I have a friend who studied history and languages and women’s studies while I was studying zoology and mammalogy and ornithology and a whole bunch of other ologies relative to wildlife. We often trade books back and forth. Although we both like some of the same science fiction titles, our tastes in non-fiction don’t line up so much. So we try and broaden each other’s horizons.
And I wander into traps.
Once when she asked me if I liked a book she’d loaned me (which I really did like), and I started waxing enthusiastic, she stopped me.
“But what did you think about how the author …something something …slighted women …something something?”
“Huh?” I frantically tried to reconstruct the book in my mind, but all I could see were cave paintings (the subject of the book). “What part was that in?” I asked, lamely.
“Oh, in the first chapter.”
First? Chapter? So I had completely blown the race before I even crossed the start line. And this happens all the time. I tell myself, well, the author is a product of his time, his generation, and I’ve read so many of the same lame patronizing passages that my mind’s ear just tunes them out. I mean, the words leave their images on my retinas; the messages go up the optic nerve to my brain; the sentences make sense grammatically. But no whistles blow to awaken Fluffy, the three-headed militant feminist watch dog. It might as well all be harp music.
On the other hand…
As I mentioned before, I recently picked up The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, and re-read it. For some reason, after I bought it at the used book store, I read the first few essays, then put it down for several months. When I picked it up again, I read practically straight through, then went back and re-re-read the first essays. And I think I know what happened.
Several of Lewis’s essays mention, or even feature, ants, bees, or termites as representive organisms for whatever biological point he’s making. Lewis refers to individual ants, bees, termites as “he.” The first time I came across one of these, I had a knee-jerk response. I wanted to jump up, fling the book against the wall and scream “YOU STYUPID, MISOGYNISTIC, MALE CHAUVANIST PIECE. OF. SHIT!!! ALL. WORKER. ANTS, BEES, TERMITES. ARE. FEMALE!!!” But I hate to mistreat books, so I didn’t. Plus, the guy’s dead.
Point is, I told my friend about it and she said, “That would’ve gone right by me. I would not have noticed.” So now I don’t feel so bad. It’s a point of reference thing, and she and I have way different points of reference. From a purely rational point of view (I do try to be rational, sometimes) the same platitudes apply. He was a product of his time, his generation, and he was writing to/for a predominantly male audience. Those old habits were just not that easy to change.
The question now becomes, are we making any real progress in changing them today?