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A Little Political by Joanne Valin

August 10, 2011

Joanne Valin holds a Ph.D. in American literature. She teaches literature and composition, and her poetry has been published in the Canadian anthology The Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War.

Writing is a political act. You’ve heard this before. It is not a new idea, but it is one that bears repeating here and now. The VIDA statistics on the literary magazine and publishing industry (“Count” 2010) lay bare more than a problem of numbers. We are facing a systemic inequality that has somehow caught us off guard. The question now becomes: How do we respond?

It is not my intention to suggest that all writing must arrive through overt political purpose, though I would like to see statistics on women who publish political content and suspect the numbers would be even more grim than what we have seen in the broader publishing landscape. I mean to return attention to the idea that no matter how far removed from the world of political debate, all writing does have a political function. Be it overt or implied, by the very nature of being produced from a distinct perspective and through a unique set of circumstances–be these privileged, impoverished, abused, oppressed, empowered, or otherwise–in a particular cultural moment and social context, writing is a political act. More than this, right now, in the hands of a woman, writing is a radical necessity.

It is no mean feat to reduce the plight of women in the publishing industry in the West to an inconsequential sidebar for the more pressing human rights issues women face around the globe. It’s an easy move. What right do we have to complain, anyway? Women and girls are abused, cut, mutilated, abducted, raped, murdered, bought and sold, hanged, stoned to death, or buried alive all too frequently, all too habitually, in too many parts of the world, and this is to say nothing of the codes of “honour,” ceremony and silence that protect and perpetuate such atrocities. This is to say nothing of the dangers faced by those who break such codes and dare to speak or write against such circumstances from within. This is to say nothing of those who have simply disappeared.

Beneath the glossy surface of a contemporary Western perception of equality, the same perception so many hold, that equality writ large has been achieved in the West and feminism is just a name for stirring up controversy where none is warranted, there is another truth. It is one barely palpable to some and hardly relevant to others: that beneath the wars and violences occurring across the globe, beneath the political and economic upheavals, beneath the scourges of fundamentalism, beneath the master narratives of various religious doctrines, beneath the comfortable economic rationalizations of conservatism, another war is waged. This is an unspoken and an unspeakable war. It is trans-historical and trans-cultural. It is waged on myriad fronts and in myriad ways, in some cases overtly and in others as a matter of consequence, against the feminine other. I use such a term to reference the matrix of subjectivities that exist outside a primary masculine ideal or culturally perceived norm. Here, women’s bodies, racialized bodies, and sexualized bodies are imperiled to various degrees: from the limiting of reproductive rights, health care or equitable legal representation for women to the limiting of civil rights or for those judged separately based on gender, sexuality, race, religion or caste; and from the censorship of those who speak out to the punishment, abuse, exploitation or murder of those whose very subjectivity threatens a normative imperative. Such a war functions to disenfranchise, humiliate and repress the perceived threat of difference. As a result of such a war, too many voices are unceremoniously ridiculed, ignored, silenced, or snuffed out. This is not a war waged by men, and to blame men is to miss the point. This is a war of ideology and fear that functions through gender difference to mobilize power; and, yes, it is a social, cultural and political animal.

And here is where the literary world converges with the real: writing, above all else, is a citizenship–a meeting of logic and reason with the imagination, with one’s subjectivity, with one’s humanity, with one’s community, with language itself, and with the politics of expression.

That women writers do not share an equitable citizenship with their male colleagues in the publishing industry today reflects trends of inequality spreading across the sectors. In her recent TED lecture, COO Sheryl Sandberg explains that in fact “women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world,” noting that of the 190 Heads of State at the helm of global politics, only 9 are women; of all parliamentary representatives across the globe, 13% are women; in the corporate sector, women in C-level jobs and board seats make up only 15-16%; in the not-for-profit world, women at the helm make up about 20%; these numbers “have not changed since 2002,” Sandberg explains,”and they are moving in the wrong direction” (“Why we have too few women leaders,” December 2010). These statistics are perhaps not surprising, yet Sandberg highlights a series of social complications that should be, including the fact that “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” (“Why we have too few women leaders”). To make her point, Sandberg references the Heidi Roizen Study, a survey conducted to measure the impact of gender stereotypes on subjective performance evaluations, where Stanford professor, Frank Flynn presented his business students with the results from a previous Harvard case study on successful venture capitalist Heidi Roizen. Flynn altered the original materials in only one way: he changed the name and pronoun of the subject from Heidi to Howard for one section of the class. Flynn explains: “I had the students go online and rate their impressions of ‘Roizen’ on several dimensions. As you might expect, the results show that students were much harsher on Heidi than on Howard across the board. Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her. As gender researchers would predict, this seems to be driven by how much they disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality. The more assertive they thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her (but the same was not true for those who rated Howard)” (Flynn, qtd in “Gender-related Material in the New Core Curriculum,” Stanford Graduate School of Business News). The survey both measures and exposes an unfair and systemic social bias against women that disrupts otherwise rational thinking in a particular (and peculiar) way.

Drawing attention to the discomfort students felt with Roizen’s assertiveness, Sandberg paraphrases the students’ feeling that Heidi Roizen is “a little political.” What does it mean to be a “little political”? Why, when applied to a woman assertive in her field, is this little label synonymous with apologia for that which we will reject? It is language echoing that of so many of my students in discussions about women who speak or write for a public: “It’s a good essay, but it’s political.” Or: “I like this author because her novel is political but it’s not too ‘in-your-face.’” So many of our undergraduate students arrive at university conditioned to live in fear of politics and feminism. Let us demystify the language. Without acknowledging the politics of expression–and teaching our young readers and writers to do the same–we deny ourselves the opportunity to improve our circumstances. We are in the midst of a vibrant new cultural landscape where the private meets the public at every turn, and the written word is both our best safeguard and best conduit for connection, community and change. We must teach our students that in this landscape it matters that they read and write; it matters what they read and write; it matters that they do both with awareness and a keen critical eye. But none of this matters without a clear sense that the problems of inequality that we face are not men’s problems or women’s problems but the problems of a collective of which they are a part and for which they share a vigilant responsibility.

Let us move forward by first conceding that our common ground is indeed political.


From → Academic

  1. Compelling post! As a soon to be graduate from college, women’s inequality in the workplace has been on my radar more than ever these days. I hate having to convince my friends (both male and female, but, honestly, mostly male) that 100% equality has not yet been achieved (and that thinking so is actually harmful). I’m proud to openly call myself a feminist, and wish more of my peers were brave enough to look past the stigma of that word and really think about what it means to them.

    • Hi Angie,

      Congratulations on your upcoming graduation–a wonderful accomplishment.

      I feel for the position you are in and share your concern. My experience in teaching in the university classroom is that many students arrive there conditioned to be afraid of the word feminism, yet many hold beliefs and values that would see equity and equality in social, cultural and workplace settings. I agree that there exists a presumption that because women are a visible force in classrooms and in the workplace they stand on equal footing with their male colleagues in access to jobs, both after graduation and in wages and promotions once they are hired. Such circumstances seem to result the complacency towards gender inequality you describe.

      Another dynamic I’ve watched play out in the university classroom comes when students feel pressure to deny any affiliation with feminist values in hopes of avoiding conflict or gaining favour with a silent majority. Unfortunately, too many students face the dual problem of negotiating this social terrain of complacency towards–or complete denial of–gender inequality at the same time that they must negotiate an inner landscape where they keenly observe and respond to the circumstances of inequality.

  2. Thank you, Joanne, for a really thought-provoking post. You underscore the reality that open brutality is much easier to spot than the more subtle kind. I’m aware of what I call ‘atmospheric’ racism–(for example, a white family might be apparently friendly with their black neighbors, but the conversation inside the white household could reflect a long history of conditioned racism), but for me ‘atmospheric’ sexism is harder to spot. (Most of the students in my MFA in writing program were women, and I think the faculty was about 50/50.)

    I think sometimes these attitudes have deeply personal roots. In my own family, my mother was the power figure. Economically privileged, she scorned women who felt they ‘needed to work’ if their finances didn’t require it. I think this had to do with her own insecurity. In my own family, I, too, am the power figure. I’m the one who makes things happen and gets things done. I admit that it’s really hard to talk to my grown son about sexism! Statistics are one thing, but we tend to form political views based on personal history. Thanks for making me think.

    • Hi, Helen.

      Thank you so much for this response. I’m quite drawn to your use of “atmospheric” in this case, as the term is so often drawn into debate to describe or disparage the feminine. In my academic work, I engage with the subtle and often strange but powerful philosophical and semantic turns that asphyxiate and, philosophically speaking, render a feminine subjectivity impossible. In The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, Luce Irigaray investigates what might be described as a kind of sublimation of the feminine other, calling attention to Western philosophy’s treatment of the feminine as a kind of paradoxical and atmospheric absence. In other words, since being is only figured in masculine terms and from a perspective of a privileged masculine “I,” there is no grammar–and no space or air–for a feminine subjectivity to occupy.

      The point you make about personal experience of gender dynamics brings this philosophical discussion to the reality of everyday life. It is difficult to find language for systemic and atmospheric oppression, just as it is difficult to find language to speak a the feminine experience.

      I agree that such dynamics are difficult to spot, and it’s so very interesting to me that both the feminine and the repression of women are relegated to the same atmospheric and intangible space.

      Where you speak about personal history I cannot help but think of atmosphere as ideological concentration. It is often difficult to know what role sexist attitudes play in shaping our own unconscious experience, let alone sort out how to address the experience of another. That you are having these conversations with your son is wonderful.

  3. Interesting piece. Much of this waving away the idea that inequality is rampant is because women themselves can’t get it together. Within our gender are women who are reluctant to identify themselves as feminists because of the stigma that’s attached to the word. Here I am, reading Laura Fraser’s All Over The Map, and I’m horrified because a seemingly independent woman who travels all over the world can’t think about anything more than making herself “softer” so that she can then attract a man. She has to get rid of her more “aggressive” characteristics.

    Say what?

    My daughters, ages 5-12, are prime examples of where our gender is heading. They and their friends will immediately point to their heroes being pop stars. Beyonce. Lady Gaga. For them, these are the empowering women to keep their eyes on. They ignore me when I talk about real feminism, and how sexual freedom is not really freedom, but a word cloaked in glitter and rhinestones.

    I read an interesting article the other day about how feminism is also fractured because of the mother/daughter struggle. It’s enlightening because it highlights my inability to communicate to my daughters about gender issues. They role their eyes at me and think they’re smarter (esp the 12 yr old).

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I haven’t read the Fraser narrative but am so glad you made the reference. It seems to me this “softening” is endemic to North American mainstream culture, laying bare an obsession (even if a repressed one) with maintaining traditional roles of femininity. That within this framework it is contemptible for a woman to possess a quality generally admired in men speaks volumes about where we are as a culture. Such a duality is a trap.

      As for the particular brand of sexual “freedom” marketed through pop culture and the music industry, I share your concern. Your comment about its cloaking in “glitter and rhinestones,” so true.

      Thank you for the comment and link; I look forward to the read.

  4. Agh, Yes, Jennifer. Why is it so hard to get across to our kids?

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