go to places I’ve been, feel emotions I’ve felt, but everything else is extrapolation. I try to have experienced as much of my characters’ lives as possible but there’s a limit. I’ll never be a man. I’ll never kill someone (I presume). I can think of dozens of things my characters will do that I simply won’t be able to. But that doesn’t mean I won’t know how they feel when they do those things. If I can’t imagine it, then I’ll find someone who’s done it. That’s my job.

It’s the same job for a male writer. The Telegraph piece is only concerned with the female authors who haven’t given birth. The vast body of literature produced by the opposite sex, none of whom have managed to personally drop a sprog, is completely ignored. The piece is written with the assumption that the words written by women exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. That there are men’s books and women’s books and never the ‘twain shall meet. It’s assumed that the fairer sex need their own playing field, that our minds need the same sporting considerations as our bodies. I’ve never fully understood why there always need to be men’s and women’s versions of every sporting event anyway but I’m damn sure that such precautions aren’t necessary when it comes to the intellect. It reminds me of an old theatre anecdote about the old stage actor confronted with a young co-star who favours method acting. The youngster ties himself in knots fully understanding his characters motivation while the old stalwart insists that the only thing necessary is to know your lines and try not to bump into the furniture. It’s acting, not being.

I’ll freely admit to being more than a little method when it comes to understanding my characters but that only goes as far as I need to to understand. I don’t need to live their lives. That way insanity lies.

But apart from underestimating the writer’s skill and insulting the whole of the female sex with the assumption that our words are not equal to men’s Amanda Craig is guilty of the kind of maternal smugness that generally brings me out in a rash. As women we’re told from a very young age that babies are an integral part of the female experience. As little girls we’re given baby dolls to nurture then when we get older we’re told that we will only be a true success when we have found that illusive balance between being a woman and being a mother. In Ireland in particular, with a booming birth rate, there’s little enough debate about women who might not want to have children. We talk ad nauseum about raising a family and there’s huge sympathy with the one in six who will struggle to start the family but you rarely hear from people of either sex who simply prefer to live their lives child free.

In the spirit of full disclosure I didn’t mean to get to this stage in my life without children but that’s the way it’s happened. I do know the pain of not being able to conceive but ultimately felt that I couldn’t face being reduced to a breeding machine in order to have a child. I was scared by baby dolls when I was little. My imagined perfect life never really had a cradle in it. I never really got on with small children. That might have changed and one day I’d like nothing more than to give a home to a child but it never was and never will be the way I define myself. That perfect future that I dreamed up when I was a kid might not have had a cradle but it did have a desk, with a vase of flowers, a steaming mug of coffee and a typewriter. That hasn’t changed.

All a Bit Billy Goats Gruff

 

Billy Goats Gruff by Roger_AO

Like any ecosystem the Internet has it’s own distinct flora and fauna. You don’t even have to go on a prolonged safari to encounter some of the wilder indigenous species, they will sneak right into your living room if you don’t keep your wits about you. In fact some of these ferocious beasties have such prodigious bites that national governments have attempted to muzzle them for the public safety. But this post isn’t really about trolls. Not really.

I’m not here to talk about online defamation or cyber bullying. Those are the kind of trollish activities carried out by the big diamond-encrusted trolls with the massive clubs that block out the sun when they’re raised high – or a nasty bully hiding under a rock. The people I’m talking about would probably never think of themselves as a large silicon-based creature who beats the defenceless with a big stick. They probably don’t even realise that words can have the same effect as a big stick. Sure ,they’re not saying anything personal. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion after all.

Opinion is king in the Internet. Everyone’s got one and no-one’s afraid to use it – and yes, I know that I’m also shouting my ha’penny’s worth into the ether with this post. But I’m talking about a creature that existed long before it could crawl into the cyberspace. Anyone who’s edited the letters page on almost any kind of publication will recognise that green-inked plumage. Those who’ve worked the late shift on a news desk will flinch at the raucous cry. The rest of us them know this almost mythical beast by many names, many faces. There is “Man in Pub”, or “Dublin Taxi Driver”. In these more straightened times there have been increasing sightings of the progenitor of this species, “Man on the Street”.

But I don’t want to give the impression of a sterile single sex organism. There is a female of the species, although it’s not always necessary for procreation.  Males do seem to outnumber their female counterparts but in the dim lighting of the Internet it can be hard to tell them apart. The species is most easily recognised by highly developed speaking apparatus, which is frequently not attached to the actual brain, and tiny ears that have great difficulty in hearing anything apart from their own booming voice. Here in Ireland there’s something of an infestation, although there are marauding bands roaming through most of the planet.

It’s easy to poke fun but the relentless booming and pontificating can get wearing. I’ve seen it time and again on message boards and forums and in the comments on news sites and blogs, even once or twice on this one. A point is made, a discussion gets going and then someone comes along booming their point of view and drowning out everything else. Often people get so distracted correcting wilful ignorance or blatant bigotry that the discussion often doesn’t really get going again. I know we’re back to the silicate beasties but these are usually a lesser species with a softer shell and a less devastating bite. The standard advice of not feeding the trolls doesn’t always apply. They don’t always come looking for food, sometimes they’re just hanging onto the underside of the bridge grabbing at your hooves.

Of course if you walk over bridges that have trolls hanging on the underside the very least they’re going to do is grab at your legs. We all know where we’re headed when we go online. But increasingly it’s not an optional expedition. Life is moving online. We’re constantly connected these days, from the computer we sit in front of all day to the smart phone that’s a constant companion for so many of us. As we interact more often and more widely in an increasingly social world we encounter the Internet’s wildlife with rather depressing monotony. As a woman, it’s a bit like having a time machine sitting on your desk or in your pocket that will take you back to the 1970s whether you want to go or not, and as tends to happen with malfunctioning time portals, some of that dystopian 70s stuff is finding it’s way back here.

To all those young women who think they don’t need to be a feminist any more or guys who think we’re just making a fuss when we have it so easy now, read this story from the UK and this one from our own fair Dublin. Yesterday Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity here in Ireland announced their figures for 2011 – they make depressing reading. But when The Journal, the on-line Irish news site, wrote about the 20% rise in child abuse detailed in the report the first comment was one of our booming friends. They often come out for stories on the site that deal with women’s issues or matters of race and it makes depressing reading. Which is rather my point. I refer to the Journal, by the way, simply because they had an example in the last 24 hours or so but this kind of browbeating is all too common. Whereas once you could simply sidestep “Man in Pub” or cross the road to avoid “Man in the Street” online they come to you.

I know that there’s not much you can do about these indigenous species, they will find a corner to breed even if you put down traps, but merely putting up Don’t Feed the Trolls signs doesn’t strike me as enough. Zoos put up those notices for animals they are keeping safe. Most of the time I wear thick boots when I’ve a bridge to cross so I can stamp on clinging claws but that’s not much good either in the long run. The problem with trolls, whether they’re bullies or single issue head-the-balls who insist that if we’re having a discussion on artichokes we should actually be joining them in a discussion on aardvarks, is that it’s easier to turn away than engage. But that doesn’t shift them in the long run. The only way to get rid of trolls on the bridge who are threatening to eat you is to lower your horns and run at them them.

So I’ve ended up talking about trolls after all. But honestly it’s not really these soft little under-rock dwellers that are the problem. It’s the fact we don’t always charge them off the bridge without a second thought. I’m all for a zero tolerance broken windows theory approach (with thanks to Caitlin Moran and Rudi Giuliani). The Guardian newspaper yesterday asked Why Women Have No Opinions and here in Ireland Margaret E. Ward and her team of Women on Air have been championing more female voices on the Irish airwaves for some time now. There have definitely been some results but there’s a lot more to do. It would be very nice to say, as it says in the story.

Snip, snap snout

This tale’s told out”

Which Box Do You Tick?

So France is doing away with the mademoiselle, officially at least. It begs the question should we in the English speaking world follow suit. Of course, for the French there’s no middle ground. They don’t have that truncated, rather weighted alternative “Ms”. Women who do not warrant a Dr or similarly specific honorific are stuck with describing themselves by which side of the matrimonial fence they happen to occupy.  It’s not a position men ever have to clarify – even historically, when there may have been a world of difference between the Masters, Misters and Esquires in the room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by whether there was a doting wife waiting for them at home simply by a formal introduction. It’s funny how some things linger.

Of course, back then, it all came down to worth, how much respect the person you were addressing was due. A man who was addressed as Esquire, for example, was generally a man of means, landed but not titled. By the same logic, since a woman gained a firmer footing in society once she had been passed from her father to her husband, it made sense to distinguish between those who’d hooked their ticket out and those still waiting on the shelf. The omission of that identifying middle letter was a radical step – assuming a woman’s worth was not simply dependent on her husbands. It took a while to catch on.

I’ve always assumed that “Ms” was a construct of the feminist movement in the 60s or 70s and certainly it wasn’t until then that those radical little letters got some traction. I’m neither a philologist nor a linguist so I’m not getting into etymology here but it seems logical that “Ms” was a compromise that occurred to several forward thinking minds over the years, certainly this New York Times article from 2009 places it as far back as 1901. Given the meaning of the word, it’s hardly surprising it’s gathered a bit of baggage knocking around for over a century.

I was very small when I first heard the word Ms and even then I knew it was quite a powerful little word, certainly a lot more combustible than “Mr”. It was a word you didn’t call someone unless invited and when a woman described herself using it then you knew she was doing it for a reason. I formed the idea that a Ms was a independent, strong, glamorous creature in a whole different league to the fluffy Misses and frumpy Mrses. Now I was making these assumptions in London in the 70s and 80s, and the women I was making them about were all actresses or journalists or writers so my views could have been a little slanted. But early assumptions tend to stick and it never occurred to me, once I reached form-filling age, to use any other honorific but “Ms”. I also might have been a little influenced in my career choice.

Even when I got married I didn’t drop the Ms. I didn’t change my name either but that’s a whole different post. It just never seemed relevant.  I love my husband but he doesn’t define me. I don’t consider my worth any different because he’s around. I’m me and that’s all there is to it. I’m always surprised when anyone suggests the word has negative connotations – I just assume we’ve moved past all that. Of course the very fact that I’m writing this post and asking this question goes to prove that we haven’t but what can I say? I’m an optimist. I’m also happy to describe myself as a feminist and don’t qualify my use of the term by specifying whether the first letter is upper or lower case. But I know there are plenty who disagree.

I’ve been corrected on several occasions when I’ve automatically used Ms when naming a witness in a trial. In each case they would have preferred “Mrs” and have tended to be of an older generation but when I could I’ve always made the change. I use “Ms” when I’m writing to be neutral, but ultimately it’s up to each of us how we choose to be addressed.

So what does “Ms” conjure up for for you? Do you picture boiler-suited man haters or dour killjoys? Does it matter? Is officialdom so out of touch anyway that it doesn’t matter a damn what bleeding box you tick? Do you revel in “Miss” or “Mrs”? Do you care?

How to be a Good Wife

 

A 1950s housewife

Every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to be perfect.  Whether it’s the magic cream that will keep you young or the latest newspaper column on how to garden, how to cook, what gadgets will elevate your life onto a plane of Zen-like calm as the minutiae of life are sifted into ever smaller boxes, there are always voices feeding our insecurities with the promise that if you could only follow these three simple rules life will flow like it does on the movies.  With money tight and time even tighter it’s hardly surprising we feel like we’re floundering, but take heart.  We’re not the first generation to feel swamped by the image of the perfect home, perfect life.  It didn’t kick off in the 50s either whatever you might think from watching Mad Men. It goes much, much further than that!

At the climax of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew Kate instructs her sister and step-mother with her newly hard won wisdom.  “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” she scolds “muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.”  She could almost be selling the latest anti aging miracle potion.

Next week an 18th Century guide to how to cut it in the modern world will go under the hammer.  The Lady’s Companion  with the snappy subtitle An Infallible Guide to the Fairer Sex,  was pitched as essential reading for “virgins, wives or widows”.  So dogmatic, so L’Oreal.

My own interest in the impossible dream started when aspirations to domestic nirvana were limited to singing along to Somewhere That’s Green from The Little Shop of Horrors.  It was the early 1990s and I was living in a bedsit in Rathmines that was straight out of Rising Damp.  The wiring was certainly straight out of the 70s – ah the heady days before landlord registration! So the 70s edition Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia seemed like an essential reference when I found it on the dusty lower shelf of a second hand bookshop.  It was only when I got it home I discovered the wealth of information about stain removal and household budgets.  In those days I tended to skip the bits about how to cater dinner parties and look your most alluring with a gin & tonic when your husband came home from a hard day at the office.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s surrounded by strong women, many of whom were going it alone I never doubted that I would build a career.  There was never any suggestion that happiness was in any way contingent on a well appointed kitchen or, come to that, a man.  By the time I reached my teens and my 20s I saw the perfectly rouged, high-heeled beauties in the “House Wife” manual as nothing more than Stepford Wives, enemies almost, who were very definitely letting the side down.

My stance softened when I met The Husband.  I seized the idea of building a warm and inviting nest with both hands, consumed with the urge to build a glowing, sweet-smelling home just for just us two.  I bought an apron and matching saucepans.  I learnt to make cupcakes and bread.  I was never going to be a kitchen goddess – the keyboard will always have more of a lure than the kitchen – but suddenly I could kind of see the point.  It was in the euphoria of early married life that my little collection of “Good Wife” manuals took shape.  Even when newsroom shifts meant I was living off M&S microwave meals for one I would look at the colour plates in these books and marvel at the spotless kitchens and gargantuan cleaning schedules.

The earliest book I have is the didactically titled Book of Good Housekeeping published by the Good Housekeeping sometime in the 1950s.   “The modern housewife”, the introduction informs, “has to combine many functions with those of mistress of her house; she will almost certainly do her own shopping and cooking, and probably a good part of the household washing and cleaning; more and more she is her own interior decorator, handywoman and often gardener…Even with the willing help of the “man about the house”, the average housewife today leads a very full life.”  The book covers everything from balancing the household budget to plumbing and beauty (all vanishing cream and makeup that looks it’s best from the other side of the room).

The schedule for housework alone provides a full working week and the requirement for table linen (2-3 table cloths, 2-3 breakfast cloths AND 2-3 afternoon tea cloths) means life would be a never ending cycle of table laying.  But despite the frankly terrifying standards you’re supposed to aspire to there’s something comforting about the photographs of primary coloured kitchens and living rooms.  For all the fish knives and grapefruit spoons, the book makes ideal home perfection look attainable – even if it is a full time job.

Then there’s Frankly Feminine published in England in 1972.  Times have changed and it’s no longer enough to match your lipstick to your suit colour (or to dress up when doing the housework for that matter).  The book starts off with a list of the calories in everyday foodstuff and many pictures of a very supple blonde girl in a red leotard but the housework plan is as strenuous as ever.  As the foreword says “This book has been compiled for today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and her friends.”  “Today’s complete woman” is still going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with table cloths and dinner parties even if the fish knives have now been superseded by fondue sets.

These were the books bought by and bought for brides.  I can all too easily imagine how their calm, dogmatic tone could be tinged with the mother-in-law’s hectoring tones. They set the bar pretty high and, when not viewed as social history, must have seemed like the Stepford rule book.  But I read them from a different world.  I might not come close to their exacting standards but I don’t have to.  I find it comforting not nagging that they break down domesticity into a simple set of rules.  With their diagrams for everything from changing nappies to laying out a kitchen to putting on eye shadow they break down the esoteric secrets of grown up life into a few easy steps.

Generally speaking I restrict my domestic goddess tendencies to Christmas and the very occasional dinner party and you’re a million times more likely to find me sitting at my desk with birds nest hair and ratty pyjamas than turning the mattresses and laying the table for breakfast.  But if I had the spare cash I’d love to bid for the Lady’s Companion…how fascinating to see how the mother-in-laws of the 1740s would given their instructions.

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