August 8th, 2006

ozarque figure

Sexism in and out of the workplace; part three...

Earlier in this discussion, in the context of describing the way I'm perceived in my local area, I said: "It's known that I write books, but it's taken for granted that I get a lot of help with that from George."

And teapot_farm commented:
"OK, this one actually got me exclaiming out loud, whereas the phone conversation didn't... possibly because I am so surprised that writing could be seen as something a woman would require male help with? I'm accustomed to car repair, building, computers etc being seen as a male domain, but writing has always seemed entirely non-gender-linked. Novel writing, anyhow... do the people who are making this assumption know that you're writing complex non-fiction? And if so, would it be different if you were known for writing mainstream novels? Romance novels?"

I had my first experience with my writing being appropriated by a male when I was in junior high school. My music teacher had mentioned in class that he wanted us to do a "spring pageant," but wasn't yet certain which one to choose -- so I went home that night and wrote one. I didn't write the music -- I didn't know how to write music -- but I wrote a sort of musical play. Dialogue, with traditional songs dropped in at strategic points. I gave him the manuscript; he was pleased with it; and our class started working on it almost immediately. However, when I got to the auditorium and got my copy of the printed program, my name wasn't on it as author -- his name was. He handed it to me himself, and I looked first at it and then at him, and he said two things: "Nobody would believe you, you know," and "It wouldn't have been appropriate."

Then there was the linguistics textbook I co-authored with John Grinder (for Holt Rinehart) while the two of us were still graduate students at UCSD. After it came out, I got used to having people walk up to us and say "Hey, John, I just finished reading your textbook, and it's great!" John was scrupulous about always reminding whoever-it-was that he hadn't written the book alone; he was much admired for that. And I once found myself sitting in a booth at a restaurant next to a boothful of linguists who were discussing that book and giving it very high marks. The line I remember most vividly is this one: "Well, of course everybody knows that GRINder WROTE the book -- Suzette just did the TYPing!" Followed by a round of snickering, and some remarks about how noble it was of John to let my name appear on the book as co-author, given the circumstances.

Fortunately, I then proceeded to write a batch of books that no male linguist was interested in getting credit for -- writing science fiction novels was the kiss of death in academe in those days, and writing what my colleagues considered to be "popularizations" nailed the lid on the coffin.

The local situation I mentioned at the beginning of this post is a very different matter. Life is hard enough in rural Arkansas that most farm families -- these are small family farms, not giant agribusiness operations -- can't get by on just what they earn farming; very often the wife has to take a job "in town" to make it possible for the man to run the farm. Because the work on a small farm comes in bursts and is seasonal, this means you can often find large groups of the men sitting around in a local cafe drinking coffee and talking. And when they're questioned about why they're not working -- "Hey, man, shouldn't you be working?" is the line in that script -- the usual response is, "Hell, I don't work; my wife works." Everybody knows what that means: the men work very hard, but the work doesn't come along with a tidy schedule the way working at WalMart does. So when somebody runs that script with my husband and he says, "Hell, I don't write books; my wife writes books," everybody thinks they know what that means. [Note: This doesn't mean that I'm not respected locally for being a published writer -- I am. It does mean, however, that people assume that George gives me a lot of help with my books.]

If I wrote romance novels, a different assumption -- that only women write romance novels -- would kick in, and people would believe that I wrote them all by myself. In actual fact, quite a few romance-novel authors are men writing with female pennames, but that's not widely known. It may be that those men have the misfortune of having to put up with everybody taking it for granted that they get a lot of help with their novels from their wives.....