Not-So-Benevolent Sexism

Nora K. Jemisin won the Hugo Award for best novel this year. A victory to be celebrated, but the struggle has not yet ended.

The night I watched Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for president, something shifted inside of me.

More than shifted; there was movement of seismic proportions. A complete re-ordering of my internal universe.

Until that moment, part of me believed that this was impossible; that as long as I lived, a woman would never be nominated for the presidency of the United States by a major political party. As committed to women’s rights as I am, somewhere along the way I had come to accept the exclusion of women from our nation’s highest office as inevitable.

That revelation renewed my awareness of the constant, quiet sexism that weaves through the fabric of our daily lives, shaping the assumptions we make about what is and what is not possible for women.

I’m not new to the idea of structural limitations placed on women; I’ve studied them, reflected on them, written and even taught classes about them. But this year’s election cycle brought it all out again in ugly, bold face. The many ways in which women are silenced angers me, and I’m not always sure what to do with that anger.

Let me share a handful of examples from just this past week, all of them connected to the world of science fiction and fantasy:

Incident: A woman author gives a reading from one of her fantasy novels. After the reading, which is well received, a man approaches her with a big, enthusiastic grin. Under the guise of friendly conversation, he launches into a monologue about all the great male authors who have already written the kind of story the woman just wrote (this without actually having read her novel). He finishes with the smug revelation that as a reader, he has now moved on to “grittier” stuff.

Take home message: Men are qualified to judge women’s work without having read it, because by default, women authors rehash what male authors have already done. And in any case, a woman could never write anything “gritty” enough for the manly tastes of most manly readers.

Incident: At a science fiction and fantasy conference, an all-male panel discusses biological and technological aspects of immortality. When the panel opens up to the audience for questions, several women put forward compelling thoughts about the psychological, social, cultural, and economic impacts of achieving immortality. Every question or idea put forward by a woman is politely shot down by the panel, and ultimately labeled as irrelevant or unimportant.

Take home message: Women are allowed to speak here, but their ideas are either misinformed or uninteresting, and therefore not worthy of discussion.

Incident: At the same conference, a panel of mixed gender discusses the advantages of securing a literary agent to represent an author’s work. The discussion is engaging, and the hour flies by as the panelists speak. With five minutes left at the end of the period, the floor is opened up for questions. Around thirty audience members raise their hands, men and women among them. The moderator (a white male) manages to call on six people before time is up. You know where this is going, don’t you? Despite the fact that multiple women are in the audience with their hands raised, only men are invited to speak.

Take home message: When push comes to shove, a man’s voice always takes priority over a woman’s. Oh, and if you happen to be an author looking for a science fiction or fantasy agent, we don’t really want to hear from you unless you’re a man.

This is how it happens, folks. In small moments, in invisible ways. Each particular instance seems insignificant, but together they pack a mighty punch. The same mantra is repeated with different words and actions, over and over, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

I am absolutely certain the majority of the people involved in these situations -men and women alike – didn’t even notice what was going on. Nonetheless, because of our unconscious biases and insidious habits, men are routinely given voice and legitimacy in public forum, while women are not. And this practice reverberates through every aspect of our lives.

This is an ironic moment to be posting about sexism in the genre, on the heels of WorldCon 2016, where women swept the Hugo awards for fiction. Their recognition is a victory to be celebrated, especially in a time when right-wing activists keep trying to sabotage the Hugos. In spite of the best efforts of the worst elements of fandom, women and people of color are starting to get the recognition they deserve. And long-time con-goers confidently report that WorldCon and its cousins have made important progress toward being more inclusive and welcoming on the whole.

But these victories, as big as they are, have not quite undercut the daily routines that silence the voices of so many. Nor are those routines unique to fandom; they are part and parcel of the larger society in which we live.

About a year ago, a meme was passed around that challenged readers to go one year without reading a book by a white heterosexual male. For reasons I won’t go into here, I didn’t quite buy into that meme back then. But I’ve decided to take up the challenge now, and to make it even more exclusionary: For one year, from September 1, 2016, through August 31, 2017, only women authors will be allowed to speak in my literary world. If the novel’s not by a woman, I’m not going to bother to pick it up.

It’s not that I don’t value male authors – on the contrary. But there are other voices out there that deserve to be heard, honored, and even occasionally put forward before all the rest. Voices that have been silenced for too long, and that should not be silenced any more.

Maybe if I start listening to them in a conscientious and deliberate fashion, a few others will listen, too. And then, who knows? We just might change the world.

8 thoughts on “Not-So-Benevolent Sexism

  1. This, this and more this. It needs to be heard. It needs to be acknowledged. We’re getting there, slowly but surely.

    And this is why when I hear people say, “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman,” I want to say, why the hell not? Don’t you understand the magnitude of that? Don’t you understand, just by the fact that she IS A WOMAN how much change can and will be achieved?

    That being said, there are lines I won’t cross. For example, Sarah Palin. She is a woman I’d never vote for. Why? Because she toes the male line. She’s proven that time and again. And there is nothing more dangerous to feminism than a woman who cowtows to the male perspective.

    Rant far from over, but I’ll let it go there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To quote those mighty feminists of the seventies – Right on, Sister! I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, particularly as the lopsided and sexist coverage of the Olympics was all over the Internet. In the last year or two, the Equal Pay Act came up for a vote and every single Republican voted it down. I don’t say that to get into a D vs. R discussion, but only to point out that even the female Republicans voted against it. I just don’t get that. Is it because their job guarantees they are paid the same as their male counterparts so they don’t realize the disparity in the private sector, or is it, as Terri mentioned, just to toe the party line? Either answer does not look good. I don’t know what the answer is to fix this, but I do know I plan to be more and more vigilant. Thanks for a great post. Which I will be sharing, by the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Maura! I agree about the Olympics and the Equal Pay Act. It’s kind of mind boggling, sometimes, how so many blatant biases persist, and how women often participate in and support them. Thank you for commenting & sharing. Keep up the good fight. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was a wee lass, my mother told me she, voted for the person not the party. That’s been coming in very handy recently. I’ll never vote for a racist bigot no matter where their plumbing is. And to comment on your con experience, where oh where was Ursula LeGuin when you needed her?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh yessss, Karin, right on! Just the other day I was wondering why most of the paper books on my bookshelf and most of the digital books on my Nook are by male authors. I tried to think of famous female authors and came up with a very short list. I recently read Outpost by Faith McKinstry and I feel it’s as good as any fantasy written by any man but don’t think she will become a famous author and that’s sad. It puzzled me until I read this line you wrote: “Oh, and if you happen to be an author looking for a science fiction or fantasy agent, we don’t really want to hear from you unless you’re a man.” YES! That’s it! BINGO! I remember in an interview J.K. Rowlins said she kept her gender a secret for years in order to sell her Harry Potter books.

    As for politics, I remember some famous black man in 2012 being asked if he was going to vote for Obama again. The man said, “I voted for him in 2008 because he was black. Is he still black? If so then I’m going to vote for him again.

    To paraphrase that man, I voted for Hilary Clinton in the primary when she ran against Obama because she was a woman. Is she still a woman? If so then I’m going to vote for her again. GIRL POWER!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jini! Back when I signed the first contract for my fantasy novel, I was blissfully unaware of the biases that still plague the industry. I’ve heard about J.K. Rowling hiding her gender, and in hindsight, I sometimes wish I’d done the same and gone with another pen name, like K.R. Gastreich. But there’s no turning back the clock, and I’m happy to own the choices I’ve made. Things are definitely changing in scifi & fantasy, and the genre is more inclusive and welcoming than it’s ever been, but we still have a ways to go. And folks have had to fight pretty hard to get where we are today. Hugs to you!


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