Tag Archives: sexism

Mind your sexist language!

A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).

In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

The reversibility test

In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.

For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus. 

From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)

It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life

In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • A nag

And I might even have been described as a working mother.

Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist. 

And there’s more

I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.  

So what can we do?

Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …

Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist. 

Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.

And another thing …

And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point. 

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Filed under Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

We know about the bias against women in publishing and reviewing. My recent writing has made me think about the toxic combination of sexism and ageism. I have been wondering if the effects of that combination are evident in the book world, making it harder for older women to be published and noticed. The media, at any rate, acts surprised if people over 65 do anything, it seems.

225 foggie_grandmother_knits_glasgow

Surprised at older writers?

The press uses the idea that it’s surprising that older writers even exist. Here’s one headline:

Grandmother lands book deal for debut novel aged 82 (Guardian June 2010)

A grammatical point has to be made: the misplacing ‘aged 82’ suggests the novel is that old. The sub chose to use the word ‘grandmother’ as a euphemism for ‘surprisingly old woman’. The grandmother reference is gratuitous, except that it conjures up the image of – what? A quavering shawl-wrapped dependent knitter of limited mental capacity. But – guess what – this 82 year old person writes books. (btw ‘pensioner’ is used in the same way. Watch out for it.) The emphasis in the article is on the writer’s age and gender.

Here’s another headline.

In defence of the older debut (Guardian Review July 2015)

OK, this one is a little more promising. It turns out to be about people publishing their first novel when they have passed 40. 40? I ask you. More than 50 writers have formed a support group called Prime Writers. It suggests that they have found age-prejudice even before they are 40.

The press likes to draw on the idea of inactive, less competent older persons, especially women. Are they reflecting the attitudes of the publishing business? I decided to ask a blog-friend, Anne Goodwin of Annethology, about her experiences as an older woman writer. She has recently published her first novel, Sugar and Snails.

225 AG and book

An older female writer’s experience

Here are the Q&A.

Congratulations on having recently published Sugar and Snails. What difficulties did you have in getting your novel published? Are you able to identify any issues that relate to sexism, or ageism or both?

Thank you, Caroline, I’m really pleased to have published my first novel. I sent out dozens of submissions before I found my publisher and it’s impossible to say whether or not the multiple rejections were due to sexism or ageism, but it didn’t feel like that to me. There are so many subtle (and, I’m sure, often unconscious) factors which influence an agent or a publisher’s decision whether or not to pass on a submission, the prejudices that exist throughout society must play a part. It could be that my novel was turned down because the main character is a forty-five-year-old woman, but I think the main anxiety was that it didn’t fit so easily into any obvious marketing slot.

We know from VIDA’s statistics that women’s fiction receives much less coverage in the literary press (in the UK as well as in the US): fewer reviews of their books, fewer reviewers. Where has your book been reviewed, and did any refer to your age or gender?

I’m guessing that women’s fiction gets fewer reviewers etc because of a perceived lack of “authority”, but small independent presses are at a similar disadvantage, so I wasn’t expecting to be reviewed in the broadsheets. My reviews have come primarily from book bloggers and a few small magazines, who seem to be a fairly egalitarian lot. I don’t recall any references to my age or gender, but it would be hard to imagine how a reviewer could have raised this in a way that was relevant to the novel, even though gender is one of the main themes.

Do you have any antidotes to the difficulties for women, and perhaps older women, in getting their work published and noticed?

I think it’s the same for writers at any age: find some allies; work to your strengths; keep asking yourself if there’s anything you’d rather be doing (and if there is, get out of this crazy business).

What do you see as the advantages, benefits, good things about being an older female writer, if any?

The situation might be very different for a female writer who’s been working at the keyboard all her adult life and sees her prospects and earnings diminishing as she gets older, but for a woman like me embarking on fiction as a second career after early retirement, the benefits are manifold:

  • rich life experience means you’re never short of ideas

  • if you’re writing from painful emotions, there’s a better chance these will now be processed sufficiently so as not to contaminate the writing

  • a stronger sense of your own values and priorities and less of a sense of having to prove yourself (although ask me on another day and I might tell you something different)

  • (not for everyone, I know, but) fewer competing demands on your time

  • closer connection to potential readers (aren’t middle-aged/older women the group most likely to read fiction)

Any reaction to what Martin Amis said about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I might add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Wellesely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard (isn’t she something to do with Martin Amis??). Any comments? Are you aware of other older women writers?

I’m not terribly interested in what Martin Amis has to say about much, really, and I’m too small fry to enter his radar. And it’s always rather foolish to make sweeping generalisations. However, I have been disappointed at times with the work of some older well-established writers, but I see that as less about age per se than the fact that they’ve been practising this very strange profession for half a century and might well have run out of steam, or, because anything with their name on it will sell, they aren’t being pushed hard enough by their publishers and editors.

The world of fiction writing and publishing seems to be very young. I have come across press comment about how surprising it is for novelists to achieve a first novel at 40. In your lovely phrase elderly prima-authorista. They even have a support group – Prime Writers: about 50 authors over 40 when their debut novel was published. And Huffington Post ran a feature on 10 women authors over 40 in August this year. What do you make of all of this?

Interestingly, my biggest supporters in the publishing world have been young women (an agent’s assistant who was very enthusiastic about my novel but couldn’t persuade her more experienced colleagues to take it on, and my publisher who has been wonderful to work with). Despite my grey hair and my post on being an elderly prima-authorista, I actually see myself as fairly youthful relative to how old I thought I might be by the time I got published, having assumed I’d put my writing to one side until I retired (and ended up retiring earlier than expected). While I was shocked that the Prime Writers thought forty was old, I think gathering together under some banner is a good marketing strategy, and age is one of many possible ways of defining a group.

Do you have anything else you would like to add about older women writers?

I think it’s great that you’re running this series [older women in fiction], Caroline, and I’m honoured to be invited to be part of it, but the biggest barrier for me in getting my books to readers is the low status of small presses in the publishing industry (I suppose it’s capitalism rather than ageism or sexism).

Thank you Anne, for your answers and for your perceptive comments.

225 S&S cover

Case for discrimination not proven?

So the evidence for sexism-ageism in publishing is not overwhelming. I guess that the infamous invisibility of older women might help avoid judgements based on age, in publishing at any rate. I am constantly impressed by the dominance of the professional skill and all round competence of the many young women we have met in our publishing experience. We wrote a blogpost in their honour after the publication of our last non-fiction book, called Published today: what our editors did for us (July 2014).

And thank you Anne, for reminding us what we all know from our experiences that older women are as competent, active, wise and creative as anyone else. Age alone does not rob us of that.

But you might have a different view or experiences to counter this conclusion.

 

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin, published in 2015 by Inspired Quill Publishing. 332pp

See also Women and Fiction, a post from September 2015 about discrimination against women novelists.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Writing

Revisiting Katy

In the spring I reread a children’s novel that had strongly influenced me as a child: What Katy Did by Susan M. Coolidge. I reacted strongly against its tone and the guidance it provided for young girls. I wrote a post called What Katy did to me.

What Katy did for me was underline the sexist messages that abounded in my youth. Katy’s story would not have worked if the main character had been a boy. This was growing up for girls.

172 What KD coverWhat Katy did to me

It was not only the overall sexism – at least my copy wasn’t pink, but printed on war-time utilitarian yellowing paper. It was also the particular message of endurance and service as a path to every girl’s dream to be ‘beautiful and beloved’.

And What Katy Did said that girls should learn patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things. And that suffering endured will ensure that a girl will be ‘beautiful and beloved’. Indeed, as Samantha Ellis says, the pernicious idea that suffering has value is common. What Katy Did is a fiercely moral book that appealed to the fiercely moral child that I was. I have since had to unlearn that lesson.

In that blog post I credited How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis for debunking the Katy myth. Now there is a new Katy by the former Children’s Laureate Jacqueline Wilson called simply Katy.

A new Katy

Jacqueline Wilson’s reworking of What Katy Did is set in present-day England. This Katy narrates her own story, making it more immediate and authentic to today’s readers. The new Katy is much longer (470 pages) in order to accommodate the complexity of her difficulties. The original was not even 200 pages. The earlier book opened with a rather winsome poem To Five, which conjures a rather dewy eyed version of the swift passing of childhood, and a short chapter in which the adult narrator recalls children arguing about whether Katy did or didn’t.

210 Katy Cover

As suits modern readers Jacqueline Wilson has updated some aspects of the story. Her Katy also lives in a large family, this one with step- and half-sisters and brothers. Both Katys are very tall – ‘the longest girl that ever was seen’ – and get into scrapes having an imaginative approach to situations and daring. They are sparky and feisty until the accident. Both suffer terrible injuries and are confined to a wheelchair and must learn how to deal with immobility, pity, a new relationship with the world and those closest too them.

The modern Katy’s story begins to differ from the original’s in significant ways following the accident. The Katys learn different things about themselves. In the original Katy learns patience, endurance and how to be a little mother to her brothers and sisters.

Jacqueline Wilson from her website jacquelinewilson.co.uk

Jacqueline Wilson from her website jacquelinewilson.co.uk

Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy remains full of spirit, fights injustices, loves strongly and is fiercely intolerant of meanness. The original Katy was encouraged to see her situation as an opportunity and to learn the lessons of The School of Pain. Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy does indeed learn some hard lessons by attending mainstream secondary school. There are physical difficulties – stairs, toilets, kerbs – and social challenges – the other students, having missed school, not being able to join in all the activities. And she is greatly assisted by the librarian, the PE teacher and even the headteacher’s no-nonsense approach. Not the school of pain of the original Katy then.

Following their accidents both Katys are comforted by the blessed Helen, a friend of their father’s. Samantha Ellis writing about Coolidge’s original expressed this view.

There should be a special place in hell for Cousin Helen, a saintly invalid who wafts about in ruffled lace nightgowns, and thinks illness is an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. (131)

The modern Katy’s Helen is still rather saintly, but being confined to a wheelchair has not held her back from an academic career and from developing an understanding of Katy’s predicament. She acknowledges Katy’s response to her accident.

You go through all these stages when you have had a serious life change like your accident. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re resentful, you’re depressed. Oh, it’s a right bore for you, and for everyone else!’ (344)

And then Helen helps Katy see that she will one day be able to appreciate all the things she can do rather than dwell on the things she can’t. And she helps her find ways to do this.

Of the original I wrote

Now I want to say, especially to those reviewers who say Katy was their childhood heroine, ‘Look at Katy and what those adults did to her, forcing her into becoming better in their terms and ultimately the best homemaker.’ If Katy was my heroine, it was before the accident, not after.

Perhaps the most triumphant aspect of the reworking of Katy is that far from the sugary ending of the original, which rewards Katy transformation into a patient housekeeper, Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy remains herself with her spirit intact. She will always need a wheelchair, albeit she gets a rather snazzy red one to match her Doc Martens. But she has found strengths, resolve and a future. She has made new friends, deepened some earlier friendships, found new skills and new possibilities as a result of being in the wheelchair.

I was Katy Carr. My life wasn’t over. A new life was just beginning. (471)

This Katy is more like the one I would have wanted to read back in the 1950s. To Jacqueline Wilson I say, ‘Proper job!’

The books

Katy by Jacqueline Wilson (2015) published by Penguin Random House 470pp Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

What Katy Did by Susan M Coolidge. First published in 1982. Version used for this post was published ?1945 by the Children’s Press (London and Glasgow). 175pp

How to be a Heroine or What I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis published in 2014 by Vintage 246pp

Related posts

What Katy did to me

Here is a link to Samantha Ellis’s review of Jacqueline Wilson’s Katy from The Pool in August 2015.

And …

Do you have any views on What Katy Did or Katy? What about rewriting children’s classics?

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Feminism, Reading, Reviews