Friday, 6 October 2017

‘You call me what?’ A trialogue

This month’s post is a collaboration between Mathelinda Nabugodi, Liz Harvey-Kattou and Christiane Luck. It was inspired by the title of Denise Riley’s work ‘“Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History’ and is a conversation between female writers reflecting on Riley’s question. It explores how our different backgrounds shape this trialogue on identity.

Each contributor was asked to respond to the question ‘Am I that name?’ individually and the pieces were then merged into a whole. The intention was to give the illusion of unity whilst immediately splintering this illusion through the diversity of our responses. This aims to both challenge the concept of a ‘singular’ author as well as a singular ‘female’ point of view.

‘What does it mean?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Haha, that’s funny.’
‘It’s from my father, but he never taught me his language. I’m not sure it is supposed to mean anything.’
‘But African names always have such beautiful meanings.’
‘I thought it was rather Arabic.’
‘It’s Arabic?’
‘No, Arabic names that have beautiful meanings. Honey, and flowers, things like that. Almonds. Actually, I think only the prefix is the family part, each son has his own ending, being his own branch of the family.’

My great-great-grandmother came from Poland. The Masurian Lake District. I carry her cheekbones as a memory. What is Poland? Was she Poland? Am I Poland? She wasn’t Polish. It wasn’t Poland then. It’s Poland now. Is there a difference? In the land? The lakes? In her? Would she be different? Would I be different?


Are you that name?

I’m German, despite the cheekbones. Or because of them? A German. No, not Ger-man. A woman. So, Gerwoman? My Word processor marks it red, there’s no such thing. Suggests Gagwoman, Gunwoman, German. Not Ger-woman. But what does a Word processor know about ‘woman’. It’s man-made, after all.

‘So it means that knowledge is evil?’
‘No, not knowledge per se, only the knowledge of good and evil.’
‘Is evil?’
‘Well, it got us kicked out of Paradise. If you consider that a bad thing.’
‘But that is to say that also knowing the good is evil.’
‘Knowing to distinguish between good and evil is... not so good, no. But it need not be evil, just that it doesn’t belong in Paradise. But as women, I think we are better off outside of it anyway.’
‘Because God only made man in his image?’
‘It’s a bit of a slip, really. He says “let us make man in our image” and “let them have dominion” over the earth. But how could ‘them’ refer to this singular man, for at this point there really is only one of each sex in existence.’
‘But he does say our image, in plural.’
‘Of course he does, it’s God. And it’s not our images, is it?’
‘Maybe it is just a bad translation?’
‘Naturally, it always is.’

Your chromosomes read XX. When you are born, the doctors proclaim ‘it’s a girl’. And that is that. The genderisation has begun, and you will never again be able to experience life outside this social construct. The list of dos and don’ts looks dauntingly long. It is full of caveats and exclusions. You can:

- wear dresses, or trousers (as long as they’re fitted)
- grow your hair long, or cut it short (as long as it remains fashionable)
- play Mums and Dads (as long as you are the Mum)
- play doctors and nurses (as long as you are the nurse)
- be passive and subordinate (at all times)
- pursue the dream of stability (find a husband, alone no more, the M.A.N. who will complete you, be your other half - certainly how could you be W.O.M.A.N. without M.A.N.?)...

W.O.M.A.N. If this is what it entails then you must ask yourself, ‘am I that name?’
I struggle to answer this question, for once the chromosomal results are in, I no longer hold a neutral standpoint.

Your DNA may scream ‘F.E.M.A.L.E.’, but you hasten to reject this loaded denomination. Its connotations are too rigid, they deny you the space to be an individual without boundaries.
Instead, she will allow herself to identify with all the ‘feminine’ tropes of her choosing. She will also allow her identity to encompass all the ‘masculine’ stereotypes applicable. She will not shy away from adversity in the name of equality, and will stand for neither misogyny nor misandry. This does not make her a contradiction. It merely confirms her personhood.

Woman comes from wifman. Wif-man, wife-man. It used to be just wif. Weib. A universal. In connotation at least; today, it’s universally bad. It didn’t use to be, however. But what is wif, Weib? What was it? What did it use to mean? I carry the word as a memory. What is the difference between me as wif then, as Weib now?

W.O.M.A.N. has a history. But she does not need to live in the past or remain essentialised because of it. Identity is a liminal space, a fluid space that is constantly changing. Identity is a space where you exist, where I exist, where he, she, and we exist. Together, but different. With certain commonalities, of course, with certain oppositionalities, definitely.

The notion of W.O.M.A.N. as coming out of M.A.N., as intrinsically needing these three letters to exist, is at once a man-made construction which must be confined to the past, and the history that has manufactured and shaped our gender. Our bodies are encoded with certain physical characteristics, but a female identity no more defines our entire being than any other that we hold on to: ethnicity, culture, tradition, sexuality, hobby. We are multiple, adaptable, and capable of change.

‘What can you tell me about your family tree?’
‘Well, you must know something. Where is your father from?’
‘I think my father has branched off, somewhat. From the family tree, I mean. So nothing much to say. And my mother, too, definitely the scapegoat.’
‘That’s not really to the point. Tell me what you know about your grandparents, on your father’s side?’
‘Not to the point? But I’m in every way closer to my mother’s side. For instance, my maternal grandmother virtually raised me. And the other one I’ve never even met.’
‘Okay, but a family tree generally follows the male line.’
‘Only the male?’
‘Well, yes, certainly. Since women take their husband’s name and become part or that family’s tree, I suppose. You are a good example. Didn’t you say you carry your father’s mother’s given name?’
‘Yes, but...’
‘But, but, but. It’s these silly feminist ideas, I can tell. But historically we have devised a very handy way of classifying family trees and giving everyone their place. And to come and stir it up, this talk of the mother’s line, it is no good.’
‘But the mother’s line is also always there! Perhaps running across several male trees, branching out, or maybe even more like the roots, rhizomatic and so on.’
‘“Rhizomatic and so on”! That is nonsense. Rhizomes don’t even operate the way those postmodern theorists claim. They should study some biology, I’m telling you.’
‘But biology can’t distinguish, can it?’
‘Distinguish what?’
‘Between the male and the female line. Is it not all inherited genes?’
‘That is a good question, but it doesn’t belong in a family tree. Strictly speaking it is not about genes, but names.’
‘How come?’
‘Well, no one is going to go digging for old ancestral bones to study their genes. It is about knowing where you come from. That is, the names of your ancestors.’
‘But what do those names have to do with me?’
‘Everything! They show who you are by showing where you come from. Hence the importance of a family tree. And besides, it happens you know... People are unfaithful, indiscreet. Men as well as women. So there’s really no way of knowing who has which father’s genes. But a name, well that is certainly for sure!’
‘As are the mother’s genes.’
‘Ah, so what’s the use of a female family tree, then?’
‘So fatherhood is essentially about giving a child your name.’
‘Of course not, it is about love and nurture and the rest of it. But all this fades with memory. What remains is the name.’

My great-great-grandmother was a woman. But I don’t carry her name. I carry my father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name. My great-great-grandmother is on my mother’s side. She is nameless. Just like my great-grandmother, just like my grandmother, just like my mother. Just like me.

We have no land, we have no name, we are wo-men.


So I ask myself again: Am I that name? Yes, but its meaning is of my choosing, and it will remain one among many.

Monday, 11 September 2017

What do you say to that?

One thing I am really struggling with is everyday sexism. While it’s relatively easy (and tedious, stressful, annoying…) to point out bias in terminology, i.e. policeman, generic ‘he’ etc., I find it much harder responding to less obvious prejudice and exclusion. For example, in a recent work situation I guided a group of people (all male) to a workshop and during the general welcome chit-chat the following occurred*:

Participant 1: Where are you from?
Me: I’m from Germany
Participant 1 (to participant 2): You've lived in Europe, haven’t you?
Participant 2: Yes
Me: Whereabouts did you live?
Participant 2: In Latvia and Poland
Me: Oh great. How did you like it? Where did you like best?
Participant 2: Hmm
Participant 1: Haha Where the prettiest girls lived of course

Now, some might argue that nothing particular happened in this interaction. That all was perfectly harmless and normal. But it is precisely this ‘normality’ which bothers me; that it’s perfectly ‘everyday’ to make such remarks. Just think: if the reverse just sounds plain weird: Where the prettiest boys lived... why should reducing women to a country ‘highlight’ be okay?

In an all-male environment we might have had a brief chuckle or even a shared bonding moment. Power would have been affirmed. But as myself, a woman in an all-male group, I felt self-conscious. Othered. Ashamed. Disrespected. No longer the group co-leader but a mere body. Moreover, I felt silenced – and not only because the comment seemed inappropriate, but also because I was in a work situation. And work situations come with their own norms and regulations, i.e. it’s much harder to say ‘f-off’!

So readers I need your help! How do you deal with these situations? What do you say to that?

*The above conversation is recorded from memory. While the words might not have been spoken in this exact order, the sexism is remembered perfectly.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Holiday snapshots

I'm just back from a much-needed camping holiday in sunny Europe (I have finally completed my PhD research, hurray!) But once you start seeing the world through a feminist lens there is hardly ever any time off... However, amidst the usual linguistic male-as-norm I spotted some DIY changes which made me very happy.

The first was a notice at a supermarket in Switzerland, the second a 'correction' of a tram stop sign in France:

Jedefrau welcome!

What about women's rights?

Vielen Dank, merci beaucoup and keep up the good work!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Hurray to End of the Road!

Savages' Jehnny Beth
I’m just back from the End of the Road festival and loved all the female energy and power! My absolute highlights were:

Shopping – Wind up
Goat – Run to your mama
Savages – F*ckers

Can't wait till next year!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

God rhymes with…

I’ve just been on a weekend residential course with the fantastic ‘Raised by Feminists’ project. During one of the sessions, I tried my hand at modern calligraphy – led by Fiona Mitchell – and really enjoyed making big swirly words with a feminist message.

I particularly liked the following quote by Emmeline Pankhurst as she deliberately plays with pronouns: ‘Trust in God – she will provide’. But after a few hours of focussing on producing elaborate letters, my spelling skills slipped… So in my world, God doesn’t ‘provide’ but ‘prod’.

But maybe that’s what she should be doing anyway – prod patriarchy. We could do with a little help to finally put it in its place!

Monday, 4 July 2016

Hold your tongue

Lots of preconceptions exist about the way women and men use language. Many speakers, for example, believe that women are more polite than men, or that men speak more confidently than women. In Chapter 8 of Women Talk More Than Men: …And Other Myths about Language Explained, Abby Kaplan debunks these notions.

First of all, Kaplan shows that speakers’ ideas about language use depend on context. In the U.S., for example, women’s speech is considered ‘indirect and polite’ and men’s ‘direct and blunt’, whereas in Madagascar ‘it’s men who … act appropriately and maintain good social relationships’ and [w]omen [who] … display anger and behave in other socially inappropriate ways’ (160-1). Speech is therefore linked to social norms not biology.

This is confirmed by Kaplan’s analysis of related empirical research; in line with Western social expectations studies show that ‘men engaged in more task-oriented behavior’ and ‘women engaged in more social-emotional behavior’ (167). In short, women use language more cooperatively. However, in contrast to the popular belief that women talk more overall, research finds that it is men who ‘took significantly longer turns than women’ (171). It is bias which flags up (any) female speech and masks male monologues as ‘normal’.

Kaplan provides a fascinating and accessible insight into sex/gender and speech research. I really recommend the chapter, ‘Women talk more than men’, as both an entry point to the field and a useful overview of related empirical studies. It also includes prompts for further reflection and an in-depth bibliography – making it a valuable resource for students and scholars. To get a copy see the ISBN etc. below!

Title: Women Talk More Than Men: …And Other Myths about Language Explained
Author: Abby Kaplan
Publication Date: 21st April 2016

ISBN: 9781107446908 (paperback) - £15.99/US$24.99
ISBN: 9781107084926 (hardback) - £59.99/US$94.99

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Sex or gender? (Part 2)

After I neatly separated the two terms in my last post (‘Sex or gender?’), I have been doing some more reading. And the more I read the less straightforward my separation seems to be!

For example, as Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet argue in Language and Gender, ‘there is no obvious point at which sex leaves off and gender begins, partly because there is no single objective biological criterion for male or female sex’ (10). The authors elaborate as follows, ‘the selection among ... criteria for sex assignment is based very much on cultural beliefs about what actually makes someone male or female’ (10). Consequently, our understanding of ‘sex’ seems to be shaped by culture as well as biology.

Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s thinking is based on Judith Butler’s inquiry into sex/gender in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler questions the understanding of ‘sex’ in purely biological terms, ‘[a]re the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?’ (9), she asks. In fact, Butler believes that ‘gender’ might to some extent create ‘sex’. She states, ‘gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture’ (10). ‘Sex’ then is far from a mere biological category; culture seems to produce bodies as much as behaviours.

So should we use ‘gender’ inclusively, that is, to refer to both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’?

I am not so sure. For one, the issue of confusion remains: does a speaker intend to refer to ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, or both? Does the listener understand this reference? Secondly, inclusive usage might again conflate ‘culture’ and ‘biology’ – which is exactly what thinkers have been trying to move away from through the separation of terms and concepts.

In effect, neither ‘sex’ nor ‘gender’ alone seem adequate for our purposes. So could a compound like ‘sex/gender’ resolve the issue? It does seem a little complicated, especially in conjunction with ‘language’, i.e. ‘sex/gender and language’. On the other hand, it certainly highlights the terms’ interrelation. What do you think?

Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: London: Routledge, 2007.