Are you aware that human history is full of examples of sexist, patriarchal societies where women were discriminated against? I’m sure you are, as a reader of The Mary Sue. I’m pretty sure you are as a person alive in the 21st Century, too. Yet so many of the historically inspired fantasy worlds we love are remarkably intent on reminding us of this. When I raise this issue with someone, I often get some variation of this in reply. Sexism in (to pick the most obvious example) medieval fantasy is okay or even desirable, the thinking goes, because in the real European Middle Ages sexism was the status quo. There’s no denying that, but fantasy is called fantasy because it’s a fantasy. There were no dragons in the real Middle Ages either, but we don’t have a problem including them.
A good point about dragons.
I would like to add a link to this great post by Australian writer Tansy Raynor Roberts: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That over at Tor.com. A lot of times when people say “historically authentic sexism” they are defining it in a very limited and modern way that actively erases the actual lives people have in the past in favor of a narrow stereotype about lives in the past.
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.
This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.
In history, from primary sources through most of the 20th century (I will absolve our current century-in-progress out of kindness but let’s not kid ourselves here), the assumption has always been that men’s actions are more politically and historically significant to society, BECAUSE THEY ARE PERFORMED BY MEN.
Happy Birthday Willie Nelson!
“When I was in trouble in the White House or when I wanted to have some deep thoughts, I had a very high quality hi-fi player, and the number one thing I played was Willie Nelson songs. All the good things I did as a president, all the mistakes I made — you can blame half of that on Willie.”
-Jimmy Carter in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine
Photos: Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson and his guests outside of the Old Executive Building. 4/25/78; President Carter on stage at a performance by country western singer, Willie Nelson at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. 9/13/80.
The two remain friends today.
-from the Carter Library
The vanilla is still sold in a glass pharmaceutical bottle tucked inside a box whose fonts and design haven’t changed since the 1950s. “We don’t know how we could change or improve that. It survives the generations,” Crim says. Even the machine that builds and closes the boxes dates back to the 1950s. “We’re scared to change it.
I’ve never bought any other but Adams’ vanilla extract… even though it’s not made in Austin any more.
March 18, 1967. Evening. It’s been a long but typical day at the White House, including worries about the loss of support for the Vietnam War and lots of meetings with the state governors, including the new Governor of California.
Now: it’s time to have some fun with Guys and Dolls!
LBJ Library photo #C4755-14a, public domain.
Guys and Dolls, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Luke, be a Jedi tonight…
Whatever the evidence against her, whatever the true nature or severity of her debility—and scholars continue to heatedly debate this issue—Mary Lincoln was not given a fair opportunity to oppose her own legal kidnapping.
Mrs. Lincoln, A Life, by Catherine Clinton.
Y’all, this bio of Mary Lincoln is fascinating. Clinton does a wonderful job of depicting Mrs. Lincoln as a real, flawed person, although not quite as flawed as some past historians would have us believe.
After reading this, I now want to learn more about Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and close friend for some years.
The Overlooked Ladies of History:
Ingrid Jonker was born into an Afrikanner family in 1930s apartheid South Africa. Following her mother’s death when Jonker was ten, she and her sister were raised by their estranged father, with whom she would always have a contentious relationship. As a politician in the pro-apartheid National Party (and the eventual Minister of Censorship), Jonker’s father was constantly at odds with his willful, free-spirited daughter. Finding solace from her tribulations in writing, Jonker completed her first collection of poems when she was thirteen. At the age of thirty she published a collection of poetry entitled “Smoke and Ochre”, a volume of largely anti-apartheid poetry, despite resistance from the government and the complete alienation from her father that resulted. Her poetry became iconic in a South Africa which systematically oppressed black voices. Her most famous poem “Die Kind (the Child)” was inspired by the death of a black child shot in its mother’s arms by soldiers during the Sharpeville Massacre. Almost thirty years after her suicide in 1965, Nelson Mandela read the poem during his address to South Africa’s first democratic parliament. Of Jonker herself, Mandela said that: “She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life.”
The child is not dead
The child lifts his fist against his mother
Who shouts Afrika! shout the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the shanty-towns of the cordoned heart
The child lifts his fist against his father
In the march of the generations
Who are shouting Afrika! shout the breath
Of righteousness and blood
In the streets of his embattled pride
The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
Nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
Nor at the police station at Philippi
Where he lies with a bullet through his head
The child is the shadow of the soldiers
On guard with their rifles saracens and batons
The child is present at all assemblies and legislation
The child peers through the windows of houses and into the
hearts of mothers
This child who just longed to play in the sun at Nyanga is
The child grown into a man treks on through all Africa
The child grown into a giant journeys over the whole world
Carrying no pass
All that need be mentioned of Ebert’s social life was that in the early 1980s he briefly went out with the hostess of a modest local TV show called “AM Chicago.” Taking her to the Hamburger Hamlet for dinner, Ebert suggested that she syndicate her show, using his success with Siskel as an example of the kind of riches that awaited. While she didn’t return his romantic interest, Oprah Winfrey did follow his business advice.
Doesn’t this photo just say, “Ask me again about Stroganoff?” When a New York Times obituary for a female rocket scientist opens with her beef stroganoff recipe, you know the gender gap in science has taken a turn for the aberrant.
Meanwhile, to lift the spirits, some gender-stereotype-busting vintage photos of women in science.