Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Geek Girls Get No Respect, II: The Mansplaining

I want to tell you a joke:

A woman walks into a computer store.  She says, "I would like to buy a computer."  The sales clerk says, "We don't serve your kind here."  The woman says, "Well, at least you're honest."

Yeah.  I didn't think it was very funny, either. 

This kind of thing happens in real life so often that it's almost a cliche.  I don't know a single nerdy, techy, geeky woman who doesn't have a story like that...and the ones I know who work in IT or other presumptively masculine* fields have many stories like that.  Many, many stories.

So, anyway, I decided I needed a new computer because the one I have has gotten a bit moody about booting up.  Some days, it just doesn't feel up to facing the world, apparently.  I sympathize, but I still have work to do so I decided to go to the Tiger Direct retail store in Jefferson, GA north of Atlanta.  I had definite ideas about what I wanted and did not want, and was envisioning walking in, giving a list of specifications with a range of what I was interested in, and with the help of a helpful sales clerk finding the best combination of speed, memory, graphics, and cheapness.  I am in the habit of buying the cheapest computer that will actually do what I want, and using said computer until it threatens to stop working or actually does.  I am comfortable with my choices in this matter.  I am not saying I would turn down the fanciest fastest shiny new thing out there if you gave it to me, but I have zero interest in spending money on it.

As I say, I had a plan.  A vision, even.  What actually happened was that I got someone who ignored what I said about having specific ideas in mind and immediately started trying to sell me the most expensive computer they had, mansplaining all the while.  When I said I wanted Windows 7 rather than 8, he told me they only had one or two that ran Windows 7...the first of several flat-out lies.  Other prevarications included a statement that they didn't have many refurbs in the store, that it was not possible to do a search for the specs that I wanted (I had done one ON THEIR SITE before I came in), that "nothing will run on those older computers"  (I know what kind of software I use, thank you very much.  Since I don't play computer games, it's amazing how practically anything I want to do works just fine).  He flatly contradicted me a few times and when I expressed a preference he told me immediately how whatever it was I wanted wasn't going to work.  The reason I characterize this as mansplaining rather than your garden-variety hard-sell is that he was holding forth and not listening to me in a particular way that I found depressingly familiar.  Unless a wide variety of men in a number of different situations have been trying to sell me something, there was more to it than bad sales practices.  Though now that I think about it, the motives could be similar.

Of course I giggled girlishly at this display of male dominance in the area of computer knowledge, bought what he told me to, and came home having spent half my paycheck on shit I don't need.  Tee hee.

...Oh, wait, this is the other reality, the one I live in.  Actually I appear to have run him off.  He had to have known it wasn't going well, because in my natural state when angry I have all of the poker-faced reserve and serene poise of Donald Duck.**  However, I try to act civilized.  The combination of these opposing forces prompted one of my students to say after witnessing the results, "You get the scary quiet voice when you're angry."

After I said, for the third time and Very Quietly through gritted teeth, "I am telling you that I looked on your website before I came here and I was able to find several examples of what I am looking for,"  he literally told me to do the search again myself on one of the machines nearby and "let me know if you find anything."  Then retreated...to the other end of the store.

I don't believe in taking people's shit as a moral principle, and this experience made me so angry that I nearly went home, never to return.  However, Jefferson is about an hour from where I live, and I had taken time away from work I was supposed to be doing in order to solve my moody computer issues.  So I decided to try again.

Here is where the story gets a surprise happy ending.  I went looking for another sales person and found one Jeff Barrett.  Let us take a moment to praise and consider Mr. Barrett.  He helped me find what I wanted on the site (which worked for him just fine), physically went looking for it, made useful suggestions without presuming that I didn't know what I was talking about, and when it took a while to get the computer out of the warehouse, apologized for the delay. 

I wish to note that both of these men were middle-aged white guys, and both of them were equally Southern.  Let me tell you, I have been mansplained to at all points of the compass in this country, and I'm sure if I spoke any foreign languages fluently enough I could be mansplained to internationally.  It's not a matter of identity or culture or some kind of Y-chromosome-related deafness problem.  It's true the times have changed...a hundred years ago, and it's time for people to catch the hell up.  I'm middle-aged now, and I was a child in the 70s, at the height of Second Wave feminist grooviness.  Anyone who remembers the 60s is old enough to know better, and anyone younger than that has no excuse whatsoever.  Behavior is a choice.

*Lest we forget, Ada Lovelace invented computer programming, just like Mary Shelley invented science fiction.  And more recently, my older sister worked for Burrough's Business Machines and later UNISYS starting in the 1970s; she was not an anomaly.  Women aren't "trying to break in" to those fields; they've been there for decades, and are nonetheless still constantly fighting attempts to push them out.

**The Akkadian god of frustration.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Louisa May Alcott Lied to Me and Other Matters of Feminist History

Recently the governor of Mississippi opined that the reason our schools have declined is because "mothers started working" instead of staying home.  He is very, very wrong on many levels, but let's just tackle one for the moment:  Mothers have always worked, and I don't just mean at being mothers.  The idea that there was ever some kind of golden age when all mothers spent their time frolicking with their children and making home-made play clay is a collective delusion, one created almost entirely by literature, movies, and television.

The last time the majority of women worked exclusively inside the home was before the Industrial Revolution, over two hundred years ago.  At that time, the majority of men also worked at home...as farmers, merchants and craftsmen who lived above their shops, etc.  Women were generally full participants in whatever their family was doing to bring in money....during the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, back through the medieval period into antiquity.  In hunter-gatherer societies, women generally bring in the bulk of food, while men are in charge of securing high-quality protein (eg, hunting).  Men and women usually have different traditional skills in terms of providing material needs for survival (making clothes and tools, etc) but everyone contributes essential items.  There is no reason to believe that our remotest ancestors were any different. 

The Industrial Revolution meant more work outside the home, for men and women, but it was the relative independence that women (especially young women) gained from cash wages that freaked everyone out.  The Victorian cult of womanhood/motherhood and the notion of the "angel in the house" (against which Virginia Woolf railed so eloquently) was a reaction to all that, verging on propaganda.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the majority of women worked for wages...as seamstresses, laundresses, factory workers, and servants.  At the very apex of the Victorian ideal of the home reigned over by a gentle, nurturing, ever-present and self-sacrificing mother, it was more myth than fact.

The "angel in the house" of the Victorian era was also an artifact of the new social mobility and class aspirations.  It was in some ways the first big re-shaping of cultural mores to come out of the middle class...and like many similar cultural attitudes since, it tended to erase everyone else's reality in the process.  Upper class women didn't work, but they didn't mind their own children either...they had governesses for that.  Upper class men had business interests, but generally not a daily job.  Both men and women lolled about hunting inedible animals and inventing complicated sports such as polo and dinner parties.  Working class people, on the other hand, worked...men and women, fathers and mothers, often long hours under brutal conditions.  Children, too, as soon as they could.  Children too young to go to the mill or coal mine were looked after by elderly relatives or a neighbor, or in some cases left to shift for themselves. Mothers with infants did stay home...but generally took in washing, sewing, or some other kind of piece work in order to make ends meet.  Since laundry in the days before the invention of the washing machine was also brutally hard work, as was hand sewing, one can not imagine that "staying home" for these women meant any time to play with their children during their brief babyhood, or do anything much more than try to keep those children alive.

The model of the husband who earned a living while his wife stayed home and attended exclusively to the domestic sphere was and is uniquely middle-class...so much so that it is a marker of middle-class status, especially on the lower end of the income scale.  This is the origin of the notion that it isn't quite "nice" for a woman...especially a married woman...to work.  Lower class women worked; upper class women didn't have to...and so middle-class women didn't work either, if they could help it.  For those without independent wealth, someone had to bring in money, but one half of the married couple staying home and living like the leisured class was the biggest and most emphatic statement a family could make that they were "doing well."  This class aspirational aspect still has cultural relevance, as for many African-American women whose mothers and grandmothers worked the luxury of staying home with their children is a sign they have moved up in the world.  This holds true for other women from working-class backgrounds as well...but again, this is not a return to some kind of golden era of the past, but a new phenomenon.

The biggest changes to this state of affairs wrought by the first wave of the feminist movement in the 19th century were first to allow women to own property and legally keep their own wages rather than turn it all over to their husbands, and second to open up education and the professions to women, rather than solely low-wage traditionally feminine jobs.  The biggest change created by the second wave in the 1960s and 70s was that women started demanding to be paid the same as men for the same work. This did motivate more middle-class women to enter the work force, but they were merely joining the vast numbers of working class women who were already there.

Yet if you read nineteenth century novels, or watch 1950s TV shows, you'd think that all women stayed home and baked cookies and dispensed warm, diplomatic wisdom to their children all day. That is because both of those art forms were created by and for the middle class and...even more importantly...they are fantasies.

Take Little Women, for example.  It was one of my favorite books as a child, and my early ambitions to be a writer were probably heavily influenced by the travails and triumphs of Jo March.  Though I also have to say that when I caught scarlet fever at seven, that book also helped convince me that I was going to die any minute.  But who can resist the charming family life and noble struggles against adversity of the Marches?  Or Marmee, who talks like a Transcendentalist while doing sentimental  sewing projects?

Among their trials is that the Marches are poor.  The author tells us so; the March girls complain about it (providing much fodder for funny incidents and earnest moral struggle); their family and friends say so, either diplomatically or rudely in the case of Aunt March.

Let us examine that.  The Marches' poverty is one in which:
  • They can't afford new silk dresses or kid gloves during war-time to wear to parties.
  • They don't have a big enough house for a grand piano, and don't own one even though the youngest daughter loves to play.
  • They sometimes have to economize on necessities (again during war-time) and often go without small luxuries such that they are a major (but ultimately affordable) treat.
  • Jo and Amy (after Jo proves to be terrible at it) working as a lady's companion for their elderly aunt is essentially a covert means for said aunt to give the family money without offending them. Jo taking up writing trashy novels to earn money is something she is ultimately ashamed of and gives up, rather than a godsend source of much-needed cash.  Marmee never even contemplates working.
  • They only have one servant, a cook.  
In other words, the Marches aren't poor at all; they only appear so in comparison to their very rich neighbors and extended family.  They are what we'd consider middle class, or at worst lower middle class; able to afford the basics of life and bit extra.  The only actually poor people in the story...the German and Irish immigrants consigned to the periphery...are mostly treated with pity or contempt. The working woman in their midst, the cook, is portrayed with sentimental condescension.

The travails of genteel poverty and triumph in the form of good marriage (read: to someone who has more money than you) or inheritance is also the plot of several Jane Austen novels and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  Don't get me wrong; I love me some Bronte and Austen.  But they (both, like Alcott, literary working women from precarious but educated backgrounds) were writing to please a middle-class audience for whom the heroines had to be virtuous and familiar and also for whom a happy ending meant marriage and material comfort.  Nobody should mistake any of that for a meticulous depiction of reality.  This particular type of fairy tale, and the related genre of mid-20th-century sitcoms revolving around the daily scrapes of a lovable suburban nuclear family, represent how people wished to live rather than how they actually did.  That isn't to say that nobody ever lived that way at all; only that they were always in the minority rather than the universal rule they are presumed to be.  Those stories, however pleasing to some, are not our true past.

It isn't my family's past, either.  My mother did stay home with me when I was small...but she went back to work the minute I entered kindergarten.  Both of my grandmothers worked at least part of their lives, though they were born in 1888 and 1905 respectively; my paternal grandmother was a school-teacher until she married (at twenty-four, rather late for the era) and then was a cotton farmer's wife; my maternal grandmother worked in a garment factory and had a florist business. In any case, I was raised to think of this as so normal as to not even require comment, with the sole exception of my mother's recounting of her own mother's reaction to busybodies asking why she was "spending all that money to send Joyce to school, when she won't do anything but get married."  My grandmother's response was pragmatic and telling:  "She may never have to work a day in her life, but if she does she's going to be able to get a good job."  It's also worth noting that my mother was a sixteen year old valedictorian of her high school, and went on to graduate from the University of Georgia at nineteen.  I, a product of her working mother upbringing, was a National Merit Scholar and attended the Georgia Governor's Honors program, went on to college and then to graduate school.  I now teach at the University of Georgia.  My siblings, all suffering from similar neglect, seem to be doing all right despite the fact that our mother worked part of their childhoods as well.  It's some kind of miracle, I tell you.

Fantasies are all right, though some (like June Cleaver vacuuming in her heels, or broody Mr. Rochester's tragic past including a secret wife he shuts up in the attic even when she is lucid) don't bear too close an examination.  They are not, however, an explanation for anything in reality.  They are certainly not a good basis for policy.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Myth, Monster, Mother, Mud

When the skies above were not yet named
Nor earth below pronounced by name,
Apsu, the first one, their begetter,
And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,
Had mixed their waters together,
But had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds;
When yet no gods were manifest,
Nor names pronounced, nor destinies decreed,
Then gods were born within them. --Enuma Elish, tr. Stephanie Dalley

Apsu means freshwater abyss; Tiamat, salt water. The begetter and maker, father and mother. I know some people, ranging from Robert Graves to Marija Gimbutas, have said that the story represents the conquest of an older matriarchal culture, represented by Tiamat, and its replacement by a patriarchal warrior one...but really, if that ever happened in Mesopotamia, it was already a done deal by the time the Enuma Elish was written, for a thousand years at least. We forget how long the Sumerians actually lasted; long enough to invent museums and the writing of history, after having invented writing in the first place. Those Sumerians had staying power. Then they got conquered by Babylon, who were basically a lot like Sumerians only a bit rowdier. Sort of like the British Empire fading out and the US becoming a world power, except the British Empire didn't last for hundreds and hundreds of years and we never actually invaded them, however it may feel to them during tourist season.

I digress. If you really want to understand what is going on in the Enuma Elish, you need to remember two things: floods, and civilization. The word Mesopotamia means "between the rivers"...the Tigris and Euphrates, to be specific. The Sumerians and Babylonians lived in this twinned delta, near where the two rivers flowed into the sea. It was a fertile, and therefore rich and productive, place to live.

It also flooded a lot. A LOT. The Tigris and Euphrates were the ultimate source of the fertility, and therefore wealth, of the Fertile Crescent. Like Egypt and the Nile: no river, no crops, no civilization. Unlike the Nile though, which flooded in an orderly, regular fashion, the Tigris-Euphrates river valley flooded a lot more randomly and violently. Two rivers, after all, and different conditions. What made the Mesopotamians' lives possible also tended to kill them off fairly frequently. This accounts for the somewhat antagonistic, fatalistic and slightly morbid attitude the Mesopotamians had towards their gods.

"Tiamat our mother hath conceived a hatred for us."

Tiamat represents primordial chaos and deep water; she is also the mother of all the gods. She is the Creator, just as the regular flooding of the rivers literally created the Fertile Crescent. She is also a destroyer, and an unnervingly capricious one.

You can't have a civilization without a regular food supply. You also can't have one in the midst of swirling flood water all the time. It just doesn't work. Random chaos is why we can't have nice things.

Enter Marduk! He's a hero! He'll fix it! First Ea imprisons Apsu (= river levees?) then Marduk goes to battle and eventually slays Tiamat. He then proceeds to split her in half "like a fish" and create heaven and earth from the two halves of her body...imposing order on primordial chaos, shaping it into a fixed form. He then does something both interesting and revealing:

"He ordained the year and into sections he divided it;
For the twelve months he fixed three stars...
The Moon-god he caused to shine forth, the night he entrusted to him.
He appointed him, a being of the night, to determine the days (Long)"

Marduk invents time, and the regular division of time into years, months, weeks, days, and hours, marked by the movement of heavenly bodies. The seven day week and measurement of time in increments of twelve and sixty were in fact Sumerian inventions which we still use today, some five thousand years later.

Which brings us to the other thing: Civilization. The ancient Mesopotamians were quite conscious, and very proud, of their status as innovators and inventors of civilization, so much so that the major portion of the story of Inanna and the holy me consists of lists of godly powers (the me), which both constitute and create civilized, orderly life. The arts of writing, diplomacy, battle, and a few more scurrilous and racy arts all get a mention, as well as many pragmatic ones...bricklaying, for example, and counting stores. You've heard of people being house-proud; the Mesopotamians were civilization-proud. As well they might be. Most of their stories are about how awesome their civilization is, one way or another, including this one. Also the importance of constant vigilance...

Marduk slays Tiamat and imposes order on the universe. The ancient Mesopotamians drain the marshes, brave the floods and then invent everything including timekeeping. They build a mighty civilization, the influence of which still reverberates today. Order from chaos. Monsters and mud.