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Shut Up, Ladies

Originally published at Sarah Rees Brennan. You can comment here or there.

It made me so sad to see, in an article about Jane Austen, that even though Jane Austen remains super popular there has been a decline in respect for her as a serious artist. Because it’s ‘chick lit’… as if any genre is Automatically Bad. And as if anything a woman created that a lot of women really like… is Automatically Bad.

I was reading some fan responses to the Vampire Diaries over the weekend (sharp left turn from Jane Austen! Also, yes, I’m very cool!) —and I started to get viscerally uncomfortable about how often the women involved in creating it were named and hated on. Julie Plec and Caroline Dries were brought up time and again, with a constant refrain that they shut up, drop out, SHUT UP, if only Kevin Wiliamson or Jose Molina would save the situation. The dudes’ names only ever came up associated with praise.

The stuff the fans didn’t like which was masterminded by dudes, was talked about differently: that episode sucked, that season had this off time. Never, ever ‘this dude sucks.’

It reminded me of how I used to see the same hatred of Marti Noxon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which really sharply contrasted with the refrain of ‘Joss Whedon is my master now.’

Look, I am no expert on television here: I never know who’s written an episode, or who’s behind a certain plot arc. (I also barely know how to turn it on or change the DVD player settings, but that’s shame for another day.) I’m sure all these ladies are imperfect. Maybe all these ladies have done terrible things to their shows! Please do not tell me all the details of any of these women’s awful crimes against fiction.

My point is that I doubt that the dudes were flawless in their handling of fiction: the problem is the insistent pattern that goes ‘SHUT UP, WOMAN’S NAME, SHUT UP!!’

I remember looking at one site and seeing a female YA author being discussed. Her appearance, her manners, whether she’d written too many books, too many books in one series—I have seen at least six female authors called ‘whores’ (OH. I. SEE.) and ‘money-grubbing hacks’ for writing a long series. I have never seen similar criticism for, say, Rick Riordan (don’t stop writing Rick Riordan, that’s not what I meant! I like a long series! I’m just making a point!)—whether she was grateful or gracious enough.

Then I looked at what they had to say about a male author in the same field… apparently his worst offense was being friends with the female author… (Kind of like how the most criticism I see against Neil Gaiman is actually against Amanda Palmer, asking why he doesn’t get her to… guess what… shut up.)

It’s so much easier for people to hate on a girl than a guy. A lady’s success will so often be looked on with dark suspicion, while a dude’s success is looked on as his due.

Of course my opinion here is personal: I’m a lady creator, though not as fancy as the ones I’ve been discussing. I’ve had my appearance criticised, and the company I keep, and how I conduct myself, and that all sucks. Quite recently I remember a blogger described my behaviour at a public event as ‘attention-seeking’ (no! good gravy! who do I think I am, up on a stage talking?)… I’ve seen that word used for a lot of women, but I’ve never seen it used for a man. It’s almost as if… people see a dude up on stage talking and think ‘Yes, things are as they should be.’ And they see a lady and think ‘SHUT UP, WOMAN’S NAME, SHUT UP.’

I’ve said snarky things and been roundly criticised for my rudeness. (Like, this weekend.) So have many ladies! While snarky dudes are celebrated, quoted, applauded: while we all know that dudes can get away with a million more things than we can.

Having a semi-public job means a certain amount of scrutiny. Creators are always going to get critiqued, because that’s what people should do with art, and if people don’t care about your fiction you’ve gone wrong somewhere! That’s all fine.

But I wish, wish, wish there wasn’t that obstacle for women, that kneejerk ‘SHUT UP!’

Pride and Prejudice is two hundred years old today. Jane Austen wrote in another book, Persuasion, ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story… The pen has been in their hands.’

The pen should not be seen as solely belonging in their hands.

(Wow, this got long.) (Maybe I should shut up.) (But I hardly ever do.)

I saw and much appreciated the responses to this impromptu rant from writers I know and love like Maureen Johnson, Holly Black, Seanan McGuire and Kiersten White… and it reminded me of a point that seems applicable!

Here it is: groups of writers, as well as individual writers, and how they are perceived.

This is probably not going to surprise you: when they are groups of ladies, or groups that include ladies, NOT SUPER WELL.

Let us consider the Inklings: a group of writers including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, which is often considered a fantastic example of writerly communion and community. But lots of people want to be very clear that mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers may have been Tolkien and Lewis’s friend, but she wasn’t one of the Inklings. She didn’t attend meetings! Okay maybe one but it didn’t count! They were all, all dudes. (Okay. Maybe so. But chill yourselves, why is this so hotly contested? … Oh wait I know why.)

But everyone is definitely sure the Inklings read aloud from this other lady’s bad writing.

(Q: Have I ever mocked bad writing, sometimes by women, in a group of writers?

A: BOY HAVE I EVER. I have done nothing else for a week straight. But I STILL think the Inklings could’ve decided to mock a dude as well as/instead of this lady.)

There is an old boys’ network which exists, especially in Literary Fiction Circles, i.e. the most highly regarded and best paid. 83 per cent of the books reviewed in the New York Review of Books are by men… and 83 per cent of reviewers are men, too. (What a highly interesting coincidence!) When questioned about the Super Sketchy Numbers, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement (surprise: he’s a dude) said ‘The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books.’ (Oh. I. See.)

These dudes with this power are able to silence any silly praise of ladies. Remember me talking about Dorothy L. Sayers above? This is what a dude writing for the New Yorker said about her: ‘I have often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well… but, really, she does not write very well.’ (Thanks for clearing that up, buddy.) Dudes are more likely to get awards, shiny objects that say ‘Here is your Well Done for Speaking Up, Dude. NONE FOR YOU, LADY.’

Dudes are more likely to get praise because of this network: they’re more likely to get awards because of this network. It provides a loop of infinitely helpful feedback for dudes, and so the praise dudes give other dudes is listened to, is given more of an official voice, whereas the message sent to ladies talking about books by ladies is too generally (stop me if you’ve heard this before) ‘Shut up, Woman’s Name, shut up!’

The Bronte kids, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, had a writing group: they all wrote collectively about a land of their imagination. Later, Charlotte, Emily and Anne all went on to write classic works of literature (under dudes’ names of course). Branwell went on to take a bunch of drugs. Critics at the time floated this brilliant theory: WHAT IF THE DUDE OF THE GROUP TOTALLY WROTE ALL THE BOOKS? (Shut up, the actual geniuses of the group!)

One of my great Writing Group inspirations is that of Jenny Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Pat Gaffney, Anne Stuart and many others. I’ve never seen anyone talking about that group except for the ladies themselves. (Because they’re romance authors?) (Shut up, ladies writing about lady stuff, shut up!)

So, my closest writer people and critique group, mostly ladies. I’ve heard us called a ‘clique’ (like Mean Girls, sure! Ladies=clique!) with suggestions we’re ‘pretending to like each other (For Some Reason) (you know how those catty insincere ladies are!)’

People talk about us as if what we do is sit around plotting pettily and doing each other’s hair. (It’s a fair cop: I have done Holly Black’s hair. Her whole kitchen was purple afterwards, it was like I murdered a giant grape. Will not make it as hair stylist: must stick to writing.) Shaping each others’ writing, talking about each others’ writing, talking about our literary influence (almost every lady writer I know: hella influenced by Robin McKinley)… any discourse we have is ignored or dismissed as untrue. ‘Shut up, ladies, shut up!!!’

Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that Neil Gaiman is pretending to like/forming a clique with John Green because he was a guest at his Carnegie Hall event. I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the overwhelmingly male critics of literature, writing overwhelmingly about dudes, are a) lying about how great these dude books are or b) being mean by talking about only dudes/dudes they’re friendly with/majority dudes/more positively about dudes.

And I’m not saying that dude authors, or any dudes, or any ladies buying into the ‘Shut up, woman’s name, shut up!’ thing are being mean, either. I’m saying, there’s a pattern we’ve all, to some extent, unconsciously adopted. I’m saying that when we think ‘SHUT UP’ about a lady we should examine that impulse.

Because until then, for all ladies… Our words aren’t as valued, and that doesn’t just mean our books: it means our critique as well, and our community.

Okay. *glances around* Uh. *hopes has not alienated all dude authors ever and shot all (slim already) chances of ever being asked to write a piece for a major publication or shot all (slim already) chances at an award*

I maybe have to both shut up and change my name to Benedict Cumbersnoot. ;) Excuse me…


( 95 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 28th, 2013 11:36 pm (UTC)
I wish I had gifs to post in response. Flawless.
Jan. 28th, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC)
Jan. 28th, 2013 11:43 pm (UTC)
If this was tumblr, I'd ♥ this whole post!
Jan. 28th, 2013 11:45 pm (UTC)
It was tumblr originally but I felt I wished to Preserve it. I love tumblr but its words are writ in water...

When people check back on my website to see why they definitely should not give me awards, I may be sorry. ;)
Jan. 28th, 2013 11:47 pm (UTC)
Boy ain't it the truth.
Jan. 28th, 2013 11:52 pm (UTC)
Benedict Cumbersnoot, Author, will enjoy his review in the NYT. ;)
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:04 am (UTC)
Now you have me thinking about the TV writers we mention on our blog. (I have a blog with a friend. We blog about Grimm and Haven and very briefly about Once Upon A Time.)

Off the top of my head, I can think of three writers we've mentioned multiple times: Akela Cooper, Jane Espenson, Charles Ardai. Generally with praise, because we try to call people out by name only when there's stuff we like, and only call out the stuff itself we don't like. So, we try not to tell anyone specific "OMG SHUT UP" But now I'm wondering what our numbers are on women and men whose writing we've discussed. Hurm.
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:15 am (UTC)
I love Once Upon A Time, she says unhelpfully. ;) And Jane Espenson!
(no subject) - kittydesade - Jan. 29th, 2013 12:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sarahtales - Jan. 29th, 2013 12:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kittydesade - Jan. 29th, 2013 12:28 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:05 am (UTC)
And I’m not saying that dude authors, or any dudes, or any ladies buying into the ‘Shut up, woman’s name, shut up!’ thing are being mean, either. I’m saying, there’s a pattern we’ve all, to some extent, unconsciously adopted. I’m saying that when we think ‘SHUT UP’ about a lady we should examine that impulse.

This is perfect. So many times when bringing up this phenomenon, the only response is "How could you accuse me of being sexist?! Just cause I don't like something!"
But it exactly that we have to examine why we dislike certain things, especially if our dislike goes along with a societal pattern. There's nothing wrong with having to examine, or examining and coming to the conclusion that we still don't like the work, but it's just the resistance from so many people when they're told they should do so that is strange.
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:22 am (UTC)
The really fierce insistence is kind of a tipoff there's something wrong there, I think, like the constant assertions that Dorothy L Sayers WAS NOT an Inkling. Methinks the world doth protest too much about ladies.
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Jan. 29th, 2013 12:21 am (UTC)
'Strue. And yes, we're all conditioned to think this way, and I do myself, all the time, and cringe later.
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
Thank you thank you thank you x a thousand. It feels like as a female (very amateur) writer, I can't win no matter what I write. If it's romance it's "OF COURSE YOU WOULD YOU ARE A GIRL" if it's anything else it becomes "BUT WHY DON'T YOU LIKE ROMANCE YOU ARE A GIRL" and it's one of the most frustrating things in the world to try and explain gender doesn't dictate what I write. And what I write shouldn't be automatically disregarded as "chick lit" because I am a female. And then you get into this vicious circle of trying to prove you're not one of Those Girls.

EDIT: And if it's all right, I've posted a link to this from tumblr.

Edited at 2013-01-29 12:12 am (UTC)
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:19 am (UTC)
Trying to prove you're not one of Those Girls is a losing game, because the game is rigged once you accept there *is* such a thing as 'Those Girls.'

Demon's Lexicon got a cover it wouldn't have got if I'd been a boy, and then people were mad there wasn't enough romance, since the paranormal romancey cover and my lady name led them to expect that: and yet the move to two Girl Narrators in the series was a terrible error because there should be more about The Boys, and Unspoken gets dismissed because it *is* a book about romance. (by a lady!) I do not mean to be like, let me List My Grievances, here, I just mean to be like--behold, several examples. No way to win! Don't play the game, and note when other people are trying to make you play it.

edit: and of course.

Edited at 2013-01-29 12:20 am (UTC)
(no subject) - zeffy_amethyst - Jan. 29th, 2013 12:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:28 am (UTC)
THIS. This a million times over! I <3 you!

Agreed with everything here.
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:34 am (UTC)
Thank you a million times over. ;)
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
I'm sure that about fifteen other people have already said this, but...

Sarah Rees Brennan, NEVER shut up.

Whether I like or do not like a book of yours? NEVER shut up.

Thank you. O:>
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:34 am (UTC)
Uh... that last bit sounds ominous! But... okay!

I mean, I will be shutting up online if comes the time to pack this writing gig in, but I imagine I'll keep talking a lot in life. ;)
(no subject) - archangelbeth - Jan. 29th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 29th, 2013 12:53 am (UTC)
shut up?
who gonn check me

Jan. 29th, 2013 01:09 am (UTC)
Jan. 29th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC)
Forgive this lengthy but relevant excerpt from the great Joanna Russ, in How to Suppress Women's Writing:

"If certain people are not supposed to have the ability to produce "great" literature, and if this supposition is one of the means used to keep such people in their place, the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which such people are prevented from producing any literature at all. But a formal prohibition tends to give the game away—that is, if the peasants are kept illiterate, it will occur to somebody sooner or later that illiteracy absolutely precludes written literature, whether such literature be good or bad; and if significant literature can by definition be produced only in Latin, the custom of not teaching Latin to girls will again, sooner or later, cause somebody to wonder what would happen if the situation were changed. The arguments for this sort of status quo are too circular for comfort. (In fact such questions were asked over and over again in Europe in recent centuries, and eventually reforms were made.)

"In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the "wrong" groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can't. But, alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then—since some of the so-and-so's will do it anyway—develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the "wrong" people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch."
Jan. 29th, 2013 01:31 am (UTC)
I was thinking about Russ-quoting when I wrote this, though I totally forgot the various strategies line which fits in so well. ;) It is so sad that this--'this supposition is one of the means used to keep such people in their place'--is so, so relevant. People are put down to keep them in their place. Too circular for comfort indeed.
(no subject) - hanslundahl - May. 25th, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 29th, 2013 01:34 am (UTC)
Wait, that thing about Branwell Bronte writing all the Bronte sister novels was a REAL theory?! I thought it was just something made up for Cold Comfort Farm to show off what a dickbag Mr. Myberg/Mybug was. I am so sad now. :(

If writing about romance is so stupid then how come pretty much every work of Great Literature by dudes still has "Getting The Girl" as the way you know Intrepid Hero is really the Hero and has won at everything? Or is it only stupid if you actually dedicate time and effort into developing the romance as if romance were a type of relationship that develops between characters, instead of being like "Girl-shaped character shows up; looks pretty; remember this because she/it will pop back up at the end to marry somebody"? (I'm looking at you, J. R. R. "Aragorn And Arwen's Story Is In The Appendices" Tolkien.)

Also, Jane Austen is the first writer I discovered whose romances I cared about, because she's really good at actually characterizing both halves of the couple and showing how they interact. It seems to me that this is much less silly than continually retelling "Once there was a pretty lady. She was pretty. A dude saw how pretty she was. Now they are Epically In True Love Forever And Ever And Are Soulmates And Will Definitely Live Happily Ever After Once They Get Married." (I'm looking at you, Victor "Les Mis Is A Serious Book About Political Things, Now Here's Five Hundred Pages of Marius Not Talking To Cosette" Hugo.)

Perhaps the anti-girly-romance people are just embarrassed that actual romantic plots and subplots show up how totally silly it is to have the hero marry a silent non-character at the end for no discernible reason whatsoever? I don't know; this has always confused me. I'm not a hugely romantically inclined person and I rarely care about who marries who, and as a result... the anti-romance people drive me up the motherloving wall. Almost every single story I've ever read in my entire life has the main character having some sort of love interest in it. When I started my novel in undergrad I didn't include a romance plot and the #1 comment I got, on every single read, from every single reader, of any gender, was "Isn't there a romantic subplot?!?!?!" said in the most concerned voice imaginable, like if I said "No" then maybe I was mentally unstable and would have to be handled very delicately until they could get me to the psychiatrist. But apparently actual romance stories are stupid and terrible? Like, taking the time to do a thing properly=bad and unserious; awkwardly shoehorning an underdeveloped and uninspired Obligatory Love Interest subplot around your actual story=totes for serious literary literature.

Anyway, this was ranty, sorry. You already had the ranting down so perfectly I know mine pales in comparison, but I felt inspired to NOT SHUT UP.

Jan. 29th, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
Thanks for not shutting up.
Jan. 29th, 2013 02:19 am (UTC)
I am ... nearly speechless that anyone who has any pretense toward valid literary criticism could say that Dorothy Sayers was not a very good writer. That's just ... well, frankly, stupid.

The whole "writers who say nice things about other writers MUST be lying" attitude has always annoyed me. Even more so with such a misogynistic twist. Why is it so impossible for people to believe writers are genuinely supportive of each other? Even *gasp* female writers!

You keep leading the way, and we'll keep singing the song of angry (wo)men. Never shut up! (new life motto)
Jan. 29th, 2013 06:17 am (UTC)
I figure any critic who could say that about Sayers cannot be a very good critic, and cannot possibly have ever read The Nine Tailors.
(no subject) - tree_and_leaf - Jan. 29th, 2013 05:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pencildragon11 - Jan. 30th, 2013 05:41 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 29th, 2013 02:21 am (UTC)
Pride and Prejudice is one of my all time favourite books! I credit my father for giving it to me to read when I was 12 (a million years ago LOL). I probably re-read it once or twice a year; it was the very first ebook I downloaded for my iPad. I would never consider Jane Austen to be a chick-lit writer. Lol.
Jan. 29th, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
Nothing wrong with chick-lit writers. ;)

My dad gave me Pride and Prejudice when I was a wee Sarah, too.
Jan. 29th, 2013 03:03 am (UTC)
Speak up, Lady Writers, speak up!
Jan. 29th, 2013 03:05 am (UTC)
This says everything I want to say. The devaluation of anything written by, for or about women as chick lit and therefore not real literature drives me insane. I think it applies to music too (if Robert Plant had written Judgement of the Moon and Stars and other Joni Mitchell songs instead of Joni Mitchell people would be praising the talent involved, not writing them off as whiny girl music).
Jan. 29th, 2013 03:07 am (UTC)
Absolutely no doubt: like the people who haaaate Taylor Swift while worshipping One Direction.
(no subject) - ravelled_ribbon - Jan. 29th, 2013 07:55 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 29th, 2013 03:47 am (UTC)
This is why the ladies need to ROAR as much as possible.

Jan. 29th, 2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
Which seems as good a cue as any to share the following, from Ruth MacKenzie's Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eX1MZly6TVY
Jan. 29th, 2013 03:57 am (UTC)
Preach it!
Jan. 29th, 2013 04:01 am (UTC)
This is an awesome post. I definitely agree, especially on the hate that a lot of showrunners get... When a woman does something that viewers dislike, it seems like we never hear the end of it - but if it's one of the male showrunners, then it seems like people sigh and then dismiss it. The vitriol that both men and women alike throw at women who create is kind of scary, at times.
Jan. 29th, 2013 04:02 am (UTC)
Jan. 29th, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
Oh wow, reading your post has gotten my inner feminist all up in arms lol. Thanks for being so candid and insightful, I think awareness sometimes goes a long way toward fixing these kind of social prejudices. I've been meaning to read more books by female authors, and now I am all galvanized to get on that!

On a different note, I've never seen you conduct yourself in public in real life, but I have seen youtube videos of your interviews and I think you are absolutely adorable and charming and I love when you do impressions! Please do an event in New York City sometime so I can meet you :)
Jan. 29th, 2013 05:32 am (UTC)
No coherent comment to make, just....


Thank you for ranting.

Jan. 29th, 2013 07:01 am (UTC)
Mrow. This makes me sad. Because it's so true.

(Hi. I'm a lurker. \o/)

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, albeit in a different context. See, I'm a cis-woman tech nerd. I'm working at an amazing company named after a certain very large number. My job role involves even more technical stuff than standard software engineers: I work on keeping the servers running and fixing engineers' fuckups. (Title: Site Reliability Engineer.) There are approximately 900 people with my job title with the company worldwide.

...there are 48 women. Yeah. Slightly over 5%. If I'm in a room, I can't hope to see another woman 'til roughly 40 men have shown up.

There are all kinds of reasons why the number of women in tech is so low. Computer science isn't taught in schools, so if you want to start before university, you need to pursue it as a hobby. But it's very solitary, and we're taught young that there's Nothing Worse than Not Being Liked. Writing great, exciting code requires taking risks. Boys are praised for being Brave. Girls are praised for being Good. No surprise we're less prone to risks.

And don't even get me started on the whole 'shut up, women' thing. If a boy asks for help in a tech class, he's a n00b, shoulda read the text book, but here, this is how it works. If a girl asks for help (in fairness, this comes from other students, not teachers. generally.) it just goes to show, girls know nothing, wow how could someone even ask such a stupid question. You should have paid attention in class, were you too busy fixing your split ends.

I went to get a sandwich from a work cafe earlier this evening. The line was maybe thirty people, maybe more. I realised while waiting that I was the only woman there who wasn't behind the counter making a sandwich. That's. Not a good feeling. Briefly, I even felt scared, though I was in no way threatened.

I wish this was different. I wish more people were willing to examine their privilege and consider their unconscious bias. I wish that uttering that last sentence aloud wasn't enough to get me faced with a ridiculous amount of hostility in some (many) circles. I wish there was some way to make men understand that feeling of being completely surrounded by people who are Other, feeling drowned in it. Wishes, fishes, et al.
Jan. 29th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC)
"Boys are praised for being Brave. Girls are praised for being Good."

If there is ONE THING I want to teach my daughters, it will be to break this lie. My parents raised my sister and me both to be strong and courageous, and I never even realized how rare that was until I had daughters of my own and saw the pervasiveness of the opposing lie. When I think how hard my parents must have worked to instill in us a different mindset, and how natural they made it look, I am ever more grateful to them.
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Jan. 29th, 2013 07:28 am (UTC)
Amen. Shakespeare's Sister (thanks Virginia Woolf). http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/psych214/woolf.room.html How many women's talents have been ignored, suppressed in the bud, or even stolen? I'm always learning of accomplishments or achievements that women earned, but have been attributed to only their male counterparts... I just learned yesterday that a woman should have been named "co-Nobel prize winner" for discovering nuclear fission. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lise_Meitner

We women owe to ourselves and other women to fight this kind of erasure and hate whenever we see it.

Feb. 18th, 2013 12:58 am (UTC)
thank you so much for the link about lise meitner! as a woman in a science field i found the story both interesting and horrifying that even now it seems like she hasn't quite got her due.
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