It’s odd how much you don’t notice things until they’re pointed out. I was cleaning my study this past Wednesday, fondly looking over the books that have given me my formal education and I did a mental double take. Really? Have I studied so few female voices after being in school for such a huge chunk of my life?
I had a lot of pretensions when I was younger, and I believed that a proper college education began with the Greek classics. I excelled at the humanities in high school, so it was a nice excuse to continue studying what came easiest to me. The first class I registered for at the Evergreen State College wasn’t anything radical, environmental or social justice related, but a 16 credit course on Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. From there I signed up for a course on Russian literature, another on romantic, premodern and modern philosophy and art, and returned to the classics my final year. I studied the pre-hellenic and Hellenic philosophers and their Roman elaborators, I read Chekhov, Bulgakov, Goethe, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Sartre and Camus. I think the entire time I was at Evergreen, I read around four or five books written by women. And I didn’t notice.
My books from that era are still with me. I loved studying the humanities–it doesn’t get much better than reading about philosophy and the arts to me. These men have said vital, beautiful and profound things that have guided European-derived culture for centuries. But it’s crazy that one gender has had a monopoly on all that for so fucking long. I read Mary Beard’s self-proclaimed manifesto recently, “Women and Power“, in which an extremely well-educated classics scholar points out how much the classics themselves have served to embed misogyny into our venerated cultural roots. It’s brief but spot on–and damning. Right now, in this burgeoning era of productive feminism, you can’t stare at a bookshelf that contains the “must reads” of the past thousand years without confronting the fact that so obscenely few of them are written by women.
Why didn’t I see this before as the travesty I see it as now? It’s an astonishingly simple answer–I accepted it as the way it was. It makes me a bit queasy to acknowledge this as a woman who spent high school rocking out to Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill, Throwing Muses, and PJ Harvey. “Women’s Studies” never crossed my plate as an undergraduate–it seemed too niche, too reactionary, too…angry. I wanted to study the intellectual foundations of the culture I was a part of, and it took until, well, now, really, to realize how little of a place I had at that historical table as a Mexican-American woman.
Now that I’m in my mid 30s, have a daughter, and am back in school, I bring this hard earned awareness with me, and it drives me nuts. I hear the girls in my sciences classes say how much easier they understand things when my male classmates explain it to them, I hear it in the confidence my male classmates speak up in groups, where I and other women have a softer, more questioning tone in their voice. I hear it, and I push back, but I know I’m pushing against something that doesn’t even realize it’s pushing back, not consciously, not all the time. It’s not really any of our faults, it’s just been the way things are for the past thousand, two thousand or so years–or more. It’s hard not to be pessimistic, but necessary that we resist.
I’ve lived a far from flawless life, and am not really in a place to be any leader, but I do see it as my duty to be as articulate, well-read and aware as possible. At my husband’s urging, I wrote Michael Pollan after reading his book about psychedelics and noticed that the history of those substances here in the US are dominated by privileged white men. It seemed odd to me because the experience of psychedelics Pollan documented was cast as being subversive, liberating and empowering–experiences that seems like they would wonderfully benefit women and people of color. His assistant wrote me a very kind email back, saying she thought it was an important note and that she’d pass it on. I know he wasn’t being consciously sexist–again, it’s just the way things are and have been until…well, it’s still the way things are, but we’re actively working on it. That’s why its so important to point these things out, even if they seem obvious, even if they seem shrill and tiresome. Especially if they seem shrill and tiresome.
We’re not post-racial, and we’re not post-gender. Sometimes you need to state what’s right in front of you and redundant, just so that we start to realize how much we’ve lost out on up to now. The voices of women and the powerless have been muted for most of our written history. There is a fall out from this, and we’re just now coming to it. It’s an exciting and horrifying time to live in, and it will be interesting to see how it’s incorporated into our tragically flawed cultural tapestry.