Heroes in the Bin

Another Sunday. And while reading an elegantly written review by Olivia Laing of Wifedom in The Guardian – another hero hit the bricks. One tends to believe that those devoted to social justice and unveiling the manipulations of society would be removed from treating others, particularly their women partners, badly, though why I would believe this defies logic.  Having just worked in an institution of higher learning where despite some of its focal points being income inequality and societal imbalance, it was a place where the academics looked over the heads of those without Ph.D.s, ignored the maltreatment of those who were there to attend to the running of the institution as such, and considered any attention to be a sign of grace, and any rudeness on their part to be the natural fate of those not as lettered or monied. As an aside, see how many academics come from inherited if not sheer wealth, at least serious money – who could retreat to a country house during the pandemic, while barking orders to the staff. But – a subject for another day.

Returning to the review, Laing says “I’ve been wondering lately if feminism is subject to a Groundhog Day-style curse in which all previous knowledge is periodically obliterated.” This sentence hit me hard. Within it seems to be encapsulated all the issues of feminism, now going through a rewrite from which it may not recover. But closer to home, it reminded me of all the mistakes or mistrust accumulated over the years. Trusting heroes, women friends, men friends – anyone. But the sad truth is that behind nearly every man who was a success or did something notable, there lurks the specter of a woman – one from whom he either derived support, sustenance, or frequently the idea that led to their greatness.

Now Orwell turns out to have been supported by a woman, Eileen O’ Shaughnessy, who he then neglected, and while I have not read the book, seems to have left to die, fearful and alone. In a way, I don’t want to go into all the details of the story. There is a list in my head of other women I have read about recently, wife of Einstein, Mileva Marić, etc. I see MIT has put out a book by two men – shock – that seems to state she really didn’t do much at all, condition of women at the time, etc. etc.

It’s tempting to leave these women nameless. Giving a name gives the appearance of justice. Namelessness underlines how the different status of women is reinforced, how this story repeats over and over, a sort of knowledge that is forgotten or buried, and must be rediscovered. And while the painful digging up goes on, it is accompanied by the difficult recognition that while one reads about the men, in awe or envy, one is living the life of the women in the background.

Another quote from the review: “I agree with Funder that Eileen’s treatment in life and afterlife isn’t accidental – that the minimising indifference is part and parcel of the ongoing patriarchal reduction of women to something less than fully human, at best helpmeet and at worst repellent slut or scold.” Slut or scold! Like a slap across the face to wake up and stop being hysterical, like the crying women in some film noir or historical novel. We are too modern to require this treatment. We have computers! We can drive! Taylor Swift! Barbie!

If you wonder at how Barbie and Oppenheimer are the only subjects of conversation that almost anyone could engage with, regardless of status or education, at the present time, you are not alone. But the juxtaposition is perfect. Yes, Barbie is apparently a feminist fairyland. But between doll and scientist, everyone watches some Adam and Eve story, the beginning and end of the world now a pink mushroom cloud with matching accessories. I overheard two women discussing whether it was appropriate to bring their five year olds to see Barbie. In Trumpland, where I currently live, this was a conversation that was engaged upon delicately. But the decision was that it was fine, as the mother had gone first to see it to check that it was acceptable. Orwell might have something to say. Maybe Eileen said it first.

I have come to reflect recently on my part in supporting the men in my life and how slut/scold is what it has been reduced to. This morning I realized that no one thinks I should have books, as they are heavy and awkward, and require lifting upstairs. More books! They cry. Now that I no longer see the prospect of lifting boxes of books as a solo activity, they must go. Patriarchal reduction at its finest.

I don’t know that I want to give examples of other times where I was reduced or ignored, then blamed.  I don’t think it’s enough to use Laing’s phrase of “less than fully human.” The women who helped all these great scientists, social warrior writers, artists – they were more than human. They infused divine spark into what might have lain dormant. America tries to tell us that we are all alone, and not together – that we pull ourselves up. It’s such a blatant lie at this point only the words of George Carlin should suffice: “They call it the American Dream because you can only believe it when you are asleep.” Please don’t tell me he did something too – I’m sure it would be true. O’Shaughnessy supported Orwell. Why am I shocked to discover this when I have done the same thing and watched it been summarily erased from the narrative, from personal family history?

Laing’s last line in the review is the question to grapple with:

“How many more centuries, I wonder, will we need to expose how we were robbed before we lose faith in exposure as a weapon and conjure patriarchy’s replacement instead?”

Not having centuries to grapple with this in my own life, I will spend today trying to not wonder how and why I was so stupid and blind to be taken in, or to accept my downgrade from slut to scold to nuisance as the money ran out. Instead I will wonder what the replacement will be. Perhaps I will find some inspiration in Virginia Woolf (died with stones in pockets underwater) or Laing’s book on loneliness in the city, The Lonely City, which is my next read. As my own book, Nowhere in Two Places, was really all about loneliness in the city, I’m curious to see if there is any inspiration for future writing. Of course, I’m supporting myself, and have lost the slut energy that might have cheered and sustained me, so it could take some time to work on how one replaces patriarchy and stops blaming oneself for the veil American society places over the eyes, instead of the hair.

And no, I won’t be using my salary to purchase the pink accessories now aggressively being sold. I think, to borrow from Laing, pink is having a Groundhog Day moment.  Microsoft has let me know that slut is profanity. Not surprised. Slut has power. Scold is dismissive. And ageism, one of the last bricks in the basket brought out to stone me with, uses the shaming of slut mixed with fear and a lack of utility to invoke invisibility. Something else to consider in Barbie world.

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